Tag: redemption

I know that spring has arrived, when a patch of dirt by our front lamp post erupts in dark green shoots. Days later a feast of color bursts upon the eye as the tulips fully bloom.

Spring brings also the yearly commemoration of the passion, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. One interesting controversy centers on the scope of Christ’s atonement, and tulips also remind me of this.

By 1610 a controversy had erupted in Holland, over a rift that had emerged between followers of Jacobus Arminius, and the rest of the reformed community who hewed to what we would today call Calvinism, after the theologian John Calvin. Eventually the Synod of Dort (which seated only the Calvinists) settled the matter in 1619 in favor of Calvinism.

The dissidents were known as the “remonstrants” who took issue with five theological points. These points are sometimes called the “Five points of Calvinism”, and they form an acrostic that reminds us of the tulips of Holland:

T-Total depravity
U-Unconditional Election
L-Limited Atonement
I-Irresistible Grace
P-Perseverance of the Saints

A lot could be said about each of these things, but this would get out of hand fairly quickly. I’ll focus on one: The “L” in TULIP is the idea that Christ didn’t actually suffer and die for all humanity. He died only for the Elect, for those particular people who have been chosen by God from the beginning of time to receive his Grace. Jesus seems to have come out and said just this in his upper room discourse on the night before his death (the same occasion that gave us the institution of Communion or the “Lord’s Supper”). As St. John recorded, Jesus prayed aloud for his disciples and all who would believe through them, in what is often referred to as his “high priestly prayer”:

 “I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world. Yours they were, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. … I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours.” (John 16:6, 9; Holy Bible, English Standard Version)

This idea of limited atonement is at one end of a spectrum, the opposite of which would be the idea of Universalism, which teaches that Christ’s atonement is universal in scope and that his death saves everyone, whether they believe or not. No one is lost. Universalism is a very comforting philosophy, but unfortunately only a tortured reading of Jesus’ words would permit one to reach this conclusion. Jesus’ teachings are clear that in the end some are saved, but many will perish. This is a deep and troubling mystery that confounds us. For those who take Jesus’ teachings seriously, Universalism is not a viable option except as a vague hope–in the end only God knows what He will do with Buddhists and agnostics. Universalists are on the fringe of Christianity.

Between these extremes would be the idea that Christ’s death is universal in scope (he died for all) but that not all people will avail themselves of his grace and therefore are not saved–each person must choose whether or not to accept Jesus. He died to take away all sin, and thereby to make salvation available to everyone who chooses in faith to turn to him.

Calvinists and non-Calvinists would tend to agree with the formulation that Christ’s death is “sufficient for all but efficient only for some.” The point of the controversy really comes down to the mysterious interplay between human free will and God’s will. It comes down to whether God intended that only a few be saved, or perhaps rather that He had a blanket desire that everyone be saved, but sadly God’s will is thwarted, as he leaves it up to us and our own free will to decide, each one for himself or herself.

We currently take the position here at this site that both viewpoints are Christian, and within the bounds of orthodox Christian belief. Therefore we don’t take a strong stance. There are faithful people on both sides of this question of free will versus determinism.

What all traditions would agree, is that for you as an individual, if you are a believer, then there is no limitation on God’s grace. Christ’s atonement is as unlimited as it is unmerited. It is shocking in its scope. However heavy a bag of sin you carry, you can lay it all at the cross.

The God of Christianity is the same who was praised by the psalmist for treating us not as we deserve but as children:

For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
    so great is his love for those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
    so far has he removed our transgressions from us.
(Psalm 103:12-13)

Saint Paul probably recalled this when he wrote his letter to the believers in Rome:
For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39, New International Version).

Reflect on this as you witness the unfolding of the tulips, and the unfolding of the drama of the death and resurrection of our Lord.

“Jesus is the answer!” So proclaims numerous road signs, Facebook posts, and bumper stickers. For those posting such things, it is an expression of their faith, of their confidence in Jesus. It a touchstone of peace and happiness for them and perhaps also for many who see it–but not for everyone. To a great many others, this statement provokes rather a sense of bewilderment, and begs a follow up question: “If Jesus is the answer, then what is the question?”

This thought brings to my lips a smile as I recall the analogous situation in Douglas Adams’ humorous Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, in which a planet-sized super computer named “Deep Thought” was constructed and directed to come up with “the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, The Universe, and Everything”. The program ran for millions of years, and finally returned an answer: “42”. Unfortunately neither the Deep Thought nor his designers knew what the ultimate question happened to be. The pan-dimensional beings seeking this answer were then forced to construct another planet-sized super computer to figure out the ultimate question.

Ash Wednesday is a Christian celebration that reminds us of the question for which Jesus is the answer. Or, more accurately, we are reminded of the problem for which Jesus is the solution; That is, the problem of death:

“Remember, o man, dust thou art, and to dust shalt thou return.”

Thus intones the priest in many a ceremony as ashes are imposed upon the foreheads of penitent Christians, these words echoing God’s curse in Genesis 3, pronounced upon humankind as punishment for sin.

Death is literally the bane of our existence. It destroys all that we hold dear. Try as we might to banish it from our thoughts, death catches us all. We recoil from it as we simultaneously yearn for permanence and significance. The idea of the extinction of our consciousness into an eternal nothing is difficult for us to fully grasp, for “God has set eternity in the hearts of men.” (Ecclesiastes 3:11)

Death is universal. We all die, because of our sin. Death is universal because sin is universal.

Fortunately, Ash Wednesday is merely the prelude to Easter. Whereas Ash Wednesday reminds us of our mortality, in essence saying, “Ye are dead”, Easter tells us: “Ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3).

The good news of Christianity is that God has set eternity in our hearts for a reason. It isn’t a dreadful taunt, or a meaningless musing. Jesus, the Christ, has died our death, in order that we might live his life. “For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.” (2 Corinthians 5:21).

As the old Easter canticle proclaims:
“But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept.
For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead.”
(This comes from 1 Corinthians 15)

Jesus’ resurrection from death foretells our own liberation from it, and not only in the future, in an eternity after physical death. We may be liberated from its shadow, and its dread, and its power over us even in this life.

In the light of this good news, St Paul exults in his first letter to the Corinthians: “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?”

As John Donne, the 16th century poet we recently profiled, elaborated so eloquently:

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

(Sonnet X)

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Over the course of Halloween, we treated ourselves to a binge viewing of the Netflix miniseries “Stranger Things”. If you haven’t seen it, I’ll offer that it was entertaining–an endearing homage to the nineteen-eighties, Steven King stories, and Sci-FI movies like “ET” and “Close Encounters”. And–full disclosure here–this is largely being lauded as a “period piece”, and the “period” in question is my own, particularly the time of my own childhood. Stepping back into a warm cocoon of memory is part of the enjoyment. Wall mounted rotary phones, old “Coke is it” commercials, Atari, 80s cars, shag carpeting, and brown upholstered furniture are evident everywhere.

I enjoyed also the assembly of 80’s science fiction and horror motifs: You have a group of nerdy middle school friends from broken or dysfunctional families bicycling all around town with little adult supervision or intervention. You have disappearances and other creepy events occurring to people in a small Midwestern town surrounded by a terrifying forest. You have a secret government lab performing mysterious experiments. You have strong (though flawed) characters trying to rise heroically despite their circumstances (the mildly psychopathic yet truth-seeking Sheriff Hopper is a prime example).

In sum, you could find worse ways to spend 7 hours.

Also, stop reading now, because I want to discuss the ending.

But do come back at some point.

Ok, this is the last warning before I plow into details you might not want to know yet…

One of the standout performances for me is the grimly determined orphan “Eleven”, played by 12 year old actress Millie Bobby Brown. Her young eyes radiate despair and terror and hope so hauntingly that it reminded me a bit of Haley Joel Osment in “The Sixth Sense”. She surfaces mysteriously into the lives of three friends, who soon learn that she has extraordinary gifts. They also soon find themselves on the run from shadowy government agents, while also hoping to figure out a way to find their missing friend Will.

Since this is a religion-focused blog, I would be remiss to avoid discussing how Eleven (“El” to her friends) is almost a Christ figure. She is of mysterious birth. She possesses an almost unimaginable power–she can levitate objects, kill with a thought, and create portals between parallel worlds. Her life is one of near constant suffering. She reaches out in friendship to the youngsters and loves them. In the end, she sacrifices herself to save the others. Her story is a picture of sacrifice and salvation–one innocent sufferer giving her all so that the others may live. As Jesus stated ages ago, “Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”

The story involving the missing boy Will Byers, can also be seen as a parable of redemption. Early in the series, he disappears into the grim, toxic, and deadly “Upside Down”–a kind of hell existing in parallel to our universe. His mother, portrayed by Winona Ryder as a petite nervous wreck who never gives up hope, is a spot of emotional warmth. She believes she can communicate with her son and will go to any and all crazy lengths in order to do so; for example, when the now invisible young Will somehow makes some lights blink, she responds and by the end of that day she has every inch of her little house plastered with Christmas lights. When she figures out that he is trapped in a parallel universe, she finds a way to the portal in the basement of the heavily guarded government lab, braving the risk of arrest or murder at the hands of the government men. She enters the “upside down”, braving the toxins and monsters, in a quest to retrieve her lost son. Against all odds, she finds him and takes him out of there. He is redeemed, taken back from the shadow of death, retrieved from the grip of Hell and its monster.

The “Upside Down” is also thought provoking in a theological way. In this story, the “upside down” is a parallel universe, one of many possible alternate realities, like ours but inverted. It has the same geography and even the same buildings–houses, schools, and tree forts–but everything is dark, gloomy, and cold. The air is toxic. A terrifying monster inhabits this land. It is hellish.

What if the Christian “Heaven” and “Hell” are in fact alternate dimensions, peopled by versions of ourselves that are better or worse. Hell might be the “upside down”, and Heaven is an alternate reality that is better.

Along these lines, what if our world is actually the “upside down”, a sick and perverted alternate universe to some other better one. That would fit our appalling history of mass murder and other atrocities, both horrific and banal, that are etched upon history. What if we are the demonic versions of our better selves? By no means am I going to claim this as the real truth, or ignore that it wouldn’t quite fit the biblical narratives, but it can be fun to speculate.