Saturday, April 15, 2017

Holy Saturday

Of course today is a day of reflection on the death of Christ for our sins, but I think we can take a second to smile.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Did God Die on the Cross? How to Discuss Catholicism with Non-Believers. (A Dialogue)

Recently, I had an extended online conversation with a non-Christian (specifically a baha’i) on the nature of Christ, centered around his questions on whether Christ is God and what the implications of a Divine Christ would be in light of the Crucifixion. 

Below follows, not a transcript of the conversation, but a “Platonic dialogue” inspired by it (and other such conversations I’ve had). Enjoy!

BERNIE THE BAHA’I: You believe that God became man and died, as a sacrifice for our sins, correct?

CHARLES THE CATHOLIC: Yes, that’s the essential claim Christianity makes. In fact, it’s the one thing that all Christians agree with and that all non-Christians dispute. You could almost define “Christianity” as the affirmation of that one statement.

BERNIE: So, Christians believe that humanity killed God?

CHARLES: “Humanity” is an abstraction. As such, “humanity” can’t do anything, including killing God.

BERNIE: If humanity didn’t kill God? How was God’s death a sacrifice?

CHARLES: “Humanity” didn’t kill God; individual men did, specifically the Roman authorities under Pontius Pilate at the insistence of the Sanhedrin.

BERNIE: These men killed Jesus?


BERNIE: And you believe Jesus was God?


BERNIE: And Christians believe that Jesus is not only God, but also entirely human?


BERNIE: So the Romans killed the human Jesus not the Divine Jesus?

CHARLES: No. Jesus was “entirely human,” but He is also entirely God. Killing Jesus (because Jesus = God) is killing God.

BERNIE: But Divinity can’t be killed, so the human body of Jesus died on the Cross, not Jesus’ divinity…

CHARLES: It wasn’t merely the “human body” of Jesus that died on the Cross, but the person Jesus Christ who died. That person is a Divine person, hence God died on the Cross. 

There aren’t two Jesuses, one Divine and another human, but one Person, Jesus Christ - who is both fully human and fully Divine.

BERNIE: So Christians believe that men killed God?


BERNIE: Then creation was Creator-less for three days?

CHARLES: No, that doesn’t follow.

BERNIE: But you just said God was dead…

CHARLES: God the Son died on the Cross, but God the Father and God the Holy Spirit did not.

BERNIE: I thought you Christians were monotheists.

CHARLES: We are. God is supra-personal, He exists in three persons who are all one God. This isn’t a case of Christians not being able to do math, for we don’t claim that God is one person who is three persons or three gods who are one God. Rather, we recognize that God transcends our ordinary experience. In the created order, one being equals one person, but on the Divine level one being (God himself) is three persons. Whether or not you believe that, you must recognize that there’s no contradiction inherent in our position, it certainly is possible.

BERNIE: I don’t want to digress too deeply into the Trinity, that might be best left for another conversation. 

CHARLES: If you’d like to read more I highly recommend Frank Sheed’s classic work Theology and Sanity, which contains one of the simplest, clearest explanations of the Trinity that I know of. You can get if on Amazon (and support this blog at no additional cost) by purchasing it HERE .

BERNIE: I’ll check that out. But I think you have another problem that the Trinity can’t get you around.

CHARLES: And that is?

BERNIE: If Jesus is Divine (and thus eternal) how can his death be a sacrifice? An eternal being knows no sacrifice, that would be a contradiction. 

CHARLES: Jesus is eternal in His divine nature, but He is mortal in His human nature (though Resurrected His human nature is now immortal). He suffered and died through His human nature, but it was still God (in the Divine Person of the Son) who suffered and died. In fact, being the perfect man, Jesus would have suffered immeasurably more than you or I if we underwent the same torture.

BERNIE: Wait a minute. You just said “there aren’t two Jesuses, one Divine and another human, but one Person, Jesus Christ - who is both fully human and fully Divine” now you are dividing Jesus in two, when it suits your argument. 

CHARLES: This might require looking a little more at the Trinity…

BERNIE: Dodging the question? 

CHARLES: Not at all, just giving you fair warning. 

In God there are three distinct persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Each Person is fully God (not just a part of God), each fully posses the Godhead. Each has the full Divine nature.

BERNIE: So the Father has the Divine nature, as does the Son, and the Holy Spirit? That’s what you are saying, they are each divine? So God has three faces He shows us…

CHARLES: No. The Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God, but the Father isn’t the Son or the Holy Spirit, etc. Each person is distinct, although each has the full Divine nature.

BERNIE: How can that be?

CHARLES: Do you have a complete human nature?




CHARLES: Am I you? 

BERNIE: No, but that gives us three gods, like we are two people.

CHARLES: In the finite created order you’d be right, but God transcends that. Would you agree that God is perfect?


CHARLES: In every way? He has every possible perfection?


CHARLES: And God is immaterial, He isn’t bound by time or space?

BERNIE: Yes, of course.

CHARLES: Then there can’t be three Gods, for there is nothing to separate one perfect immaterial God from another one. You and I are not one because, while we both have human nature, we occupy different space, are made of different matter and have different imperfections. None of this can distinguish one God from another, thus all three possessors of the Divine Nature must be one God

BERNIE: And you claim one of these persons became a man?

CHARLES: Exactly. At the Incarnation, the Second Person of the Trinity (God the Son) took on a human nature. 

BERNIE: So one of the members of the Trinity became human instead of being divine and was killed…

CHARLES: No, God the Son didn’t replace His divine nature with a human nature. Christianity isn’t a Brother’s Grimm fairy story where a man loses his human nature, takes on a frog nature, then later gets back his human nature. God the Son added a human nature without losing His Divine nature. If He completely abandoned His first nature to become a man, it wouldn’t be God who became man as God the Son would have ceased to exist entirely.

BERNIE: So you’re saying that God the Son, Jesus, has two natures? One human, another Divine?


BERNIE: Why would God want a human nature?

CHARLES: Through His Divine Nature Jesus can do all the things that are possible for God to do (create, control the weather, rise again, heal people, etc.) Through His human nature Jesus can do all the things that a man can do (suffer, die, get hungry, get tired, etc.) But it is one person, a Divine Person, who is doing all these things. Thus God, in the Person of God the Son, died on the Cross through His human nature.

BERNIE: God, in His Divine nature, is all powerful, right?

CHARLES: Of course.

BERNIE: Then why would taking on a human nature allow Him to do things He couldn’t do in his all powerful Divine nature?

CHARLES: Dying, being hungry, getting tired, etc are not “things to do” in the full sense. They are results of our imperfections, they are the result of things we can’t do - live forever, expend energy without consuming calories or stay awake permanently. God, in His Divine nature, is perfect and thus doesn’t wrestle with the consequences of imperfection as we, with our imperfect human natures, do.

BERNIE: Was it Jesus who died or just his human nature?

CHARLES: This brings us back to where we started. Natures are abstractions, they can’t do anything. Natures are what things are, not who they are. They provide the ability to do things, but can’t actually do anything themselves. 

BERNIE: I’m not sure I follow…

CHARLES: Think of unicorn nature.

BERNIE: But there are no such things as unicorns…

CHARLES: Yes, but even imaginary things have natures. What something is and whether something is are two different questions. 

Would this be a description of a unicorn: a woman whose lower half is a fish’s tail?

BERNIE: No, that’s a mermaid.

CHARLES: Exactly. I’ve described “mermaid-nature” even though the category “mermaids” is existentially empty. The fact that you can distinguish between non-existent things shows that even they can have natures. A nature merely answers the question, “what is it,” not “is it.”


CHARLES: Now can our mermaid swim underwater?

BERNIE: Yes, if she existed.

CHARLES: Right, but as there is no who in which mermaid nature actually subsists then there is no mermaid to actually swim. 

BERNIE: Because a nature can’t do anything, it is only the persons with that nature that do things.

CHARLES: Including dying.

BERNIE: Okay, but wasn’t the human nature of Jesus also fully Divine? Doesn’t that follow from your belief that Jesus was both Divine and human?

CHARLES: No, Jesus’ human nature isn’t Divine. That would be impossible (if Jesus’ human nature were Divine it wouldn’t be a human nature, it would be a Divine nature). A nature can’t be human and Divine, but a person can have both a Divine and a human nature.

BERNIE: Jesus has a human nature and a Divine nature; the first makes him a man, the second God. That’s what you are saying?


BERNIE: So when Jesus’ human nature was killed, the Divine nature was also killed, which brings us right back to our contradiction - an eternal nature dying.

CHARLES: Remember our principle, natures can’t do anything, only persons can. Natures don’t die, persons do. Jesus the Divine person died. This death was possible because Jesus has a human nature, and persons with a human nature can die. Persons can be killed, natures can't. When Jesus was killed, because Jesus = God, God was killed.

I know this can be a bit confusing, as the great Dante Alighieri once wrote,
madness it is to hope that human minds 
can ever understand the Infinite 
that comprehends Three Persons in One Being. (Purgatory, 3:34-46)

BERNIE: Basically, you’re saying “this is a mystery, just believe it?” Why should I believe what makes no sense?

CHARLES: I didn’t say it makes no sense, just that it can be confusing and that we can never fully understand God (in fact, St. Augustine used that as a proof of the truth of Christianity, if you can fully understand your god, it isn’t the real God, but a creation of your mind). 

BERNIE: What can we make sense of in this then? It seems all a muddle to me.

CHARLES: We can understand the basic distinctions which make this doctrine intelligible. I’ve gone over some of that ground before here on the blog (see: How Can God be Three and One? Can’t Christians do Math?). The secret here is to keep the distinction between nature (what something is) and person (who someone is) clear in your mind. Jesus is one person, one somebody, but is both God and man, two somethings. The one person (God the Son) died, which was possible because of one of the things He is (a man). 

BERNIE: This still makes no sense to me.

CHARLES: Maybe an analogy, albeit imperfect, might help?

BERNIE: Maybe.

CHARLES: Consider an author like William Shakespeare. Shakespeare is the creator of the Verona of Romeo and Juliet. As an author he can't directly interact with the characters he creates, however, could he take on a “fictional nature” by entering the plot as Shakespeare-the-character?

BERNIE: Yes, I suppose he could write a Shakespeare character.

CHARLES: And could that character do what the author couldn’t? He could, for example, leap between Mercurio and Tybalt during the duel, saving Romeo’s best friend, but dying on Tybalt’s blade? 

BERNIE: Yes, certainly.

CHARLES: Thus, Shakespeare could, by taking on “a second nature,” enter the world of his creation and thereby do what, in his "authorial nature", was impossible - be killed by his own character?

BERNIE: It would seem so.

CHARLES: Christianity merely posits an undeniable claim in addition to our analogy.

BERNIE: What is that?

CHARLES: That God is at least as powerful as Bill Shakespeare.

BERNIE: But Shakespeare isn't really hurt when "Shakespeare-the-character" dies. It's all pretend. Are you saying God just pretends to die, like Shakespeare the author pretends to be killed by Tybalt?

CHARLES: I said the analogy was imperfect. Shakespeare can only pretend to enter his play; the real Shakespeare sits unharmed at his desk regardless of what happens to Shakespeare-the-character. God, however, can really enter into a real world and thus really suffer and really die. All of this is made possible by His assumption of a real human nature. 

BERNIE: Shakespeare’s world is a fiction, but God’s Creation is real.


BERNIE: So Jesus didn’t sit unharmed in Heaven as His “human body” was killed like Shakespeare in our analogy? You’re saying God really died? It wasn’t just the body that Jesus took on that was killed? Men actually killed God? Why would God allow that to happen? It makes no sense.

CHARLES: God became a character in his own drama to set the plot straight - the plot we had entirely messed up. It would be as if you saw your children playing a game wrong and decided to get down on the floor and make sure they had a happy ending. God cares that much for us. He loves us that much. So much in fact that St. Paul can say,
Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Phil 2:5-8)
And St. John can sum up Christian theology by writing, “God is love” (1 Jn 4:8).

BERNIE: I’ll have to check out that book you recommended. What was the title again?

CHARLES: Theology and Sanity by Frank Sheed. You might also grab a copy of Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis while your at it. 


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Monday, April 10, 2017

Can God Suffer?: How to Discuss God and Suffering like a Pro.

John: God is said to be "impassible," I think I understand what that means, but can you give a brief definition? I think I disagree with the teaching, but I want to be certain I understand it correctly.

Pius: Defining terms is always the best place to start. Divine impassibility is the doctrine that God does not suffer, indeed, cannot suffer.

John: That's what I thought. I'm not sure I can agree with it.

Pius: Doubt is always a good place to start when journeying towards the truth.

John: I'm a Christian. I find truth in the Scriptures. Is this doctrine taught by the Bible?

Pius: It isn't specifically mentioned in the Bible, but the conceptual framework that requires the doctrine is present. God is immutable, i.e. He doesn't change. If God doesn't change, then He doesn't change emotional states, and therefore God can't suffer - He is impassible.

John: How do we know God can't change? Isn't God able to do anything? If so, why wouldn't He be able to change? Doesn't saying "God is immutable" conflict with God's omnipotence?

Pius: How would you describe the omnipotence of God?

John: That's easy. God is all-powerful. There are no limits on what He can do.

Pius: Would it be fair to summarize and qualify you're position as "God can do all possible things" or are you uncomfortable with that? I want to make sure I'm understanding you before going on.

John: I'd simply say God can do all things. Why do we need the word "possible" added in?

Pius: Can God do impossible things?

John: There are no impossible things to God. That's what being "all-powerful" means.

Pius: All things, we'd agree, that are possible to do, God can do.

John: Yes, but to God that means all things, full stop.

Pius: Would you say God can "zing-ding a wall and blah-blah a bag?"

John:  I'm not sure I understand what that would mean?

Pius: I'm asking, does the sentence "God can zing-ding a wall and blah-blah a bag" make sense?

John: No, it's gibberish.

Pius: And God can't do "gibberish?"

John: Gibberish isn't a thing to do. It's not a lack of power in God, it is a lack of sense in the sentence  that makes it something that can't be done.

Pius: God can do all things, but what I said isn't a thing to done?

John: Yes.

Pius: Is it also gibberish to speak of logical contradictions?

John: I'm not sure. Can you provide an example?

Pius: Certainly. Would it make sense to say "God can make a circle with four sides?"

John: Clearly not. If it has four sides it isn't what we call a circle, it's what we call a square.

Pius: And that doesn't limit God's power?

John: Of course not. It's a confusion of words. God can turn a circle into a square, but it doesn't make sense for us to call a four sided object a circle. That's a problem of our language, not of God's power.

Pius: Precisely. It is like the gibberish we explored before.

John: Right.

Pius: What about the statement "God can make it bring as day and dark as night at the same moment in the same place at the same time"? Does that make sense or is it gibberish too?

John: God can make day night and night day.

Pius: Yes, but can He make it both at the same time in the same place?

John: Well...

Pius: Is that a confusion of terms, a confusion in our words?

John: Yes. It is like with the square and circle. God can make it night or day, but to say it is both bright and not bright is a failure in language. But what does any of this have to do with whether God can change? Surely, asking that isn't like confusing words.

Pius: Maybe, but I'm not so sure. Let's dig deeper and see if we can be sure of that. For now, I'm only asking whether adding "God can..." in front of nonsense - in front of a series of confused words - suddenly makes those words mean something.

John: Not at all. But that has to do with our ways of speaking and thinking not with God's power.

Pius: So logical contradictions, things that end up being nothing more than a confusion of words, are failures in our understanding and speech, not in God?

John: I don't see how anyone can conclude otherwise.

Pius: Going back to my clarification of your statement, "God can do all things" would you agree now that it is a better definition to say "God can do all possible things." Or better, "God can do all things that are doable things."

John: Yes, I see why you've added that in. Some "things" really aren't "things to do" but are just a series of confused ideas or words.

Pius: Right. Now we are discussing whether God can be happy now and suffer later.

John: Yes, let's get back on track.

Pius: I'm not sure we have been off-track. Would you agree that God being happy now and then suffering later is a change?

John: Clearly it is.

Pius: And the doctrine of Divine Immutability says God cannot change?

John: That is what it says, but I'm not sure how we can agree with that. It is a limit to God's power to say He can't change. That isn't a confusion of words. Changing is a doable thing. You can't disagree with that?

Pius: Change it certainly a "doable thing" for us. Is it for God?

John: I don't see how it can't be. If we can do it, surely God can too. Otherwise, He is less powerful than we are! If He's less powerful than you or me, then He isn't God at all.

Pius: Agreed. If God is less powerful than you or me, He isn't God.

John: Then God can change and if He can change why shouldn't He be able to have emotions?

Pius: I think we might be moving too fast here. Let's explore whether God can change a little more before moving on. Is God perfect?

John: Of course, He is. If He isn't it's not God we're talking about.

Pius: If God is perfect would a change make Him more perfect?

John: No. God is perfect, there is no such thing as "more perfect." If you can be "more perfect" then you aren't perfect, just really good. You're back to spewing gibberish. I'm afraid we aren't getting anywhere.

Pius: So saying God can be "more perfect" is gibberish?

John: Yes.

Pius: Can God, then, become less perfect?

John: No. If God became less than perfect, He wouldn't be God anymore and that's absurd. More gibberish!

Pius: So God can neither become more perfect nor can He become less perfect. Can He become something else that is equally perfect?

John: No. Nothing can be "equally perfect." If you are perfect, you are perfect. There are no other perfections to add or you aren't perfect in the first place.

Pius: So God can't become more perfect, less perfect, nor add some new perfection to what He has already.

John: Exactly.

Pius: Then how can God change? Isn't all change either moving from two things of equal value, or moving from a better thing to a worse, or moving from something worse to something better?

John: Yes, I can't disagree with you there.

Pius: Then God, being perfect, can't change.

John: Okay.

Pius: That establishes God's immutability, then.

John: Yes.

Pius: And if God can't change, He also can't change emotional states.

John: That would seem to follow.

Pius: Is suffering now and not suffering later a change in an emotional state?

John: Yes.

Pius: And...

John: And so God can't suffer. Okay I get that. Doesn't it also mean that God is indifferent to us? If a baby is starving to death, He simply doesn't care? Isn't that the God of the Deists, the "Divine Clockmaker" instead of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob?

Pius: The apostle who you are named from, how does he define God?

John: He says, "God is Love" (1 John 4:8).

Pius: Is love indifferent?

John: No, not at all. That's precisely my objection to what we've said about God. It seems to refute the Biblical God.

Pius: Can God love us, without changing? Does love necessitate change?

John: Not at all. God loves us without change. He always loves us, loves us unconditionally.

Pius: Then God can both love us and be unchanging, the two aren't contradictions, we aren't speaking in gibberish?

John: Right.

Pius: Then it doesn't follow that God is indifferent, that God is a "clockmaker" who leaves His creation on its own without a care.

John: I see that.

Pius: God loves us, but we can't blackmail Him. We can't make Him suffer. He is always joyful. Is that fair to say?

John: Yes, but He loves us and thus can love us to the point of sending His Son to die for us. Surely, the death of Jesus (who is God) suggests that God can suffer after all. How does this square with what we've been saying? It seems we've proved that God doesn't suffer, but in the process have disproved Christianity, the religion that specifically teaches that God did suffer!

Pius: Well, that's certainly possible.

John: So we should leave off Christianity?

Pius: Not necessarily, we've not proven that yet, but it is possible.

John: Well, let us go on then. I'm a firm Christian, but I won't continue to be if we find it false.

Pius:  You're a true philosopher, John. I'm with you, if we can't square what we know to be true - that God can't suffer - with what as Christians we believe - that Jesus is God and did suffer - we ought to seriously reconsider our Christianity. Let's review our premises. Christians believe Jesus is...

John: God.

Pius: And Jesus suffered?

John: Clearly. In fact, according to Christianity, He suffered more than anyone else ever has or ever could. That is the contradiction. Is Christianity gibberish?

Pius: Perhaps. Why would Jesus suffer?

John: He descended from Heaven to become a man to save men from sin.

Pius: Jesus is both man and God.

John: That belief pretty much defines who is and who isn't a Christian.

Pius: Jesus had two natures, one Divine and another human. One person, two natures. That is the teaching of Christianity, correct?

John: It is.

Pius: Can men suffer?

John: I can attest to that from personal experience, as I'm sure you can!

Pius: And Jesus was a man?

John: Man and God.

Pius: But still a man? He has a complete human nature. He became fully human. He became a man. Correct?

John: Yes.

Pius: Then Jesus can suffer as a man, in His human nature, while, in His divine nature, He remained impassible, that is logically possible? That isn't gibberish?

John: That is logically a possibility.

Pius: Then there is no logical contraception in saying that Jesus suffered and yet Jesus is God (and man).

John: That makes sense.

Pius: Did God the Father and God the Holy Spirit also become men?

John: Not according to Christian teaching, no.

Pius: Do Christians believe they suffered?

John: No, only Jesus suffered and only Jesus died on the Cross.

Pius: Then Christianity doesn't contradict Divine Impassability after all.

John: It doesn't. Unfortunately, I've got to get on to work. Thanks for an interesting conversation!

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