The example of Jesus’ great and loving gift

The example of Jesus’ great and loving gift

We should listen to atheists more than we do. They have something useful to say to us. Often they refuse to believe in a God whom we also reject, an erroneous concept of a God who does not exist. And their care for fellow humans can be better than ours sometimes, especially if we imagine that our religious duties end once we have gone to weekend Mass.

Atheists often see us believers loyal to a God out of fear, worried that we will end in perdition unless we perform a set of obligations some of which look bizarre to them. I was once asked by Philadelphia TV host Joel Spivak what happened to all the people who went to hell for eating meat on Friday once the pope revoked the duty to abstain. Why would an intelligent God condemn to sulfurous flames a carnivorous Catholic? I replied that a true mortal sin takes a deliberate, willful, evil choice. The meat part is only the mechanism trying to get us believers to make some sacrifice in appreciation of Christ’s one on Calvary.

Or else we present a deity preoccupied like the Pharisees with rule fulfillment without any heart, like the abuse of qorban. This was a legalist dodge used by adults who neglected their elderly parents by declaring material assets as given over to God but retained by the stingy children for their continued use. In the 1960s folk singer Barry McGuire chided those who hate their next door neighbor but don’t forget to say grace. The commandment to honor our parents was addressed at Sinai to adults.

But the real objection we often hear from atheists is that they cannot accept a God who condemns his innocent son to crucifixion. How can we be expected to relate to a God who would do this to his son who committed no sin, as even the good thief stated? Is God some kind of vengeful power who does not spare his only son but demands his death as some kind of cosmic satisfaction for the sins of his fellow humans?

Here is what the New Testament says about this. John, the only male disciple to stand at the cross, says in his first letter (4, 7-10), “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is of God; everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God. Whoever is without love does not know God, for God is love. In this way was the love of God revealed to us: God sent his only son into the world so that we might have life through him. In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his son as expiation for our sin.”

The early church, which authorized the Gospels, has Mark write the Lord’s explanation during the Last Supper of his coming sacrificial death: “This is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed for many” (14, 24). And “many” in the Latin translation was idiom for “all.”

Sacrifice was a common form of worship a millennium before Christ throughout the near east. Animals substituted for the barbaric human sacrifices of the Amorites and other Canaanites the Israelites found when entering Israel. The motive was to offer to the divinity a gesture of thanks for life itself and all other gifts. Thus the offering had to die. It cost the giver something, but that was the sacrifice. The psychology of it is easy to see.

Jesus saw his suffering and death as a great and loving gift whose giving would be an excellent example to his followers of his trust in God, which example they were to copy in a less dramatic way by loving each other. John continues, “Beloved, if God so loved us, we also must love one another” (4, 11).

Only by loving each other in the model of Jesus could any believer say he or she loves God who raised his son from the death to which we sinners put him. The enormous sin of the world, past, present and future, was condensed on Golgotha in a hideous mass so that God could be seen as the One who did not abandon but who raised up his son, after his sacrifice. In other words, God forgives us in Jesus no matter what sin we added to humanity’s collective evil. That must be a God of love.