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

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.

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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.

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