May 15, 2023

Guilt, Tragedy, and Redemption

At the dawn of time, in an act of rebellious self-glorification, our first parents sought ‘to be as God’ (Gen. 3:5). This act by our representative head shattered the communion between man and God, and each historical human society which followed them has been an emergency structure built on ruined foundations. Because of that primeval Fall, in an important sense, all history became the history of guilt, manifested as a public, societal and civilizational reality. Before the coming of Christ, at the root of all the striving for life in the pagan world – whether in frenzied battle, orgiastic fertility cults, or idol worship – was a religious yearning for restored eternal fellowship with the divine amidst the wearisome cycle of birth, growth, decay and death. The unyielding despair of ancient peoples was located in this mysterious and ineradicable sense of human guilt touching past, present and future which no ritual, rite or struggle was able to evade or overcome. This led to the tragic view of life in which man views himself with self-pity as a victim of fate. Tragedy is more than an art form exemplified by the Greeks. It re-enacts a deep-seated human perception of world history as both guilt and curse.

Yet rebellious humanity could not bear to live with this tragic state. Something new was introduced into history that could ostensibly bring blessing rather than curse. This new religious idea proved to be a distortion of God’s own Edenic promise to send the ‘seed of the woman’ for man’s deliverance. In the apostate version a hero, a genius would come forth. It was a demonic delusion, believing that if guilty man could establish his own law and throne, he could abolish the tragedy of guilt and realize both freedom and eternity. As Ethelbert Stauffer asks, “who is this man, this chosen one, who by his deeds is to refute the witness of tragedy? He is the statesman. And what is the work of blessing to which he is called? His work is Empire.”[1]

To truly abolish guilt and the tragic view of life, this ruler must be a child of the gods; a quasi-divine figure; a hero who will establish peace and law and bring humanity salvation. And so, “A daimon took hold of Xerxes and filled him with the greatest idea that a statesman of the ancient world ever had – to unite land and sea, east and west under one sceptre.”[2] The politics of salvific empire required not just a politician, but one who would also be ruler, priest, and saviour; eternity and divinity are thought to be united with the human. The heroic genius overcomes guilt and alienation by being a law to himself, embodying a man-made reconciliation in the pretension of a world-state with its own moral order. If law can be redefined in terms of man’s idea and vindicated by the power and glory of empire, and people unified by a vast political salvation, surely guilt and social warfare can be abolished and tragedy undone?

Yet history shows that from Xerxes through Julius Caesar, this basic tragedy of life was not overcome; guilt remained in cycles of recurrence. From Africa to Asia and Europe, man succumbed to the demonic temptation over and over again, enforcing a counterfeit unity with the iron fist of the state. Imperial man became the ideal for several thousand years, reaching a culmination in Augustus Caesar at the time of Christ. With the Caesars gradually deified, their ‘genius’ worshipped, the Roman coinage provided the official commentary and began to appear with the inscriptions, ‘The divine Caesar – the Son of God’ and ‘Saviour of the World.’ The emperor cult was established and sacrifices to the emperor were made in temples throughout the empire. Augustus died fourteen years after the birth of the true Son of God, the Lord Jesus Christ.

When Jesus Christ, the true God-man, appeared in obscurity and humility, He was soon confronted by Satan in the wilderness and offered ‘all the kingdoms of the world’ if only he would bow down to the lawless one and offer political salvation like the heroes before him (Luke 6:5-8). Instead of acting autonomously and succumbing to the daimon of this world, he responded directly from the law of God, “Away with you, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only you shall serve” (Matt. 4:10).

When facing temptation Jesus repeatedly cites God’s law. God’s covenant law opens with the greatest and most revolutionary words ever heard in the ancient world:

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me.”

“You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing faithful love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.” (Exodus 20:2-6)

We encounter here a shattering polemic against the ancient demonic myth of the creature as divine, of man as ultimate lawgiver, and of the state as saviour. Stauffer states it well, “The religious transfiguration of the creature is the ‘proton pseudos’, the first error of mythology, which is brought to light by the Decalogue.”[3]The triune God is the only Lord and is Lord over all, the true Archimedean point.

The gospel reveals that because of Christ, human history is not the endless recurrence of guilt, but rather has a sure future, reconciled to God and subject to His judgment and ordination. The living God promises in His covenant-law, faithful love and mercy – to make an end to the tragedy of past guilt, opening the way to the future in which God and man live in true unity and harmony. This is the meaning and mystery of the incarnation of the Son of Man, the living Torah and goal of the law. It is here God answers the myth of the ancients by both fulfilling and dissolving their story. Truly, man is guilty and only the universal empire of the God-man can overcome guilt by establishing His kingly throne, upholding His righteous law and providing as priest inexhaustible mercy, the forgiveness of sins, by meeting the demands of justice in full. And this is the gospel we preach, that because of the victory at Calvary, the garden tomb and the Mount of Olives, there is no more tragedy!

The gospel – a word loaded with imperial freight – has conquered forever the fatalistic cycle of guilt; sin is paid for, the King is on His throne, and His righteous law is smashing the myth of self-deification from East to West, North and South as His kingdom extends through all the earth. The nations and their rulers are relativized by the King of all kings, whose universal reign of justice and righteousness frees us from guilt and empowers us to obey His law by the Spirit.

He will not fail nor be discouraged,
Till He has established justice in the earth;
And the coastlands shall wait for His law. (Is. 42:4)

As the West abandons the gospel it finds itself in the grip of guilt and self-pity, looking for the state to bring salvation with a new ‘human rights’ law that will exonerate the guilty, bring unity out of increased chaos, and deliver from the tragedy of guilt and shame. But the politics of power, the genius of the expert, can avail nothing in this time of apostasy. Only Christ can save. The way to healing is the long road of repentance.

[1] Ethelbert Stauffer, Christ and the Caesars (Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 2008), 21.

[2] Stauffer, Christ and the Caesars, 19.

[3] Stauffer, Christ and the Caesars, 24

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