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
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?
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
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..
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.
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
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.
Finally, I come to the question of the Lord's Prayer.
George Bernard Shaw is reputed to have said that he did not believe
he was offered salvation through Jesus
[Home] [A Tale of Two Monarchs] [Life After Death] [Christian
Stewardship] [Christian Ethics] [A
Religious Approach to Voluntary Euthanasia] [The
Birth of Jesus]
[The Crucifixion] [The Character of Jesus] [The Atonement] [Duality in the Gospels] [The Triumph of Paulianity] [Where have all the soldiers gone]
[Interesting Sites] [Click here to contact THEOLOGICA]
all writings © theologica.net 2001 - 2006
site designed & maintained by