ATONEMENT

How a Near Death Experience Changed Easter for this Biblical Scholar

I’ve spent my life studying Christianity but never gave much thought to what Christ’s sacrifice meant to me—until my life was saved by an unmatchable act of generosity.

Easter, as everyone knows, is a time that Christians reflect upon the death and resurrection of Jesus and its significance for everyone else. The empty tomb is the foundational event in which Christianity laid its foundations. But just as important, maybe more important than the historicity of this event, is what does Easter ask of you? Can you ever repay Jesus for dying on the cross? Do you have to?

Over the course of the last two thousand years important theologians like St. Augustine, Anselm, Abelard, Aulén, Moltmann, and others used different imagery and models to explain how the Atonement works. Does Jesus’ death pay a debt that is owed to God? Does he rescue us from the snares of Satan by triumphing over death? Does he model perfect self-sacrificial love? Does he suffer in solidarity with broken humanity? This isn’t a theology class, and what I have to offer isn’t intellectual or catechetical; it’s my own visceral gut response.

For most of my life I didn’t really worry about these questions that much. When, at the age of seven, I took catechism classes, I told the nun that I didn’t think the crucifixion was that big of a deal because “it was just one day.” When she told me that Jesus suffered and died for my sins I told her that it wasn’t just my sins, it was everybody’s sins. Stop making it my fault, I thought; I’ll be obedient because common sense dictates that you shouldn’t irritate an omnipotent deity.

It’s not that I didn’t recognize the sacrifice involved in laying down one’s life for someone else, it’s that I didn’t feel especially responsible for the death of Jesus. Blended in among a multi-billion crowd of sinners that included murderers, the Easter events didn’t have a personal dimension for me. In my seven-year old reasoning I was probably responsible for causing Jesus pain equivalent to that of a hangnail or paper cut. Sure, they do hurt. But I didn’t feel enormously guilty. I didn’t have a robust theological understanding of Grace and, as a result, I didn’t feel that much was being asked of me.

Even as I grew older and, one hopes, better informed by five successive degrees in the study of history, theology, and religious studies, Easter never had any individual pull for me. I have a dear friend who cries during the Good Friday Service because of the description of the pain and suffering inflicted upon Jesus in the readings. That wasn’t me. I read a lot of stories about martyrdom, I’ve heard worse.

In feeling this way I wasn’t that alone. Shifting understandings of parenthood mean that when modern Christians talk of themselves as “children of God” they don’t necessarily understand that to mean that they are obligated to that deity. People today think that children are owed their parent’s time, attention, money, and love. The modern metaphor works well because it captures the unremitting nature of the relationship, but it obscures the elements of obedience and obligation inherent to ancient (and, thus, Biblical) notions of parenthood. Ancient parents frequently beat their children, they sometimes rejected or discarded them. The obligations of the parent-child relationship fell squarely on the shoulders of the child.

We expect God to save us because we would expect our parents to save us for little or no thanks. But for the writers of the New Testament, even for Jesus himself, this isn’t a reasonable expectation. It’s strange to risk the whole herd for a single lost sheep. And even if they are created in the image of God, it’s peculiar to try to rescue a constantly failing race of disobedient creatures when you could just start over. Salvation is, in many ways, an unreasonable expectation.

All of that changed for me on October 3, 2007. I have been, for almost my whole life, a sick person. By 2007 I was so sick that I needed a kidney transplant. My initial donor, my mother, had died of cancer the year before, but her brother, my uncle James, quietly stepped into her place. This was a gesture that breaks the bonds of what we imagine to be our social responsibilities. Everyone expected my mother to give me a kidney, but with my uncle others recognized that he went above and beyond.

The experience was profoundly altering. My first feeling, upon waking up from surgery, was one of a yawning sense of debt. It wasn’t guilt, but rather a sense of obligation. How do you repay someone for saving your life? Loving gestures are all well and good, but the feeling of obligation does not go away. In his pioneering work on gift exchange, the French critical theorist Pierre Bourdieu argued that every gift given expects a reciprocal gift of equal value, even if it takes a different form. But what’s the equivalent gift for physical or spiritual salvation?

I’m sure for some this sounds like just the kind of thing one would expect from a Catholic Bible scholar teaching at Notre Dame. It seems as if I am a caricature of works-righteousness, the idea that you earn salvation through the performance of good deeds. The debate between Catholics and Protestants about whether one is saved by faith alone and whether a person merits sanctification through their actions goes back at least as far as Luther, if not to the New Testament itself. But I assure you I’m not talking about that. If I were, I would direct you to Gary Anderson’s books Sin and Charity, which contain some of the most erudite discussions of how sin traps us and about how charitable giving helps to save us.

Instead I’m referring to the sense of obligation one feels for having received a gift of such enormity of which one is both unworthy and incapable of reciprocating. I cannot repay my uncle, who risked his life for me without fuss or complaint. In generously offering me life at the expense of personal suffering he was imitating the self-sacrificial love of Jesus (not that he would say this – when he reads this he is going to wince with embarrassment and ask me why I keep bringing it up).

But I can try to exhibit the same kind of selfless generosity to others. And, more precisely, towards those that social convention does not expect me to help. Helping friends and family is not enough; the model of love for others exemplified in the events of Easter goes beyond what reason and social norms dictate. This doesn’t mean that Christians have to give someone a kidney (although it would be nice if you registered to be an organ donor). But it does mean that we cannot be content with caring only for those who share our values and religion, whose suffering aesthetically appeals to us, who seem innocent, or who are grateful. For me the events of Easter lean unambiguously towards the conclusion that we are must honor others purely as human beings who need our help; not because our salvation hinges upon it, nor even because a powerful deity demands it, but because it is the only way to respond to a gift of such enormity.