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.
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.”
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.”
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