Monday, March 11, 2013

Suffering and Responsibility

D. Morgan Davis, the director of BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, had a guest post at By Common Consent titled "The Merits of Divine Responsibility." I'm not going to add to it, but I wanted to provide some of the most enlightening aspects of the post itself as well as some of the comments (which go along with my latest WWE post).


  • But what if there were more at work in the agonies of Christ than proxy suffering? Might our theology allow that Christ is actually a responsible party to human sin and suffering?

  • In Mormon teaching, God ordained the Fall. If we teach that the Godhead was involved in deliberately establishing conditions whereby Adam and Eve placed themselves and all their posterity in a state of moral and mortal jeopardy, then will our theology also allow that Christ (as a member of the Godhead) bears some responsibility for all sin and all death? I do not suggest, of course, that Christ is the author of sin or that he is responsible for having committed any sin; but if the Fall was God’s design, and Christ is God, then through his oneness with the Father he did bring about means whereby God’s children were placed in a position to sin and suffer sin’s consequences: Christ as God is responsible for the presence of sin and death in the world, because such was the divine plan.

  • working out the Atonement, Christ as God is taking full responsibility for the perils of the divine plan. He is taking upon himself the consequences of all sins committed and all pains endured by his fallen children—sins that he did not commit and sufferings that he did not directly inflict, but which were made possible through his agency as the author of the plan. He is doing the work necessary to see his plan through to its intended outcome, which was not the condemnation of people for sin, but the exaltation of his children through their becoming free to act for themselves and then freely choosing him, their God...He has authority to intervene where none other could because of his exclusive role in setting in motion the series of events that make the intervention necessary in the first place.

  • He suffers everything himself, asking no one to confront anything he is not willing to endure himself. In some way that we must still accept on faith, he opens himself to the full range of mortal hurts, enduring them all in fulness and without reservation, beyond what any mortal could endure, “that he may know according to the flesh how to succor His people” (Alma 7:12). He dismisses none of it; he is fluent in all the languages of suffering and need, and no one who suffers is beyond His compassionate reach or comprehension.

  • The comprehensiveness of his suffering is crucial. I submit that it is this comprehensiveness that Alma 34 refers to as “infinite and eternal.” Christ has the capacity to heal not just some victims from their wounds, but all victims. He can redeem not just this or that sinner from spiritual death, but any sinner, including me. This comprehensiveness means that no one is beyond redemption, but also that no one can insist on their own version of justice outside of Christ’s.


  • Jesus’ suffering may well have come about because of his realisation — and he had not yet fully realised it because he had, until that point, never really experienced it — that human life is pretty God-awful. As you say, he put in motion certain events that, although necessary on an eternal scale, also produced a world of loss, cruelty, and deep suffering. Having now experienced that, and knowing he is in some way responsible, Jesus’ agony is literally shocking. My own view is that this then readied him to be our judge — the empathy theory if you will.

  • In one of Lars Olsen’s West Oversea saga books, there’s a scene that sticks with you where Thor is trying to administer justice to the dead. But each of the dead has an excuse, each can point to a parent or a neighbor or a loved one or enemy who helped to drive them bad, and when he goes to that parent or nneighbor or loved one or enemy to administer the punishment, he in turn can point to someone else. The poor dumb ox of a god is completely stumped. One way of looking at the atonement is that by assuming all burdens, Christ tied himself into the endless net of causation and responsibility and provides it with a definite end. Here all fingerpointing must cease. This way of looking at the atonement also provides an explanation for the mystery of why there would need to be more than one Christ (the alternative is the absurdity that across infinite worlds and infinite creations, the Christ happened to be born in ours). Separate creations are separate causal tangles.

  • In our sacred history and cosmology, Christ is the individual most responsible for ensuring that we would have free will, that we would actually encounter competing or opposing choices be free to choose evil, to make mistakes, to commit sin. He did it by championing a plan that would not abrogate individual agency, and He did it in His capacity as Savior. Guaranteeing human free will ensured human evil and human suffering and human sin and human awfulness. But it was not a mistake. Still, it means that human suffering is something that He bears responsibility for, more so in its totality than any other individual. All four gospels go to great lengths to identify His death/sacrifice with the Pascal Lamb–a creature whose death does provide salvation to God’s people, both by sparing them from death/destruction and by providing them with a meal, nourishment empowering them on their journey out of bondage and into the promised land–and not as the scapegoat of the Day of Atonement. It is not a vicarious sacrifice for sins. Gethsemane was the moment when the ripcord was pulled and Jesus understood the fullness of what He had wrought, the full breadth and depth of human depravity and human suffering made possible by His mission. His being perfect only made the sense of responsibility for the consequences of human sin more real, more accute, and more profound. He suffered not because of some mystical process whereby someone totally outsife of and alien to and disconnected from human sin is forced to suffer for it, but as a natural consequence of the realization of the awfulness and horror that His mission enabled and in some sense forced upon humanity. Consider the torment you, as an imperfectly compassionate and empathetic and as a basically self-centered and self-involved creature would still feel if one day you found out that something you did had resulted in the horrible suffering of a small child. Now consider the scope and acuity of the torment Christ felt when He realized that His choices and actions had resulted in infinitely more suffering than any one of us could possibly comprehend. He suffered for our sins, not vicarously, but as the Being most singularly responsible for the totality of human evil (not even satan is as responsible ultimately, since his efforts would be useless and wasted were it not for Christ’s guarantee of full free agency).

1 comment:

  1. The idea of God and man being accountable to each other is one of the more intriguing ideas in Judaism. While I didn't flesh out the idea in that post, the quote by R. Nahman of Breslav indicates that he considered God's responsibility towards man in his suffering as one of the reasons for revelation.