I believe that the best kind of love is unconditional love.
It is the best foundation for any type of serious relationship, and the most enduring type of love we know. Whether it is a married couple, a parent and child, a friend and a friend, or even a Saviour dying for his people, unconditional love is far and away better than any other type.
Even though I am not a Christian, I admire the story of Jesus, specifically the "Forgive them, for they know not what they do" part. I agree that dying for someone else is a very strong form of love and I would say that dying for someone based on unconditional love is the strongest love of all.
It is most directly this principle, in my opinion, which has allowed the Christian religion to fluorish for the last few thousand years. The reason which fundamentalist Christianity and Islam will ultimately decline is because they are not predicated upon unconditional love, but are based on conditional love instead. "God won't love you unless you do everything exactly the way we say it" may give these religions an evolutionary advantage. It may help them retain membership through coercion and other threats. This "fire and brimstone" theology, however, is doomed to fail, because it is counter-intuitive to the best human definitions of love.
One of my goals is not to debunk religion, but to debunk fundamentalism in religion. Much of the renewed vigor of atheists in recent years is directly attributable to a rise in global fundamentalism. However, I do not wish for my atheism to turn into fundamentalism. I admit that I appreciate the beauty and morality which can be found in many religions of our world. However, I will not hesitate to point out when certain elements of religion harm human beings instead of helping them.
I believe that there are other ways to help people besides religion, but I must admit that for many purposes religion is the most efficient means we have to decrease suffering, and as a moral utilitarian, I sincerely appreciate anything which decreases suffering in our world.
Fundamentalism is not unconditional love: it is not the unconditional love of Jesus. He spent time with prostitutes and theives and tax collectors (well-known frauds), and told them that there was a larger hope for them beyond the boundaries of their society's conception of religious dogma. Jesus brought into the world a sense that their was something innately more powerful than the religious law of his times, and in that sense he was correct: he gave license for many humans to unleash their unconditional love in the same way that he would give his love and forgiveness unconditionally.
Many people in our society say "the sacrifice of Jesus is necessary for salvation" or "the sacrifice of Jesus is necessary for forgiveness", and then attempt to exclude from that message of love and hope all who do not disagree with them on religion. However, from my readings of the Gospel, I remember that Jesus forgave sins before he died -- before he sacrificed himself on a cross, he still forgave sins. Because he forgave the sins of humanity, he was branded a heretic by the religious establishment of his times. Jesus advanced the idea that one human could forgive another, outside of the boundaries of the religious establishment. Of course, theology accounts for this being possible because he was a god, but what Christian will also deny his human nature, for to deny that is to deny his sacrifice?
I believe that he was a good man; maybe not as good as Gandhi or Nelson Mandela. They're close. Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, was also a great leader. He tried to bridge the divide between Hindu and Muslim believers in his homeland, by saying that his god was neither Hindu nor Muslim, but above both.
I do not believe in Jesus' divinity, but I do believe in his message of love and forgiveness, as I also believe in the Buddha's message of compassion, though I also do not believe that the Buddha had a divine experience. Fundamentalists tell us that we can only experience unconditional love and forgiveness if we adhere exactly to their beliefs. If we believe this message, then we are denying our own humanity, for the capacity exists within all of us to be as unconditionally loving and forgiving as Jesus or as compassionate as the Buddha.
Religion can help us become better people when it is not divisive, petty, power-hungry, fearful or jealous.
1 John 4:16,18-19 (NIV) reads, "And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him...There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. We love because he first loved us."
This passage is one of the best statements in the entire Bible.
Jesus brought love into the world to supercede the law. Fulfilling the law was the only way to reach God: fulfilling the law was the only way to reach the divine. And if one could not fulfill the law, one could not reach God. Early Christians recognized that it was impossible to fulfill the law. They recognized that there is a value in humanity infinitely more important than a law which is based on divine command: perfect, unconditional love.
The law was based on fear -- the law was based on fear, not love. And "the one who fears is not made perfect in love". The essential positive message of Jesus is that people are free to love other humans in him because he loved humanity. The number one doctrine of Christianity is that Jesus fulfilled the law, freeing us to love other people as he loved us.
Love is more important than any divine law: this is the most important principle of Christianity. And it is a principle which fundamentalist Christians conclusively ignore. They always complain "hate the sin, love the sinner" or "what you're doing is wrong because it's against God's law" or they read passages from Leviticus in an attempt to feel smug with their knowledge of the law.
But Jesus and the early Christians knew that true love comes unconditionally, not through any divine law! The major problem with divine law is that basically your god is saying "this is good because I said so!" The early Christians knew that this didn't make sense -- they probably knew that the god of the Old Testament who orders genocidal massacres of thousands "because he said so" didn't make sense.
A much better, more profound message is "love because God first loved us". It is a more human message, and what better way to illustrate the shift of focus in religion from the divine to the human level by sending a human (Jesus) to preach this new message!
Jesus and his early followers were radical theological revolutionaries. Basically, Jesus was a kinder, more compassionate version of Martin Luther or John Calvin. The early Christians' new principle -- the way to access love, the way to access the divine -- is through unconditional love, not through the law, not through fear, and not through punishment -- was an amazing and spectacularly successful message. However, that message is perverted by all those who say "believe in Jesus or go to hell!"
John 3:16 is most Christians' favorite Bible verse, but what about John 3:18, which states that all those who do not believe are already condemned? True love is not made perfect through fear or through fear of punishment, as 1 John 4:18 so clearly states.
This is why I do not believe in the god of Isaiah 8:13 (NIV):
"The Lord Almighty is the one you are to regard as holy, he is the one you are to fear, he is the one you are to dread"
or the god of Jeremiah 5:22 (NIV):
"'Should you not fear me?' declares the Lord. 'Should you not tremble in my presence?'"
or the god of Hebrews 10:31 (NIV):
"It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God."
I do not believe in that god, such a god that is to be dreaded or feared. For love, unconditional love, is not made perfect through fear, or especially through fear of punishment, as the section from 1 John 4 so clearly demonstrates.
I believe in unconditional love and compassion, shared by such religious innovators as Jesus, Buddha, and Guru Nanak. What is love?
I look at 1 Corinthians 4:4-13 (NIV):
"Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always preserves.
Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love."
This is the love in which I believe. The Biblical god often boasts -- is easily angered -- keeps record of wrongs -- is not patient. Yet once we know of true unconditional love, this "poor reflection as in a mirror" shall pass away.
Everything shall pass away eventually: "where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away". One of my goals is to put these "childish ways" of religious dogmatism behind.
Jesus said "Forgive them, for they know not what they do" to those who crucified him. Yet the Old Testament god could not forgive Adam and Eve, who didn't even know the difference between god and evil? Who in the history of the entire universe would the words "forgive them, for they know not what they do?" apply to better than to Adam and Eve? That is indeed a "poor reflection in a mirror" of love.
Love is the greatest of all things. And whenever a manifestation of love is found, it deserves to be celebrated and embraced by all, regardless of its origin. Conversely, whenever something that stands in the way of love is found, it should be criticized and admonished, regardless of its origin.
There are many things in Christianity which celebrate love, and there are many things in Christianity which go firmly against the grain of love. Though Christianity as we know it may pass away, true love will never fail, as long as there are humans to spread unconditional love.
This is why I celebrate Jesus, but not Yahweh, and forgiveness and love, but not fire and brimstone.