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I Never Asked Jesus to Die (And Neither Did You)

Years ago, in my ironically state-run science high school, the Optional Religious Instruction program held a screening of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. As I sat through a torture porn-level scene of Jesus getting the bejesus kicked out of him, I noticed people sobbing around me. At first, it sounded like the deep inhaling from a hearty laugh, until I turned around to look. I saw students weeping profusely into handkerchiefs while a man was being beaten to a pulp onscreen. The reason was clear to me even then—these kids believed they were responsible for the man being executed.

The doctrine of Original Sin, Adam and Eve’s disobedience to God at the Garden of Eden, culminates on Easter, at Jesus’ resurrection. According to Christian belief, we inherited this sin from the first people, and because of that, we are condemned to die. In his letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul wrote, “For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Jesus’ resurrection was meant to be victory over death, and that meant cleansing mankind of sins, including the Original one.

I never asked for this.


Vicarious atonement

As written in Isaiah, interpreted as fulfilled by Jesus, “But he was wounded for our transgressions… with his stripes we are healed.” The Judeo-Christian faith believes in vicarious atonement. That is to say, it is possible to make up for one’s sins by having something else pay for them. This is the root of “scapegoating,” when the Jews cast out a goat on the Day of Atonement, to die in the desert. This goat would carry their sins and its removal from the tribe showed God’s forgiveness. Jesus’ death and resurrection is this ritual taken to the extreme—God Himself as the sacrificial lamb (another related idiom) for the forgiveness of sins.

But it is not enough for Jesus to simply die. He must overcome death and resurrect. The resurrection is key to the Christian mythology. As Paul wrote in his first letter to the Corinthians, “And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain.”


Vicarious guilt

This is the Christian faith: that Jesus died for our sins that we may have eternal life, if we believe. This is why my fellow students were crying in that auditorium. They felt the crushing guilt of having a man’s death on their conscience. Perhaps the guilt was never that real to me, but I completely understand that what they did was the most appropriate thing to do—if they truly believed that God Himself was tortured and crucified for their sake. In their eyes, we put Jesus on the cross. We were to blame for the horrific scene we were witnessing in bloody detail. Our sins killed Jesus.

Then again, I never asked Jesus to die, and neither did they. It is asserted by Christians that we owe God our lives because he saved us from the fires of hell. But the entire metaphysics of sin leading to death and the inheritance of sin itself—this is all God’s handiwork. When the first couple supposedly sinned 10,000 years ago, sometime after the invention of glue, none of us were there. And yet, it has been ordained that every child born would have the stain of their sin—a stain that can only be cleansed in Christian baptism.

A baby that dies before baptism is sent to limbo. Since they have no sins apart from the Original, but did not receive salvation, innocent babies are sent to this no-man’s land outside of Heaven, Hell, and Earth. (Incidentally, limbo as a doctrine is not an official Catholic teaching. It remains a “theological hypothesis,” one of the most bizarre contradictions in terms ever produced by the human mind.) The bottom line is, if you are not saved by Jesus in his religion, whatever the case may be (even for geographically isolated tribes and mentally challenged humans), you are going to suffer somehow. There are some theological gymnastics used to wriggle out of the despicable belief of hell for all non-Christians, of course. Nevertheless, the only surefire way to avoid hell still is and always will be toeing the mainstream Christian line. As Jesus said, in the Gospel according to John, “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.”


Holy blackmail

It is this strange and extreme case of emotional blackmail, where God will condemn you if you do not love him, that is at the core of the Easter celebration and, consequently, at the core of every mainstream Christian faith. And the blackmail’s not even for something we did!

I never asked Jesus to die, and neither did you. I would never ask a person to die for my own sins. I certainly would never expect someone’s child to pay for their parents’ sins (much less their descendants thousands of years from now). These are basic things we expect from every sane and ethical person. Christianity expects us to believe that God is the exact opposite of a sane and ethical person—and we are supposed to worship Him.

Image credit: Still from The Passion of the Christ

Posted in ReligionComments (51)

Are We Free to Believe?

It is essential to any free society that its citizens have freedom of speech and freedom of thought. It is practically impossible to conceive of a society we can reasonably call “free” that polices the thoughts of its citizens and enforces the only kinds of thoughts that its citizens may have.

To illustrate such an unfree society, let us take Christianity. In the Gospel according to Matthew, Jesus extended the prohibition on adultery even to the realm of the mind. According to Christianity, not only should we ought not to have sex with someone other than our lawfully wedded spouse, we are forbidden from even having the thought of straying or “lusting.” In fact, the mere lustful thought itself, no matter how fleeting and regardless of any possibility of actual adultery, is not just wrong, but as wrong as actual adultery. This moral equivalence is often lost on people.

A society built upon such thought policing principles cannot be called “free” in any sense of the word. It is one thing to find the breaking of a consensual marital agreement despicable; it is completely another thing to prohibit even the thought (even if that is all that it ever will be) and damn it as equally immoral. The human mind is the ocean of a river of incongruous and undesired whims, such as intrusive thoughts and addictions. Thoughts do not always (in fact, often do not) result in action.

Freedom of thought is essential to a free society and orthodox Christianity is plainly incompatible with this principle. Let us discuss, however, whether a society can actually have “freedom of belief.”

A belief is more than just the thinking about a proposition. It is an active assent to and confident acceptance of a proposition. We can see how Jesus proscribes not just certain beliefs (such as, “I actively want to commit adultery”) but also certain involuntary thoughts (such as, “My biological predisposition to find mates gives me sexual stirrings towards persons other than my spouse”).

Let us move to belief outside the moral realm and include other facts about the world. Are we free to believe, let us say, in a certain religion? On paper, such as the Constitution of the Philippines, we have the right to freedom of belief. But, in practice, freedom of belief may simply be an artifact of bad intuitions about what the mind is capable of.

Let us take the case of a hypothetical person, Jane. Jane looks at the world and, according to the best of her ability and experiences, concludes that Catholicism is true. She believes that the world only makes sense if the specific claims of Catholicism are true (that a God exists and that Jesus established a Church that exists to this day to proclaim God’s Word). Was Jane free to believe in Catholicism? I don’t think so.

I need to clarify that one need not reject the notion of a soul or free will in order to agree with me here. Of course, hard determinists and compatibilists will already agree that free will, in the popular supernatural understanding, is incoherent. They will already agree that, if it even makes sense to call any desire “free,” our minds are not free from the effects of natural things beyond our control (such as genetics).

Even if we assume that she has supernatural free will, Jane does not control which facts about the world are true. She does not control the “fact” that a person called Jesus lived about two thousand years ago. She does not control the “fact” that Catholicism is the one true religion and that it holds certain views about the nature of the universe and how it applies to homosexuals. She cannot help that these things just make sense to her. She is no more free to believe in Catholicism than she is free to believe that she is human. Jane is a victim of facts about the world.

Now, of course, Jane may be mistaken about the world. She might not be intellectually honest enough to be consistent in her thinking. For example, she might strictly require evidence when buying a used car, but in matters of religion, she is not as critical. It is completely possible that she unquestioningly accepts the religion of her upbringing as true. It is possible that she is not skeptical of supernatural explanations for events in her life, such as the sheer fortune of passing an exam despite not studying all that much.

What these things do not suggest, however, is that Jane is consciously choosing what things about the world she’d like to believe are “facts.” At the very least, some self-deception is necessary for Jane to convince herself that an obvious lie is true. Jane is not free to believe in what facts she thinks are right, even if she could be mistaken about the truthfulness of those facts.

If Jane were to be more consistent in her thinking, though, she might reach different conclusions. It is possible that if she were to consciously apply scientific principles to her religious views, she might find that Catholicism no longer makes sense.

She might notice that the reality of gratuitous suffering is not consistent with the existence of a benevolent and intervening God. She might find that the supposed cosmic importance of humanity is incompatible with our existence as one species on one unexaggeratedly tiny dust particle in an unimaginably vast universe (perhaps one among many). She might find that the existence of evil only makes sense under the light of nature’s indifference. She might then conclude that the best explanation of the facts in our universe is one that includes no God. Was she free to believe these things? No.

It is strange that many believers still argue for belief via Pascal’s wager. The challenge insists that regardless of the truthfulness of the claim that a god exists, it is still best to bet on a god existing rather than betting against it. Of course, the wager presumes that non-belief actually has eternal consequences, such as hellfire. It also presumes that there is only one god to bet on, the Christian afterlife-giving God.

It is very rare and, I think, practically impossible to be that insincere about belief. Of course, because of peer pressure or fear for her life, Jane could pretend to other people that she believes in Catholicism. But, I don’t think she could actually bet on a god if the facts aren’t convincing her of a god’s existence. She could be involuntarily self-deceiving; she could willfully not expose herself to scientific research; she could willfully not reason out the logical implications of her beliefs. What she cannot do, however, is to accept a belief simply because she consciously decides to believe.

While “freedom of belief” sounds like a perfectly desirable principle, a closer inspection reveals that it is unintelligible. We are no more free to consciously believe the things that we believe than we are free to change what facts in the world are true.

What we are left with is the fact that if there is any liberty to be had at all, the last thing we ought to surrender is control over our thinking to an authority or tradition. If we are to be free at all from any misapprehension of facts, then we must consistently ask for evidence and reason out our positions. Whatever conclusion we reach, however uncomfortable or counter-intuitive, we must accept. Then, and only then, can we have the only kind of freedom of thought worth having. Then, and only then, can a person be a freethinker.

Posted in Philosophy, ReligionComments (14)

Is Santa Bad for Christmas?

gonna find out who's naughty or nice...

Bishop Teodoro Bacani recently blamed Santa Claus for stealing the “true spirit of Christmas” as revealed in a news article in The Daily Tribune.

The Bishop is apparently peeved at the fact that Santa is more popular than Jesus Christ during the Christmas season. He said:

“Santa Claus helps promote consumerism because he is the symbol of shopping and gift-giving. Christ symbolizes the sacrifice of life for man. But Santa has more commercial draw… Let us keep Christ at Christmas. Let us project Christ at Christmas.”

While the Christian fold may argue that Christmas has its roots on Judeo-Christianity, I submit that it is a mistake to look at Christmas merely under the Judeo-Christian light and I submit that Santa Claus should actually be deemed as a Christmas hero instead of a villain.

The shift of looking at Christmas from celebrating the birth of the “Redeemer” to celebrating the season of peace, hope and kindness, is a positive thing. I would even argue that the present spirit of Christmas, even with Santa Claus being more popular than Jesus Christ, reflects its true spirit more than from strictly a Judeo-Christian perspective.

But let’s entertain Bishop Bacani’s assertion for now and let’s critically analyze the light of celebrating Christmas strictly on the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Christmas, in its true spirit, is not merely a birthday celebration of Jesus Christ. Christmas, together with Easter, is really a celebration of the theology of atonement and salvation. It is a mistake to look at the picture starting from “Mama Mary’s” and “Papa Joseph’s” journey to Bethlehem. We have to look at the whole picture to get a sense of the significance the birth of Christ and why Christianity celebrates it.

Most of the backgrounder on the Judeo-Christian faith tradition and theology that I am about to share comes from Bishop John Shelby Spong’s book “Why Christianity Must Change or Die”. Most of the views of Jesus Christ I embrace that I will share in the end come from Spong’s book “The Sins of Scripture”. Some of my readers already know that I am an avid reader and a fan of Bishop Spong and I really recommend Bishop Spong’s books, without any reservations, to anyone who is open to looking at Judeo-Christianity under a light different from the current mainstream. Anyway, here it goes…

The Bible starts with the story of creation. The Bible asserts that it was a perfect creation and God announced His creations good (after His divine labors). Then came the Adam and Eve story. Adam and Eve were supposed to have a perfect relationship with God in Paradise. According to the Bible, however, boundaries were set in this Paradise; that Adam and Eve were not to partake of this “forbidden fruit”, for it was said that if they ate it, their eyes would be opened and they would know good from evil. This is actually quite fascinating and most Christians take this quite literally.

Of course we know from the story that a serpent seduced Eve into eating the “forbidden fruit”. Upon Eve’s enticement, Adam also partook of the “forbidden fruit”. From that moment on, the perfection of creation has been ruined. God has been disobeyed and human life has fallen into sin, and of course, the penalty for this disobedience was death. The immortality that had been in Adam and Eve (humans) as theirs as creatures of God’s image was gone.

Because of this original sin, all human life thereafter, it was asserted, would be born in sin and suffer death – the ultimate consequence of sin. The universality of human mortality was interpreted to be a sign of the universality of human sin. So life stood still in need of “redemption”.

So God started the process of redemption by choosing a particular people through whom God would work out the entire divine process of salvation. Salvation began in a small scale with the call of Abraham. Now we know from the Bible that Isaac was chosen over Ishmael. Jacob was chosen over Esau, Judah and Joseph were chosen over Reuben. Through Joseph, God’s people went to Egypt to avoid famine. Unfotunately, in time, they fell into slavery. The story of salvation began some 4 hundred years later with Moses and the exodus.

Once free of their bondage from the pharaoh, the people were led by God, through Moses, to Mount Sinai, where the law of God, called the Torah, was given to the people. The law was to serve as the guideline to lead the fallen people back into a state of grace. But the children of Israel didn’t follow God’s laws so the search for salvation in history goes on.

A sacrificial system was developed in the ancient world to help overcome this supposed separation between man and God. Israel developed in its liturgical life a day called Yom Kippur, dedicated to that sense of human sinfulness and designed to be an occasion to pray for atonement and restoration.

Two rituals are involved; one was the public confession of people’s sins, which were ceremoniously heaped upon the back of a goat. Laden with people’s sins, this goat, called the “scapegoat”, was run into the wilderness and was believed to have carried away with it, the sins of the world, thus purging them (Lev. 16).

The second ritual was the sacrificial offering of the lamb of the atonement (Lev 23:26-32). This lamb was inspected carefully, for it had to be perfect in the eyes of God. In other words… no scratches, no blemishes, no broken bones, etc. Human life, so alienated from God, so fallen into sin, had to come before God under the symbol of something perfect. The lamb was also subhuman, therefore incapable of being immoral, since morality requires the ability to choose evil. So a morally perfect, physically perfect, but still subhuman sacrifice was offered to God to atone for, even pay for, the sins of the people. The assumption was that to be human was to be sinful. Paul would later write this in his epistles “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23).

It was the conviction that humans were sinful and in need of redemption that enabled guilt and religion to be so solely tied together. The power of western religion has always rested on the ability of religious people to understand and to manipulate the sense of human inadequacy that expresses itself from guilt. This religious system assumes that the purpose of life is to be whole, free, and at one with the Creator. This is what gives the sense of alienation its power.

The religious leaders of the ages learned that controlling people’s behavior rested upon controlling these human feelings of guilt. So religious empires were built on helping people live with and to some degree, overcome their sense of guilt. How could guilt be overcome? How could our broken humanity be repaired? How could human life be rescued from its fall? Those were the questions that Christianity organized itself to answer.

The experience of Jesus was captured in this mind-set. The linkage between our sense of inadequacy and the role of Jesus happened very quickly and was apparent before the first generation of Christians died. The initial step was to see the death of Jesus in terms of sin and salvation. By the time Paul wrote to the Corinthians sometime in mid 50 AD, that step had been achieved. Christ died, Paul said, “for our sins” (1 Cor 15:3). Our sins somehow required His death, He was the sacrificial lamb on our behalf.

The first Gospel, Mark, was the first to set the narrative of Jesus’ death in the context of the “Passover”, so Jesus was quickly and immediately identified with the lamb who was slain to break the wages of death. That story written in the book of Exodus formed the center of the Jewish liturgy of their founding moment. God had enabled their escape from slavery by sending the angel of death to slay the first born in all the land of Egypt.

The Jews were spared this slaughter when they killed the lamb and placed the blood of this lamb on the doorsteps of their homes. Of course in the Christian interpretation, the blood of the lamb was replaced by the blood of Christ. All we have to do is to come before the Lord through the blood of this sacrificial lamb.

Now we come to St. Augustine (354-430). Augustine believed that Adam and Eve were literally the first human beings. Their banishment from Eden resulted in the ultimate punishment of man. Death was not natural, but rather, punitive, for Augustine. Now as he worked out the theological understanding of life, the virgin birth tradition became crucial to him. He asserted that the virgin birth had to be absolutely necessary for salvation.

The reason was that since the original sin was passed on from generation to generation, for Jesus to be the lamb, Jesus had to be free of this inherited blemish – sin. His formulation goes, that Jesus did not come from Adam’s lineage because the Holy Spirit of God was supposed to be His father. But at Augustine’s time, it was believed that women do not contribute genetically or materially to the birth of a child. The belief back then was that women merely nurtured the male’s “seed” to maturity. So the fallness of the woman’s humanity was not an issue.

In time, when the woman’s role as genetic co-creator was understood, Augustine’s theology came in question. The Catholic Church handled this by declaring the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. That Mary too was miraculously delivered from the corruption of Adam and Eve’s sin. By “Divine Intervention” Mary was prevented by her Immaculate Conception from passing onto Jesus, the Saviour, the effects of Adam’s sin. Salvation was thus assured. This makes Jesus, the sinless one, to be qualified by His origins to make the perfect offering.

So if we really look at the spirit of Christmas solely on the mainstream Judeo-Christian tradition, Christmas is nothing more than a celebration of the coming of the sacrificial lamb or the “scapegoat”, in the person of Jesus Christ, who will take away the sins of the world so that you and I can be spared of the wages of sin (eternal death) as decreed by God Himself as a consequence of Adam and Eve’s disobedience (Original Sin).

So really, in Judeo-Christian terms, celebrating Christmas would be celebrating God’s master plan involving the perverted notion of inflicting unnecessary pain and suffering on person X (whether this person is His son or not) so that person Y (you and I) can be “saved”.

I’m sorry but I choose not to look at Christmas and Jesus Christ this way.

The Jesus Christ who I know lived in a world where stereotypical prejudice separated Jews from the Samaritans. They would not eat together, they would not worship together, they would not inter-marry, etc. Yet Jesus in the Gospels was said to have taught that the Samaritan was worthy of healing (Luke 17:11-19) and that a Samaritan who acted out the claims of the law in terms of showing mercy was more deeply a child of Abraham than the Jewish priest or Levite (Luke 10:29-37). These were radical statements of barrier-breaking inclusion, which expanded rather dramatically and in a new way the meaning of love.

Jesus, as well, broke the barriers between the Jews and the Gentiles. Back then Gentiles were even considered as unclean by the Jews, they weren’t circumcised, not bound by Kosher dietary laws, and ignorant of the demands of the Torah. Association of Jews with Gentiles was a big taboo back then. Yet Jesus was portrayed in the Gospel according to Mark as going to the Gentile side of the lake to repeat the feeding of the multitude in the wilderness story.

Jesus was also said to have reached out to the Syro-Phoenician woman, another Gentile, and to have healed her daughter (Mark 7:24-30). The Gospels also tell of Jesus healing a slave of a Roman centurion and even commending his faith as greater than he had found in Israel (Matt. 8:5-10; Luke 7:1-10). He also defended and forgiven an adulterer – a crime back then was punishable by death (John 8:1-11). We also note that he touched the rotting flesh of a leper (a sickness considered a curse and of the lowest form back then) and brought him once again into human community (Mark 1:40-41).

Beneath the God claims made for this Jesus was a person who lived a message announcing that there was no status defined by religion, by tribe, by culture, by cult, by ritual, or by illness that could separate any person from the love of God. If love is a part of what God is or who God is, then it can surely be said of this Jesus that He lived the meaning of God!

In the book, “The Sins of Scripture”, Bishop John Shelby Spong tells that perhaps that is why those believers wrote that human life could never have produced the experience they found in Jesus. They were so moved by this man that they thought he must have been of another realm! Perhaps his birth was said to have been announced by a star because a star does not shine just for a single nation, it shines for the whole world! His life drew all nations and all people beyond their limits.

The celebration of Christmas, for me, is not a celebration of a testament of a particular religious faith but a celebration of an all-inclusive love for one and all. Santa Claus, just like Jesus Christ, is a representation of the celebration of love, kindness, generosity and goodness for humankind.

Merry Christmas and Seasons Greetings to all!


Background References:

  • “Why Christianity Must Change or Die”, John Shelby Spong, Harper Collins Publications (1998)
  • “The Sins of Scripture”, John Shelby Spong, Harper Collins Publications (2005)

Posted in ReligionComments (23)