Somehow, Paul—the first century missionary and apostle of Jesus—appeared on a university campus in the 21st century. Paul has stayed with Don, a university professor of Hebrew literature, who invited him to lecture and answer student’s questions. Paul is currently in dialogue with a theology student named Joe.
Joe: But isn’t the divinity of Jesus essential for the atonement?
Paul: Please, simpler words for me.
Joe: Well, the meaning of Jesus’ death, isn’t it wrapped in Jesus being God already?
Paul: Ah, Anselm.
Paul: Perhaps you could explain to those who are not as theologically astute as you who Anselm was and why he enters into this discussion.
Joe: You are asking me to lecture?
Paul: Just explain, please.
Joe: Well, Anselm said that only a man who was in essence God could have a death that would mean something for the entire human race. He was God, and so God laid his own life down for the sake of all sinners so that they would not have to suffer death.
Don: Wasn’t substitutionary theory around before Anselm, around the eleventh century?
Joe: Yes, but he expressed it in it’s classic form. Before Anselm, it was generally believed that Jesus tricked Satan into killing him so Satan would have to forgo the rulership of the world.
Don: Ah, so substituionary atonement wasn’t really a belief until the middle ages?
Joe: Pretty much so.
Paul: To answer your question, Jesus’ death has everything to do with divinity. But the divinity of authority, not essence.
Joe: Now you are confusing me.
Paul: We said before that to be “God” in the apostle’s mind is to speak of a position of authority, like a king, not to be a certain kind of being.
Paul: Well, Jesus’ aim was to have a certain kind of authority, but he had to obtain it in the proper way. Most kings or emperors would be guilty of the sin of “pride” or of trying to gain authority on their own merit or work. For instance, the Caesars would obtain their authority by executing wars, displaying to the people their power over the Senate.
Joe: A kind of “might makes right”?
Paul: Yes. That is how the world works. Jesus, however, expressed something different. He said, “The one who makes himself lower, God will raise higher. And the one who lifts himself higher, God will make lower.”
Joe: But how does one get higher or lower? What exactly is meant by being higher or lower?
Paul: To be higher means to take on more authority or power than you have the right to have. For instance, CEOs nowadays would be people who puff themselves up to such a degree that they push themselves into positions of great authority, wealth and power, even though they don’t really deserve it, on their own merits.
Joe: So to be “higher” is kind of like an Enron scheme. If you say you are great loud enough and with enough money behind you, people typically believe you…
Paul: And you will obtain authority you do not deserve. Correct.
Joe: But how does one lower oneself?
Paul: By giving up one’s rights. By sacrificing one’s rights for others.
Joe: But that isn’t right. We shouldn’t give up our rights. To give up on our rights is to give an opportunity for others to take advantage of us. To give others the opportunity to be an oppressor.
Paul: Yes. In this is the essence of Christianity.
Joe: You are saying that the ethical foundation of Christianity is to be oppressed? To allow oppressors to reign without check? That is ridiculous…
Paul: No, not at all. Self-sacrifice for the sake of others is one of the most important themes in my writings. If you don’t see that, you’ve missed everything I wrote. You American Christians! I have never met such a materialistic bunch! You are constantly focused on this age, the powers of this world, the salvation of this world—acting as if God doesn’t even exist! No wonder you are struggling so much against atheism—because ultimately you are no different from the atheists! Neither of you believe that God will act in this world.
Joe: What are you talking about?
Paul: To say that self-sacrifice is immoral—as many Americans do—is to deny the statement of Jesus. He said that to lower oneself is to give opportunity for God to raise you up. Jesus was looking to be raised up—he wanted to have the authority of God—so he lowered himself more than anyone else. He gave up more of his rights than anyone. More rights than anyone could.
Joe: By dying on the cross?
Paul: More than just that. Before he was born, Jesus was a spirit being, completely free, completely powerful, living like a king.
Joe: He was God?
Paul: Yes. He created the world with the Father. He had all power and authority that anyone could want. He was set in life already. Then he gave it up to be the most imprisoned, frustrated being in the universe—a human infant.
Joe: An infant is the most imprisoned being…?
Paul: Absolutely. No speech, no movement—an infant can’t even feed herself without someone doing it for her. To change from being God to an infant is the ultimate sacrifice of one’s liberty.
Joe: That is true, I guess.
Paul: So then Jesus grew, and his rights grew. He became an adult—which isn’t as good as being divine, but still some power. But then Jesus chose to die the death of a cross.
Joe: So he gave up his right to life.
Paul: Not just his right to life, but to every shred of honor he ever had. The point of a crucifixion is that the victim is hung, and so declared a reject from society. He is exposed and so he is ashamed before all. He is mocked, so that his ostracism is complete. By the time a person is finished being crucified, it is clear that he is only a piece of flesh, not a human at all. He has no rights, nothing is left of him that makes him different than a piece of meat. This is what Jesus chose for himself. The lack of any individuality, any personhood.
Joe: And so why did he do this? Why would anyone suffer so?
Paul: He did it in order to obtain divinity. To be declared ruler of the people of God.
Joe: How would the stripping of one’s rights accomplish this?
Paul: By the justice of God! Remember the principle Jesus said—“Anyone who lowers themselves will be raised by God” God will take those who do not receive justice on earth and give them what they deserve. If we only receive what we deserve, God won’t do anything to us at all. If a criminal is punished, God doesn’t touch the process. If a good man is given authority, God doesn’t mess with it. But if an evil person who oppresses others is given authority, God destroys them. And if a holy, good and merciful person receives a humiliating death, then God will correct the injustice.
Joe: But if this is the case, then shouldn’t anyone—like John F Kennedy, for example—who did good but was punished for it, receive what Jesus got—a seat next to the Father.
Paul: I don’t know much about your American history, but I believe that Kennedy wasn’t a completely righteous man? And wasn’t he exalted in the world?
Joe: Well, perhaps he was a poor example. But what about others—saints who suffered then? Martyrs for God?
Paul: Certainly they would be rewarded and receive resurrection. That is the promise of the Christian life. If you suffer unjustly, God will grant you resurrection. But Jesus even more so.
Joe: How is this? What makes Jesus different?
Paul: Because he lowered himself more than anyone else could. He was powerful—more power than any human—and he lowered himself to such a degree that he was nothing even in the sight of humanity. No one—NO ONE—could lower himself as much as Jesus did. And so no one could be raised up as high as Jesus. Jesus is seated at the right hand of God, given the authority of God himself over the whole world, because Jesus gave up more rights than anyone else. And this is why I am so upset at you American Christians!
Paul: Because you have turned Christianity into upholding rights on earth! It is excellent to do good for others—we should always help the needy—but you are denying Jesus’ principles if you call for everyone to stand up for their rights! It is better to be ashamed and lowered and have God grant you blessings for suffering oppression than for you to exalt yourself. Ultimately, the program of standing up for oneself is one of God humiliating you! How many people, having gotten some rights, don’t look for more and more until their power exceeds what they can justly claim as their own?
Joe: It is true that power—even the power of rights—corrupts even the innocent.
Paul: The salvation of Jesus is to give all justice into God’s hands! We sacrifice our rights and lower ourselves so that we may receive greater power from God. But you want to trade every blessing from God for the paltry reward you receive from your so-called justice system. Seek God’s gift, not the world’s earnings for what you didn’t really deserve.
Joe: So you are saying it is better to be oppressed…
Paul: It is better to be oppressed for you will receive God’s salvation. Those who stand up for their rights receive the reward of the corrupt and oppressor. Haven’t you ever heard of Jesus’ saying, “Blessed are you who are persecuted for righteousness, for yours is the kingdom of God. But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort.”? Blessed are you who are oppressed, who have given up on your rights, for you will gain the resurrection of God. But woe to you who are powerful, who demand your rights, for you will be crushed by God.