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The Cross is a supreme challenge to unbelievers

The Crucifixion is a historical certainty. So how do atheists explain it?

By on Friday, 6 April 2012

A scene from Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ (CNS)

Some years ago now, I remember watching a studio discussion on television in which the great and the good discussed Mel Gibson’s controversial film The Passion of the Christ. It was a very interesting discussion (I cannot provide a link, I am afraid, but am recalling this from memory.)

The subject was whether the film was anti-Semitic. Was Mel blaming the Jews for the death of Christ? The panel seemed to think that he was, and that this was anti-Semitic, because the Jews clearly had nothing to do with sentencing Christ to death. I remember thinking: well, in that case, are they saying the film is anti-Roman, and doesn’t that bother them?

Then the token Catholic spoke up: it was clear that as Jesus died to redeem us from our sins. Everyone was responsible for his death, because we are all sinners. But it seemed that this was even worse than the perceived anti-Semitism, as far as the rest of the panel was concerned. For once, the idea that we are all guilty (which is supposed to be a central tenet of bleeding-heart liberalism) was indignantly rejected.

After all, sin is such an offensive concept to modern people. It suggests that all is not well with us, that we do things wrongly. Moreover, when the Catholic explained about Original Sin the atmosphere became more or less indignant. How could anyone dare suggest that the human race was anything less than perfect? The fact that the Catholic Church had been teaching this for 2,000 years had escaped their notice.

But all this left me thinking. The Jews did not put Jesus to death, and I am OK with that. I think that, historically speaking, the case for Pilate’s guilt is overwhelming. But the idea that came from that studio panel was that Jesus did not die to save us from our sins because we have no sins to be saved from.

Polly Toynbee once wrote: “Of all the elements of Christianity, the most repugnant is the notion of the Christ who took our sins upon himself and sacrificed his body in agony to save our souls. Did we ask him to?”

So why did Jesus die? Moreover, was his death the result of some sort of administrative error, some terrible misunderstanding, as opposed to the result of sin, either particular or general? It seemed to me that this studio panel when confronted with the death of Jesus on the Cross saw the whole thing as terribly embarrassing, something they would much rather not think about, something they would love to deny ever happened, if that were possible, and something for which they themselves were emphatically not responsible.

But who was?

And why did Jesus let himself be killed when it is very clear that he could have avoided his death?

And why did they kill him?

Incidentally, I am taking the crucifixion of Jesus as a historically certain fact. And so it is, with tons of evidence to back it up, but space forbids me going into that right now. Rather, I want to ask this: it happened, so how do you explain it?

Recently I have been engaging with non-believers, talking about Aquinas, which is not really my cup of tea. Now, writing this on Good Friday, I’d like to invite the unbelievers to make sense of the Cross of Jesus.

It seems to me that such a request puts them in a bind. Either they acknowledge the divine goodness of Jesus who willingly went to his Cross, or they acknowledge a human depravity that knows no limit – the depravity that deliberately tortures an innocent human being to death. Both of these, the goodness and the depravity, point to the same overwhelming conclusion: man without God is lost in the world. The existence of God is the only possible resolution to the paradox of the Cross, a paradox with which it would be impossible to live.

There was great evil on the first Good Friday, but great love too. And that is why we call this Friday good.

  • JabbaPapa

    Erm — if *you* understood it, then you wouldn’t have made your silly comment in the first place.

    See — *this* ^^^ is an ad hominem ; the above ISN’T.

    Also — an ad hominem is not necessarily a fallacy — it’s a fallacy if it misdirects from the point of the argument, or if it is used to avoid answering a point somebody has made.

    hmmmmmmmmm — ironically enough, EXACTLY what you have done by accusing me of an “ad hominem fallacy” instead of responding to the counterpoint that I made (which was a direct response to your original point — your point being based BTW on the “modern” bias that is so common nowadays, which falsely assumes that people of this day and age are smarter and better informed than people of long ago about various issues concerning long ago.

  • JabbaPapa

     What have you been smoking ?

  • Benedict Carter


  • Trockfield

    Yes, very interesting Mr. Lucie Smith.  What I suggest is this: GET A LIFE!!!

  • Trockfield

    How can anyone deny this historical fact, for which there is NO EVIDENCE?

  • Trockfield

    your smile creeps me out…

  • Trockfield

    Amen to that you moron!

  • Trockfield


  • Trockfield

    Badjumbly has not taken the position you accuse him of! Let Badjumbly be! Let him be!

  • Trockfield

    ‘a simplistic moral dichotomy and a belief in social perfectionism which I neither wrote into it nor endorse’. You sum it all up so well Badjumbly!

  • Trockfield

    ‘It is logically falsifiable — where do you draw the line ? Does the individual cross some sort of line at 7:23 AM one morning, suddenly becoming capable of sin whereas at 7:22 AM he or she was sinless ?’  My thoughts exactly JabbaPapa!!!

  • Trockfield

     ‘like asking the exact starting time for moral consciousness, or the sense of self, or sexual feeling’  Yea Badjumbly, yea!!!

  • Trockfield

    ‘Since I am an atheist, my view that babies are incapable of being sinful does not derive from Protestantism but from plain old common sense.’An atheist! If you’re an atheist then why are you contributing to the Catholic Herald motherfucker??!!!

  • Trockfield

    ‘You’re talking cobblers’My man!!!!

  • daclamat

    Four letter words. Is the moderateor abed this hour?

  • Jonathan West

    Am am not responsible for anybody’s actions which took place before I was born. I am responsible for my actions and mine alone.

    Even if the events surrounding the crucifixion happened as you describe, no living person, Jew or otherwise, has any responsibility whatsoever for it. For you to claim otherwise is a justification for anti-semitism.

  • Jonathan West

    Clearly you didn’t read the description of the ad hominem logical fallacy.

  • Recusant

    You are completely mistaken about entropy. Entropy always increases, competing forces or not. You may be thinking of Schroedinger’s What Is Life? where he explains that entropy on a small scale may be overcome by local organisation “exporting” entropy, but the amount of entropy in the universe always increases. Please, stop digging, you are talking garbage.

  • daclamat

    Munda cor meum ac labia mea, omnipotens Deus, qui labia Isaiae prophetae calculo mundasti ignito.

  • badjumbly

    You are mistaken about my argument, since I have not contradicted the belief that the total entropy of the universe increases. If that is the case, it shows that there is no organising counter-force large enough to compete with it, whereas societies are examples of local organisation maintained by human will. My intention in pointing this contrast was to challenge your assumption that societies inevitably decay; I was NOT suggesting that the laws of physical entropy can be overcome on a universal scale.

    Of course, if heat death IS the inevitable fate of the universe, human societies are as doomed as anything else, but I was not thinking on such an apocalyptic time-scale when I made the assertion that led to this strand of the debate - i.e. that good people must be vigilant and organised – and nor, I suspect, were you when you cited the example of the Roman Republic coming to an end.  

  • Yellowfaust

    I challenge anyone here to
    site any historical evidence that Jesus was crucified on a Roman cross, much
    less any historical evidence that he died and then came back to life.  Is
    there a single Roman document that records this event?  Does some local
    historian at the time record the event?  Are there any fist-hand accounts
    of the event that have been discovered? Of course the answer is no.  The
    problem is not that Lucie-Smith does not site all his evidence, but that he
    sites none.  If you disagree please site the evidence!

    Even if we, for the sake of argument, assume that there was a historical Jesus,
    who was crucified by the Romans, and that he allowed this to happen as the head
    of a religious cult, why would that cause a problem of explanation for
    atheists?  Many members of religions have accepted death, or caused their
    own death for religious reasons throughout history -Jim Jones and his
    followers, the Heaven’s Gate group in Rancho Santa Fe, CA, Buddhist Monks
    setting themselves ablaze.   Do we have to conclude that anyone who has
    done this has provided proof that his or her religious beliefs are true?

    And of course there are many violent, horrible people in the world who commit
    terrible crimes.  Who would deny this?  When Lucie-Smith suggests
    that modern men generally deny that there are bad people in this world or deny
    that most people do some bad things at some point in their life he is merely
    inventing straw-men to fight.