17 October 2008

Alpha Course Day 3: Why did Jesus Die?

Dinner = A really, really bland shepherd’s pie, salad. Dessert = Assorted dessert squares (actually not bad).

Seriously, this was disappointing. I know the cook had to spend hours preparing ~40 lbs of potatoes, but the result was quite mediocre. The scary thing was that a number of people raved about the dinner this week.

You know, Toronto is easily one of the most multicultural cities in the world. That, however, does not extend to the sprawling suburbs east of Toronto , which are as white as Wonderbread and about as cultured. These people probably think a boiled-wiener hotdog with plain yellow mustard is haute cuisine.

NB. If you think I’m being too mean about this, especially compared to the relatively academic tone of the religion debates, please remember that I’m mainly attending Alpha for the food.

Part 1: Sermon

Nicky Gumbel’s video this week was about why Jesus had to die. Names dropped this week included Madonna, Jennifer Aniston, Bono, Naomi Campbell, the Pope, and the Archbishop of Canterbury. The good news was this was all constrained to the introduction as he was talking about people who wear crosses.

The sermon was quite simplistic. Gumbel actually spent most of it just explaining how we are all sinners (at least in God’s “everyone falls short of my perfection” definition of sin); therefore, we all fall short of God and are doomed to/deserve death and hell. But! God is so forgiving that he would take it upon himself to suffer and die in our place so we can get the heaven deal when we die. As long as we believe in Jesus, that is.

That was basically it. A lot of demonstrating how we can be judged to fall short of God and trying to argue how by simply not being perfect, hell is justified. Magic loophole tacked on at the end, and voila.

There was no real discussion as to why an omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent God would create imperfect creatures then judge them to an impossibly strict standard involving not just real crimes but also irrational rules, then arbitrarily assign an all-or-nothing justice system with punishment for the inevitable failure being eternal even though the crimes are finite. Also no reason was given why this God would then decide to sacrifice himself to himself in our place in order to let us off the hook, rather than simply snap his incorporeal fingers and change the crappy rules that he himself set in place. And, of course, no discussion as to why this magic loophole should only exist for those who believe that he did sacrifice himself.

As for sin, Gumbel had to rely on the “thought police” style of crimes primarily introduced by Jesus in the NT, like lust being exactly the same as adultery and anger towards someone being the same as murder, in order to convince people that they have all sinned. He then said that the standard of comparison is not the best human example (who still has a few sins to his/her name) but to the perfection of Jesus, so you’re doomed to fall short. Then, he says that, in stark contrast to human justice where a minor crime gets a small fine, God says than when you break one law, you’ve broken all of them, and therefore deserve Hell.

Good job, Christianity. You’ve taken essentially good people and twisted them to think they are 100% evil. Kudos.

To introduce the solution of Jesus’s sacrifice, Gumbel used the example of Fr. Maxamillian Colby, the priest who sacrificed his life in place of another prisoner sentenced to die in the Nazi concentration camp in Austvich. Admitting that all analogies break down eventually, I wonder what this says about Christianity that in this analogy, God isn’t just Colby but he’s also the Nazis (Hmm, did I just Godwin myself?). Anyway, Gumbel believes God/Jesus’s sacrifice was even more amazing than Colby’s.

There was quite a bit of background talk about how horrible crucifixion was as a method of execution. To me, this seems completely irrelevant to the discussion. Jesus is God, eh? What’s a little horrible torture to an omnipotent being? The real point (still quite silly, though) is that Jesus was executed by humanity to take the punishment for humanity’s sins. Crucifixion, lethal injection, burning at the stake: it doesn’t really matter. Besides, crucifixion was bad but Mediaeval people (mostly Christians themselves) came up with stuff that was even worse.

Gumbel ended with a few more analogies for what Jesus did for humanity. His favourite one was two school friends who go their separate ways, one who becomes a judge and the other who becomes a criminal. The criminal friend ends up in the judge friend’s court and pleads guilty. As Gumbel says, there are consequences so the judge can’t let his friend off the hook, so he sentences the friend to the hefty fine he deserves, and then pays the fine for his friend.

How is this justice? There are consequences but how are consequences meaningful when they aren’t felt by those who deserve the consequences?

Part 2: Small Groups

Sadly, the discussion started with a bunch of group members talking about how moving and powerful Mel Gibson’s snuff film was. I could tell it wasn’t going to be that productive of a day.

The group discussion kind of mirrored the sermon in that most of it was spent on discussing sin and guilt rather than the Jesus part. During this, I basically talked about the irrationality of the all-or-nothing (one broken law = broke the entire set of laws) approach to morality God is taking. Fortunately, I wasn’t the only person who had problems with this view; I had support even from some dedicated Christians. Of course, they were willing to let God’s ethics remain mysterious while I hammered home the arbitrariness of the system.

Unfortunately, we spent so much time just talking about sins in general - how secular societies have crimes based on real-world effects instead of sins against God’s law, just what makes a sin, and how guilt relates to sin - that we were left with only 5 minutes to talk about Jesus’s part in all of this. Ie. The resurrection as substitute for our punishment.

Only being able to strike once, I chose to appeal to the higher ethics of humanity. There is nothing wrong with accepting the gift of redemption and forgiveness from the person you have wronged. However, getting back to the story of the judge and his criminal friend, what is better: the criminal accepting his friend's offer to pay his debt for him? or the criminal saying, thanks, but no, I need to repay this on my own, and making his own amends the best he can? There already exists a higher ethic to aspire to than what Christianity holds as its pinnicle.

And, on that note, it was time to leave.

As we were leaving, two of the other vocal members of the group, both highly pro-Christianity, came up to me to say that I was asking really good questions and that they were happy I was in their group. I'll take that as a very good compliment; however, I'm a bit worried that since I haven't disturbed them yet, I'm not being confrontational enough.

Finally, we talked to the group leader a bit, and she said that there was actually at least one more non-Christian in the group that she knew of. I was surprised, and argued with her that every single person last week made some mention of being Christian during the introductions. Then I realized where I went wrong; a couple of people had only said that they grew up Christian. They made no mention of what they were now or if they went to church. So I have at least one person to step up to the plate for during our small group discussions.

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At October 17, 2008 2:19 p.m., Blogger Carlo said...

Ok, I don't have a lot of time, but let me just suggest that you read more of Bart Ehrman's stuff, particularly Lost Christianities. Because, if the question of 'why did Jesus have to die?' makes as much sense to you as it does to me, you'll take heart with the fact that many early Christians were as puzzled by it as we are.

The whole 'mystery' of Jesus' sacrifice has a lot do do with the church leaders, over time, realizing that they had to keep tweaking the details in order to make some semblance of a logically consistent premise. Take for example the problem of Jesus' divinity. If Jesus really was the Son of God (and God as well, strangely) than can we really say that he was sacrificed? I mean, isn't he immortal, and above pain? But if he wasn't actually sacrificed then how did this redeem humanity for its sins? And so on.

Such problems kept coming up within the early church, so doctrine had to be refined, and continuously tweaked until we have the convoluted explanation that we get today. In all of my years of being a devout Catholic, I never understood it.

At October 18, 2008 1:29 p.m., Blogger King Aardvark said...

I'd agree with that suggestion re: Bart Ehrman. I'm kicking myself, but I just started reading Misquoting Jesus last week, too late for the first group session we had. I still have to pick up Lost Christianities, but with my wife's job ending soon, we have to be a little tight right now, so I'm giving up all my book buying for a while. She's got a tentative offer, which she attributes to God answering her prayers, despite the fact the job isn't really all that close to what she was asking for.

The whole 'mystery' of Jesus's sacrifice thing sounds a lot like that one Simpsons episode where all the adults started using the vitality tonic and ignoring the kids, so the kids came up with all their theories about it. Eventually they all got mashed up together as:
Milhouse: The Rand Corporation, in conjuction with the saucer people...
Bart: Thank you.
Milhouse: ...under the supervision of the reverse vampires...
Lisa: Ugh...
Milhouse: ...are forcing our parents to go to bed early in a fiendish plot to eliminate the meal of dinner!

At October 18, 2008 1:45 p.m., Blogger King Aardvark said...

PS. For those wondering, I am writing "Jesus's" intentionally instead of "Jesus'", as I refuse to give Jesus any preferential treatment.

At October 18, 2008 6:35 p.m., Anonymous Karen from California said...

PS. For those wondering, I am writing "Jesus's" intentionally instead of "Jesus'", as I refuse to give Jesus any preferential treatment.

Huh? The sacrifice of Jesus is Jesus' sacrifice, the same way the pot roast of Doris is Doris' pot roast. If there's any special treatment, it's for the name-ending letter s, not the person identified by the name. Or is this another one of those Canuck/Yank differences?

At October 19, 2008 6:35 p.m., Blogger King Aardvark said...

Most style guides use 's for any singular possessive, regardless of whether it ends in "s" except in the case of Jesus, and s' for plurals.

Wikipedia link

It's not really a big deal, but that's how I roll.

At October 25, 2008 12:07 a.m., Anonymous Anne said...

I agree with karen. But I'm from CA as well. What do we know?

I think you must have to be raised a Xian (maybe even Protestant) to think the whole Jesus sacrifice thing makes any sense at all. It always just seemed stupid to me, even though I was raised to believe in a god.

At October 30, 2008 11:37 p.m., Blogger William said...

Mysteries are a defense against logic. You can't prove something wrong when you can't even find a coherent claim to attack.


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