The Lord’s Fight Against a Human Enemy
Posted: 10 Jan 2014 04:00 AM PST
Jared asks a question this week that is at the heart of understanding Christianity: why a human God? His answer is simple, but powerful. -Editor.
Why did the Lord have to be born on earth as a human being? This is a simple-seeming question, the kind of question a little child might ask. But there is so much wrapped up in the answer; really the whole of the Word, the whole truth about who God is, is wrapped up in the answer to this question. So of course a question like this can be answered in innumerable ways. But there is one answer in particular that I’d like to share here: the Lord had to be born on earth as a human being because evil spirits are human beings.
But let’s back up a bit. This is just an answer to our question, not the answer. There are some much, simpler, broader answers to the question, and we should start with those. At the beginning of True Christian Religion (TCR) we’re told, “The Lord from eternity, who is Jehovah, came into the world to subjugate the hells and to glorify His Human” (TCR 2). This is perhaps the most basic, universal answer to our question. A little further on in TCR this statement, particularly the part about the subjugation of the hells, is explained more fully:
[Jehovah God] took upon Himself human form, so as to reduce to order everything in heaven, in hell and in the church. For at that time the power of hell was stronger than the power of heaven, and on earth the power of evil was stronger than the power of good, so that utter damnation stood threatening at the gates. This impending damnation was removed by Jehovah God by means of His Human. (TCR 3)
In many ways this statement aligns perfectly with what the angel Gabriel expresses as Jesus’ purpose when he first visits Joseph in the Gospel of Matthew, at the very beginning of the New Testament; he says that the Child who will be born is to be named Jesus, “for He will save His people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). There it is in a nutshell. The Lord came to earth to save us—to save us from hell, to save us from our sin.
Of course there is so much more to the Lord’s incarnation than this. The Lord also came to glorify His human, we’re told—and many other things. All of these teachings are wonderful and profound, but I’m going to focus in on the Lord’s subjugation of hell by means of His human—an accomplishment that, in some sense, seems to have been at the very forefront of His purpose in coming to earth.
There’s a very obvious “problem” with the subjugation of the hells as the answer to our question, a problem which, I remember, bothered me very much when I was a child. The Lord is the Lord—He is almighty Jehovah God! Why did He have to take on a human body to subjugate the hells? How was it necessary that He become a helpless baby, in order to save us?
There are hundreds of passages throughout the Old Testament that tell us emphatically just how powerful the Divine is. When we read passages like the ones just below, we are clearly given a glimpse of a power that is able to save us from anything.
When you see this, your heart shall rejoice, And your bones shall flourish like grass; The hand of the Lord shall be known to His servants, And His indignation to His enemies. For behold, the Lord will come with fire And with His chariots, like a whirlwind, To render His anger with fury, And His rebuke with flames of fire. For by fire and by His sword The Lord will judge all flesh; And the slain of the Lord shall be many. (Isaiah 66:14-16)
The Lord also will roar from Zion, And utter His voice from Jerusalem; The heavens and earth will shake; But the Lord will be a shelter for His people, And the strength of the children of Israel. (Joel 3:16)
Why didn’t this kind of power just reach down from heaven and restore earth to order in an instant? Why didn’t the hand of the Lord seize the devil and throw him back into hell as soon as hell’s power started to get out of control? The answer to this question is what I’m going to focus in on now; what it reveals about why the Lord came to earth is, to me, one of the most humbling teachings about His Advent.
The answer, in short, is this: the Lord chose to take on hell with His Divine strength veiled under human limitations in order to be able to actually fight and conquer the evil spirits, instead of simply completely obliterating them. In TCR we’re told:
The reason why [redemption] had to be [effected] by means of His incarnation, that is, by making Himself man, is that Jehovah God, as He is in His infinite essence, cannot approach hell, much less enter it, since He exists at the purest and first level. Therefore if Jehovah God, being in essence of that nature, were so much as to breathe upon those in hell, He would destroy them in an instant. (TCR 124)
In a sense, the Lord came to earth to make His combat with the hells a “fair fight”—He wanted to defeat them but He didn’t want to destroy them, so He limited Himself. But there’s more involved in the picture than this.
Evil spirits are human beings—and so they have, as a sacred inheritance from the Lord, the gift of freedom. They are people, and it is the Lord’s law that everything a person does be done in freedom, freedom which is guided by that person’s reason—that is, his capacity for making decisions (DP 77). If the Lord were to come against evil spirits with His unmitigated Divine might, they would simply evaporate and no longer be able to think or to choose anything. If the Lord by means of His Divine might were to somehow “suspend” evil spirits’ power without destroying them, the fact that they had chosen to devote themselves to attacking good people in heaven and on earth would not be changed; they would return to their attack as soon as that “suspension” was released. The evil spirits had to be put into a situation where they would choose to cease their assault on the world. They could not be “driven out” but had to “flee of their own accord.” (AC 9333)1
So the Lord had to play the game on the evil spirits’ terms—and beat them that way. He knew that they would attack Him with all their being, if they got the chance (AC 1820). So He gave them the chance, by making Himself as “weak” as they are—or, at least, by veiling His Divine strength with the same limitations that they were born with. They are human, so He made Himself human. Then hell, smelling victory, rose up against Him with its fullest force—but the Lord withstood their assault and conquered each and every one of them, and they fled from Him.
Victories have this effect, that after they have been won, [evil spirits] do not dare to attempt anything; for their life consists in their being able to destroy, but when they perceive that a person is able to withstand them, they flee even when they are making their first assault. (Ibid)
Running beneath all the ideas I’ve put forward so far is a single very basic and very well-known teaching, one whose light transforms everything it touches. This is the teaching that the Lord loves everyone in heaven, in hell, and on earth, with an everlasting love. We’re told:
The nature of the Lord’s love surpasses all human understanding and is unbelievable in the extreme to people who do not know what heavenly love is in which angels abide. To save a soul from hell the angels think nothing of giving their own lives; indeed if it were possible they would suffer hell themselves in place of that soul. (AC 2077.2)
This passage illustrates the Lord’s love—which is indescribable—by comparing it with an angel’s love. If the angels would think nothing of spending eternity in hell in order to save an evil spirit from that fate, then what must the Lord’s love for the evil spirits be like? This love is unfathomable—and it is what directed the Lord in His combat against Hell. The Lord chose to subjugate the evil spirits by means of coming to earth as a human being because this was the only way that He could defeat them for good without harming their innate, human freedom—freedom which He treasured, because He loved them.
1See also Apocalypse Explained (AE) §1164; Spiritual Experiences Minor §4600; Spiritual Experiences §§6031-6033; and AC §7273 & §7795. I am indebted to the Rev. Grant Odhner’s article “The Lord’s Conception,” published in New Church Life, 2001, 100ff, for this list of passages, and for many of the ideas I have expressed in this section.
Jared is recently married and currently a theolog at the Bryn Athyn College Theological School, on track to graduate in 2015. He is eager to see where in the world Providence and the church send him to serve as pastor, and eager to engage in the uses and discoveries that ministry will bring.