And Can It Be That I Should Gain?, also known as And Can It Be?, is a hymn of astonishment. In light of his powerful religious experience in May 1738, Charles Wesley wrote this hymn from the perspective of someone who is utterly bewildered by the power of God’s love and the shocking events of the crucifixion. Wesley’s reaction to this is demonstrated in the first two verses:
And can it be that I should gain
An interest in the Savior’s blood?
Died he for me, who caused his pain?
For me, who him to death pursued?
Amazing love! How can it be
That thou, my God, should die for me?
‘Tis mystery all! The Immortal dies!
Who can explore his strange design?
In vain the firstborn seraph tries
To sound the depths of love divine!
‘Tis mercy all! let earth adore,
Let angel minds inquire no more.
Highlighted in bold are just a few of the expressions Wesley uses to convey his excitement and surprise—“can it be … how can it be? Who can explore his strange design?” Wesley’s focus on the unlikely nature of the crucifixion is familiar to Christians who sometimes struggle with doubt. His disbelief that God himself died for humanity on the cross is a doubt that I have struggled with too. How could God possibly do this? And yet, God did. The last three verses of the hymn move from Wesley’s astonishment to the new life that Wesley finds in the risen Christ:
He left his Father’s throne above,
So free, so infinite his grace;
Emptied himself of all but love,
And bled for Adam’s helpless race;
‘Tis mercy all, immense and free;
For, O my God, it found out me.
Long my imprisoned spirit lay
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quick’ning ray,
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free;
I rose, went forth and followed thee.
No condemnation now I dread;
Jesus, and all in him is mine!
Alive in him, my living Head,
And clothed in righteousness divine,
Bold I approach th’eternal throne,
And claim the crown, through Christ my own.
Again, some of the expressions Wesley uses are highlighted for their importance. He writes that we are first “helpless … imprisoned” and later “woke”, “free,” and unafraid of “condemnation.” How did Wesley, and how do we, move from an imprisoned, shadow life to a fulfilled life in Jesus Christ? How on earth is this possible?
In this context, some people may turn to apologetics and logical arguments to explain the crucifixion, resurrection, and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Indeed, I am certain that Charles Wesley would have, to some extent. But what strikes me about And Can It Be? is the combination of belief and amazement. Wesley is utterly convinced of the truth of the crucifixion and all that follows, but this does not dampen his sense of astonishment. In this sense, the hymn is helpful for all of us who believe while recognizing the bewildering events at the center of our Christian faith. Yet, if we turn away from apologetics, how can all of this be explained? Does it even need to be explained?
Born just over a century later than Charles Wesley, the Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard offers some ideas as to how we embrace the unbelievable nature of our beliefs. Kierkegaard is often called the father of Christian existentialism, a Christian variation on the school of thought focused on the search for meaning in human existence. Kierkegaard argues that Christians need not try to prove Christianity is correct but rather they should encourage nonbelievers to make the leap of faith. This concept refers to the leap of faith Kierkegaard believes every Christian makes when choosing to believe in the existence of God and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. He says that belief is not based on evidence of God but on the commitment to believe in God no matter what evidence is presented to the contrary.
I think this helps us to understand what Charles Wesley was writing about. Wesley speaks of “mystery” and “strange design” and asks “how can it be?” twice; this is clearly someone who is baffled by the extent of God’s love. And yet, Wesley believes so fervently, particularly after his religious experience in May 1738. In Kierkegaard’s words, “doubt is conquered by faith, just as it is faith which has brought doubt into the world.” Wesley reflects this relationship between faith and doubt in the two halves of And Can It Be?, first questioning how God can love us this much, then embracing God’s love. Another Christian existentialist, Paul Tillich, explains this relationship in a more straightforward manner: “Doubt is not the opposite of faith; it is one element of faith.”
And Can It Be? is a testament to the power of faith and experience. I recognize that apologetics—or reason, in other words—is part of our Wesleyan faith tradition. But we must not forget that experience is too. When all of the rationales and logical explanations fade away, our relationship with God is still one where we are pushed into trust and invited into love.
Nathan Olsen is a Methodist based in London, England. He is currently working as a copywriter for USPG, an Anglican mission agency. Nathan is a former editor of Movement magazine, the bi-annual publication of the Student Christian Movement, and has written various blogs on Christian existentialism (particularly on the works of Paul Tillich and Søren Kierkegaard). In his spare time, he enjoys cricket, fantasy football and hanging out at the Tate Britain.