For God so loved… Christ’s death and resurrection is a work of love. God so loved us that he sent his Son to do this work (John 3:16)—but what does this mean for God to love us in this way?
According to C.S. Lewis, it means that
God, who needs nothing, loves into existence wholly superfluous creatures in order that He may love and perfect them. He creates the universe, already foreseeing… the buzzing cloud of flies about the cross, the flayed back pressed against the uneven stake, the nails driven through the mesial nerves…. If I may dare the biological image, God is a ‘host’ who deliberately creates His own parasites; causes us to be that we may exploit and ‘take advantage of’ Him. Herein is love. This is the diagram of Love Himself, the inventor of all loves.1
What does it mean to affirm that God loves us—what does it mean for God to be the inventor of all loves, and for these loves to find their ultimate meaning in the cloud of flies buzzing about Jesus as he hangs from the cross? I won’t claim to be giving a comprehensive answer, but here I will explore and develop C.S. Lewis’s contribution to this question of divine love in his 1960 classic The Four Loves.
Lewis writes, “the natural loves are not self-sufficient.” Here he is referring to affection, friendship, and eros—in contrast to charity (or, unconditional divine love). These three natural loves alone, in and of themselves, quickly become perverted and distorted without some further dynamic. As much as one might like the flowers of a passion fruit vine, they do not remain long—a single day, and they whither. Cutting them and putting them in water is of no use. In order to satisfy one’s love for these flowers, a wider frame of reference, a bigger understanding of the whole life and function of the plant and its flowers is necessary.
And what is this further dynamic, allowing the natural loves to remain such? The answer is charity—Divine Gift-Love—for this alone is “wholly disinterested and desires what is simply best for the beloved.”2 While the other loves have their valuable and delightful role to play, all of them, in some sense or another, find love of self bound up with love of neighbor—and that combination is the germ which can and does grow into something hideous, something willing to sacrifice our neighbor for our own good. Only charity, only a disinterested love consumed with eagerness for the well-being of others, seeks goodness so completely and intensely as to be incorruptible. This is the source and pattern of all other loves, the charity of God himself.
This love entails no conflict with the lower forms of love—“the natural loves are summoned to become modes of Charity while also remaining the natural loves they were.”3 Lewis roots this insight in the Incarnation:
As Christ is perfect God and perfect Man, the natural loves are called to become perfect Charity and also perfect natural loves. As God becomes Man ‘not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh, but by taking of the Manhood into God,’ so here; Charity does not dwindle into merely natural love but natural love is taken up into, made the tuned and obedient instrument of, Love Himself.4
In Jesus we find the natural loves perfected within his divine charity—and in him, our natural loves likewise find their perfection.
Connecting this material to Christ’s passion, we see that the atonement is an act of divine charity. This is God’s gift. This is his selflessness. While God had an abundance reasons for sending the Son, we dare not omit this fact: that God did it for us—not for his glory, not to keep his promises, not to defeat Satan—but for us. While I may do extra chores around the house or come home early from work in order to be appreciated by my wife, to atone for missing an important family event, or to be an example to my students, my hope is that in some sense I mirror this aspect of God’s character: that I can say, along with all these other reasons for my actions, that I did these for the mere fact that I love my wife—that I delight in her, and want what is best for her. And we must say this of the cross—God did this, among a host of other reasons, for this reason as well, which can and should stand in its own right: because of his charity, because of his consuming joy in doing what is best for us.
But charity is not the kind of thing that rests content standing on its own. Because charity is the root, the source of all creation, it necessarily touches and restores all creation. And when it comes to humankind, it restores our human, natural loves.
The atonement is therefore a work of affection, designed to restore our affection. Affection, or “this warm comfortableness, this satisfaction in being together”5 is simultaneously the enemy and friend of Christ.
God is the great Rival, the ultimate object of human jealously; that beauty, terrible as the Gorgon’s which may at any moment steal from me—or it feels like stealing to me—my wife’s or husband’s or daughter’s heart.6
And one of the primary manifestations of the horror of the cross was the removal of all affection from Jesus, as family, friend, nation, and God abandoned him. In Christ we see the full horror of which our affections are capable (quite capable of nailing our Lord to a cross), and the full beauty of that for which God calls us in Christ: a relationship where the affections are perfectly aligned with God, creation, and our own selves.
Likewise, the atonement is a work of friendship, meant to restore our friendship. Friendship, not “necessary,” but so deep as to give meaning to all that which is necessary, is that unselfish love which binds us to others in appreciative love—a shared delight.7 While Scripture rarely speaks of such love between God and ourselves,8 it is nevertheless worth noting that Jesus’s goal was to bring us from the status of servants to friends (John 15:15). In his death, Jesus experienced the denial of earthly friendship, that through the resurrection and giving of the Holy Spirit, we might become—and it is not too small or trite to say it—friends.
And finally, the atonement is a work of eros, designed to give us true eros. Sexuality is only tangentially related to this topic, for eros has to do with something distinct—the state of being in love.10 But what a state! This is the state of loss, the state of the crucifixion:
The chrism of this terrible coronation is to be seen not in the joys of any man’s marriage but in its sorrows, in the sickness and sufferings of a good wife or the faults of a bad one, in his unwearying (never paraded) care of his inexhaustible forgiveness: forgiveness, not acquiescence.11
Though eros will often enough involve and transform our sexuality, the ravishing and self-sacrificial delight and love of the lover for the beloved—this is what we see in Christ’s death and resurrection for his bride, and this is the pattern of conjugal love given us in Ephesians 5.
What does Christ’s atonement have to do with love? It is an act of love, wherein the beloved spurns the lover. But beyond this, on the other side of the spurning, sacrifice, and death, lies the power of the resurrection: the power of an unquenchable Charity so jealous for his beloved that he will transform her, nurturing and perfecting every affection, every friendship, every element of eros within her, by imparting to her a share in his own Divine Charity. For only as such can she endure:
Only those into which Love Himself has entered will ascend to Love Himself. And these can be raised with Him only if they have, in some degree and fashion, shared His death; if the natural element in them has submitted—year after year, or in some sudden agony—to transmutation.12
Adam Johnson is a theologian and Assistant Professor in the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University and was a CCT Research Fellow during our 2014-2015 year on Intellectual Virtue & Civil Discourse. He focuses on the doctrine of the atonement, exploring the many ways in which the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ effect the reconciliation of all things to God. He is author of two books: God's Being in Reconciliation: The Theological Basis of the Unity and Diversity of the Atonement in the Theology of Karl Barth and Atonement: A Guide for the Perplexed. Visit AdamJJohnson.com for a free book chapter.
The views, opinions, authors, and contributors represented in The Table do not necessarily represent the beliefs of Biola University or the Biola University Center for Christian Thought.