Part way along Victoria Road in Glasgow there is a building bearing the legend, ‘He died for our sins’. It’s some time since I’ve been in that part of the city, so I could be wrong, but I seem to recall that the letters are picked out in neon lights although I don’t recall ever having seen them lit up.
Given the context, the ‘He’ in this message can only refer to Jesus Christ and the reference to dying for our sins obviously refers to the crucifixion.
I’ve given quite a bit of thought to this message over the years, probably much more than you might expect from an atheist, and I’d like to offer a few of the fruits of that thinking, for whatever they’re worth.
At this point you may want to think about whether or not you want to go on reading because, although it’s not my primary intention to offend anyone, I’d have to be pretty stupid not to recognise that much of what follows is likely to be offensive to Christians.
Or then again you might want to keep on reading. After all, I’m not trying to undermine your faith. (Not that I think I can, or have any right to try). I accept that everyone has the right to believe what seems true to them. But I also think it’s good to examine what you believe and what basis you have for believing it.
There seems to be a general consensus that there was a real historical figure corresponding to Jesus Christ and it seems to be equally certain that he was a religious reformer or teacher and that he was crucified.
He was far from unique in this, of course, crucifixion was a fairly common punishment in the Roman Empire. It was also commonplace in feudal Japan and probably elsewhere as well.
Crucifixion, it also has to be said, is an extremely unpleasant form of execution.
Essentially the cause of death is asphyxiation. When you’re hanging by your arms, the weight of your body acts against the action of the diaphragm and the intercostal muscles, making it very difficult to draw air into the lungs.
As long as you’re conscious you can try to take the weight on your feet, but this is going to become exhausting over a period of time and sooner or later you’ll go back to hanging by your arms and the process of asphyxiation would start all over again. And in the meantime, you would be steadily dehydrating and that on it’s own could cause death in a matter of days.
A curious historical aside is the fact that a Sicilian minor criminal was subjected to a very similar treatment much more recently. His name was Salvatore Lucania and someone decided to string him up by the wrists in a barn, presumably over a business dispute. Just by chance, someone came along and cut him down in the nick of time. After this people called him Lucky. Later on this young man went to the United States where he took the name Charles Brown, but he was also known by the anglicised version of his name Luciano. So he was sometimes called Charlie Lucky, but he’s better known as Lucky Luciano. (A name that Salvatore Lucania, as his mother named him, detested).
So crucifixion is an extremely cruel form of execution and these days, most people, Christian or not, recognise this fact.
What is possibly less well understood is the degree to which crucifixion was also considered an ignominious, even shameful death in the First Century CE.
It’s hard to think of an analogy that really helps to illustrate this point. Time has moved on and we seem to be more given to compassion these days. If we see shame in crucifixion now, it tends to attach more to those who ordered it, or carried it out, than to anyone who suffered it, but that really wasn’t the case for most people during Christ’s lifetime or for some considerable period of time afterwards.
This change in perception is a good thing, it is a definite sign of progress and I’m glad of it. But I think it does cloud our perception of how the Christian narrative of the Crucifixion may have developed.
Picture the scene.
One of the early (and I mean, one of the very earliest) followers of Christ is explaining Christ’s teachings to a potential convert. This potential convert is interested, possibly impressed and becoming sympathetic to the ideas of this charismatic young teacher.
Then he (or she, many of the early converts were women) asks the killer question.
“Whatever happened to Jesus?”
“Well, he was crucified.”
There follows an embarrassed silence.
Well, as I mentioned before, crucifixion was a terrible way to die, but it was also perceived as an especially ignominious way to die.
This is where it’s hard to find a modern analogy. The closest I can think of is being convicted of some particularly loathsome crime, something like child abuse. (Just for the sake of clarity I should stress that I’m not equating anything Christ did or taught with child abuse, I’m simply trying to illustrate the way that crucifixion would have been viewed in the First Century CE).
In fairness I should say falsely convicted on trumped-up charges. Christ may have seemed threatening to the Jewish as well as the Roman authorities, but (aside from the minor matter of that fracas in the Temple with the money changers) I’m not aware that he committed anything that we would now recognise as a crime.
Nonetheless, the reaction of most Roman citizens in the First Century CE to the news that Christ had been crucified would not have been compassion; it would probably have been embarrassment, maybe even contempt.
This is where, Christians would doubtless say, the early Christian would have played his (or her) trump card.
“No, no,” he (or she) would have said. “This wasn’t a bad thing. This is what made Jesus so special and it’s why you should accept his word. He died for our sins. He died so that we could be redeemed.”
Of course I have no idea what the men and women who actually knew and loved Christ while he was here on Earth really thought or felt about his crucifixion. My guess would be that they felt an enormous grief and probably anger at the injustice of the whole thing. I also have no idea whether or not they really believed that he was the Son of God in the sense of being divine (or semi-divine) or if they believed that he rose from the dead.
I do suspect, however, that Pontius Pilate never had any suspicion that Christ rose from the grave.
Far from being the decent, if weak, man of the Gospels, independent historical accounts suggest that Pilate was an Imperial hatchet man sent by Rome to keep a lid on the troublesome province of Judea at a time when the Romans were expecting trouble.
If he’d ever heard the slightest whisper that Christ was alive and well after the crucifixion then I think it’s safe to say the occupying Roman forces would have turned the province inside out with a view to finishing the job they’d started. He would have been peevish enough if one of the thieves had survived, but if a man suspected of threatening Roman authority was believed to be alive after he was supposedly executed, then I suspect he would have gone berserk. (He would have been unlikely to see this as proof that Christ was the Son of God, he would doubtless have seen it as a botched job on the part of the soldiers charged with carrying out the execution).
Incidently, I don’t imagine it would have been impossible to survive being crucified, depending on how long one was left on the cross. Asphyxiation could have produced unconsciousness, even a coma, from which one could recover, if one was taken down from the cross quickly enough, and methods of determining whether or not someone was dead were pretty crude at the time. (Methods of determining death were remarkably unreliable until surprisingly recently, in historical terms. Many Victorians took elaborate precautions to minimise the risk of premature burial).
So Pilate probably never thought that Christ rose from the dead and we don’t know if anyone else did at the time, because no one living at the time left any written account of having done so. (Which isn’t to say that no one did, only that authenticated contemporary evidence is lacking). The detailed accounts we have of Christ’s life come from people who were writing long after the events they were describing.
According to some the Gospel of St Thomas sets down what Christ actually said during his lifetime, but this is one of many non-canonical Gospels, (i.e. those that are not included in the Bible and are therefore not widely known by Christians and are ignored by most Christian Sects).
I have actually read the Gospel of St Thomas and it has nothing to say about the Virgin Birth, or indeed the Resurrection. Nor does it contain any claims about raising the dead, turning water into wine or walking on water. (Why would it? If any or all of these miracles actually occurred then why would Christ boast about them? They’ve been used as reasons for accepting Christ’s teachings, but they’re not actually a part of those teachings. If you think what he has to say is good and wise and gives you something to enrich your life, then why would you need a miracle to convince you?).
So then we come to heart of things.
I’m a storyteller, not a theologian, or a historian and certainly not a Christian.
So what draws my attention are those parts of the Christian narrative where it seems to get itself tangled all up.
One of those places is where the essential nature of Christ himself is discussed. The early Christians took a long time to reach any kind of agreement on this point. Some held that Christ was entirely divine others that he was entirely human. The current position, as I understand it, is that Christ is believed to have been both human and divine.
To me this seems like an uneasy compromise, but I think I can understand why the Church would have settled on it. It’s not about explaining the nature of Christ for the intellectual satisfaction of scholars, it’s about making the story work on an emotional level.
Let me explain.
If Christ was entirely human then his death on the cross was terrible. But why should it be a matter of any significance to anyone other than Christ himself and his friends and family? In what way could it change the cosmic order and redeem all mankind?
There would have to be something very special about Christ in order to make this event sufficient to change the essential position of humanity in relation to God and, presumably, the universe.
(One way to resolve this problem is to claim that there was nothing special about Christ himself and that his resurrection and the redemption of mankind was simply an act of grace on the part of God. But this has the drawback of making God seem arbitrary, i.e. any crucifixion would have done just as well, and it also reduces Christ’s significance. He would become a prophet rather than a saviour).
Another way to address the problem would be to claim that Christ was entirely divine. If that was the case then there would be no difficulty about Christ’s role as saviour. If he’s a God, or perhaps an aspect or an expression of God then nothing would be impossible for him.
On the other hand if Christ is truly divine in nature then his crucifixion would be unpleasant, to a degree, but essentially trivial.
After all, if Christ is a God then he can’t really die and any discomfort he suffers is transient and without any great significance. (This assumes that a truly divine being would actually suffer at all).
So in order to evoke feelings of compassion (and guilt, Christians may claim that Christianity is based on love, but to me it has always seemed to run on guilt in much the same way that bus runs on diesel), then Christ has to suffer agony and death on the Cross. Christ can’t fake it, the suffering has to be real, and that has to be real blood flowing from his wounds. Otherwise the story becomes abstract and, well, anaemic.
But the Christian narrative isn’t just about guilt. As any Christian would tell you, it’s also about hope. It has to be, if the Christian faith was ever going to survive it had to offer something more than just guilt.
So after you’ve been made to feel good and guilty, you’re offered the hope of salvation.
But for that to work, the Crucifixion has to be about more than just one man’s death. As I’ve already mentioned, a great many people have been crucified, so why should Christ’s crucifixion be any more significant?
So in order for the Crucifixion to have a cosmic, as well as a purely human significance, Christ also has to be divine.
But how can you be both human and divine?
I have no idea how much ink (and even blood) has been spilled over this question and, to be honest I’m not that interested. The solutions that have been offered to this question are less interesting to me than the fact that it is raised at all. Why would the founding fathers of Christianity (or God,if you prefer) have created this problem in the first place?
Of course there is another closely related problem.
We’re told that Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross has saved us, but just exactly how saved are we?
The Bible tells us that various punishments were heaped on Adam and Eve as a result of The Fall, which were then passed on to the rest of us because of the sinful nature we’ve all inherited.
Eve was told that she would bring forth children in sorrow, while Adam was told that the ground was cursed for his sake and that he would eat of it in sorrow, that it would bring forth thorns and thistles to him, that he would eat bread in the sweat of his face all his days until he returned to the ground.
What this seems to boil down to, making allowances for the archaic language, is that women would suffer pain in childbirth, while men would have to work in order to make a living, that the soil will produce weeds and that we are all going to die.
Well, that was the state of play prior to the crucifixion and it still seems to be the case even now. Where women suffer less in childbirth and where people have to endure less backbreaking toil in growing food it has been the result of human ingenuity over a period of centuries and it seems to have nothing to do with Christ or the forgiveness of God. (Unless you want to claim that developments in science, technology and medicine are God’s means of alleviating the suffering He caused as a punishment for original sin).
Christians would doubtless say that I’m missing the point. They would probably claim that Christ’s mission was about saving souls and not about giving people an easier time on Planet Earth.
But if we were all sinful, fallible and mortal prior to Christ’s mission then it seems that we still are and whatever form you think Christ’s Redemption of Mankind actually took, the plain fact is that Christianity tells us that we’re still all in need of forgiveness and salvation.
So even taken on Christian terms, I still have to ask what the point of all that pain and misery actually was? In what way are we any more saved now than we were the day before the Crucifixion?
I doubt if anyone’s going to offer me an answer to that question, but if you do have an answer, I would be genuinely interested in hearing from you.
And I suppose this brings me back to one of the reasons why I find life much simpler and easier than I think I would if I believed in God. Whether or not God is real, the pain of crucifixion would have been all too real and the grief of Christ’s friends and family would have been just as real.
To me that’s quite bad enough if it was essentially an accident of history, the savage outcome of a meeting between religious innovation and military occupation. But how much worse would it be if it was all part of someone’s plan? You’ve got to ask what kind of mind would come up with a plan that inflicted so much misery for so little observable benefit.
And the same basic principle seems to me to apply to a great deal of what happens in life.
If it’s all the result of a confused mingling of cause and effect with no overall plan or purpose, then it’s bearable, more than that, it can be wonderful. You can appreciate the many extraordinary and beautiful things that exist in the universe as being a gift of time and chance. And as for the suffering? Well, that’s just part of the whole thing. You avoid it when you can and put up with it when you have to. No explanation is required.
But if it’s all part of the divine plan then you have to account for how an allegedly benign and omnipotent God could cause, or allow, so much evil in what is supposed to be his creation.