‘Love conquers all.’ ‘Love is the greatest power.’ ‘Love cannot be defeated.’ 144 Comments
We often hear these kinds of refrains in movies, songs, speeches and public discourse. It is a comforting thought that we hope is true, despite the sufferings of this life.
Rather than flippant phrases or romantic stories, Christianity takes love very seriously; so much so that the central figure of Christianity – Jesus – dies and rises for love.
In fact, if one really wants to believe in the power of love, then Christians claim that one needs the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus. Why?
Some argue that the story of Jesus is not real, or too good to be true. It is “worth appreciating as fiction” but nothing more. The problem with this kind of argument is that it leaves us, humans, in a dire situation: instead of love being the ultimate power, death and violence reign. There is no substance to the claim of love if death and violence remain undefeated, with the final say over our lives. The ancients understood this well: valuing this present life above all, with only a shadowy conception of life beyond death.
Furthermore, some atheists argue that all we need is the contemplation of the world as it is, without recourse to God, and the advances of the human intellect. However, this argument doesn’t truly address the situation of humans living in the real world, where suffering and death abound, and good and evil are at loggerheads.
Furthermore, it doesn’t come to terms with how death and violence structure our human lives, cultures and perceptions in deep ways. Think of when someone offends or hurts you: immediately one wants to strike back and re-assert one’s power. This is reaction is a consequence of a deep wound in the human condition: it presents the way in which we use power and violence – undergirded by the threat of death – to build identity and satisfaction.
Moreover, as the biblical wisdom tradition shows, humans are affected by the fear of death. In the build-up of wealth, power, status, honour and so on, we try to avoid the finite nature of our lives. In this, we try to assert control and avoid the control of others who may use violence and death against us.
So, then, why is Jesus’ Crucifixion and Resurrection important? It shows two foundational aspects of our lives. The first is that human living is about loving, without fear of death. Jesus loves until the end, even loving his enemies: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” (The Gospel of St Luke 23:34).
Some claim that Jesus’ life is just made-up as an amalgam of ancient myths and figures, however there is no ancient saviour figure who goes to his death freely and gratuitously loving his enemies in such a way. The French philosopher and Professor Emeritus at Stanford University, René Girard, has famously shown how Jesus’ death and Resurrection clearly differ from ancient myths: because Jesus’ life is the story of the victim of human violence that ancient myths usually cover-up. It is Jesus’ story that allows us to understand how the use of death and violence has been so deeply embedded in human cultures:
There would be no way for us even to perceive fully the violence of the other which forms us unless there were something different, if you like, a different sort of other, which is not part of the violent other which forms us. That is precisely what is made present by the gratuitously self-giving victim [Jesus] (James Alison, Knowing Jesus, p. 98).
The second important aspect of Jesus’ Crucifixion and Resurrection is that death and violence cannot overcome love. In Jesus rising from the dead – not resuscitated in his earthly life, but perfected beyond death – we are given a clear message: God’s gratuitous love defeats violence and death. The New Testament puts it like this: “But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power” (Acts 2:24). In other words, the being of complete love cannot be limited by evil or death. The one who receives love from its source – God – and lives it to the end is participating in divine love, which cannot be overcome by earthly violence or death.
Thus, Jesus’ Crucifixion and Resurrection is showing that the Creator God – who makes it possible for anything to exist, rather than nothing – relates with humanity directly and is enabling humanity to love, even in the midst of death, suffering and violence. In doing this, God is making it possible for humans to enter God’s life of love. As St Paul says (following his own conversion from violence after meeting Jesus as victim on the road to Damascus),
Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (St Paul’s Letter to the Romans 8:35-37).
Paul makes these claims – that love can overcome all things, even victimisation – because of the Resurrection. The Resurrection is not a fanciful event – it is a shock to the early Christians; something completely surprising to those who had abandoned their leader to a horrible persecution. In encountering the risen Jesus in the upper room (in the Gospel of Luke), the disciples think he is a ghost who they fear will take vengeance on them. Instead, Jesus radiates and expresses something unexpected as forgiving victim: “Peace be with you” (Luke 24:36). He radiates a forgiving love that releases them from fear, guilt and sin to live out his life of love.
As N.T. Wright shows in his extensive historical study, the way the early Christians think and speak about the Resurrection is unique in the ancient world, even amongst Jews. Something has surprisingly and definitively changed their understanding of Jesus and of life in general. This something – the Resurrection – gives them a foundation for believing in love.
Without this foundation, the early Christians would have remained in the upper room in fear. They did regard death, and the wielding of death in violence, as the defining point of human life and power – and they feared the Romans would inflict it on them. In the Resurrection, this all changes: God gives them an unexpected way and insight into life that gives them the courage to face death themselves in love.
The importance of the Resurrection, then, is not to perpetuate an irrational fairytale, but to affirm that human life is about love – and that God shows us the power of love in defeating death and violence. Without this defeat, we are left with death as the ultimate power over our lives – as having the last word, no matter what good we have done. The dominance of death has left a deep mark on human cultures, but the Christian message and life of love seeks to remove us from this dominance.
Whether one believes or not, one can appreciate Christianity’s aim in offering to us a new perspective on life: that we are meant for an infinite life of love with our Creator and each other.
As René Girard wrote in Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World,
Love is the only true revelatory power because it escapes from, and strictly limits, the spirit of revenge and recrimination…. Only Christ’s perfect love can achieve without violence the perfect revelation [of our lives and violence]
Joel Hodge is a lecturer in the Faculty of Theology and Philosophy at the Australian Catholic University’s St Patrick’s campus, Melbourne. View his full profile here.