Tuesday 12 August 2014

How important is death?


How important is death?

So important that God had to become mortal and die - in order that we could be saved (to everlasting life).

This is the mystery of Christ's incarnation and atonement. Why did God need to become a Man and actually die in order to make salvation possible?

This is, I think, what seems so impossible and ridiculous to other (non-Christian) monotheists - the idea that Almighty God the creator would have to become a Man and die in order to save Mankind!

This is 'incredible', not obvious, not common sense - it is more a doctrine of the weakness of God, the limitations of God, than of His power - yet it is close to the essence of Christianity: pretty much what all Christians must believe to be Christian.

Christianity - it's literally incredible.




Adam G. said...

Very, very good. This is the right question to ask.

There mere act of creation implies a weakness. It suggests a desire or need for something that one cannot supply oneself. Interaction with that creation also implies it. It is impossible to interact with something without in some sense submitting to it (its limitations, its nature). What Christ is and does heightens all that and condenses it.

ajb said...

What do you make of Stark's suggestion that the idea of a blood sacrifice in Christianity can be understand in part as divine accommodation?

Bruce Charlton said...

@Adam - Thanks.

@ajb - That seems plausible to me: i.e. that the sacrifice idea was something of a tactic, understandable to pagans and the Jews of that era - but it for sure isn't the deep and true reason. Because a God that demanded His Son as a bloody sacrifice to Himself for the sins of Mankind would not even be as good as I am! He would not be a wholly good God. (Therefore, reductio ad absurdum - that is not the true explanation.)

Bruce B. said...


It suggests either weakness or perfect love/selflessness. Classical Christian theology chooses the latter.

Bruce Charlton said...

@BB - At a common sense level I believe creation does imply a need - and in that sense some kind of weakness or deficiency in God.

(This ought not to be a problem except that for some reason people insist on describing God in terms of abstract absolutes - such as 'perfection' - which have the effect of stunning and paralysing the human mind. Nobody actually knows what 'perfection' means; but to deny 'perfection' to God may be regarded as blasphemous - or at least heretical.)

The idea of creation as an act of utter gratuitousness doesn't make understandable sense (to me) - because it implies that it does not make any difference whatsoever to God whether he made Man or not, whether he created or did nothing, whether I existed or did not - and so on. This isn't love in any way accessible to the human mind.

In sum, this is one of those ways/ areas in which Mormon theology does a better job of understanding and explaining Biblical things (without strain or obscurity) than any Classical theology which preceded it.

Bruce B. said...

I don’t see Christianity as a “common sense” religion else we wouldn’t have needed revelation. Abstract absolutes means that God is mysterious. That’s ok. Maybe that’s why he needed to incarnate Himself. I think the answers to your questions are found in classical Christianity although I’m not learned enough to be of much help in pointing you to the best sources.

Bruce Charlton said...

@BB - I take your point - but there are some things which people need to understand in order to maintain their bearings. For example - revelation itself has to make some kind of sense. This is necessary because we are required to exercise our free will/ agency. Christianity is not *only* about obeying rules (some other religions are, but not Christianity).

tgj said...

According to Orthodox theology, the Incarnation was not necessary. God could have saved Adam and his descendants in any way he chose. We don't know why he chose the Incarnation. The angels don't know. God is the greatest mystery, and the Incarnation is probably the most mysterious thing about God.

I think it is a pretty serious mistake to assume that anything God did necessarily had to be done that way, and then to go down to path of asking why it was necessary... and then inevitably draw the conclusion that God is limited or imperfect in some way. God is not perfect according to our understanding. God is perfection, which our understanding is not capable of grasping except in a very limited way (that can become more perfect through purification according to the teaching of Christ and the experience of the saints, but never absolutely perfect). Without God, perfection has no meaning. Human understanding cannot give perfection a meaning independent of God. But that is precisely what reason so often attempts to do.

This is where the Mormon analysis, and all Western theology falls down. Failing to experience God, it attempts to reason about him in a speculative manner, which places God under the judgement of reason, and in other ways makes (fallible, fallen, human) reason the light by which everything is understood and judged. As good and useful as it is, reason is subject to reality and not the other way around. Reason is not the light. God Incarnate is the light, whether we understand it or not, just as the sun shines on us whether we understand it or not (whether we can see it itself or not... and of course we can't really see the sun itself, and still only have dim grasp of how it works).

stephen c said...

Well, death is sort of important to me, but I am kind of mediocre on the scale of things. Jesus, John the Baptist, John the beloved disciple, and Mary the Mother of God share, among other things, the distinction of never saying or doing anything that remotely exhibits a fear of death. Sometimes I like to do thought experiments that are too simple to be published, so I would never read about them anywhere. Like what would the world be like if we all had every one of our faults except jealousy? I have had complicated and amusing dreams where such a world is not incrementally but exponentially better, although in waking life I would guess it would only be incrementally better. Well how about a world without a fear of death? according to Adrienne Speyr, people would "come to participate in the silence of God, which expresses itself in no way other than in eternity. [Our friends] would not know [their] final hour, but this should not be a boundary stone for [them] because they harbor the hope of accompanying God's eternity in each and every hour in unswerving fidelity, of being a vessel for God's eternity to such an extent that [their] final hour need not be noticed especially or [their] prayer interrupted , almost as if [they] wanted to prevent God interrupting for [their]sake what He would otherwise be doing at that moment. They thus hope that [their] life will pass into eternity as good as unnoticed, the eternity in which it has already had a share through silent prayer." (a non-silent share, I think) (The Boundless God, page 98, translated by Helena M,Tomko). On the same subject, the main reason many people think Clarissa Harlowe is a great novel (no real spoilers to follow) is her astonishingly accepting and even joyful approach to her possible imminent death - the last couple hundred pages of that novel could astonish the most cynical people you know, if they spent a few quiet hours thinking about them ...

Bruce Charlton said...

@sc - My hunch is that the subtraction of any single thing like jealousy or fear of death would do more harm than good, by unbalancing the human psychological system.

I don't think that there is much real fear of death in modernity - at least not until old age; people are too distracted to think about stuff like that. But not-thinking-about death merely serves to devalue life.

Bruce Charlton said...

@tgj - "According to Orthodox theology, the Incarnation was not necessary. "

Yes, I know. And one consequence is that Orthodoxy has no real necessity for human mortal life.

Since Heaven is perfection, and mortality is suffering and sin - then why are humans forced to endure mortality?

The Orthodox focus on replicating Heaven on Earth (in the Liturgy, in ritual, in meditation) emphasizes this: earthly mortal life has no intrinsic value except insofar as it is a feeble-copy of Heaven.

Since God loves us: Why cannot we go directly to Heaven?

Orthodox theology cannot satisfactorily answer that (at least, not to my satisfaction) - and that is a serious defect.

I - being a mortal - need to know the purpose of mortal life, the reason for mortal life, the necessity of mortal life.

Bruce B. said...

Bruce, you ask: “Since God loves us: Why cannot we go directly to Heaven?”
I don’t know about Orthodoxy but I suspect Catholicism has an answer. I think the answer (I know how you feel about this argument) is that it’s a logical impossibility due to God’s nature.
We cannot go directly to heaven and be with God because God is pure and perfect. By analogy, you can’t mix even a little bit of black paint with pure white paint and still have white paint. We must be perfected first both in this world and in something like purgatory.
This seems like a fairly understandable, common-sense idea to me.

Bruce Charlton said...

@BB - Yes, I agree - but *why* aren't we *already* pure and perfect (and intelligent, and strong and all the rest of it)?

If God was omnipotent we could be, and should be, made that way from the begining.

But I believe that mortal life, including death, is a necessary step in our spiritual progress.

jgress said...

I remember reading in the Orthodox saint St Gregory Palamas that the reason God chose to become Incarnate and suffer death for our sake was because that was the only way to achieve our salvation with justice. While it is certainly in God's power to save us without needing to pay any penalty on our behalf, it would not be consistent with His nature to act unjustly.

I seem to recall C S Lewis discussing different meanings of "impossible" when it comes to God's actions and this may be relevant here, e.g. the "impossibility" of God's death is compatible with His omnipotence since God is by definition immortal. Likewise God is by definition just and therefore could and would not act unjustly e.g. by liberating us from the burden of our sins without paying the penalty that our sins demanded. God is also merciful by definition, however, which is why He paid the penalty Himself rather than demand it of us.

Bruce B. said...

My guess is that a creature with radical, god-like free will has to have the ability to choose not to be pure and perfect.

Bruce Charlton said...

@jgress - That is the standard conservative Protestant theory of the atonement - Christ takes the punishment due to us, because there must be a punishment. But to me it seems like a moral monstrosity: in one sense a non sequitur, in another sense ethically inferior even to a normal earthly Father.

jgress said...

There have been a lot of recent Orthodox critiques of atonement theology on the same grounds, namely that the necessity of punishment implies that God is beholden to some higher power that we call Justice (see work by Fr John Romanides and his followers). Needless to say these critiques have themselves been criticized for being inconsistent with traditional Orthodox teaching and no Orthodox jurisdiction has officially subscribed to them as far as I know.

I can understand why this concerns some people, but for my part I'm satisfied with the interpretation I read in St Gregory: God is by nature just and can and will only act in a just manner. The fact is that offenses demand retribution according to justice.

I see that you're struggling with the incomprehensibility of Christian dogmas, but I think you recognize elsewhere that at a fundamental level Christianity is simply that: incomprehensible. To me the incomprehensibility of it is a strong argument against the idea that it is a purely human invention.

Bruce Charlton said...

@jgress - "God is by nature just and can and will only act in a just manner. The fact is that offenses demand retribution according to justice."

But they don't - not really; at least not in the kind of way described. We are foolish, selfish children - and loving parents do not treat children in the legalistic manner envisaged by this explanation.

Especially, loving parents would not punish their one good child by incredible tortures, in place of their billions of wicked other children - and say that this procedure satisfied justice.

It is nonsense really - and people only use this theory because they can't think of anything better.

jgress said...

I think part of the problem in your thinking is an over-emphasis on the distinction between the Father and the Son, almost as if only the Father were God and the Son were one of His creatures that He is treating as a kind of whipping boy for the rest of humanity. But Christians believe that God is One, so really we must recognize that God took the punishment due to us on Himself. Once you accept that then His mercy becomes more evident.

In my understanding, the distinction between the Father and Son mostly becomes relevant when we consider how Christ managed to pray to God while on Earth, as if God were another Person than Christ. The Trinitarian dogma allows us to understand that God the Son can relate to God the Father as another Person, but that at the same time, both Father and Son are fully God, so that in the Person of Christ, God truly suffered and died for our sins. An important and related Orthodox dogma is that the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross was offered up to the whole Trinity, not just to God the Father.

Bruce Charlton said...

@jgress - I'm afraid that doesn't mean anything to me. I would rather say nothing than try to comprehend such paradoxes!

Seijio Arakawa said...

@jgress - the screaming problem with substitutionary atonement is that it attributes a justice to God which is not somehow incomprehensibly higher than human justice, but it is completely opposite to human justice.

Suppose Bob has committed murder, but I do not wish to see him suffer the punishment. So I go to the magistrate and propose a plea bargain where I will undergo the death penalty in exchange for Bob getting off scot-free. Can you find me even one magistrate on Earth who would agree to such a deal, and not consider allowing it to be a monstrous miscarriage of justice? Can you find one court (outside of a Stalinist dictatorship) which considers itself satisfied so long as someone is being punished for things going wrong, whether or not they committed any wrongdoing? (After all, offenses demand retribution according to justice, as you define it; whereas whether the right person was punished is just a clerical detail.)

But really, the person you should be arguing against, if you want to defend the penal substitutionary view, is George Macdonald; since I get my present understanding from the following:


I may not understand, myself, how God sets things aright, but that does not oblige me to accept a doctrine that does not even explain it in any case.

Seijio Arakawa said...

@jgress - furthermore, in apologetic terms, you said:

"To me the incomprehensibility of it is a strong argument against the idea that it is a purely human invention."

This is not necessarily the case. God is truthful, indeed the supreme Truth, so when He speaks His words refer to His realities, in a manner that is appropriate to those realities and to the understanding of the people He is addressing Himself to. So the incomprehensibility of God's revelation is somewhat limited, particularly when He speaks about things that intersect our own realm of experience. He will not call something 'justice' if it is diametrically opposite to the justice that humans understand and seek in their own dealings.

On the other hand, human beings are perfectly free to use words in a deceitful way, or in a way that does not refer to reality at all -- and to do so, oftentimes, without even realizing or admitting it. Leaving aside theology: string theory, postmodern literary criticism, the hypothesis of purely evolutionary emergence of complex and intelligible forms... in terms of coming up with incomprehensible theories and intellectual chestnuts human beings may rather have an advantage over God.

Bruce Charlton said...

@SA - " God is truthful, indeed the supreme Truth, so when He speaks His words refer to His realities, in a manner that is appropriate to those realities and to the understanding of the people He is addressing Himself to."

That is also my understanding. I would add that there are some things we must understand if we are to live well, which is to choose well - to attain salvation and embark on theosis. It must be that these things - core things - are sufficiently comprehensible.

So we do need to understand that God is our loving Father, and this is heavily emphasized in the Bible. We do *not* need to understand the nature of the relationship of the Holy Trinity - a matter which is barely mentioned in the Bible and never explicitly.

We need to know that Jesus Christ died for us, so that we may have everlasting life and happiness, and avoid a horrible fate - but we do not need to know the detailed mechanism by which Christ's death led to our everlasting life.

Unfortunately, mainstream Christianity has often failed to understand the important and necessary aspects of Christianity, while insisting upon unnecessary, unimportant, and probably wrong theories of the Trinity, the Atonement and the abstract philosophical properties of God.

That is why the Restoration of the Gospel (i.e. Mormonism) was necessary - or at least extremely useful!

It Restores the primary questions to the central position they ought to occupy, and provides comprehensible and mutually consistent explanations of *them* (and not of less important, less central matters).

Mormonism gets the priorities right!

And it is ever-more obvious to me that that is what modern man needs.

jgress said...


The analogy doesn't work the way you think it does. It's not that the magistrate is going to punish "me" instead of the actual criminal; rather, the magistrate chooses to take the punishment upon himself. God punished Himself for us.

That's what I meant when I said Bruce was laying too much stress on the distinction between Father and Son. This seems to be a common error in Protestantism: they seem to forget that Jesus Christ is God, only seeing the human part of Him and unable to think of God as anything other than a transcendent spirit in Heaven.

Seijio Arakawa said...


"rather, the magistrate chooses to take the punishment upon himself. God punished Himself for us."

My point still stands. No earthly judge can knowingly allow a punishment to be applied to someone besides the known criminal, and consider that to resolve the matter. Even if the substitution is accomplished by the magistrate himself agreeing to be punished for it, he is still perpetrating a miscarriage of justice, in favour of whatever higher ideal he believes himself to be pursuing.

So, I would say that the penal substitution atonement theory could be half right, if there is a level or dispensation of 'justice' in operation, making such demands, that could admit of such machinations. But if that dispensation of justice was so ridiculous as to be satisfied by the innocent being punished instead of the guilty, then it deserved to be destroyed and abolished utterly by Christ's sacrifice. And it cannot be identical to God's highest thought on the matter of Justice. (If it was, it would never occur to Christ, nor by extension to any of us, that He could overcome it.)

As to what God's highest thought regarding Justice could be, I refer you once again to George Macdonald. He could be wrong (and I would be interested to hear how, because I have not found many materials debating the substance of his arguments), but he is at least trying to seek understanding, rather than being content in speaking absurdities.

Bruce Charlton said...

@jgress - My point is that the atonement is not about justice.

If God is thought to be punishing his sinless Son for Man's sins, then that just seems wicked (as well as meaningless).

But if Jesus is assumed simply to be God Himself (ignoring that he is a Man), and God is seen to be punishing Himself (and nobody else) - then, while not wicked, that just seems *insane* (and is still meaningless).

(For an explanation to have value it must be comprehensible. The primary metaphor for God is our loving Father. And a loving Father would not punish either himself or an innocent son for the sins of other people.)

I interpret this as a reductio ad absurdum of any justice theory of the atonement; and indicative that we must look elsewhere for the meaning of Christ's incarnation, death and resurrection.

(My own attempts at understanding can be found by word searching 'atonement' on this blog.)

jgress said...

Thanks, Seijio and Bruce. I agree that, when considered in the abstract, the Atonement as penal substitution seems logically absurd. It needs, on the contrary, to be considered in the context of the rest of what the Church teaches about our salvation.

When it comes to "punishment" we should understand that God has no vindictive attitude towards persons; on the contrary, He loves all His creatures and continues to do so. So the real target of His "punishment" is sin and death itself. As creatures, we are only caught up in the punishment when we, of our own free will, align ourselves with Sin and Death against Life and Love. By our will being contrary to God's, we make ourselves evil, although our nature is fundamentally good.

St Athanasius the Great has a helpfully distinct way of understanding the Atonement. For him, the Fall is described more as a natural consequence of Adam's disobedience; he dwells less on the retributive aspect of God's sentence. Thus, when God took on our nature, He also incurred the same natural consequence, i.e. death, and thereby destroyed death, since God cannot die.

So death is a natural consequence of separation from God, while separation from God is a result of our own actions. But there is nevertheless a retributive aspect to the Fall, since God also hates sin and death, and when we freely choose sin and death over life we make ourselves the target of His wrath against them.

The thing about the fall is that Adam's disobedience affected his nature, not just his individual person, so everyone descended from him took on the same consequence of disobedience. Through the Incarnation, God took on our fallen nature, i.e. our nature in its state of mortality and separation from God. Through the Incarnation, Crucifixion and Resurrection, God overcame this separation and mortality. Through the Church, as individual persons the damage to our nature is healed, provided we do not repeat Adam's error of disobedience.

Bruce Charlton said...

@jgress. That seems a lot better as a way of conceptualizing things.

To widen the discussion, the problem I have with this 'hereditary taint' explanation of the meaning of original sin is that, as you say: "Through the Church, as individual persons the damage to our nature is healed, provided we do not repeat Adam's error of disobedience."

This means that each man is rotten inside, and unable to discern Good and evil - hence must rely on The Church, and be obedient to her.

However, what happens when the church is unclear, or absent, or speaks with more than one voice, as it does?

My general feeling is that the Orthodox model works when the church is unified and in-place, permeates society and people simply grow up within that society.

However, in the modern world, there are a multiplicity of churches, the same applies within Orthodoxy, and living the Orthodox life is simply impossible (even for most monks). Also, the tradition of spiritual guidance - originating in Saints - has been broken, and it is not clear whether there are any grounds for assuming it can or will be restored.

This situation - where the individual is left without guidance and yet convinced of his inability to discern truth - seems to be one that our loving God could not have intended and would not tolerate. Therefore I assume one or more of the premises which seemed to lead to this impossibility must be wrong, or else the reasoning is wrong.

In sum, in the modern world I feel that Orthodoxy has become 'just another denomination' since no current societies are Orthodox; and by its own account that situation is irreparable.

The combination is one that leads to despair - which is a sin (obviously) - so that can't be right either!

Bruce B. said...

Catholicism solves the problem you describe in your last comment. Yes, there are many individual voices within Catholicism saying many different things, but the Church’s official teachings are there for those who want to know them.

Bruce B. said...

I reread the initial post. You leave out the resurrection in your analysis. The incarnation, death and resurrection are all one package of necessary things and I think when you focus on any one of them excessively you get misunderstandings and distortions.
We’re being saved from death (physical, spiritual) so the need for incarnation, death and resurrection doesn’t seem like an incredible belief.
The religion of God incarnate is characterized by powerful, real-world symbols that effect what they signify and signify what they effect. Death, sacrifice, resurrection are highly symbolic for people and always have been. It doesn’t seem incredible to me that God would accomplish things this way.

Bruce Charlton said...


The problem is what the actual priests, friars, monks, other orders and the Pope actually teach and enforce.

Okay I exaggerate, but not much.

But my point here is not about the top-down corruption of mainstream Christian denominations - it is the poverty of explanations of even the best Classical Theology.