When God became an atheist

Early in Ray Bradbury’s novel Dandelion Wine, Douglas, the 12-year-old central protagonist of the novel, has an experience in which for the first time in his short life he realized the beauty and significance of his own existence in a profoundly and deeply felt way. So feeling, he thinks to himself, “I’m really alive! … I never knew it before, or if I did I don’t remember!” The novel that follows a series of events which occur around and to Douglas during the Summer of 1928. These events lead to Douglas’s realization near the end of the novel that someday his life, which he only so recently learned to fully appreciate, will eventually end. Young Douglas struggles to accept this newfound knowledge of his own mortality, finally even becoming so ill as to be dangerously close to death. Upon emerging from this sickness, he wanders into his grandmother’s kitchen pantry where he discovers a jar labelled only “RELISH.” When he discovers this jar, he feels suddenly “glad he had decided to live” through his illness. He decides at this to relish the many joys of life while accepting the inevitability of its end.

The story that is told here is another version of the only story ever told. It is the story in which the protagonist “dies” (or undergoes extreme hardship nearing death) and is revivified to a more complete life or otherwise grows in an important way in the end. This story is, of course, best told in the biblical account of the suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ. This biblical telling is also unique in an important way, namely, that the protagonist who undergoes the process is not a human being in the usual sense but is, rather, God-become-man. As G.K. Chesterton pointed out:

Christianity is the only religion on earth that has felt that omnipotence made God incomplete. Christianity alone felt that God, to be wholly God, must have been a rebel as well as a king. Alone of all creeds, Christianity has added courage to the virtues of the Creator. For the only courage worth calling courage must necessarily mean that the soul passes a breaking point — and does not break.

In the recapitulative work of Christ, the redemption-narrative of death and rebirth is itself redeemed and sanctified. It is then set forth as the archetype to which others must adhere. Without the crucifixion and burial on Good Friday, there is and can be no Easter resurrection and Paschal joy. The narrative repeats itself throughout the Christian life, such as in the rite of baptism in which “we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4, KJV). It, in fact, defines, the Christian life as a whole, which is a process of dying to one’s self and sin in order to live a life in Christ, who is the fullness of life.

I cannot remember the first time I experienced a recognition of my own mortality. I believe it was probably a gradual process, as it must be with most people. I can, however, remember the first time that the full meaning and inevitability of my own death came to me. It was the first time that I celebrated Easter as a Christian. Growing up in a non-religious household, throughout my childhood Easter had meant nothing more than a few extra days off from school and a basketful of candy on Sunday morning. As a result, I entered into my first Holy Week expecting very little. What I found, however, was an experience through which I came to understand myself better than I had at any point previously in my life. In contemplating the suffering and death of Christ on Good Friday, I found a God who is, as Chesterton once described him, the “only … divinity who ever uttered … isolation,” the only “God [who] seemed for an instant to be an atheist.” In other words, I found a God who became as I had been. As the journey continued, however, and I shared for the first time in the joyful proclamation of the risen Lord on Easter Sunday morning, I found a man who had become as I desired to become.

Through contemplating and, in a sense, experiencing the suffering, death, and resurrection of the Lord, I came to understand more truly than ever before the inevitability of my own death and to place my hope more fervently than ever before in the resurrection to come. It is only through coming to terms with my death and placing my hopes in this resurrection that I began to approach the state which Douglas had found after his sickness, an experience of the joy of being and the desire to relish each moment of life.