Why require punishment in order to give forgiveness?
This is the question nagging me in the wake of my exit from the ranks of Christian believers. In hindsight, the doctrine seems so strange; even more so because when I was within the clutches of my Christian delusion, I never once picked up even a hint of its illogical and weird barbarity. It was the most acceptable and widely-accepted fact of the faith: Jesus died so that my sins could be forgiven.
As debatable as the idea may be between Christian theological scholars, nevertheless I can affirm that among rank and file members of Christian churches, there really isn’t a more broad base of agreement. This is the firmest ground of ecumenical aspirations. All (virtually all) Christians agree upon that widely-accepted and also weirdly barbaric fact of the faith: In order for me to receive the only forgiveness that matters– that which comes from God with eternal significance– Jesus had to die as an innocent victim at the hands of human executioners.
Richard Dawkins, in The God Delusion, noting that before Augustine coined the phrase ‘original sin’ it was known as ‘ancestral sin,’ also wonders “What kind of ethical philosophy is it that condemns every child, even before it is born, to inherit the sin of a remote ancestor?” (p. 285).
Good question, I say. Original sin meant to me (as a Seventh-day Adventist) that upon committing their Eden sin, the Original Ancestors Adam and Eve either caused a genetic defect in themselves or became subject to one placed there by God, and that defect is what Augustine meant by original sin. It meant that after they sinned, now it was easier for them to continue committing sins than to resist the urge to sin. Temptation became a real weakness.
This weakness was transmitted to every single descendant, down to me and my generation, making it (to use the scientific term) a genetic defect. The other result was limited life span, but that was more due to being restricted from access to the Tree of Life than to the genetic defect; either way, now the new soul-beings created by God’s loving wisdom had abused the freedom he gave us, and not only could sin, but would die because of sin. We now had ourselves this Sin Problem. God came along with the Sin Solution, otherwise known as the Atonement.
In hindsight, it all sounds like a ridiculously avoidable problem, but that was the Bible Story, and I stuck to it, as most all Christians do. With the history of sin in mind, God is praised for solving our sin problem, and Jesus is the great hero of the gospel story for taking the fall for us.
So many analogies have been applied to Jesus’ heroic act of salvation, but the one that stuck with me is the death row switch analogy. My sins put me on death row, without any possible pardon. At the last minute, Jesus takes my place in the electric chair, and even though he wasn’t guilty of any crimes, died my criminal’s death so that I don’t have to. I go free instead, and therefore owe Jesus a lifetime of gratitude and service.
Why did it take me so long to wonder at the absurdities of this basic Gospel story? The omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent God could create any kind of free will beings, including the kind that would never be weak enough intellectually to accept the lame temptations they received in the Garden of Eden story. In other words, the sin problem is God’s problem: a defect in the quality of his workmanship, a design flaw. Not something for which human beings should ever have been held responsible.
Backing up along the story line a bit, the same goes for the ORIGINAL Sinner, Lucifer-a.k.a.-Satan. This angel had been created perfect, it is asserted, except for the fact that his free will or his intellect was somehow defective enough for him to spontaneously choose to see God as imperfect.
Keep in mind that according to most Christian lore this angel Lucifer was closest to God, a top-level access position enjoyed by no other angel. Lucifer could not have learned or grown in knowledge of God’s goodness beyond his uniquely close vantage point; he had the best view of the loving omnibenevolence of God. And yet he was proved to be defective in his workmanship.
Blaming the created angel for the weakness inherent in his basic makeup seems to me to be the height of buck-passing and special pleading. In no other scenario would a defect of workmanship ever be seriously believed to be the fault of the created thing, but rather obviously of the workman, the creator. Except in the Bible Story, where it is integral to the story to accept that very dodge of responsibility, and then forget about it and praise the Lord!
God, in his supposed goodness, did not immediately exterminate Lucifer, even after this defective angel recruited other angels to his cause. He let them all live to go to war with him, and then he puts them right down on earth where they can pass their defective rebellious traits on to the new human beings. Good call! Why not put Lucifer somewhere where he could do less damage, a prison planet of his own, for example? Observers could still observe him and his demons, learning the sure results of sin, and let the earthlings alone. Again, just accept it all as God’s goodness, because he solved the sin problem, praise the Lord!
Not only did God refuse to take responsibility for his defective workmanship in the flawed former chief angel, Satan, or for his weak-willed human children, Adam and Eve, he also made it possible for these defects to be passed along genetically down through thousands of generations. Again, good call! Why not have sinful nature (Christian lingo for that genetic defect, ancestral sin) die out after three or four generations, so that some future descendants might have a chance to suffer a little less? How is original sin possibly calculated as the responsibility of the created ones, and not their Creator? But alas, it is not, and frankly not much thought is given to that irreverent idea, and as such it is suppressed until forgotten, praise the Lord!
So, every one who ever calls themselves a Christian wakes up one day and realizes that (contrary to every logical and sane question they could and should have wondered about the whole gospel story) they have a terrible sin problem, that this Jesus they’ve been praising and singing about is the solution, and so they (more than likely) go to the leaders of the church they were raised in and take a public stand for their savior, Jesus. Actual denominational practices vary, but a popular trend is reflected in my story: being baptized.
Baptism always includes more than is advertised. The poor sinner generally only sees the enormity of their sin problem, and their horrible future fate if they don’t solve it, and the first step presented by many Christian churches is baptism. For most Christians, this imagined horrible future involves eternally burning in hell. In my case, it was more like a short burn followed by eternal nonexistence. At any rate, the one being baptized is offered lots of fine print to ‘sign on to,’ which they probably generally don’t pay any more attention to than most people do who are presented with fine print.
The fine print accompanying virtually all baptism rituals is an instant connection to the particular denomination or sect which performed that service. You, the baptized (‘undersigned’), are now a member of this Church, with all the rights and responsibilities which said membership entails. You probably didn’t know that you were becoming a member of that church, and you may not even have asked for it, but you will learn more about that later; for now, praise the Lord!
Membership in a church congregation includes, for the lucky few, the benefits of association with a supportive, positive group of friends. If the church operates any institutions besides the local congregation, the new member is now exposed to a streamlined pathway to participation in any number of new activities with their new friends. I say ‘lucky few,’ since churches (in the West, at least) are notorious for their members’ poor treatment of new converts, and a ‘revolving back door’ hemorrhaging of disgruntled former members is a problem few denominations are yet equipped to solve.
But through all the positives which potentially improve at least the social life of new members, one theme remains strong throughout every meeting and activity: Jesus saved you from your sins; you owe him praise. However long the member may survive any unlucky ugly treatment by dysfunctional Christians, however high in leadership the member may rise through their devotion in participation, that theme of the Gospel never changes, never softens, never fades. From the symbolic crosses seen everywhere that Christians go, to the door-to-door and TV evangelistic efforts, to their prominent political activism and social institutions, that Gospel story remains their raison d’être.
And so it is with this most basic and widely-accepted assertion of the punishment-based Atonement of Christianity that I have my most deeply-held disagreements. As a person who now divorces my morality from my former religious beliefs, I wonder how I ever accepted it, and I wonder if any of my former fellow Christians can even begin to question it, as I can. I wonder if when you are caught up in that fervent life of faith, you are somehow prevented from even formulating certain lines of questioning. From my perspective, I find it hard NOT to question what I formerly accepted on faith.
- Why would a good God blame his created beings for weaknesses that he himself built into them, including weakness of free will, or lack of intelligence, or inability to imagine alternative future consequences from their actions, or whatever you want to offer as the reason why Adam and Eve, and prior to their fall, Lucifer and his followers, sinned against their good God?
- Why shouldn’t God bear responsibility for making a created being which could not or would not behave according to his own design specifications?
- Why shouldn’t God simply give forgiveness freely to his creatures who see their sins and seek it, instead of requiring retribution within a system of justice he created?
- Why would God hide all the best evidences for his existence, knowing how important proof and belief is within his own Gospel sin solution?
- Why would God refuse to appear and to teach in person beyond the meager environs he chose, and for more than the few short years he chose?
- Why require (as do some denominations, such as my former Seventh-day Adventist church) belief, something we have relatively little control over, to be such a critical requirement to receive forgiveness?
- Why require the destruction of those who have not been able to find sufficient evidence to believe in the Christian God, although searching sincerely for it and continuing to remain open to receiving it?
- Why allow the present situation within the believing community worldwide, such that there really does not exist a single community of believers (something that Jesus prayed for, and did not receive, and that the New Testament predicts would happen, and never did)?
- Why consign to destruction the millions of sincere believers in the many other religions which Christians must reject on biblical grounds as idolatrous, counterfeit, Satanic, or false; how is it fair to punish a person for the laziness of Christians they will never meet, or the disinterest of a God who never bothered to make his presence known in their part of the world?