The Easter celebration has its beginning in the Northern European festival to honour Eostre the goddess of Spring. As with the Yuletide festivities the Christian church moved in and claimed it as their celebration.
In the synoptic gospels of all the words which are supposed to have been spoken by Jesus there are very few which give the impression that he considered his death as necessary for the redemption of souls, yet the Christian Church has made ‘salvation’ the central fundamental doctrine. Salvation through the death on the cross is propounded in the gospel of John and the so-called Pauline epistles. It is a doctrine conceived by the early church and follows logically from the Old Testament rites which derive from primitive concepts.
To early humans natural phenomena was a profound mystery and they used their imagination to explain earth quakes, volcanoes, fertility, change of seasons etc. as the work of supernatural beings. These deities were seen as extensions of men with the same good and bad characteristics – they could be antagonised or appeased therefore it was essential to do obeisance and offer sacrifices.
The system of priests arose before long with particular people claiming special affinity with the gods. They received the sacrificial offerings and performed the rites which they ordained but claimed that the deity imposed them. When calamity struck the blame often fell on a particular person and the offender was punished. It appears that under the Hebrew system it was customary to select a scapegoat. Occasionally it was a son or daughter but usually it was a bird or animal which was substituted to pay the price of the perceived wrong-doing.
The victim was slain in order that its life, regarded as being in the blood, could be set free as an offering to Yahweh. The basic idea of the sin-offering was to make atonement – the blood of the martyrs became a “ransom for the remission of sins” (4 Maccabees) and the blood of righteous men was thought to deliver Israel. In all sacrifices the blood of the victim was forbidden to the Israelites because it was considered holy and to be the property of Yahweh but the drinking of the victim’s blood was a common practice among primal tribes. (This practice is still preserved by Christians in the ceremonial Eucharist.)
The origin of sacrifices stemmed from two motives:
(1) Believing they had offended their deity people endeavoured to appease and win favour by offering as a sacrifice something of value to themselves.
(2) Believing they were dependent on the deity they expressed it in paying homage.
The primary element in religion is delivery from evil either against the clan or the individual.
It was only during the time of Exile in the 6th century B.C.E. that the Hebrews developed the idea of individual immortality. It is evident therefore that all prior sacrifices were to satisfy the aforementioned two motives and were not performed as personal atonements to secure forgiveness and eternal life.
The idea that the death of Jesus was an atonement for sin was due primarily to the prevailing attitude to blood sacrifices and the belief, particularly in Greek and Roman culture, that gods were deliverers and saviours. Yahweh’s ordained way of forgiving required the death of Jesus and his death was the price paid for the redemption of humankind by an expiation sacrifice for the sins of humans.
The doctrine of atonement begins with the idea of sin and ‘sin’ – a purely religious term bearing little relationship to moral values or social responsibility – is tied to the folk myth of Adam and Eve and the ‘fall of man’. Augustine (354-430) taught that after ‘the fall’ man was totally depraved and only through the Church could humans acquire a measure of merit. By devotion, observance of duty and penance it was considered possible to acquire a super abundance of merit and it was this concept which led to much abuse and ultimately sparked the Reformation.
The idea of transmitted merit was tied to the concept of transmitted guilt but both sides are equally unethical. However, the proposition was further enlarged to impute that through the death of Jesus humans were not only considered to be righteous but were actually righteous. It is being realised today that such conceptions are ethically unjustifiable and psychologically impossible. The goodness of human beings may influence and benefit others and their example may stimulate the moral perception of those whom they contact but this does not constitute transference of merit.
A major obstacle for theologians is the fact that, though they accept the impossibility of the transfer of guilt from the transgressor to the innocent, they still are obliged to maintain that Jesus endured the full penalty of the individual and collective sin of humankind even though a major element of that penalty is considered to be the consciousness of guilt. The guiltless cannot be conscious of guilt and Jesus is always projected as perfect. It is axiomatic that a perfect being cannot be conscious of imperfection.
The doctrine of penal substitution or vicarious suffering is central to the Pauline letters but the idea of the innocent paying the penalty of the guilty (the scapegoat principle) is morally unacceptable. The transfer of punishment to an innocent person would not be allowed by any national government but was ordained by Yahweh (according to scripture) in the case of Jesus. It is possible for a third party to pay a fine or make recompense but that does not transfer guilt.
To kill an innocent person instead of the guilty is a crime and calling it ‘vicarious sacrifice’ is an attempt at whitewashing. In the words of Canon Storr “Nothing is more central to Christianity than the cross yet creates more difficulties.”
Let us continue to list these difficulties:
What is the condition that makes the atoning death necessary? Theologically humankind is regarded as having rebelled against the authority of Yahweh and therefore come under ‘the wrath of God’ who is morally bound to inflict punishment.
Why must an omnipotent being be offended by another person exercising their free will? Why must the punishment be death? Why must the penalty be handed down generation after generation? If someone creates something, by what strange reason does he then have the audacity to be angry and condemn the imperfections of his own creation? Is not anger a sign of imperfection in the creator?
How is it possible for a human to commit an offence against a spirit? Surely the idea is ridiculous.
Human beings offend against other human beings and the logical person to whom restitution or expression of regret should be offered is to the one who has been hurt. It cannot and should not be an uninvolved third person and yet theologians and purveyors of religion continue to insist that humankind has sinned against Yahweh and can only be reconciled by the death of Jesus. Debts can be transferred but moral obligations cannot.
To Christians the death of Jesus fulfilled the condition of total filial obedience and was therefore supremely satisfactory to Yahweh but doing what one perceives as his or her duty cannot be construed as a means of divine influence. Total submission and obedience to the perceived will of Yahweh is still advocated as the supreme goal for Christians.
In regard to the crucifixion theologians stress that Jesus was not only man but the second person of the Trinity. This places them in another predicament, for by definition a god cannot die and, as a god, Jesus would have no fear of even a bodily death. On a purely physical level the death of Jesus as told in the gospels was comparatively blood-free, speedy and far less painful than the long drawn-out torment which many people have had to suffer.
What sort of a deity could gain satisfaction from the death of Jesus? The answer is surely that it is the type of god depicted in the Old Testament, a deity worthy of contempt and rejection by moral humankind. Were such a being to exist it would be a betrayal of the dignity of humankind to ask forgiveness for failure to pay homage to such a disgusting person.
It is not possible for an innocent person to be guilty of a crime which they did not commit although they may be punished for it.
Similarly it is not possible to be sorry or ‘penitent’ instead of or on behalf of someone else. There are some things that cannot be transferred to anyone else. A person who is innocent cannot be penitent for a crime they did not commit.
There are people who argue that suffering has a moral value and carries within it the potential for good but it is difficult to see how physical or mental suffering and death can, of itself, bring benefit, yet this is an aspect of atonement which is strongly propagated by Christians. Pain as such has no power of atonement – it cannot obliterate guilt. To demand that someone has to suffer to expiate a transgression is not our concept of justice or ethics.
Those who take the Bible literally have another problem for they believe that the sentence of physical death was passed on Adam for disobedience and handed down to all subsequent generations. It would therefore follow that Jesus being ‘without sin’ could not die.
Finally the idea of being ‘washed in the blood of the Lamb of God’ is the backbone of the evangelists followed up by the doctrine of salvation through repentance from the everlasting torments of hell. Thousands have been frightened into Christianity and Islam and the advocates of these movements argue that it is better to gain converts through fear than no converts at all. Thinking people recognise that fear is never productive of the best and in terms of religion it breeds servility.
The Church has been forced to quietly discard the doctrine of everlasting torment in hell.
How much longer can the Church continue to hold as its central doctrine a concept which is ethically bankrupt?
If the Atonement doctrine had any validity surely the feast of the Atonement in October would have been much more appropriate for the death of Jesus than the feast of the Passover in April!
By Keith S Cornish