Haunting guilt and the glass ceiling of death

For those able to accept it, Christ's death means the annulment of their own sin, and the closure of their journey with guilt in due course.

For a couple of years I have been talking with a man who is haunted by guilt. He stole from his parents and grandparents. He used the money he took to buy alcohol. They have all passed away now. That, however, does not make matters easier for him. The fact that he can no longer make amends only makes his guilt worse. He frequently asks me to pray for him so that God will forgive, and he asks that somehow things between him and his dead relatives will be made better. At this time of the year, Christian believers celebrate Good Friday, followed quickly by Easter. In most of this article I will consider that the death of the Son of God, remembered on Good Friday, addresses the problem of guilt. (More on Easter at the end of this article).

Now, some people will say that I should not validate this man’s feelings of guilt because there really isn’t anything that can be done about the past. And, as far as there being any possibility in the future when he and his dead relations will be able to mend the wrongs of long ago, well, as we all know, the dead remain dead. So, what business of mine is it to encourage this man in a delusional hope of making things right with those parents and grandparents?

I prefer, though, to take a different path. It would be better, I think, to begin by acknowledging that guilt for actual wrongs is part of what makes us human.

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Some people like to broadcast that they have “no regrets” about what they have done in life. To me, they are the delusional ones. It takes a great deal of audacity, misplaced pride, or sociopathic attitude, as far as I can tell, to refuse to take responsibility for hurt in which we have actively played a part. Hitler, for example, in the last hours of his life, according to historical accounts, did not express remorse as Berlin was going up in flames above his underground bunker. He went to his death without remorse, complaining that the German people were, it sadly turned out, not worthy of his greatness.

We have shattered parts of our own lives and likely have sown corruption into the lives of relatives and our social media followers. For those and other reasons, we legitimately experience feelings of guilt. But where can we go with our remorse and guilt?

Traditional Indigenous people had their answers to the problem of guilt — collective guilt or individual guilt. And if not guilt, at least an awareness that it was crucial to keep themselves in line with moral order as they understood it. Cultures on every continent (except Antarctica) were often drawn into sacrificing members of their communities lest the supernatural enforcers of cosmic order become displeased with them. To make peace with the gods, to restore some degree of political stability, to bring back some kind of karmic balance, they would offer human sacrifice.

Not so the ancient Jewish community. There is one biblical story of Abraham, father of all the Jewish people, being tested by God to see if he would sacrifice his son (Geneses 12 and following). Child sacrifice was practiced in his region, ancient Canaan. That means that it would have seemed culturally normal to Abraham to hear God’s command to sacrifice his son. Such a command was the ultimate, but well understood test — we could say, the standard test for that time and place — of the genuineness of anyone’s trust in their god.

If you know the story, you will recall that Abraham passed the test. His faith was proved at least as genuine as that of any of his pagan child-sacrificing neighbours.

But there is one other significant point that readers can miss. It has to do with God terminating the sacrifice. At the last second, God stayed Abraham’s hand. In other words, there was to be no sacrificing of children for Abraham and his descendants, the Jewish people. Contrary to the norms of that time and region, such a practice was utterly condemned by writers of the Jewish Bible. In one swoop, both Abraham’s faith was confirmed, and the practice of child sacrifice sent packing.

In the West certainly, and maybe in every other region by now, human sacrifice is forbidden. Or is it?

It is interesting to consider the psychological and anthropological connections between the human sacrifices of ancient peoples and the modern day valourizing of those who die for our nation states in wars. Philosophers of the 18th and 19th centuries, following the German thinker Immanuel Kant, believed that war was a good thing. (See Stephen R. C. Hicks in his book, Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault, 2011). The suffering on battlefields brought out virtue in the nations, restoring a proper balance to life. In high school I was taught that Canada finally came into its own through the horrendous sacrifices of World War I.

In the end, the Jewish people did engage in ritual bloodshed to restore their relationship with God. But it was animals, the “sacrificial lambs” that were killed. Not humans. Those sacrifices symbolically removed sin and guilt from the people and it symbolically restored the relationship between God and his people.

That symbolic removal and restoration was significant. But it was never enough. After all, it is not animals who rape, murder, rob, lie, betray, gossip, commit adultery and set up false gods. It is people. Thus, the Jewish sacrificial system could not give ultimate closure to sin and guilt. In the end, human sacrifice was still needed. But only once. And only of one person.

Enter a Jewish man, the leader of a Jewish movement, named Jesus. Put to death on a Roman instrument of criminal execution, a cross Jesus Christ crucified. The sacrificial “Lamb of God,” the writers of the biblical texts often call him. This is what is remembered every Good Friday.

And we can now see why it is called Good Friday. It is called Good Friday not because of the death of this one man, the Son of God, in itself was good. It was not. He was innocent of wrongdoing. It is called “Good” Friday because of what this death means.

Jesus Christ accepted the responsibility of the sins of the world. In this way he attracted to himself the consequence for sin, the consequence that we humans have earned. For those able to accept it, Christ’s death means the annulment of their own sin, and the closure of their journey with guilt in due course. His death is what has earned forgiveness for every exam cheater, every rapist, every drug trafficker, every child abductor, and every dead beat dad or mom — for everyone of these and countless others who hang on for dear life to the coat tails of Jesus.

This is why the story of the death of Jesus Christ continues to capture the hearts and minds of people all over the planet. White Europeans, Settler peoples in Canada, First Nations people across the country, Alberta truckers and university graduate students, lower caste people in India and the megarich of Bay Street, people of every religion and world view — no one, including you dear reader, or me, is fully immune from the impact of this story wherever it is announced.

But here’s an even more significant thing. The story of the death of Christ is always followed by the story of the return from the dead of this same person. Is this plausible? After all, as I mentioned, we all know that the dead do not come back. Especially modern, so-called “enlightened” people know that.

And yet, none of us, I think, can escape from the desire for life after death. There is absolutely nothing else that comes close to providing resolution to the riddles of meaninglessness, despair, love, hatred of death, and the great justice deficit in our current world. Nothing.

Easter, the celebration of the resurrection of the Jewish Jesus 2,000 years ago comes two days after Good Friday. Either it is a well-intentioned falsehood, or it is the most astounding event ever in the history of our planet — the shattering of the glass ceiling of death. (For a thorough study of the reliability of the accounts of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, see Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, Eerdmans, 2017).

If it is false, then the true meaning of the death of Christ vanishes before our eyes. But it if it is true, the iron dome of death has been splintered, and the meaning of the sacrificial death of Jesus endures.

Editorial opinions or comments expressed in this online edition of Interrobang newspaper reflect the views of the writer and are not those of the Interrobang or the Fanshawe Student Union. The Interrobang is published weekly by the Fanshawe Student Union at 1001 Fanshawe College Blvd., P.O. Box 7005, London, Ontario, N5Y 5R6 and distributed through the Fanshawe College community. Letters to the editor are welcome. All letters are subject to editing and should be emailed. All letters must be accompanied by contact information. Letters can also be submitted online by clicking here.