Jacob H. Friesenhahn, a theology teacher at John Paul II Catholic High School in Schertz, Texas, has an article attempting to explain away the problem of evil by reference to the trinity, one of the sillier ideas in Christianity (Thomas Jefferson called it “metaphysical insanity”). It’s not a new argument, of course, but he makes it sound a lot more sophisticated than it really is:
My contention is that the doctrine of the Trinity provides the most fruitful foundation from which to defend the justice of God in the face of evil and to announce hope to suffering humanity. In developing this argument I will draw deeply on the insights of the great twentieth-century Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, particularly from those texts in which the connections between Trinity and theodicy are most explicitly considered,Mysterium Paschale and the final two volumes of his masterful Theo-Drama series.2
Von Balthasar’s theology of the Trinity relies heavily on the concept of kenotic or self-giving love. The Greek word kenosis indicates an “emptying” or “pouring out.” The most significant single biblical referent for the Christian concept of kenosis is Philippians 2:5–7, which uses the verb form of the term: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness” (NRSV; emphasis added). Balthasar speaks of Christ’s kenosis as the Eternal Son’s emptying of himself to become incarnate or human, even to the limit of accepting death on the cross and descending into hell. What is striking about the theology of von Balthasar is that he uses this idea of kenosis as the hermeneutical or interpretive key for understanding not only Christ, the Incarnate Son, but the very inner nature or life of God.
In von Balthasar’s theology, the doctrine of the Trinity most fundamentally means that God’s essence is an eternal interplay of kenotic love. The dynamic love at the heart of God is the sort of love by which lovers give themselves away for the sake of the beloved. This central idea of self-donation is more than an abstract concept; it is a term brimming with existential content. The experience of authentic love, the feeling of pouring oneself out for the sake of another, cuts to the heart of human existence. This lived experience of self-sacrificial love can provide a means for our deeper understanding of the Trinity. In the context of classical theism, the guiding analogy for approaching the Trinity may have been the threefold nature of the soul, that is, the soul itself, the soul’s self-knowledge, and the soul’s self-love. This rather closed-inintrapersonal model is perhaps best replaced by a more interpersonal approach, in which we conceive of the triune life of God less in terms of the essential operations within an individual soul and more in terms of reciprocal loving relations and communion among distinct persons. Our guiding analogies for understanding the God of the Trinity can become the human family or community—human relations of love and reciprocity—not merely the interior life of the soul, which is often conceived along Platonic or Neoplatonic lines.
For von Balthasar, the content of the doctrine of the Trinity is essentially nothing other than “God is love” (see 1 John 4:8 and 4:16). At its root, the doctrine of the Trinity means that interpersonal love—love selflessly shared among distinct persons—is the very nature of God. In von Balthasar’s theology of the Trinity, the Father begets or generates the Son in an act of self-emptying love. This outpouring of love is so primordial and constitutive both of God’s essence and of God’s relation to the world that von Balthasar speaks of the Father’s begetting of the Son as the act of supra-kenosis or Ur-kenosis which undergirds all other acts of love, both divine and human: the Father utterly pours himself out, entrusting his very being and divine essence to the Son, letting go not only of all that he has but also of all that he is in his generation of the Son. The Son, in an act of total, reciprocal self-giving love, returns himself fully to the Father. The Father’s perfect gift of love and total gift of himself to the Son elicits or engenders the fully matching or mirroring kenotic love of the Son. All that the Son has and is he receives only from the Father, and the Son returns himself without remainder to the Father in a perpetual act of filial love and trust. The Holy Spirit is the personal expression, the We, of this personal, primordial exchange of pure love, such that the Father and Son stand in an I-Thou relation to one another, while the Holy Spirit is the We, or the Spirit of communal love shared between the I-Thou of Father-Son.
In a world of individualism, the doctrine of the Trinity confronts us with a God whose nature is social and communal. In a world of consumerism, consumption, and the grasping of the ego, the properly Christian view of God as triune envisions the divine essence as a life of love in service only of the Other, a life in which every I prefers the welfare of the Thou over and above all self-interest. The consuming individual ego, so much taken for granted in the modern West, is the very opposite of God’s nature as revealed to us by the doctrine of the Trinity. While sinful humankind seeks modes of domination, the assertion of one’s will-to-power over against any competing factors, the truth of the Trinity shows us another way. In the life of God, the life of the Trinity, into which we are all called as our final destiny and beatitude, we discover love that lets go, forgoes power, and puts oneself at the disposal of the Other.
This is very similar to what Daniel Dennett calls a “deepity,” in that it’s a long and sophisticated explanation that pretends to be far more profound than it really is. It’s just the old “God loves you because he sent his only son to die so you could be saved” idea (or, since it invokes the trinity, “God loves you because he sent himself to die so you could be saved”). But that leaves out one very important thing: What are we being saved from? From the divine wrath of God, of course.
So the claim, in plain language, is that God sent his own son — himself, actually, by some bizarre twist of illogic — as a sacrifice to himself to satiate his own sense of divine anger at the things we do that he doesn’t like (which he knew we were going to do before he created us). That’s not loving sacrifice, it’s just absurdity.