Filed away in my desk drawer and certain locations on my computer, I still have various items from the days when Christian faith was a part of my identity. These include:
- Some evangelistic web pages I wrote;
- Religious discussions from online forums;
- A notebook for jotting down theological speculations;
- Various other items.
It’s been a few years since I’ve mentioned my religious past on this blog, but see my 2009 post about the afterlife and my 2011 post about prayer. As I aim to blog on a variety of subjects, now seems a good time to dig into those archives in search of an idea for a new post.
Since Easter wasn’t long ago, why not look at what my thoughts were, when I was a Christian, on the death and resurrection of Christ?
There is more diversity than often admitted, within thoughtful Christian communities, about what the crucifixion of Christ has to do with the reconciliation of sinners and God. Christians agree that the crucifixion was necessary, but there are different explanations for why (the New Testament’s account is largely metaphorical). Unfortunately, certain interpretations are more culturally dominant than others and the fact the discussion exists tends to be obscured. And of course, many people are content to accept the necessity on faith and leave the theologising to others.
The most familiar explanation is that it is an aspect of God’s nature that he literally cannot allow sin to go without its punishment, and that in the death of Christ he reconciles that necessity with the demands of his love by taking the punishment upon himself. We have all been exposed to that idea — not least from the allegories of C. S. Lewis — and there are many who insist on it as a defining article of Christian faith. But in all my years as a Christian, that viewpoint never made any sense to me, and it was never a part of my theology.
A less widespread explanation — but one with its share of advocates — is that the crucifixion was at heart the ultimate demonstration of God’s love. According to this idea, the normal expectation of humanity is to see God as judging and demanding, to be preoccupied with earning God’s acceptance and fearful of his rejection. And so Jesus comes to offer humanity a different view of God: a God who will forgive us even if we crucify him, a God whose love is (quoting Geoff Bullock) “beyond humankind’s capacity to earn it”.
That explanation also never felt like it could be the whole answer — largely because that view of God is clearly not as universal as it makes out — although I could envisage it as part of the answer. Anyway, those were the two competing explanations I found in books,* and, finding them inadequate, I speculated.
One line of thought I followed was that before a person can be healed of their sinful condition and fitted for Heaven, it is necessary to first develop a visceral appreciation of how serious sin is. That is to say, God can no more operate on the soul of someone who is insufficiently horrified by immorality, than a dentist can fix the tooth of someone who won’t open their mouth wide enough. And by bearing in mind the image of Jesus on the cross — the most perfect life ever lived tortured to death for the approval of the crowd — and learning to associate that image with all sin including one’s own seemingly trivial transgressions, it’s possible to put sin into its proper perspective and prepare the human heart to be transformed by God.
The main problem I acknowledged was that this doesn’t explain why some other illustration of the enormity of sin shouldn’t do just as well: why should the crucifixion and only the crucifixion be adequate to elicit the proper level of repulsion? I had no answer to that, but it seemed plausibly on the right track.
A further speculation which unites some of the above ideas is best presented as a metaphor, like the Scylla and Charybdis of Greek mythology. In this account there are two opposing obstacles on the spiritual journey, both of which must be negotiated if one is to make it to Heaven. The first is the danger of thinking our moral imperfections are no big deal — that we are good enough without God’s intervention — which in Christian thought is often looked upon as the ultimate folly. The second is the danger of being so overcome by a sense of our own inadequacy that we imagine God would never accept us, and are afraid to make the approach. Above this landscape — a narrow passage between two opposing and terminal errors — the Cross shines like a lighthouse, warning us at one and the same time not to underestimate sin, but also not to underestimate forgiveness.
That is as good an answer as I ever had. It works pretty well as a metaphor, but (just like every other explanation) not so well under clinical observation. In typical mythological style, the obvious questions — like why one universal lighthouse is better than several smaller ones — can be answered only by appealing to the seductive simplicity of the story. I realised that my answers were inadequate, even in conjunction, but they reinforced the impression that there was an answer to be found. At the end of the day, though, I accepted the idea that the crucifixion was somehow necessary for humans to be fitted for Heaven, even if I didn’t see why.
No religious belief can be understood in isolation, and everything I’ve said relates to topics that are outside the scope of this post (for example, this is not the time to discuss how I understood the identity between Jesus and God). But I think it’s worth saying that I always believed God shares all human suffering — like a divine mirror-touch synaesthete — and that I was absolutely sure no-one’s destiny hinges on ideas they may or may not encounter in this lifetime (as stated in my 2009 post).
We are all shaped by beliefs we no longer hold, and no doubt I wouldn’t be the same person today if I hadn’t in the past been a devoted believer. I am convinced of the value of occasionally discussing our former convictions not to defend nor refute them, but in the same spirit that one might share an old photograph. I hope this reminiscence has contained some thought for everyone to take away, Christians and atheists and all others as well.
* For further reading, see The Plain Man Looks at the Apostle’s Creed by William Barclay. (Also, Power of Your Love — Jesus: The Unexpected God by Geoff Bullock, although that book is irritatingly prone to speculation masquerading as fact.)