The glory of God is the human person fully alive. I first read this quote by Irenaeus of Lyons while still a graduate student. In my early rendering of this evocative statement, I imagined people at play in a field of flowers, the sun shining brightly. Everyone is happy and smiling, laughing even, as they dance and play in the fields of the Lord. As I pictured it in my mind’s eye, the human person fully alive was a person alive to possibility, never-ending opportunities, and always happy. How could it be otherwise with God’s glory as the enlivening force?
One author suggests the same in his commentary on Irenaeus’ statement:
“God’s intentions towards me might be better than I’d thought. His happiness and my happiness are tied together? My coming fully alive is what He’s committed to? That’s the offer of Christianity? Wow! I mean, it would make no small difference if we knew–and I mean really knew–that down-deep-in-your-toes kind of knowing that no one and nothing can talk you out of–if we knew that our lives and God’s glory were bound together. Things would start looking up. It would feel promising…the offer is life.”(1)
Despite my romantic imagination and the author’s exuberant interpretation, I am often perplexed as to just what “fully alive” looks like for many people in our world. How would this read to women in the Congo, for example, whose lives are torn apart by tribal war and violence against their own bodies? What would this mean to an acquaintance of mine who is a young father recently diagnosed with lymphoma? What about those who are depressed? Or who live with profound disabilities?
If feeling alive is only that God is happy when we are happy, then perhaps God is quite sad. Surely God’s glory is much larger than human happiness, isn’t it? Certainly, happiness is a gift and a blessing of the human experience, and for many it is there in abundance. Yet, are those who have reason for sorrow—those who do not find themselves amidst fields of flowers or bounty, those who have to work to find goodness—are they beyond the reflection of God’s glory?
The reality is that Irenaeus’ oft-used and oft-interpreted statement had a specific, apologetic context that was not really about human happiness. Irenaeus lived during a time when gnostic sects were trying to deny the real flesh and blood reality of Jesus. In their alternative view, only the spirit was redeemed, and the body should be ignored at best, or indulged at worst, since nothing regarding the body mattered. As a result, they denied the full humanity of Jesus. He could not have died a physical death on the cross, since he was merely an enlightened spirit, or some form of lesser deity. And he was certainly not one who would enter into the created world to take on the messy nature of life.(2)
When Irenaeus describes the glory of God as the human being fully alive he is correcting this aberrant and heretical notion that Jesus was not fully human. Irenaeus countered that in fact, the glory of God so inhabited this man from Nazareth that he was fully alive to all of what it meant to be human. Jesus experienced hunger, thirst, weariness, frustration, sorrow, and despair—and he experienced the joy and beauty that came from complete dependence on God. To be fully alive, as one sees in the life of Jesus, includes all human experience—the joys as well as the sorrows.
We see that Jesus is fully alive in the Christian tradition of Holy Week. For Christians, that journey includes Good Friday and Holy Saturday just as surely as it includes Easter morning. As Jesus experienced the miraculous new life of resurrection on Easter morning, he first experienced the sorrow of rejection, betrayal, and the physical brutality of crucifixion and death. Jesus lived the depths of the human experience as one of us.
Irenaeus’ continues his thought by saying: “[T]he life of man is the vision of God. If the revelation of God through creation already brings life to all living beings on the earth, how much more will the manifestation of the Father by the Word bring life to those who see God.”(3) Human beings are fully alive as they find life in this One who in his human life reveals both the eternal God and the vision of God for fully alive human beings. Certainly, our lives include events and seasons that we wish were not part of the fully alive human experience. But perhaps those who seek true life might recognize these appointments with both death and resurrection as an entryway into a deeper understanding of the human experience. And as that door is opened, we can be ushered into the deep and abiding fellowship of the Divine Community—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—not phantom spirits, not distant deities, but intimates to all that it means to be human.
Margaret Manning Shull is a member of the writing and speaking team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Bellingham, Washington.
(1) John Eldridge, Waking the Dead (Nashville: Thomas-Nelson Publishers, 2003), 12.
(2) Cyril Richardson ed., Early Christian Fathers (New York: Collier Books, 1970), 345.
(3) Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies, (IV, 20, 7).