Last month, Canadian-American actor and comedian Jim Carrey gave a powerful testimony on suffering and salvation to a group of ex-convicts and former gang members. He spoke about suffering as the only way to salvation, and dwelt on Jesus Christ’s death on a cross as a way to understand and accept God’s grace and compassion.
“Ultimately, I believe that suffering leads to salvation, and in fact it’s the only way,” Carrey told a gathering of ex-cons and former gang members brought together by the Los Angeles-based Homeboy Industries, run by a Roman Catholic priest.
Rather than rejecting suffering, Carrey suggested accepting it, and following Jesus in extending forgiveness despite very real pain. “We have to somehow accept — not deny, but feel — our suffering, feel our losses, and we make one of two decisions,” the actor declared.
“We either decide to go through the gate of resentment, which leads to vengeance, which leads to self-harm, which leads to harm to others; or we go through the gate of forgiveness, which leads to grace, and you’re being here is an indication that you’ve made that decision already,” Carrey said. While there is an extremely high rate of recidivism (convicts returning to crime after prison), Homeboy Industries helps connect ex-cons and former gang members with jobs and a new life.
“You’ve made the decision to walk through the gate of forgiveness, to grace, just as Christ did on the cross,” the actor declared. “He suffered terribly and he was broken by it, to the point of doubt and a feeling of absolute abandonment — which all of you have felt.”
This “absolute abandonment” was when Jesus cried, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” in Matthew 27:46. This phrase means “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” According to Christian tradition, Jesus spoke these words at the pinnacle of his suffering — after he had been scourged and mocked, paraded through Jerusalem unable to carry his cross, and three hours after he had been nailed hand and foot to the cross. He was about to die of painful suffocation, and God the Father abandoned Him.
Orthodox Christianity teaches that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and He has a special communion with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit — they are one God in three persons, difficult as that is to understand. It is literally impossible for a human being to know the full agony Jesus felt in that moment, as His connection to God the Father was rent in two.
But a smaller version of this abandonment occurs in human lives, whenever a friend or family member utterly rejects someone. Jim Carrey’s statement that each ex-con and former gang member had felt a type of this abandonment is undoubtedly true — they are the outcasts of society. (Which means they are the people Jesus came to save, not the self-righteous who don’t realize their need for a savior.)
Speaking again on Jesus’ suffering, the actor said the savior’s “decision was to look upon the people who were causing that suffering — or the situation that was causing that suffering — with compassion and with forgiveness. And that’s what opens the gates of heaven for us.”
Here Carrey referred to Jesus’ words in Luke 23:34. After Jesus was nailed to the cross, he said, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.”
The actor said he wished the same kind of forgiveness, despite deep suffering, for all those in the room. “I wish that for all of you, I wish that for myself. I know no matter what I’ve suffered, most of you have suffered worse than that,” he admitted. “But that’s why I admire you because you’re here, and you will have grace.”
This powerful message of sharing in the suffering of Jesus and finding grace to forgive others in such circumstances should inspire Christians and non-Christians alike.
Many struggle with what C.S. Lewis called The Problem of Pain, the question of why a good God would allow people to suffer, especially when it seems like they do not deserve it. The Christian answer is multifaceted: In general, no one is sinless, so every person deserves suffering. It is only by God’s grace that anyone is saved.
But Jesus doesn’t just tell people, “Tough luck, you deserve it.” No, Jesus suffers with them. Jesus became human and suffered a literally excruciating — and utterly shameful — death. God’s ultimate answer to the problem of pain isn’t theological but personal. God, in the person of Jesus, embraced that suffering and used it to redeem sinful people to Himself.
In the Christian view, suffering isn’t meaningless. Rather, it is an echo of Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice — an anguish that reunited sinful men and women to a holy God. In the midst of pain and suffering, this isn’t easy to accept, but Christians have the comfort that God Himself suffered, too.
Peter Kreeft has often said that suffering is the gap between satisfaction and desire. The Western answer is to push satisfaction up to meet desire, finding new ways of gratifying every longing of the heart. The Eastern answer is to push desire back to satisfaction — the Buddhist eight-fold path is about curbing longing back to achieve Nirvana. Jesus offers no pat answer, but willingly embraces pain and disgrace to solve a deeper issue, sin.
Jim Carrey is fully correct to say that suffering leads to salvation — indeed he undersold his case. It is also inspiring to see so many ex-cons and former gang members listen to and embrace this teaching. Forgiveness is never easy, especially amidst suffering, and these people have suffered a great deal.
While Carrey was spot on about suffering, forgiveness, and grace, he also deviated from orthodox Christianity in later remarks. He praised the practice of meditation, encouraging people to turn off the thoughts in their heads. Even more notably, however, he took an extreme position on the omnipresence of God which flirted with heresy.
“They talk about omnipresence in church,” Carrey noted. “What it means is every cell of your body is God. Everything is God, everything is divine. You are the heart of God, you are the eyes of God. When you speak from that place, you are God’s voice.”
“When you make a loaf of bread in this kitchen, that is a Eucharist,” the actor declared. “That is the body of Christ, you know.”
These words were astonishing, especially from a man who was raised Roman Catholic. Catholics believe that Jesus’ body is literally present in the Eucharist (or “Holy Communion” or “Lord’s Supper”), that the bread and wine become the body and blood of Jesus in a miracle called “transubstantiation.” But Catholics also believe that this only happens when the elements are blessed by a priest and presented to God — not just whenever bread is baked.
(The Catholic position is important, as Homeboy Industries is led by the Reverend Gregory J. Boyle, a Jesuit Catholic priest who introduced Carrey and emphatically agreed with him at the event.)
Furthermore, the omnipresence of God means that God undergirds all things. “In him we live, and move, and have our being,” Paul wrote in Acts 17:28. But this does not mean “everything is God.” That would be pantheism, not Christianity. Christianity holds that there is a fundamental difference between creature and Creator, and that it was a mysterious miracle for God to take on flesh and become Jesus Christ. This would not be remarkable at all if everything were already God.
Despite these statements, Carrey’s message of redemption was inspiring, and it is heartening to see a well-known actor declare such deep theological truth.
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