Answering Richard Dawkins By Telling The Better Story

Redemption: A mission that will unfold in something outside real time and in it.

Narrative accounts have a binding power. What we hear, what we are accustomed to hear, and to hear in a particular way, forms the way we perceive the world. The tenets, the principles of a story become almost, if repeated often enough, as much as the first principles of our understanding, unquestioningly held, and that by which we interpret everything else. So it is also with the story of Salvation. It’s a simple story and we’ve heard it so often that we don’t question the basic premises, the basic plot. But think about the basic principles of this story in isolation. God, who is in control of everything by means of His will and Providence, becomes man and then kills that man for the sake of acquiring some merit by which to save a creation of His that went wayward. What does God gain? Why does He go about Salvation for His creation in such a convoluted manner?

The weight of this question is even more reaching, making it even an objection to all of the Faith as God appears to be either wasteful, unjust and sadistic in making Christ’s passion and death the recompense for sin As the atheist Richard Dawkins says in his book The God Delusion:

I have described atonement, the central doctrine of Christianity, as vicious, sadomasochistic, and repellent. We should also dismiss it as barking mad, but for its ubiquitous familiarity which has dulled our objectivity. If God wanted to forgive our sins, why not just forgive them, without having himself tortured and executed in payment? In any case (one can’t help wondering), who was God trying to impress? Presumably himself – judge and jury as well as execution victim.

“Who was God trying to impress?” is in every way a serious question. God is all powerful and all knowing, and created man knowing that He would fall. God, being all powerful, and it is assumed, all loving, if He “wanted to forgive our sins” could it seems, “just forgive them.” Any necessity that God had to become incarnate, suffer, and die in order to liberate a creation from a fault of its own making seems to do one of two things. Either it makes something to be greater than God in that it compels him to redeem His creation through an action more difficult than creating it or it makes God appear to have needlessly suffered of His own volition, offering himself as an “execution victim” to satisfy himself as “judge and jury”. Either way seems to be a contradiction, and told in this way the story of Salvation, Christianity itself, doesn’t seem to make any logical sense. 

Now Dawkins is actually right here to an extent, that it seems wrong in some way for God to have to go to such lengths and complexity to accomplish salvation. As Aquinas argues in his Summa Contra Gentiles that “whatever this benefit was,” that is, redemption of mankind in fixing the deficiency caused by Adam’s sin, “God could have brought it about by his mere will, since He is almighty.” We know, however, that He didn’t merely do this, but rather chose to bring about Salvation in the manner that He did, but it must be made clear that whatever reason God did this out of was not one that bound him of necessity. As St. Anselm says, “all necessity and all impossibility is subject to his will.” For God, “Nothing is necessary or impossible for any reason except that He himself so wills it.” To us there appears to be a certain sort of hypothetical necessity here, that as St. Anselm says, “when God does something, the deed cannot be undone after it has been done” such that it appears that God is bound by His will. But this is simply an intuitive statement about God’s omnipotence with relation to the created order. What God wills is what happens, and He does so not out of necessity, but rather because He freely prefers it. When God acts it is necessary only insofar as it was His unchanging will that He acted thusly. Thus also it is that “God should finish what He has begun” by the work of Redemption. God is not forced in any way to redeem, except that by His will in creating He also willed that His creation be brought to its fulfillment, and in so willing, he also willed to bring it to its fulfillment in a particular way according to particular means.

This means that the execution of God’s plan in the created order, the universe, is unchanging from God’s perspective, making it for God analogous to a single thought, a single act, or a singular story. God is to us, as for example, an author is to a completed story. It is fixed and unchanging from the author’s perspective and yet for the characters experienced as a changing sequence of events. No action of man can thwart the execution of His will or in any way modify it just as no action of a character within a story can modify the story Merely what happens happens and what has happened happened. With reference to God we can thus just as much use “he willed” as “he wills” because either are the same for the unchanging God. What God wishes to happen, what He wills, is the sum total of all things that happen within that plan. Thus God’s plan includes the fall as much as it includes His response to that fall, not insofar as He being the cause of the evil in man’s fall, but insofar as He embraces in His will the response to man’s fall. The story, in a sense, the world, has a solution pre-baked into it. The ultimate story, the world is always then in God’s control, there is no scrambling of God to try to work out a solution unprepared for it.

Since the world is as such, as a story totally in God’s control by the power of His will we need only show reasons why God might reasonably have willed the story to proceed in a certain way in order to answer Dawkins’ objections. Now although God could have saved us and accomplished a reordering of nature to reunite us back to Himself by simply willing that it be so, there are other benefits accomplished through His saving us by the Incarnation, passion, and death of Jesus Christ. For God is not only a good storyteller who brings His story to a beautiful conclusion, but He is also all loving, seeking what is best for His creation and for each being within it reaching its end. God seeks not only what is best for the beauty and order of the world, His story, as a whole but also what is best for each of the individual beings within it. Now, this best way for man, being as He is, to be redeemed, is by the suffering and death of the God-man. For Christ as man and God can give to God what man ought to pay but cannot, and give it as God who need not pay but can. He can give a gift to the Father greater than any created thing, and He can give it a man, making all of mankind participants in their own redemption. By becoming man, God in the person of Jesus Christ becomes part of the story, part of the human race itself, allowing mankind, who could not otherwise offer proper recompense to God of its own power for sin, to in fact do so. Christ is thus Lord of History as He in the orchestrating power of Divine Providence, also enters history itself, He enters the story with a human ancestry insofar as He is man, and thus makes man, who has fallen, an active principle of its own redemption. History leads to Christ but further we see how even in man’s straying from assent to the will of God, God’s will is still fulfilled. Man can fall to lower things, to the changeable and mutable, to death, and yet by these very things God will still work to bring about His salvation as Christ according to St. Paul “partook of the same nature,” that is, became man and died, so “that through death He might destroy him who has the power of death.”

Since Christ is God, He is thus not forced to die, but rather He freely wills with God’s same unchanging will to suffer and to die the most atrocious death imaginable as a sign to humanity of His love for mankind. In order that our fallen nature might be able to understand, God further wills it to be shown to us through the created order, so that even Man with eyes and mind turned to lower things, might still be able to perceive and meet the creator through the person of Jesus Christ. By choice, Christ died to show forth His love through the most material and debased of things, the corruption that is death. Not only then is man redeemed, but by the means through which he was redeemed, man also knows experientially of God’s deepest and most generous love for him.

For God, contrary to what Dawkins suggests, isn’t trying to impress anyone. Where God appears to Dawkins be either a show off or sadistic and punitive in demanding death as a recompense for sin, it can be interpreted rather as a sign of the deepest love. God chose this means out of love us, and simply because as St. Athanasius says “in no other way than this [would] it be beneficial for us.”  For God did not demand the death of His Son, but willed it in Him and gave it, inasmuch as the Son is God, out of love. He wishes for a good story, for a created order that reflects His goodness, even in the defects of its characters, such that whatsoever they do, nothing will thwart His will for what is good for them. For this sake He willingly undergoes the worst of what man has received by man’s own falling into sin. Sharing in the suffering of mankind he proves God’s love, as John says of Christ: “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” And yet he still loves with a love as unchanging as its plan, because God’s love is in fact the plan, His will in creating is itself an act of complete and freely given love, as is His act of redeeming, which is part of the same plan, 

For in God’s plan everything leads back to God. In his original, unchanging plan of His will, He embraces the contingencies, responds to man’s fall, and always unchangingly and lovingly calls us back. For redemption is baked into the plan. And what this means is that God rather than being sadistic, wasteful, or punitive, chose from the beginning, the story of history that would be best for us, the way of redemption best for us, that would best show His love so that we might best cling to that love. And as we are still in this same self story, that love through which God willed the plan, willed the Redemption, willed to endure the suffering and death that constitutes this in the mission of the God-man Jesus Christ, we can cling to that Love, the Word of which has come down to our level, which comes to us and for us in God’s plan. We can cling to Christ as that tenet that transcends time, who in his coming united us to something outside real time, eternity meeting the temporal, the self-existent meeting the created, the author becoming present into his story.

References:

Anselm of Canterbury, St., “Why God Became Man”, The Major Works. Trans. Fairweather, Janet. (New York, Oxford University Press, 2008)

Aquinas, St. Thomas. Opuscula I Treatises. (Green Bay: Aquinas Institute, 2018)

Aquinas, St. Thomas, Summa Contra Gentiles. accessed Nov 6, 2020, https://aquinas.cc/la/en/ ~SCG4.C53

Athanasius, St., On the Incarnation, Translated by John Behr, (New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, New York, 2011