Further Thoughts on Redemption

Commenting on my last post, Nnox sees no grounds for a redemptive view of things. I said that redemption is not my observation of the way things (usually) work, but my hope. I wanted to add that this doesn’t make me a helpful optimist and Nnox a harmful pessimist. On the contrary, it has been mentioned by others with good reason that many people who believe in “happily ever after” tend to trivialize life (“so heavenly-minded that they’re no earthly-good”), while some who don’t believe or even hope in a happy ending to the cosmos are deeply-committed humanitarians and joyous lovers of life. In their perspective (as I understand it), birth to death is all we have, so we may as well enjoy it and do our best to help others enjoy their lives too.

But it’s painful to know that many – maybe most? – of the men, women, and children who live and have lived and will live on this planet have not, do not, will not enjoy a life like the one I was born to. I expect to eat whatever I want, go wherever I want, live wherever I want and with whomever I choose, have uncensored access to information, stay warm and dry, receive proper health care should I need it, and above all that, find my calling in life and live it out in a fulfilling way. It’s difficult even to make a list like this because all these “basic needs” are met without my really even thinking about it. It could be a book-length list. (When was the last time I felt grateful for the well-maintained streets in my town?)

So why do I get this, and a woman in Haiti does not? It regularly breaks my heart to gaze at my beautiful children, so safe and healthy, well-fed, well-dressed; and see in my mind’s eye pictures of another woman’s children starving.

Do I hope in redemption because it is a good excuse for me to get on with my beautiful life? Otherwise, how can I justify these discrepancies between my life and most other people’s lives? And yet, suffering seems hardwired into existence. If I live long enough, I will inevitably lose someone I love, become terminally ill or injured, or simply experience the pain of aging and the unknown cliff-edge of death as it looms ever nearer. If I don’t live that long, then I will have died young and tragically missed out on living a long, full life.

In earlier years of my life, awareness of the pain and loss and seeming futility of existence would drive me to tears, moodiness, some winter evenings even to what felt like the brink of sanity.

Then I had children, and after the predictable (for me) post-partum blues with my first child, the dark and heaviness lifted. Why was that? Is it a typical survival instinct, something to ensure I bring up nurtured and well-adjusted children – who will at some point learn enough about history and current world affairs to question me about my beautiful life and insensitivity to the suffering of others?

My ready response is, “I am not God. Even if I devoted all of my energy and resources to lifting others out of suffering, it wouldn’t be enough. So I’ll live with the painful awareness of worldwide suffering, and make lifestyle choices with that in mind. I won’t try to shield my children from the truth. And I’ll hope in redemption, because to be aware of so much senseless violence and global inequity, and not to trust in a final remembrance and making-right of all this wrong, will either desensitize me or drive me to insanity.”

And so, perhaps I am a good illustration for those who hold that God is an invention of the human psyche. Maybe this is just the best coping mechanism we as a species have yet come up with. It is certainly a persistent one.

Some people say that God speaks to them often. What do I know about that? I have no grounds for disagreement. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard God speak, but there are three distinct times when I thought it might have been God – and these are the words I heard:

“They don’t own me. And neither do you.”

“Take your time.”

“Don’t be scared.” (yes, “scared” is what I heard, not “afraid;” let the reader decide whether this could possibly be the language of a proper God!)

No tidy conclusion here. Further thoughts tend to lead to further questions, and this post is a prime example.


  1. I’ve been thinking and thinking and thinking about the afterlife, thanks to you. 🙂

    My first response to Nnox’s declaration was something dramatic and insensitive, something like, “With all the pain I’ve felt and everything I’ve seen, if I thought this life is all there is, I would kill myself today.” But, of course, there are many people who live without faith in any kind of redemption or afterlife, most of whom find suicide unnecessary. It’s likely if I ever come to that place, I would develop whatever coping skills are necessary to continue on. But the fact remains that I, who have one of the most enviable lifestyles in the world, think this life is a thought better left unthought. If this is all there is, then I’ll be sorely disappointed. No, I won’t; that’s a careless statement. I know I won’t have the consciousness to be disappointed. To be honest, the real discomfort with the idea of oblivion lies in the thinking forward to it. Imagining this ending leaves me with little hope right now.

    Nevertheless, if I had to rate after-death belief systems, oblivion ranks second of those with which I’m familiar. The idea of reincarnation breaks me into a cold sweat. I’m not thrilled with the first ride; I certainly don’t want a do-over. Again, I realize that, should this be the true state of the afterlife, I will not be as uncomfortable as I think, because I will likely not remember my former lives. Still, this idea gives me little hope for right now. Look here, hope appears to be an important idea to me.

    Now I’m thinking through the pitifully small list of afterlife beliefs that I’m familiar with. In the book The Latehomecomer, I learned that the Hmong people believe their spirits travel back to each place they lived and eventually return to the place of their origin, to the clouds. I guess this sounds a bit like a redemption story.

    A couple months ago I heard about an idea (wish I could remember what it’s called) that whatever an individual believes about the afterlife during life will happen for that particular soul just as imagined. This approach sounds perfect at first glance. I could distract myself from mundane life by creating my very own Future-Life amusement park. But now I’m remembering some Christians I know, and I’m not exactly thrilled with the idea of them getting their version of heaven to themselves (then again, their version of heaven sounds kind of hellish to me). The real kicker is remembering the men who hijacked the airplanes that crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and a Pennsylvanian field. If our imaginations determine what happens to our souls after death, then those men are now lounging in Paradise with their seventy no-longer virgins. That seems horribly unjust. It seems that not only hope, but also justice is important to me.

    What I’m really hoping right now is that what we believe about the afterlife isn’t as important and you and I were taught to believe. That’s just way too much pressure.

    • Thanks for thinking about this with me, Jodi.

      In his book Reasons to Believe, John Marks, a former evangelical-turned-atheist, gives what I have so far found to be the most comforting picture of death without an afterlife. Actually, he is quoting Julia Sweeney’s monologue Letting Go of God. She compares death to birth – none of us remembers existence before birth, and death is like a mirror image. We die, we no longer exist – and as you allude to, since we are not conscious of our nonexistence, there is no problem.

      Of course, you and I might respond that there is a problem, which we have both already mentioned, namely that some people – possibly all people – get a raw deal if this is all there is. And yet, if we don’t have to eternally remember it, it’s not as horrible – at least, not on an individual level.

      Somehow, we humans have come up with ideas like justice and hope, and that leaves me wondering about the possibilities far more than does “lofty mountain grandeur” and the like (the argument for God from nature).

  2. Umm, well, I must apologize for the rather bombastic post I left a few days ago, I have been meaning to install a breathalyzer on my computer, something that will prevent me from writing after imbibing…in any case, the hard edge I took is a bit embarrassing to me now. Both Julia and Jodi are writing eloquently on this subject, I think I will refrain from adding anything.

    Would be interested, however, if anyone should take up my movie suggestion, Pan’s Labyrinth!

    • I don’t know – your comments hardly seemed bombastic compared to lots of comments I read on other blogs! If i felt something was overly rude or disrespectful, I would feel free to remove it. So keep those comments coming – it makes for great conversations here.

      And thanks for the film suggestion – I will add it to my list for a date night when the kids go to their grandparents’.

  3. I think Nnox’s ‘bombastic’ tirade against redemption in the previous post set everyone back, but his definition of redemption is either too narrow, or simply wrong.

    I know scores of beautiful true redemption stories.

    I know alcoholics and drug addicts whose lives were shambles- caught in patterns of self-destruction- who have been redeemed. Today they are living soberly and responsibly- far more happily than they once did.

    I know people who were abused and neglected as children by a dysfunctional family, who were adopted or otherwise loved and cared for by generous people who helped them recover a sense of self-worth and desire to live.

    I have heard the stories of ex-gang members who have walked away from lives of violence.

    What about Mahatma Ghandi and the Indian independence?

    The Abolitionist movements?

    World relief efforts?

    Redemption happens.

    Even if you do not appropriate it any religious significance- redemption is an undeniable reality, and a wonderful experience for anyone whose life, or portions of their life, has been redeemed from oppression, disease, poverty, abuse, depression, addiction, violence, etc.

    The simple white hat/black hat stories perhaps inspire hope for good people, but the redemption stories inspire hope for all people regardless of the color of the hat that you are currently wearing.

  4. Thanks l8again. Just to be clear, here is a quote from Nnox’s comment in which he comes closest to defining redemption. – “There is no redemption, no human interest story, no ‘arc of the universe bending toward justice,’ . . . In my view, those who seek to inflect history with some sort of religious meaning, that is, God is present and working through history, have simply not read and reflected deeply on history.”

    In light of the examples you give of redemption (for which I thank you and acknowledge their significance), how would you define redemption differently from Nnox?

  5. redemption |riˈdemp sh ən|
    1 the action of saving or being saved from sin, error, or evil : God’s plans for the redemption of his world.
    • [in sing. ] figurative a thing that saves someone from error or evil : his marginalization from the Hollywood jungle proved to be his redemption.
    2 the action of regaining or gaining possession of something in exchange for payment, or clearing a debt.
    • archaic the action of buying one’s freedom.

    It seems that Nnox’s definition of redemption is necessarily some cosmic or ultimate destiny for the future of humanity.

    This, of course, like the way the theory of evolution explains the past, is the subject of debate because the past and future are not accessible for testing. But also, like evolution, redemption is observable real-time on a small scale.

    Religious thinkers extrapolate observed redemption toward a future hope in a broader, ultimate redemption.

    Nnox, obviously, does not.

    But this should not detract from the reality of redemption, because, for those who experience it, it is a wonderful experience.

  6. Very interesting way to look at it, l8again.

    I’m not sure it’s only ‘religious thinkers’ who ‘extrapolate observed redemption toward a future hope in a broader, ultimate redemption.’ But I won’t quibble there.

    I like the comparison with evolution but it seems to me to break down rather quickly. As Nnox points out, there are many instances of random violence and meaningless cruelty and destruction. Using your illustration, then, one could just as easily say that meaninglessness happens every day on a small scale and so, therefore, points towards a cosmic future nihilism. (This is unlike the evolution/creation illustration because one does not see supernatural zap-snap-creation on a small observable scale.)

    All around us, small-scale redemption or not, every living thing is dying. Nothing escapes death. So that can point to long-term destruction. And yet, speaking strictly materialistically, nothing that dies actually disappears; it simply rearranges into other forms of life. That can point to redemption.

    (Though, speaking not strictly materialistically, when a being dies, its particular personality/pattern/identity does seem to disappear – and that whole subject is a puzzle I like to ponder – what exactly IS identity, how does it arise, how does it persist in each being despite continual material shifting at the cellular level??)

    And just to pound this yingy-yangy dualistic reply further into the pavement, to your statement, “But this should not detract from the reality of redemption, because, for those who experience it, it is a wonderful experience.” I would say: and to those who experience senselessness, it is an equally real and senseless experience.

    Bringing me to a hunch that ideas like redemption and hope cannot stand on intellectual reasoning alone.

  7. More thoughts to throw into the conversation –

    “Redemption” only means anything in the context of evil/suffering/whatever you want to call it. Both redemption-hopers and nihilists (to hastily generalize everyone into two categories) see that the predictable backdrop of life is pain and suffering and death. And both also observe the everyday small-scale redemptive moments. It’s just that RH-ers detect a pattern towards progress and N-ists see even the good stuff getting lost in the eventual overwhelming chaos.

    • Very true. “Redemption” and “justice” are religious coping mechanisms. Sometimes I imagine Hitler burning in hell. I imagine his victims in some Kosher heaven. Usually, though, I realize that Hitler is now mere elements just as are his victims.

      You said that “redemption and hope cannot stand on intellectual reasoning alone,” interesting, I am currently reading (attempting to read, rather) William James’s “The Varieties of Religious Experience.” James strongly refutes the materialistic, or scientific view of religion, saying crazy (to me) things like, “Who knows whether the faithfulness of individuals here below to their own poor over-beliefs may not actually help God in turn to be more effectively faithful to his own greater tasks?”

      What rot! says Nnox usually. But James is compelling, he reminds me that while things like hope and redemption and justice appear to me naive and nonsensical, I cannot simply deny a believers claim. If you hear God speaking to you, I don’t doubt it a bit.

      James also says, “Some persons…never are, and possibly never under any circumstances could be, converted. Religious ideas cannot become the center of their spiritual energy.” Or are there no atheists in foxholes….

      And thank you, Julia, for reminding us that for every redemption story, there are (in my view) 1000 examples of senseless and forever unresolved pain.

      Nnox, like Homer Simpson, generally thinks that “maybe a bunch of stuff just happens.”

      • Maybe so!

        Interesting quotes from William James. You have given me another addition to my reading list. Thanks.

  8. I don’t think you can “. . .just as easily say that meaninglessness. . . points toward future nihilism”. Look at the facts- the universe is bigger and more beautiful than it ever has been. look at life- it is still alive! A billion years on and look at us now! Death and struggle for survival has been co-opted as a means to make life more robust, diverse, and prolific than ever.

    I think pessimism has the uphill push.

    • “Death and struggle for survival has been co-opted as a means to make life more robust, diverse, and prolific than ever.” Well said, though I’m not sure what you mean by co-opted. Struggle for survival is, so long as you accept mainstream science, a key phenomenon responsible for our transportation from star-dust to sentient beings. So I will be optimistic for more death and struggle to increase the diversity of life?

      • In my imagination, I had personified Life and Death as rivals. Life’s mission is to live, while Death’s mission is to extinguish life. As Darwin has helped us see: In their struggle, it seems that Life has turned Death’s weapons against him, so that the net sum of Death’s assault is not feebler Life, but livelier Life.

        In what we have (scientifically) observed, it appears that this has been going on for a billion years here on Earth, and though Death has thrown some heavy punches, Life has always come out on top. Not only has she survived, and become more robust, she has found the time and energy to become so brilliantly complex and beautiful!

        Death is still our sworn enemy, to be sure, and despite his painfully long losing streak, he is not one to invite to tea- if that is what your closing comment implies;) Killing is inspired by Death, not Life.

        I tend to think that we are in the midst of a revolutionary new phase of Life, in which we are discovering that instead of fighting life to live, we can rout Death even more brilliantly by helping Life to live.

  9. This is great conversation, fellas! Thanks for engaging.

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