Christianity is in relentless decline in the West and one reason is clear enough: it cherishes faith in metaphysical beliefs that are entirely baseless. The dogmas associated with Easter are a classic example of this.
Most of these originated with St Paul, whose voices and visions on the road to Damascus convinced him Jesus was crucified to bring atonement for humanity’s ‘original sin’ of eating the forbidden fruit.
But Paul had no evidence for this beyond his epiphany and it is a notion riddled with anomalies, perhaps the most notable being its uniqueness.
There is no concept of Adam’s original sin in mainstream Judaism of the first century and Jesus was a devout, mainstream Jew.
Jews expected a Messiah to liberate them and restore their ancient kingdom – but that had nothing to do with atonement for some overarching sin of humanity.
Like most Jews, Jesus did not contemplate any idea of blanket divine forgiveness. That was because each individual was expected to find forgiveness through repentance. As the prophet Jeremiah said, there will be no collective guilt (or innocence) but ‘instead, everyone will die for his own sin’ (Jer 31:30).
Christians claim the Easter sacrifice was an extension of the atonement sacrifices that were a longstanding practice of Judaism. But by Christ’s time, Temple sacrifices were coming into disrepute and were even ridiculed by prophets like Isaiah (Isa 66:3).
Sins your responsibility
Even more compelling (though Christians do not want to admit it), the Gospels do not contain any clear reference to Jesus dying to atone for our sins. That is particularly striking given that most of the Gospels appeared long after Paul’s idea of Christ’s redemptive death had become widely accepted by the now predominantly gentile Christian church.
In Luke’s gospel, there is barely a hint that Jesus came to die for our sins. There Jesus states in the parable of the Good Samaritan that salvation will depend on love of others (Lk 10: 25–37).
In John’s gospel, Jesus says he will sacrifice his life but there is no connection made between this and atonement. In fact, Jesus says in John that redemption can only come through ‘knowing God’ (Jn 17:3), and in Matthew, Jesus says we can only know God by emulating His loving kindness (hesed) (Mt 9:13).
There are only two statements of Jesus (in Mark and Matthew) that appear to suggest he was intending to die to redeem our sins – but both can be construed quite differently.
In Mark’s gospel he refers to himself as giving his life ‘as a ransom for many’ (Mk 10:45). But the Greek word for ransom – lutron – had a very specific meaning of payment for liberation from slavery; and liberation from hierarchical oppression is the context in which Jesus speaks in Mark.
In Matthew, Jesus seems more specific when he says his blood will be ‘poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins’ (Mt 26:28); and forgiveness is indeed, the leitmotif of his mission.
But the forgiveness Jesus constantly refers to is not divine but human forgiveness. Indeed he affirms in the Lord’s Prayer that divine forgiveness will actually hinge on human forgiveness, not on any doctrinal faith in a salvific sacrifice of forgiveness.
Love God by loving each other
Jesus’s campaign of forgiveness – in sermons, parables, and healing miracles – was crucial for his people, stigmatised by a culture of guilt, to regain self-esteem and a measure of justice. It enshrined the basic empathy needed to fulfil his new ‘Great Commandment’: to love God by loving each other (Mt 22: 36–40). It also put him on a collision course with the Temple elites who exploited a widespread guilt neurosis by claiming a spurious (and lucrative) God-ordained monopoly on forgiveness via their sacrificial rites. Thus, he was crucified ‘for the forgiveness of sins,’ with the ‘for’ denoting cause rather than effect.
If Christianity focused on this empathetic, human forgiveness, it would be salutary for both it and our imperilled world. That is the kind of salvation we should be seeking this Easter.
♦ Tom Drake-Brockman is the Author of the newly published book, Bad Faith: a spiritual humanist alternative for Christianity and the West.