A Nihilist Reads John 3:16, Part II
I imagine any Christian having read Part I as stuttering, “But, but, but the Resurrection, the Redemption.” In Christianity, the Birth, Life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus are unique events never to be repeated. In the Christian mythos the Resurrection and Redemption represent an escape from the sufferings and unpleasantries of this life, the only life of which we have any experience and knowledge. If the Christ story had sprung out of love for this world and this life, there would be not be just one Death & one Resurrection. There would be celebrations of the miracle of the Christ Rising Ever Anew. One need only look to ancient pagan religions for examples of the celebrations of resurrected deities.
Those of us brought up in an overly Christian milieu are predisposed to regard the bright, shiny aspect of pagan deities as more properly divine and prefer to push a divinity’s darker aspects aside. Antiquity is rife with gods who were in one way or another torn apart and resurrected as part of yearly rituals. Or of fertility deities such as Demeter who are mother and daughter and in more ancient times regarded as two aspects of the same deity. Lunar deities should also be included here. Against this background, the Resurrection as a singular event breaks the yearly repetition of these deities’ rites.
Part of the uniqueness of the Resurrection is a consequence of Jesus being the perfect sacrifice: blameless, sinless, and without fault (cf. the requirements for sacrificial animals in Mosaic law to be unblemished and the best of the flock). The rationale for the Resurrection is the complete and total triumph over Death and Sin. The ideal to which we mortals are held when confronting our own shortcomings is complete and total triumph over our own sins and shortcomings. The inevitable failure to triumph once and for all is “proof” of one’s wickedness, sinfulness, and failure to be what one ought to be.
But what of moments of excessive despair, powerlessness, terror, anxiety, and impotence? If all available and conceivable choices and options are each more repugnant than the others? This is an exceptional situation and one not included in the scope of Philosophy and Ethics. In normal situations, when presented with a range of choices it is presumed that one is drawn to one or more of the available choices. The problem is then to make the best choice. In a situation, in which all choices are all abhorrently repellent, the tools and concepts of ethics are worse than useless. Whether one speaks of desire, agency, die Wille zur Macht, life energy, or something else, in such situations there is only complete frustration, unlimited impotence, and abject humiliation.
For Christians, the experience of complete frustration and unlimited impotence is encapsulated and symbolized by Jesus’ time on the Cross. That is the fate of innocence, vulnerability, and perfection in this world according to their mythology. Everything is rendered senseless and empty by Death. The sensations of powerlessness are for a believer to understand these experiences as opportunities to be one with Christ on the Cross. The extent that a believer is better and more fully able to identify with the Crucified, the more assured is that believer of Salvation: that is Redemption from the weak, suffering, miserable fleshly creature that he curses himself for being. The believer belongs to Christ as a slave might belong to his master.
The Resurrection promises that Death and Sin are conquered once and for all. This means that the return of the sensations of powerlessness after a mystical union with Christ Jesus begs for explanation. The failure of a once-and-for-all triumph over this taste of Death and Sin can only be due to one’s own sinfulness. The Christian answer to the failure of Redemption to manifest in believers in this life is guilt and repeated failure.
Heroin addicts sometimes describe their addiction as chasing that first high. That first experience of absolute acceptance and forgiveness is overwhelming. I’ll not take the tack which many critics of Christianity take of asserting that this first divine experience of forgiveness is illusory and lacking in reality. An experience qua experience is neither true, false, real, or unreal. An experience is inseparable from the means by which we express, interpret, and relate it to others, including to ourselves. An experience separate and distinct from the expressive forms in which we find it is as illusory as seeking Grammar pure and unsullied by the words, forms, orthographies, conjugations, and declinations of language. The forms of expression allow and create the possibility of sharing and illuminating not just one person’s experience, but the experiences of others as well.
In pursuing a repetition of that first rush of forgiveness, personalities prone to addictive behavior will quickly learn to find sin everywhere. If forgiveness is required, then something to be forgiven is also necessary. That means guilt, perennial guilt, and more guilt, until loathing of all pleasure and of anyone who would enjoy themselves without a twinge of regret becomes an abiding passion. But all is forgiven with faith, until the next sin or impure thought. Perversely, this craving for forgiveness, acceptance, and even Divine Love creates the need for sins which can be forgiven. Jesus’ love is conditional, not on being good enough, but on sins which can be forgiven as reassurance of his love.
The deep problem with Christianity and Christian ethics (= any ethic that puts a premium on obedience including obedience to principles and institutions) is the hocus-pocus by which it seeks to preserve the individual believer’s agency. Here Nietzsche’s model of slave and master can simplify matters. The self-justification for the Christian for obeying his master is that the Christian really belongs to a more powerful master (for example God the Father or Jesus depending one’s theology) who commands obedience to worldly masters and powers (see Romans 13:1–7) but with exceptions. It is these exceptions that allow the religion of slaves to preserve a measure of independence of their masters’ will and commands. Consequently, alcohol and drugs are portrayed as evil, sinful masters. One escapes from enslavement to vice to enslavement to one’s true master (God, Jesus, or a “Higher Power” in the lingo of Alcoholics/Narcotics Anonymous).
Considered in this context, redemption (or if the reader prefers the “Redemption”) is the exchange of one master for another. It is one of the peculiarities of the institution of slavery that revolt and rebellion are never the fault of the master. In order for one to find one’s perfect freedom as a bondsman in Christ (1 Corinthians 7:22, for example, or Bond Servants of Christ, “We either stand with Christ as His servant, or we are the servants of Satan,” apparently without irony), the capacity for rebellion and revolt must be from the slave’s own sinfulness and as sin something from which one is redeemed and which falls away with the Resurrection as not part of one’s true nature.
Failure, then, is the only certain result of Christian ethics. We fail to obey God, Morality, ethical principles, Reason, Rationality, Science, etc. It is the lot of a slave that good behavior is seldom rewarded but disobedience and failure are punished. Consequently, all the times good deeds were performed pale in comparison to one’s inevitable failures for what we are.
Of course, it will be objected that Christianity is about love and forgiveness. That is true, but the obverse is also true: Christianity is also the religion of fear and guilt. It would have us believe that we can be only good according to its dictates, if not in this life, then in the next. Except that now the world to come has become as difficult to take seriously as any other fairy tale, but the habit of justifying one’s acts and deeds in terms of obedience to a higher power remains. In the past 150 years what hasn’t masqueraded as a Higher Power? Das Volk, the Party (not just the Communist Party), National Unity, Science, Evolution, Economics, Profit, Jesus as a Republican, Social Justice and so on. It is not just the shibboleths of the Right that have become questionable.
The typical Christian response to the spiritual morass described in the previous paragraph is to trot out Something to fill the void left by the lack of belief in God, or rather in Something to which one unquestionably and unreflectingly may give obedience. As a final observation, Christianity is an ethic masquerading as everything else. An ethic is not refuted, so much as it is subverted, devalued, made ludicrous, and if rightly understood slandered.