The Problem of Beauty

Simon Vouet, Father Time Overcome by Love, Hope and Beauty (1627)
A lot has been said about the “problem of pain.” Why, if God is both loving and all-powerful, is there still suffering in the world? The question is a challenge for Catholics, as for all theists. As believers, we have some sense of why a loving God would permit suffering. It's easy enough to see that love is a good (the highest good, even), and that love requires free will. And it's just a small step from there to see how that free will could be used in some dastardly ways. Likewise, it's clear enough that a loving God might permit His creatures to suffer, in certain cases, for their (our) own good.

This answer to the problem of pain is sensible, but not satisfying. There's no shaking that there's still something out of whack, something not quite right about this world. Christianity hasn't been shy about this point the whole story of the Fall is that things aren't how they ought to be, how they aren't how they were intended to be, and how we're the ones who screwed them up. You can read that story in Genesis, or watch it on the nightly news.

And there's no shaking the sense that we don't have a full explanation. But again, Christianity acknowledges this from the outset: when Job complains about his problem to God, he's not given an answer; rather, he's basically told that there are things going on that he can't begin to comprehend. In the Cross, we get a fuller picture: God doesn't just acknowledge suffering, He takes it on, and we're given a tiny glimpse into the mysterious relationship between love, vulnerability, and pain. But there's still so much that we don't understand. And the Christian answer seems to be: that's the way it's going to be, this side of Glory. The answer is unsatisfying, but it seems to me that it's meant to be.

This ground is well-tread, and others have addressed the problem of pain much more eloquently and exhaustively. I want to look at another problem (or “problem”) that doesn't get much attention: the “problem of beauty.” It's a problem, not for believers, but for nonbelievers: if there isn't a God, how can we account for all of the joy and beauty in the world? More specifically, how can we account for all the joy and beauty that doesn't have any evolutionary benefit? I really like the description of the problem given by Joanna Newsom, in a discussion about an album that she wrote shortly after the death of her best friend:
“The thing that I was experiencing and dwelling on the entire time is that there are so many things that are not OK and that will never be OK again,” says Newsom. “But there’s also so many things that are OK and good that sometimes it makes you crumple over with being alive. We are allowed such an insane depth of beauty and enjoyment in this lifetime. It’s what my dad talks about sometimes. He says the only way that he knows there’s a God is that there’s so much gratuitous joy in this life. And that’s his only proof. There’s so many joys that do not assist in the propagation of the race or self-preservation. There’s no point whatsoever. They are so excessively, mind-bogglingly joy-producing that they distract from the very functions that are supposed to promote human life. They can leave you stupefied, monastic, not productive in any way, shape or form. And those joys are there and they are unflagging and they are ever-growing. And still there are these things that you will never be able to feel OK about–unbearably awful, sad, ugly, unfair things.”
This captures the problem so well, because it anticipates the easy answer: that joy and our love of beauty is some sort of evolutionary benefit bequeathed to us by natural selection.

That answer might sound good at first, but there's no real evidence for it. Moreover, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense. After all, we're moved to awe at the grandeur of the heavens: how does that aid the survival or propagation of our species? Often, as Newsom points out, the sensation of beauty draws us away from working and reproducing: leaving us “stupefied, monastic, not productive in any way, shape or form.” Without God, it's hard to give a good account of why we experience this kind of joy at beauty.

At first, it seems like we're dealing with two equal-and-opposite problems: believers struggle to account for all of the bad bits of life, and non-believers struggle to account for all of the good bits. Both of us are placing our trust: the Christian, in the goodness of God and the promise that someday, all of this will be clear; the atheist, in the idea that science will somehow solve this problem, and that someday, all of this will be clear. But these two problems aren't really equal. I think that we can see this inequality in a few ways. 

First, they're not equal in size and scope: despite all of the awful bits, life is beautiful. Indeed, one of the very reasons many of the awful bits (like death) are so awful are because they deprive us of life. Thomas Hobbes famously claimed that the life of man in “the state of nature” was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” But if life is really as awful as all that, why complain that it's short? It's like the Woody Allen line that “Life is full of misery, loneliness, and suffering – and it’s all over much too soon.” The very fact that we lament the fleetingness of life (our own and others) points to a recognition that life is beautiful. Evil is noticeable precisely because it sticks out: it sharply contrasts with the beautiful background of life that we so often overlook or take for granted.

Second, evil is metaphysically dependent upon good. This is a concept that deserves more attention than I'm willing to give it here, and I hope to return to it soon. But I think that I can give at least a sense of what I mean by using a couple of analogies.

We often speak of light and darkness in a dualistic way, as if they're equal and opposite. But they're not: light actually exists in a way that darkness doesn't. In a world without darkness, we could still analyze light and its wavelike and particle-like properties. In a world without light, the very term darkness would be meaningless. We can only understand what darkness is by reference to light, but we can understand light without reference to darkness. The same holds true for  heat and cold. Heat actually exists: it's molecular energy. Cold is just the relative or absolute absence of heat. It's why we can talk about absolute zero: it's an absolute absence of heat. But there's not some maximum temperature where all of the “cold particles” are wiped out

Something similar holds in discussing good and evil. Much of our concept of evil is tied up in the idea of “something that shouldn't have happened.” But for that concept to make any sense, you have to have at least an inkling of an idea of should, even if only an intuitive one. Evil is a perversion or an absence of good.

One of the clearest ways that we explore this is to understand why intentional evils are done. Invariably - as in, without a single exception - evil acts are done in the pursuit of some real or perceived good. We're always chasing after the good: after pleasure, after honor, after love, etc. (That doesn't excuse evil actions, obviously: you can't justify torturing the cat for pleasure simply because you did it for pleasure.) This shows that every evil act pays homage, no matter how unwittingly, to good. That's why you can't understand evil without understanding good. But none of this is true in reverse. We don't do good things because we're seeking evil, and we don't need a concept of evil to understand why something is good.

Third, there's a difference in explanatory power. Here, I want to conclude by refocusing on the two specific problems, the problem of pain and the problem of beauty, because it's here that we see the final inequality. The Christian explanation for pain leaves us unsatisfied, and I think that's an appropriate response. For starters, it's not a thorough explanation, nor a specific one: it doesn't explain why this evil thing happened to that person. But despite this, it offers a colorable explanation of the problem. It's clear that there's no logical incompatibility between permitting evil and being good, and this corresponds to our experience of life: we live in societies built on the idea of freedom-expansion, even if that entails the annoyance of people misusing that freedom for stupid or evil ends.

The atheist explanation of the problem of beauty is similarly unsatisfying. But here's the rub: unlike the Christian account of pain, the atheist account of beauty doesn't even advance any colorable explanation. The generally proffered solution, natural selection, just doesn't work here. Nor does it correspond with our experience of life: we don't see a clear correlation (at least, not a positive one) between “I cry at museums” and “I am adept at surviving and mating.”

At the end of a court case, even a well-argued one, there are often questions left lingering: if X is at fault, how do we explain this or that piece of evidence? On the other hand, if X isn't at fault, what about all of these other pieces of evidence? And if God is in the dock, so to speak, these are some of the critical arguments we should expect to see brought up - both in regards to His existence, and His goodness. That's why I think it's important to hold the problem of beauty up, side-by-side, with the problem of pain, weighing them, as if in a balance.

All of this is to say that I think that Joanna Newsom and her dad are right. While the argument from beauty isn't the only proof for the existence of God, I think it's conceptually sound, and hard to answer. The universe is full of endless delights, joys that we have no right to by nature, and which are presented before us everyday, all the same. 

Casting Out Demons in the Name of Solomon: Jewish Exorcisms at the Time of Christ

Giotto, Exorcism of the Demons at Arezzo (detail) (1300) 
Exorcisms have been a part of Catholicism from the very beginning. When Jesus sends out the Twelve Apostles, “they went out and preached that men should repent. And they cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many that were sick and healed them” (Mark 6:12-13). But did you know that exorcisms actually predate Christianity, and that there were Jewish exorcists at the time of Christ?

Jesus actually refers to this, but it's such a brief mention in Scripture that it's easy to overlook. It's in Matthew 12:24-28, while the Pharisees are questioning Him about His own exorcisms:
But when the Pharisees heard it they said, “It is only by Be-elzebul, the prince of demons, that this man casts out demons.” Knowing their thoughts, he said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand; and if Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself; how then will his kingdom stand? And if I cast out demons by Be-elzebul, by whom do your sons cast them out? Therefore they shall be your judges. But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.
Jesus' remark makes it clear both that Jewish exorcists existed in His day, and that they were apparently successful in driving out demons.

That's all the detail that Scripture gives us. Fortunately, the first-century Jewish historian Josephus tells us much more, in Book VIII of Antiquities of the Jews:
Now the sagacity and wisdom which God had bestowed on Solomon was so great, that he exceeded the ancients; [....] God also enabled him to learn that skill which expels demons, which is a science useful and sanative to men. He composed such incantations also by which distempers are alleviated. And he left behind him the manner of using exorcisms, by which they drive away demons, so that they never return; and this method of cure is of great force unto this day; for I have seen a certain man of my own country, whose name was Eleazar, releasing people that were demoniacal in the presence of Vespasian, and his sons, and his captains, and the whole multitude of his soldiers. 
The manner of the cure was this: He put a ring that had a Foot of one of those sorts mentioned by Solomon to the nostrils of the demoniac, after which he drew out the demon through his nostrils; and when the man fell down immediately, he abjured him to return into him no more, making still mention of Solomon, and reciting the incantations which he composed. And when Eleazar would persuade and demonstrate to the spectators that he had such a power, he set a little way off a cup or basin full of water, and commanded the demon, as he went out of the man, to overturn it, and thereby to let the spectators know that he had left the man; and when this was done, the skill and wisdom of Solomon was shown very manifestly: for which reason it is, that all men may know the vastness of Solomon's abilities, and how he was beloved of God, and that the extraordinary virtues of every kind with which this king was endowed may not be unknown to any people under the sun for this reason, I say, it is that we have proceeded to speak so largely of these matters.
Josephus' account is fascinating. It's a first-century eyewitness account of a Jewish exorcism. And what he describes is this: demons were cast out in the name of Solomon, and the success of the exorcism was due to Solomon's sanctity.

All of that neatly prefigures Catholic exorcisms, instituted by Jesus Christ, and done in His name. The two clearest Scriptural descriptions of these exorcisms are in Matthew 7 and Acts 16. The first actually mentions exorcisms as something of an aside (Matthew 7:21-23):
“Not every one who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers.’”
It's a sobering reminder that even this ability to perform miracles is no guarantee of salvation. We can proclaim Jesus as Lord and do mighty works that we want to do, and still not be saved, if we refuse to obey God and do what He wants us to do. And in the midst of it, we get a clearer picture of the way exorcisms work: demons are driven out in the name of Jesus. That's even clearer in Acts 16:16-18:
As we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a slave girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners much gain by soothsaying. She followed Paul and us, crying, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation.” And this she did for many days. But Paul was annoyed, and turned and said to the spirit, “I charge you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And it came out that very hour.
It's simple and effective. Of course, not every exorcism is as simple; we know of at least one case in which even the Apostles weren't able to drive out a demon, because they needed to be praying and fasting (cf. Mark 9:17-29). But we still see that just as Our Lord had entrusted Solomon and the Jews with some sort of ability to perform exorcisms, Jesus entrusted the Apostles with the power to drive out demons in His Name.

There are three things that I hope that you take away from this post. First, the connection between Solomon and Christ. This isn't the first or the only time that Solomon prefigured Jesus. In 2 Samuel 7:12, God promised David that He would establish a great Kingdom through David's offspring. This is fulfilled in a limited sense with King Solomon, and in an infinitely greater sense in Jesus and the Kingdom of God. Solomon builds the Second Temple, while Christ's Incarnate Body is the prophesied Temple (John 2:21). I talk about that dimension much more here, along with the Virgin Mary's connection to the whole thing. Christ refers to Solomon's role as a foreshadowing in Luke 11:31, when He says of Himself, “something greater than Solomon is here.”

An excerpt from the diary of St. Isaac Jogues, recounting the martyrdom of St. René Goupil.
This sign is from the Shrine of the North American Martyrs, near where both men were killed.
Second, the importance of the Name of Jesus (Philippians 2:10). St. Peter exhorts the crowds on Pentecost: “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Shortly thereafter, Peter heals a crippled beggar by saying, “I have no silver and gold, but I give you what I have; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk” (Acts 3:6). For this, Peter and John are brought before the Sanhedrin, and the Holy Spirit inspires Peter to deliver this defense (Acts 4:8-12):
“Rulers of the people and elders, if we are being examined today concerning a good deed done to a cripple, by what means this man has been healed, be it known to you all, and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead, by him this man is standing before you well. This is the stone which was rejected by you builders, but which has become the head of the corner. And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”
While these passages center around St. Peter, the head of the Apostles, he's not the only one to do this: the Acts of the Apostles also describes the centrality of the Name of Jesus to the preaching of St. Philip (Acts 8:12) and Barnabas (Acts 9:27). Both evangelization and exorcisms have been, from the very beginning of Christianity, closely tied to the name of Jesus. 

Finally, the validity of exorcisms. It's easy to regard exorcisms as superstitious, or too Medieval, or too ritualistic. But that's not the case. And we know that from the testimonies of Jesus, of Josephus, and of the authors of Scripture, as well as the exorcisms that Catholic priests still perform today.  The evidence in these cases speaks for itself. These miracles are one of the ways that we know that Christianity (and more specifically, Catholicism) is true. Christ gave, as a sign, that His followers would drive out demons (Mark 16:17). The Catholic Church can point to two thousand years of doing just that.

Is Baptism Necessary for Salvation?

Masaccio, Baptism of the Neophytes (1425)
Do we need to be baptized to be saved? Catholics say yes, while acknowledging that certain cases exist in which water baptism is impossible, and a person is still saved, like the good thief on the cross. In other words, even if it's possible that someone may be saved without receiving water baptism, we need to be baptized to be saved. You know about the necessity of baptism (if you didn't before, you do now!), and have the opportunity to be baptized.

Many Protestant denominations disagree with that answer. Ironically (given their name), Baptists are the most vocal opponents of this view of baptism. In their view, Baptism doesn't actually do anything. It doesn't wash away our sins; it doesn't incorporate us into the Church, the Body of Christ; it doesn't bring us into the New Covenant; and it certainly doesn't save us. Instead, Baptism is just a symbol of the fact that we're already saved. It's a "testimony" of our salvation, to let everybody know we're saved.

There are plenty of debated doctrines within Christianity in which an honest reader is left seeing both sides of the issue You might come to the conclusion that X is the right answer, but you can at least see where the people who support Y are coming from, and which Bible verses might lend support to Y.

That's hard to do on this question. The Baptist view simply isn't found in Scripture. There aren't any verses that speak of Baptism as merely symbolic, and there are several that teach the exact opposite. The Old Testament is replete with prefigurements of the Holy Spirit's role in saving us in Baptism. For example:
  • The Spirit hovering over the waters at the dawn of the world (Genesis 1:2) 
  • Noah's Ark, in which salvation came through water, as 1 Peter 3 reminds us, and in which a dove crosses the water to show that the Flood is over (Gen. 8:11).
  • The parting of the Red Sea, in which salvation once again came from passing through water, and which St. Paul would later call a kind of baptism (1 Corinthians 10:1-4).
  • The Mosaic Law, which used ritual washing as a way of signifying cleansing from sins.
  • Naaman's healing in 2 Kings 5, in which a skeptical leper is healed by submerging himself in the waters. He initially objects at the seeming foolishness of a miraculous cleansing through waters (2 Kings 5:11-12).
And the New Testament, as we'll see, has several passages explicitly describing Baptism in the way that the Catholic Church claims. But perhaps the clearest way to see how well the Baptist case holds up is simply to present it side-by-side with Scripture. Now, I'm using the case laid out by Baptist Distinctives. If you think this overlooks some important argument, I'll gladly add it. With that in mind, let's compare the Baptist claims about Baptism with what the Bible teaches:

The Baptist Claim The Bible
Question 1. Is Baptism Necessary for Salvation?

Claim: "Baptists believe that the Bible teaches that baptism is important but not necessary for salvation. [....] Baptists believe that the Bible teaches that baptism symbolizes that a person has been saved and is not a means of salvation."
Truth: Scripture explicitly tells us that for salvation we need both faith and baptism (Mark 16:16), and that baptism saves us (1 Peter 3:21).

Mark 16:16, "He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned."

1 Peter 3:18-22, "For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit; in which he went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers subject to him."
Question 2. What did St. Peter says about Baptism in his Pentecost Sermon?

Claim: "In his sermon at Pentecost, Peter urged those who had repented and believed in Christ to be baptized, not that baptism was necessary for salvation but as a testimony that they had been saved (Acts 2:1-41)."
Truth: Nowhere in Peter's Pentecost sermon does he say anything about Baptism being a "testimony" that his listeners "had been saved." Instead, he tells them it's (a) for the forgiveness of sins, (b) imparts the Holy Spirit, and (c) saves them. 

Acts 2:37-38, "Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brethren, what shall we do?” 38 And Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 For the promise is to you and to your children and to all that are far off, every one whom the Lord our God calls to him.” And he testified with many other words and exhorted them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.” So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.” 
Question 3. Does Baptism Wash Away Sins?

Claim: "For example, the thief on the cross (Luke 23:39-43), Saul on the Damascus road (Acts 9:1-18) and the people gathered in Cornelius’ house (Acts 10:24-48) all experienced salvation without the necessity of baptism. [....] Baptism is not a means of channeling saving grace but rather is a way of testifying that saving grace has been experienced. It does not wash away sin but symbolizes the forgiveness of sin through faith in Christ."
Truth: St. Paul doesn't claim that his sins were washed away on the road to Damascus. Rather, as his own conversion story attests, Baptism does wash away sins (Acts 22:16):

Acts 22:6-16, As I made my journey and drew near to Damascus, about noon a great light from heaven suddenly shone about me.  And I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ And I answered, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And he said to me, ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth whom you are persecuting.’ Now those who were with me saw the light but did not hear the voice of the one who was speaking to me. And I said, ‘What shall I do, Lord?’ And the Lord said to me, ‘Rise, and go into Damascus, and there you will be told all that is appointed for you to do.’ And when I could not see because of the brightness of that light, I was led by the hand by those who were with me, and came into Damascus. 

“And one Anani′as, a devout man according to the law, well spoken of by all the Jews who lived there, came to me, and standing by me said to me, ‘Brother Saul, receive your sight.’ And in that very hour I received my sight and saw him. And he said, ‘The God of our fathers appointed you to know his will, to see the Just One and to hear a voice from his mouth; for you will be a witness for him to all men of what you have seen and heard. And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on his name.’

As you can see, these passages of the Bible just don't say what the Baptist side is claiming that they say. Frequently, they say the exact opposite. I want to focus on one verse in particular, Mark 16:16. It's after the Resurrection, and Jesus is sending His Apostles out to go “and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20). And He says this to the Apostles as He is sending them out: “He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:16).

Catholics claim that you need faith and Baptism to be saved. Jesus just said you need faith and Baptism. That settles it, right? Not quite. Here's how Matt Slick of CARM attempts to salvage the Baptist position, in light of Mark 16:16:
This verse is frequently used by baptismal regenerationists to show that baptism is necessary for salvation. It says he who believes and is baptized will be saved. Therefore, they conclude that baptism is a necessary part of becoming saved. But, does this verse prove that baptism is necessary for salvation? Not at all. 
Mark 16:16 does not say that baptism is a requirement for salvation. Let me show you why. I could easily say that he who believes and goes to church will be saved. That is true. But it is belief that saves--not belief and going to church. Likewise, if you believe and read your Bible, you'll be saved. But it isn't reading your Bible that saves you. Rather, belief in Christ and in His sacrifice is what saves.
Stop and think about this exegesis for a second. Imagine that Jesus really is teaching that belief is all you need to be saved, and that Baptism isn't necessary for salvation. Can you imagine a worse way to present that than “He who believes and is baptized will be saved”? If the second condition is unnecessary, why did Jesus include it at all? Why in the world wouldn't He just say “He who believes will be saved”?

In Slick's analysis, the clause “and is baptized” is meaningless. It adds nothing to the verse. According to this view, the verse means the exact same thing whether that clause is in or out, or whether it's replaced with any other condition-that's-not-really-a-condition like reading your Bible or going to church... or, for that matter, anything. Jesus could just as well have said, “He who believes and is left-handed will be saved,” and it wouldn't matter, since the second condition is just a red herring that has nothing to do with our salvation.

Even Slick doesn't actually seem particularly convinced by this slick exegesis. He spends most of the rest of the article suggesting that maybe the last part of the Gospel of Mark shouldn't be considered Scripture.

Confusing Cause and Effect

Imagine that you have a job interview, and the interviewer ends by saying, "If your references check out, and you have five years of job experience, the job is yours." The interviewer's just laid out two prerequisites for your securing the position. If you were to take the equivalent of the Baptist view on Baptism, you would understand this to mean that as long as you have good references, you've got the job. Then, once you get the job, you can get those five years of job experience.

That interpretation is clearly mistaken. And the mistake is this: the five years' experience is presented as a prerequisite to your goal, whereas you're treating it as a result of your goal.

That's what's going on with this Baptism question. Baptist Distinctives claims that "baptism symbolizes that a person has been saved and is not a means of salvation" just as Matt Slick believes that "Baptism is simply a public demonstration of the inner work of regeneration." In other words, after you're saved, you get baptized. They're treating it as a result of your salvation, where Jesus describes it as a prerequisite.

While we're on the subject, permit me a small aside. Mark 16:16, as we've seen, presents two prerequisites for salvation: faith and Baptism. Baptists treat one of these, Baptism, as if were actually a consequence of salvation. Calvinists fare worse: they treat both conditions as if they were consequences of salvation. The Westminster Confession of Faith teaches:
As God has appointed the elect unto glory, so has He, by the eternal and most free purpose of His will, foreordained all the means thereunto. Wherefore, they who are elected, being fallen in Adam, are redeemed by Christ, are effectually called unto faith in Christ by His Spirit working in due season, are justified, adopted, sanctified, and kept by His power, through faith, unto salvation. Neither are any other redeemed by Christ, effectually called, justified, adopted, sanctified, and saved, but the elect only.
The Calvinist view can be summed up this way: from the dawn of time, God divided humanity into two groups: the elect and the reprobate. The elect will be saved, no matter what. The reprobate will be damned, no matter what.

But in this case, the elect's salvation doesn't occur at the moment that they're baptized, or even the moment that they come to faith. Rather, both their faith and their Baptism are the results of God's eternal decree of salvation. At the very least, at the moment that Christ died for them, this made it impossible for them to go to Hell, according to the (faulty) logic of Limited Atonement. But whether you view the relevant date as 33 A.D. or all eternity, it was well before the lifetime of the believer. There was no moment in which they were, in any meaningful sense, "unsaved."

So we can contrast the three views like this:
That's what makes this question in Mark 16:16 so critical. It provides a clean contrast between what Jesus Christ and the Catholic Church teach about the prerequisites for salvation, and what's taught by the Baptists and Calvinists. And the result of our examination is that yes, contrary to what some Protestants believe, Scripture teaches that Baptism is necessary for salvation.

The Covenantal Case for Catholicism

One area in which Catholics and many Protestants agree is that covenant is key to Christianity. After all, Judaism and Christianity are frequently referred to as the "Old Covenant" and "New Covenant," and the terms Old and New Testament are also tied to the covenant. Granted, we often disagree with how the covenants should be understood, but both (or all) sides should be able to recognize the importance of the subject.

Whether you're looking at how we're saved, the relationship of the Old Testament Law to the Church, how Jesus is High Priest, or any of countless other areas, you're going to need to understand what a covenant is, and how it works within Christianity. That's one reason why covenantal theology is so important: it's at the foundation of much of what we believe. But there's another reason that I'm heartened to see so many Protestants with an interest in understanding covenants: the New Covenant points to the Catholic Church. We can see this from three distinct perspectives: what the covenant says about the Eucharist, about the necessity of the Church for salvation, and about the need for baptism.

I. The Covenant and the Eucharist

Joos van Cleve, Altarpiece of the Lamentation (1525)
There are literally hundreds of covenant references throughout the Old Testament, and it's critical to understanding Christianity. Given this, you might be surprised to learn that Jesus only uses the term "covenant" once in the New Testament. Other than Zechariah’s reference to the Old Covenant in Luke 1:72, this is the only time covenant gets mentioned in any of the four Gospels.

So what does He have to say about the New Covenant? The sole covenant reference comes while He is consecrating the wine as His Blood. He says, “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20). So the only time Jesus talks about the New Covenant, the only time He mentions covenants at all, He's tying the New Covenant to the Eucharist.

What's more, He's saying that what's in the Chalice is His Blood, the Blood of the Covenant. So we should be asking: does He mean this literally? Or is the Eucharist just a symbol, as many Protestants hold? The clearest answer comes from Hebrews 9:18-22, by comparing the Old and New Covenants:
Hence even the first covenant was not ratified without blood. For when every commandment of the law had been declared by Moses to all the people, he took the blood of calves and goats, with water and scarlet wool and hyssop, and sprinkled both the book itself and all the people, saying, “This is the blood of the covenant which God commanded you.” And in the same way he sprinkled with the blood both the tent and all the vessels used in worship. Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.
Hebrews tells us three things. First, that Moses used actual blood. Second, that this ratified the Old Covenant. And third, that this was absolutely necessary for there to be forgiveness of sins. If Moses had used wine instead, if he'd gone around spritzing the people with spritzer, the Covenant wouldn't have been ratified, and there would have been no forgiveness of sins.

So that's what happened when Moses said “This is the blood of the covenant which God commanded you” (Heb. 9:20, referencing Exodus 24:8). And there's an obvious parallel between that proclamation, and Christ's: “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.”

But here, we encounter an oddity. From the Protestant perspective, Jesus isn't using real Blood, so He's not really ratifying the Covenant, and the Eucharist doesn't actually bring about the forgiveness of sins in any way. In other words, in each of the three areas that Hebrews 9:18-22 highlights, Jesus' action is inferior to Moses'.

That conclusion can't be right. After all, the very  next verse says “Thus it was necessary for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these rites, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these.” (Heb. 9:23). In other words, Moses' action foreshadows Christ's, but Christ's is superior. The logical conclusion is that the Protestant interpretation here is wrong: that Jesus really has turned wine into His Blood, the same Blood that He sheds for our salvation.

II. The Covenant and the Church

Matthias Gerun, John's Vision of Heaven (Revelation 4:1-11, 5:1-14), from the Ottheinrich Bible (1532)

If you understand the Covenant, you'll understand why the Catholic Church is indispensable to salvation. Let's turn back to Hebrews again, specifically, Heb. 9:13-15,
For if the sprinkling of defiled persons with the blood of goats and bulls and with the ashes of a heifer sanctifies for the purification of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify your conscience from dead works to serve the living God. Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred which redeems them from the transgressions under the first covenant.
In other words, God saves us through a covenant, the New Covenant. And that's important, because covenants are contracts, and like all contracts, there are parties to them. And the parties to this covenant are Jesus and the Church. St. Paul makes this clear in Ephesians 5:25-27, when he compares the marriage covenant to Christ's covenant with the Church:
Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.
This shows us why the Church is critically important. We like to imagine that we can simply be saved individually: me and Jesus. But this shows us why that view can't be right: it would involve separate covenants between Jesus and each believer, and each one would need to be sealed by His shedding His blood. And Hebrews tells us that this isn't the case (Heb. 9:25-26):
Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the Holy Place yearly with blood not his own; for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.
So salvation is possible only through the One True Church, the one Bride of Christ. Now, this still leaves the question of what this True Church looks like. But already, we've recognized that the role of the Church is more central than most Protestants (and for that matter, most ordinary Catholics) realize. After all, Christ's first words in Mark's Gospel are “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). Salvation has always consisted of both individual belief in the Gospel and membership in the Kingdom. The covenant doesn't make sense without this dimension.

And what else do we know about this Church? Well, in Matthew 16:17-19, Jesus says:
“Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
So Christ blesses Simon, changes his name to Peter (which means Rock), and then makes a series of promises to him (that He will establishes the Church on him, and that He will give him the Keys and the binding/loosening power). All of this neatly parallels Genesis 17, in which God creates a covenant with Abram by blessing him (Gen. 17:3-4), changing his name to Abraham (Gen. 17:5), and making a series of promises to him. So the Church necessary for salvation is the same one that Christ establishes on Peter. All of this points towards the Catholic Church.

III. The Covenant and Baptism

God Appears to Abraham Kneeling for the Second Time (14th c.)
If participation in the covenant is necessary for salvation, how do we enter into the covenant? Here, it helps to look back at Israel and the first Covenant. In Genesis 17:10-14, God says to Abraham:
This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your descendants after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. He that is eight days old among you shall be circumcised; every male throughout your generations, whether born in your house, or bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring, both he that is born in your house and he that is bought with your money, shall be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.
This is how a male entered the Old Covenant. Failing to do this meant that the covenant was broken. So what's the New Covenant parallel? We find it in Colossians 2:9-14, while St. Paul is speaking of our relationship with Christ:
For in him the whole fulness of deity dwells bodily, and you have come to fulness of life in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of flesh in the circumcision of Christ; and you were buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead. And you, who were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, having canceled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands; this he set aside, nailing it to the cross.
So it's through baptism, the New Covenant equivalent of circumcision, that we enter into the saving Covenant. This Covenant then works through faith in the working of God. And, of course, this makes sense. Baptism is the way that we enter into the Church: if the Church is the party to the Covenant, then Baptism serves as the doorway to both. And this baptism-plus-faith formula for salvation is what Christ explicitly lays out in Mark 16:16: “He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.” And this is one of the reasons that St. Peter can proclaim to his readers that Baptism “now saves you” (1 Peter 3:21).

IV. The Passover Connection

Unknown, Last Supper, Sant'Angelo (Formis) (1080)
To see how these three distinct areas (the Eucharist, the Church, and Baptism) are interrelated within the New Covenant, look at the foreshadowing of the Passover meal in Exodus 12. This ritual meal was closely restricted to the covenantal people (Ex. 12:43-49):
And the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “This is the ordinance of the passover: no foreigner shall eat of it; but every slave that is bought for money may eat of it after you have circumcised him. No sojourner or hired servant may eat of it. In one house shall it be eaten; you shall not carry forth any of the flesh outside the house; and you shall not break a bone of it. All the congregation of Israel shall keep it. And when a stranger shall sojourn with you and would keep the passover to the Lord, let all his males be circumcised, then he may come near and keep it; he shall be as a native of the land. But no uncircumcised person shall eat of it. There shall be one law for the native and for the stranger who sojourns among you.”
In other words, a non-Jew could eat the Passover, but only by entering into the covenant first. He must be circumcised, and then he could join the Old Covenant people of God, Israel, and could partake of the Passover. This prefigures the way that believers must be baptized, and thereby join the New Covenant people of God, the Church, and can partake of Christ's Last Supper meal, the Eucharist (Matthew 26:18; 1 Corinthians 5:7).

What's more, all of this had to happen within one house. St. Cyprian of Carthage, writing in the early third century, highlighted this requirement:
Also, the sacrament of the passover contains nothing else in the law of the Exodus than that the lamb which is slain in the figure of Christ should be eaten in one house. God speaks, saying, In one house shall you eat it; you shall not send its flesh abroad from the house. The flesh of Christ, and the holy of the Lord, cannot be sent abroad, nor is there any other home to believers but the one Church.
From the Passover, then, you can see that the three dimensions operate in a distinct but interconnected manner. To try to understand the Old Covenant without looking at sacrificial meals, Israel, or circumcision would render an inaccurate and incomplete view of the Old Covenant. So, too, would understanding the New Covenant with only a cursory consideration of the Eucharist, the Catholic Church, and Baptism.

V. Conclusion

I mentioned at the outset that the covenant is an area of interest for many Protestants as well as Catholics. And that's great: without understanding the covenant, you don't have a full grasp of what Christianity is all about. But to take that idea a step further, without a proper understanding of its distinct Eucharistic, ecclesiastical and sacramental dimensions, you don't have an adequate understanding of the New Covenant. In these three ways and more, a rich understanding of the New Covenant points to the truth of the Catholic Church.

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