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The Atonement

Some years ago, as I walked along a busy street in the City of Cardiff, I was approached by a man who handed me a tract. A short time later, while having a cup of coffee in a cafe near the main railway station, I read the pamphlet. I was not surprised to discover that it outlined one of the most central beliefs of the Christian Church, the doctrine which holds that Jesus, by his death on the cross, provided forgiveness for all who would believe in the truth of that concept. I noted immediately that the pamphlet was full of quotations from the Bible and out of interest I counted them. There were sixteen from the New Testament epistles and one from the Gospels.
Several years before this event I had rejected the idea that the death of Jesus - or, as some Christians maintain, his suffering - could possibly have had any power in providing atonement for us sinners, and one of the main reasons for this rejection was the fact that evangelicals based their arguments on the words of Paul rather than on the Gospels and the life and teachings of Jesus. This did not seem reasonable. If a doctrine is to be called Christian it should, by definition, be based on the sayings of Jesus. However, a study of the Scriptures which I made in my undergraduate days made increasingly clear to me one mighty fact, namely that if the Church had been based on the philosophy of Jesus the Nazarene the doctrine of salvation through his passion and death would never have arisen.

 Jesus said nothing in support of it, and indeed in many significant sayings he uttered words which flatly contradict the whole idea.

What happened to take the early Church so firmly off on a different course from that envisaged by its Master?
The answer is simple, yet frighteningly great in its implications. The church, before its roots were firmly fixed in the soil of human development, was highjacked by a man called Paul. Had this not occured, had the embryo Christian society been allowed to follow the example and teachings of Jesus, then the Church would have been a very different instution from that which it has become - and a better one, much more firmly based on the ideal of service preached and lived by Jesus. It would have rejected the inward-looking philosophy of the New Testament epistles with their concern for personal salvation,anad would have looked outward to the needs of a weary world in a much greater way than it has done. However, the vision of one man in the desert, a vision which changed him from persecutor of the early Christians to being a self-appointed apostle, was destined to change all that. The spirit of Jesus, a spirit of service, courage and dedication, rapidly sank in the waters of time, its final trumpet call being a short but poignant letter from James, brother of Jesus, which proclaims the spirit of the Master in a manner so inimical to the Christian Church that Martin Luther wanted it removed from the Bible. He described it as an "Epistle of straw" and recognised that it stood in flat contradiction to the doctrines accepted by the church.

It is important to keep in mind that the Epistles or letters of the New Testament represent a line of thought which is in complete contradiction to the accounts of the life and teaching of Jesus contained in the Gospels. I am almost tempted at times to regard the four Gospels as a last ditch attempt to save Christianity from Paulinism, to hold for the world something of the beauty of a life lived in sacrificial service, to offer to a striving and often suffering humanity a message of peace and hope. If that was indeed the intention it was doomed to failure.The church went off down another road and lost out on some of the great truths of the Master.

That change of direction was ultimately to result in the Christian church becoming the weak and ineffective force which it is today and had the immediate effect of leaving in the hands of the church the power to threaten and frighten with visions of Hell and of a merciless and cruel God. However, the Christ spirit has never quite disappeared. Although the mainstream churches preach Paul rather than Jesus, the philosophy of the Galilean is still faithfully represented by the Society of Friends (commonly but erroneously called the Quakers) and by some sections of the Unitarian and Spiritualist churches. There may be others with which I am not familiar and I would be glad to hear of them. In fact, as I shall later demonstrate, only such churches can, without contradiction, say the Lord's Prayer. The emphasis in this prayer on the doctrine of salvation by our own efforts means that it has no place in the services of the orthodox churches. They should reject it from their services immediately in the interests of consistency.

I am going to argue that the evangelical position is untenable, both from the point of view of logic and from the assertions of scripture. In looking at the issue logically the first point which comes to mind is enshrined in the question "Why did God have to require that Jesus be sacrificed?" The doctrine of the Church implies that without the atoning death of Jesus God would not - and, more important for us, cannot - forgive human sins. This immediately presents the idea of a God who is limited in His powers, and is in some way a victim of circumstance. Such a reduction in the power of a Deity is hard to comprehend, let alone accept, and the logical implication of the concept is that, at least in the area of forgiveness, God is much less than we mere mortals, has much less power, and is much more a puppet dangling on a string of fate than we are. After all, we can and do forgive without requiring a sacrifice, so in this respect, if we follow the teachings of the Pauline church, we are far superior to God. Come down, great God, descend from your throne with the surrounding cherubim and seraphim, leave aside your heavenly glory for a day, descend to earth and learn a greater glory, one which the church teaches us is alien to your nature and impossible in your situation. Enter a humble home and see a mother forgiving a wayward child, join a young couple where one - or both - freely offers forgiveness to the other, all these offering their forgiveness without the intervention of a sacrificial lamb. See this bright side of our human condition and envy us that we have a power denied to the one who reigns in Heaven We have the power to forgive without requiring the forcing of nails into the unanaesthetised flesh of an intermediary, the power to wipe out the record of sin and failure without calling forth the agony of a crucifixion. Great God of Wonders, would you not like to return to your Heaven posessing this great power? Would you not like to stretch forth your hands in true love and freely forgive as we humans can, without hearing in your divine ears the agonising cries of pain from a cross? Would you not like to be as free in this way as your human subjects? Or perhaps the church has got it wrong and you do have that freedom. After all, the theologians have made the Lord God in their own image, and the howling, cursing, threatening deity of the evangelicals is but a representation of some parts of our own nature projected onto the God whom we have created. At least that is what I believe. The God proclaimed by the Christian Church therefore comes across as a victim God. He is quite unable to act on His own initiative and offer unconditional forgiveness to His people. He is the victim of some controlling fate, something higher and more powerful than He is, something which forces Him into a course of action which we human beings are able to bypass. The Church proclaims God as almighty, but by the central doctrine of the forgiving power of the death of Jesus it posits a Deity who is Himself subject to a higher power. Somewhere, lurking in the hidden depths of the Universe, is a power greater than our God, a power which makes rules and provides a destiny which our God must obey. Yet, strangely, we mortals are exempt from the workings of that power.
The matter has simply not been thought out by the theologians. They have become the puppets of a fixed theology which they defend at all costs. They will not look at the other side of the argument, will not face up to the obvious contradictions in their system. Yet it is in making new discoveries that we grow, and finding that we have been wrong, far from being a cause for insecurity, should be seen as a sign of progress, of advancement. If theology would break out of its prison and seek to discover what is true rather than spend its time and energy supporting an established position, then it would deserve to be reinstated to the position of a science, a position which Cardinal Newman believed it held, but as long as it ignores the need for honest intellectual debate it is in a very weak position indeed.

 Some evangelicals with whom I have argued this point have brought up the question of justice. They have maintained that while God is perfect love He is also just, and justice requires that sins be punished. At first sight this is a compelling argument, and I confess that in the early years after my conversion from the orthodox position it weighed heavily with me for a time. However, after closely examining the concept I was forced to reject it. Despite its apparent outward strengths there appeared flaws which were so telling that, for me at least, they caused the whole point to fall apart. The first of these points was that the crucifixion of one person could scarcely provide enough suffering to atone for the sins of all mankind in every age. In the two thousand years or so which have rolled beneath the bridges of time since Jesus took his dignified and historic walk to Calvary there has been a great deal of human sin. Our daily newspapers and the bulletins on our radio and television sets provide constant reminders of the failings of our race and of human inhumanity to others, whether it be the massacre of a defeated people in war or the bullying boss in the workplace who make the life of underlings an agony. Sin is all around us in great measure and every passing moment adds some more to the pile. Yet the justice argument of the evangelicals maintains that a short period of suffering on a cross long ago was sufficient to compensate for all of this evildoing. The crucifixion of Jesus lasted, according to Scripture, for a mere three hours, much shorter than the average length of suffering for a condemned person on the cross. Yet that short period of agony is supposed to be enough to provide punishment, taken over by Jesus, for all the sins of every age. The sentence is too light, it is simply not logical. Equally telling, when the point is considered carefully, is the fact that justice is not served at all because the guilty person does not suffer. A substitute is provided and this is not justice. Taking this into account, together with the objection raised above, the whole concept of the death of Jesus providing justice simply falls to pieces.

Another point which the church stresses is that the proffered salvation is on offer only to those who believe in it. Faith thus becomes a vital factor in the salvation equation, and this seems to me a grossly unfair condition because faith is not something over which we have any control. To have faith in something you have to believe that it exists, and belief is not under our control. Not, that is, unless we are prepared to sacrifice completely our reasoning powers. Let me give an example. Astronomy is a hobby of mine, and as an amateur stargazer I believe that the Moon is, approximately, a quarter of a million miles from the Earth. I do not feel that there is the least element of choice in this belief. The evidence for the Earth / Moon distance is incontrovertible; I simply have to accept it. In this instance my belief is solid; in other matters I may believe that on balance a certain proposition is probably true, but hold a greater or lesser degree of doubt. For example, I believe on the balance of evidence that there is a still undiscovered tenth planet circling the Sun, but that belief is far from firm. Nevertheless I am forced to maintain that position, for such is my interpretation of the available evidence. I simply have no choice over what I believe. Having come to the conclusion that the idea of Jesus dying as a means of providing human salvation is, on the evidence available, not tenable, it seems grossly unfair that God should condemn me to the everlasting tortures of Hell simply because I cannot believe it. That would mean that I was being condemned for something over which I have no control, and such a concept of God is totally unacceptable to me..
The God proclaimed by the Church, if He were transposed to human society, would certainly be hospitalised under a mental health order.
Imagine the public reaction if anyone on Earth insisted, for example, in murdering his son as a condition of forgiving a failing in his wife. Such behaviour would be regarded almost universally as psychotic, and indeed it would be. Imagine a human being inflicting severe punishment on another individual because that person could not, in all honesty, accept a certain belief. We would reject such behaviour in any of our fellows, and would rightly see the perpetrator as being a danger to society, yet we praise that very pattern when it is alleged to occur in God.
I was privileged to know, towards the end of his earthly life, the late Reverend Basil Viney, A man with whom I found an immediate rapport, his views being very akin to my own." During his ministry Basil attended, on one occasion, a meeting of ministers from several different denominations. I do not know what the purpose of the meeting was, but it is recounted that during it an evangelical minister took the opportunity of pressing his case, apparently targeting Basil because of his beliefs. He spoke at length about how God would send all who did not believe the Gospel to Hell, that there was no way out once one was admitted thereto, no hope of salvation at that point from an eternity of ceaseless pain. After he had so spoken he invited Basil Viney to respond but Basil, a gentle soul who hated to offend or upset anyone, at first declined to say anything. The evangelist pressed him repeatedly to speak, and after some time Basil, seeing that the way of silence was no longer an option, replied gently but firmly "Brother, your God is my Devil."

I believe that the philosophical and logical arguments against the concept of the atonement are strong, but the most telling point against the idea, from the Christian viewpoint, is that, according to the Gospel record, Jesus himself consistently opposed it. I have spoken already about the decision of the church in antiquity to base its theology and way of life on Paul rather than Jesus, and I stand convinced today that if the teaching and attitudes of Jesus had been taken on board by the developing church then the idea of a redeeming Christ would never have seen the light of day. This is because not only did Jesus fail to give any indication that he had come for such a purpose - a strange ommission indeed if that was the main thrust of his incarnation - but in fact his whole teaching and attitude ran contrary to it.
Let us turn to the Gospel according to Saint Mark. Protestant theologians have almost unanimously affirmed that of the four canonical gospels, Mark is the oldest. I see no reason whatsoever to disagree with this consensus. If we accept that Mark is the oldest - in theological terms the primitive - gospel then it is likely that its record is the most accurate. Assuming, then, a high degree of accuracy for Mark, it is interesting to find that in the record of that Gospel Jesus is described as forgiving sins before the crucifixion.
The story is recounted in the second chapter of Mark of an occasion when Jesus preached from the doorway of a house in Capernaum. As he spoke four men approached carrying a paralysed friend on a stretcher. After experiencing some difficulty getting through the crowd with their burden - and incidentally showing great dedication and moral courage by their actions - they present the sick man to Jesus. Speaking to the afflicted one Jesus says "My son, your sins are forgiven." We must at this point make the assumption that Jesus was not speaking these words lightly, but that he did really believe in them; he believed that he had the power, at that point in time, to offer forgiveness. If that was the case then why was a Passion and crucifixion necessary?
To make this fit, and theologians are adept at making inconsistencies fit together, we would have to assume that at some point universal law was changed so the forgiveness which was freely offered before without sacrifice could no longer be offered unless Jesus was crucified. This involves a major shift of emphasis and cannot be ignored. Did God change the rules so that a sacrifice became necessary? If so, why? There seems to be no reason why, on or about a certain Passover Day in the first half of the first century, the rules governing salvation from sin should be so suddenly and drastically altered. Such a concept presents to posterity a fickle Deity who changes His mind at a whim, and apparently introduces an entirely new order of things without good reason, indeed without any reason at all. After all, the old system appeared to be working quite well. Alternatively, if God had no hand in the process of change, if some force or intelligence in the Universe made the alteration, then our Deity becomes a mere puppet on a string, forced to arrange a crucifixion on Earth because some immutable force outside of Himself demands it. In other words, He is no longer God. Deep within the Universe lurks a strange and powerful presence to which our God can only respond, He cannot control. I for one do not find this idea acceptable.

I detect a strong Buddist influence in the life and ministry of Jesus. As a result I am inclined to give some credence to the persistent stories which claim that the Master travelled widely in the Far East before returning to the Holy Land to begin his ministry. The alleged eastern travels remain unproven, but it seems to me very clear from the Gospel record that Jesus was strongly influenced by eastern theological ideas. Incidentally I consider that the inclusion of such concepts into the record is evidence that we are dealing in our study of the Gospels with texts which have a high degree of accuracy. If the whole story had been made up the writers would not have been likely to introduce ideas which would have been acutely embarrassing to the Jewish community of the time, any more than they would have put in the difficult stories of the risen Lord not being recognised even by close friends. The presence of material potentially detrimental to the cause is at least prima facie evidence for a high degree of accuracy in reporting.
Part of this Buddist influence in the life of Jesus is revealed in his constant reiteration of the idea of Karma. According to Jesus we reap what we sow. And while he spoke frequently about a judgment it was always one in which we are judged according to the way we judged others. In the famous Sermon on the Mount, recounted in Matthew's Gospel, Jesus is explicit on this point. "Judge not, and you shall not be judged. For with whatever judgment you judge you shall be judged and with what measure you measure you shall be measured."

There is nothing in this to support the idea that salvation comes through the cross; in fact the whole passage is based on the concept of humanity working out its own salvation, providing its own measure of judgment and having to put right its own weaknesses and shortcomings. A very famous passage in the Gospel according to Matthew is the story of the sheep and the goats. Allowing for the fact that Matthew coloured his record in this story and in others with a bit of hell-fire preaching, which I consider to come from him rather than from Jesus, the basic content of the parable remains that we are judged by our actions. Beliefs count for nothing at all in this passage We are not offered an easy way out if we believe certain things, we are told that what matters to God is how we live and how we serve in the world. Service counts with God, belief does not. Going back to the parable, which is found in the twenty fifth chapter of Matthew's Gospel, Jesus makes it clear that some of those who are convinced that they are on the way to grace may find that they are deluding themselves, whereas some who please God are often surprised to find that they are approved because of their good works,even though they professed no religion.

 One of the most memorable incidents in my ministry occured when two ladies, a mother and daughter, called early one afternoon at the Manse. They asked if I would go to a nearby hospital and visit their husband and father who was very ill. When I agreed the elder lady pointed out what she saw as a potential problem. "My husband is an atheist. You may not get a warm reception, but we have been told that he does not have very long to live and as a believer myself I would like him to have the opportunity to hear our side of things." "I'm happy to visit all the same," I replied, "but your husband has the right to tell me where to go if he wants to, and I would not be prepared to trespass on his privacy if that were the case. This is what I suggest. If you will come with me to the hospital I will wait outside the ward while you go in and tell him that you have contacted me, why you have done it, and ask him if he wants to see me. If he is willing to see me, give me a call." This was what we did. I had not waited many minutes in the corridor before my new friends appeared and said that their relative - I will call him Martin - would be happy to see me as long as I understood that he did not believe a single word about religion. I accepted the conditions and entered the ward. Martin proved to be a cheerful man in spite of his illness, and he greeted me in a jocular manner. "You're not going to convince me with all that bull about religion, you know. I don't believe a word of it. I'm going to die soon and when I do that's the end. No Heaven, no Hell, no anything. You just go out like a candle." "Well, I think you're in for a big surprise" I said, and we both laughed. Martin was the sort of person I could get along with. I visited him, at his request, twice a week until he died. He asked me what I believed and why, and he told me why he had become an unbeliever. We had some happy sessions together and became good friends. Difference of opinion should not be a barrier to friendship. Soul can touch soul even if the respective intellects are far apart.
Martin came home for a time, but as his condition worsened he was readmitted to hospital. I continued my visits and then one Sunday evening, after service, I arrived to be told by the Ward Sister that my friend had died an hour before. He had gone, and I believe he would wake up in the afterlife which he had denied. His lack of faith would make no difference at all to the outcome. I drove off to his home to see his wife and daughter, and over the next few days made the necessary arrangements for the funeral. Martin's body was cremated at the local crematorium, an old building which had been erected in the early days of cremation and lacked the facilities of its more modern counterparts. I knew that Martin had been a seaman all his working life, for he had told me many tales of sailing through hurricanes, runs ashore in strange lands, and many other joys and sorrows of the mariners life. In the car park outside the crematorium after the ceremony I was approached by a man who introduced himself. "I was a close friend of Martin's. We were shipmates for years. You spoke in your address just now about his cheerful and caring spirit. Let me tell you a story about him." I listened to the old sailor's tale as the wind sighed in the pine trees which surrounded the crematorium, and soon became enthralled by the story which I was hearing. "We were on a run ashore in a strange port overseas" said my new friend. "You know the sort of thing. A few beers, pick up a girl perhaps, have a jolly good night out on the town. Well, we found ourselves, as sailors will, in a rather seedy part of the city. We turned into a side street and there was a sight to grieve the strongest heart. Young kids, thin and pale, begging. Girls as young as ten acting as prostitutes. Well, Martin took one look and burst into tears. H e was really affected by what he saw. When he had recovered his composure a bit he told me that he was going to stay there as long as we were in port and he off duty, and was going to do all he could to help those kids. And that's just what he did. He was there in every spare moment for days and when we sailed he had no money left. He had spent it all on the children."
That was so typical of Martin, I felt. My evangelical friends would say that he was destined for an eternity in Hell because he could not believe, but I do not accept that a soul so dedicated to the relief of human suffering, so unselfish in its service, would be thrown into everlasting and merciless flames because he held a certain intellectual position. If God is like that then I for one would like to see Him removed, but I cannot believe that our God is such a tyrant. One evangelist to whom I presented the case of Martin was clearly conscious of the contradiction in his theology on this point, but had arrived at an explanation for it. He told me that the temperature of Hell was not the same everywhere, some places were less hot than others, and that Martin, because he had been sincere but deluded, would be allowed by God to occupy a comparatively cool place. I did not find the concession very comforting.

Finally, I come to the question of the Lord's Prayer.
This prayer, given by Jesus to the disciples and through them to posterity, is widely used in the orthodox churches, being a part of virtually every service. It should not be so used, for it has within it a passage which denies the atonement, that central plank of orthodox theology. We ask in the Prayer of Jesus that our sins be forgiven according to the degree that we have found it in our hearts to forgive those who sin against us. We do not ask for mercy because we believe in the atoning death of the Master, on the contrary the onus for salvation is placed firmly in our own hands - as it always was with Jesus. Only those churches which deny the atonement and accept a doctrine of personal responsibility for sins can use the Lord's Prayer without being contradictory. Orthodoxy should immediately throw out either the Prayer of Jesus or the doctrine of the atonement. It cannot have both for they are contradictory.

George Bernard Shaw is reputed to have said that he did not believe he was offered salvation through Jesus
and that if it was offered he would refuse it, for he wanted the joy of personal responsibility, of seeking to put right his own mistakes.
In the words of Jesus he has just that privilege, and so do we all.

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