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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.

  • Jason

    There is one reason and only one reason that those of us who know and believe in Jesus Christ have that knowledge and faith. It has nothing to do with our ability to reason or our own wisdom. The reason is that God chose to give us the completely free gift of faith.

    From that grace of faith our reason and understanding flows.

    We have no reason or justification to judge those who do not yet believe. All we have is the call to announce Jesus Christ crucified and risen from the dead. Just as the passion and death of Jesus Christ was the work of the Lord so it will be His work, not ours, that gives faith to those who do not yet believe.

    We proclaim Him to everyone not because we are able to convert others but because His love impels us to do so. His love and His grace are simply too great to remain hidden within us.

    In my parish we have been called to go into the streets in the coming weeks to announce Jesus Christ. We will do so in our poverty and trembling at the expected reaction but knowing that God will act for those who do not believe yet.

  • James

    You are only deluding yourself with your childishness…. The moral laws of right and wrong have been written on every human heart…The teachings of the church are eternal truths but sadly you have closed your mind off to them.

  • Benedict Carter

    Good for you Jason. Now that’s what I call evangelisation.

  • Benedict Carter

    Islam is one of the greatest, if not the greatest, successes of the devil to divert men away from Christ. 

    That’s one very good reason why ecumenism is absolute nonsense. 

  • lcayanan

    The answer becomes the answer only if accepted as the answer… take a look at yourself, have you accepted THE ANSWER as THE ANSWER? Why point at others when there is you to ask? Why point to 2000 years ago when right now you can ask yourself whether He is the good answer? If not you, who will? If not now, when? And that is why evil continues to rise because we humans just keep on talking and not do anything about it or just pass the buck. We don’t have to be philosophical or theological about God or be philosophers to know He exists and He loves us, that evil exists and that we have the choice not to participate in it. Otherwise if that’s the case I can’t be loved by him because I know not deep philosophies but in my heart I know He loves me and He loves you. Have a happy Easter, everyone!

  • JabbaPapa

    You have posted the following :

    A “loving and just” god tortures his son/self for his
    own perceived slights against his own ego, to placate his own sense of
    retribution. All in the name of salvation for the imperfect creatures
    that he deliberately  created imperfect. A salvation which he grants for
    the abandonment of  the free will he asserts is a gift.

    … which is complete and utter gibberish, bearing no resemblance whatsoever to the meanings of what it purports to describe.

    Your lack of understanding is clearly demonstrated by the sheer pole-dancing inaccuracy of this statement.

  • JabbaPapa

    The divergence between the actual teachings of Catholicism, and what outsiders imagine that Catholicism teaches, can be somewhat surprising.

    So I’m not really shocked at your remark.

  • JabbaPapa

    Belief is never a question of choice.

    An obvious falsehood.

  • Jonathan West

    The bind really doesn’t exist. There’s every reason to regard the gospel accounts as unreliable, written long after the event by people with an agenda. The story has been embellished. I realise that Fr Alexander Lucie Smith disagrees with me on this point, and says he is “taking the crucifixion of Jesus as a historically certain fact”. Well, you can’t define the premises in that way.

    That’s not to say the crucifixion never happened, it might well have. But that Jesus accepted the inevitability of his death and went quietly is no more surprising than that many people go quietly to their executions every year an America, among them undoubtedly an occasional innocent person.

  • JabbaPapa

    There’s every reason to regard your commentary as unreliable, written long after the event by someone with an agenda.

  • srdc

    “When I was old enough to ask questions, they were never answered properly, it was simply “shut up and believe”.

     It’s not always possible to get the universe into your head, it might just split, but I am happy that I belong to a church where I can get my questions answered. Your experience has not been mine and I am a traditional Catholic.

  • Recusant

    Well, let’s hold hands then, for today at least. I’m sure we have much to disagree on, but you’re not a troll so I send you affectionate greetings and wish you peace and happiness.

  • Recusant

    Erm, the first four paragraphs of this article. Have you read it?

  • Recusant

    Well, it’s very hard to figure out what you are actually saying, especially as you get a bit prim when anyone tries to hold you to something. For a start your last paragraph is complete garbage. It is a law of the universe that organisation decays to entropy (2nd law of thermodynamics), and a political one too. The Roman Republic was organised and is gone, as will our society : the currencies, the constitutions the societies, all will go (I place a strong bet on the Church surviving though, it always does). So let’s discard your final paragraph.

    You still seem to believe that goodness and badness mingle but dot not mix, and so are in theory separable, even if most of us are somewhere on a spectrum. So that while most people are not good, it is (at least in theory) possible to be good. While other species exist, it is possible to be a cat or a dog. This is your great mistake, and the source of your false hope. Like Schrodinger’s Cat, good and evil exist in us all at the same time, and cannot be separated in any of us. Think about this. I won’t reply further (I have nothing more to say), but I will reveal the answer : the only way to goodness is through the (unearned) grace of God, poured out by Him in baptism.

  • badjumbly

    Yes, I read it all before I first posted. To say that the whole of mankind is responsible for the death of Christ, including people living now, is no less absurd than blaming the Jews.

  • badjumbly

    If you find it hard to figure out what I’m saying, perhaps you should try reading more carefully and less presumptuously. I don’t mind people holding me to something that I’ve actually written, but you read into my reply to Benedict Carter a simplistic moral dichotomy and a belief in social perfectionism which I neither wrote into it nor endorse.

    If you don’t like what you call my primness, perhaps you will prefer it if I take a stylistic touch from yourself by writing that your last posting is complete garbage.The second law of thermodynamics has nothing whatsoever to do with the decay, or survival, of social organisation. If you introduced it as an analogy, it fails, since entropic decay depends on there being no competing forces to maintain the organised state. Social organisation, by contrast, is maintained by human will, which has little tolerance for disorder. When the Roman Republic came to an end it gave way not to chaos but to an alternative form of political organisation - the Roman Empire – and even that change was not a total severance with the past, since much of the structure of Roman society below leadership level continued as before. Regimes do indeed come and go, but (relatively) good people never stop organising themselves for the purpose of combatting evil, and it is that that gives me hope: not the imagined immortality of any particular regime or social body.

    I believe that good and evil can be mingled as much within an individual mind as within a society, but it is still possible, most of the time, to tell a person’s good actions apart from that same person’s bad actions and to treat them accordingly, so, in that sense, of course they can be separated. Your distinction between mingling and mixing is unclear to me, as is much of the argument in your last paragraph. I am likewise not sure what you are claiming to be my “great mistake”. If it is to believe in the possibility of people being good, this is a possibility you yourself acknowledge. If it is not that, then I don’t know what.

    One distinction between our views that does seem clear is that you believe that everyone MUST be sinful as an inescapable consequence of being human, whereas I don’t. A baby that dies a few days after birth, for example, has had no opportunity to be sinful. We can say that it contained the potential to commit sins later if it had lived, but potential to sin is not the same as sinfulness. People are sinful if they themselves do wrong, and Adam and Eve, or whatever they are meant to symbolise, have nothing to do with it. If it is your belief in guilt by descent that has led you to think that “most people are not good”, that is a pity, and shows that myths can still be powerful in the wrong way if they are not seen as mental creations.

    The doctrine of original sin, by the way, and in reference to your previous posting, cannot be proved by reading a newspaper. What newspapers indicate is the existence of evil.

    Think about this.

  • JabbaPapa

    entropic decay depends on there being no competing forces to maintain the organised state

    AFAIK, entropy exists independently of any such forces.

    Apart from that, your radical moral relativism is so radically wishy-washy as to be entropic in its own right.

    A baby that dies a few days after birth, for example, has had no opportunity to be sinful.

    This is a false teaching of Protestantism, which defines sin as being a willful moral failure causing evil (or something lke that).

    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 ?

    Sin is in fact the causation by any individual of objective suffering to others — both the deliberate and the involuntary — so that the newborn, associated as he or she is with the pains and sufferings of pregnancy and childbirth, and with the pain and grief and loss resulting from the immediate death, is therefore a direct participant in what Blessed John Paul II described as the matrix of sin that all of us are born into.

    Quite apart from which — Original Sin is paraphrasable as “an inherent capacity of humankind towards error and suffering”.

    It is ludicrous to suggest that a newborn has not that capacity.

    your belief in guilt by descent … has led you to think that “most people are not good”

    More half-baked Protestantism.

    1) Sin is not synonymous with guilt, whatever inanities to that efect that Calvin and Luther may have taught

    2) the good people/evil people false dichotomy is of your own fabrication ; not Recusant’s

  • JabbaPapa

     All of mankind is responsible for the death of Christ.

    Me, You, Recusant, Father Alexander Lucie-Smith, and all participants to this thread included.

    mea culpa, mea maxima culpa

  • JByrne24

    [This IS me, but I'll be using this name from now on, because of a glitch]
     I take it from this that you actually ARE an undercover agent set at undermining Catholicism?
     
    Or perhaps you “just don’t understand” – to borrow a favourite remark.
     
    Well I’ve been a Catholic for over 70 years now, but still prefer the Christianity of Jesus to that of Telegraph Newspapers, Christina Odone, Francis whatever-her-name-is and many of those who post on this website.
    But, maybe I “just don’t understand”.
    You never know.

  • JByrne24

    (This is John Byrne under new name because of glitch – I though you’d like to know)

    And  S = K lnW  to you too.

    There’s a book called “The 2nd Law of TD for Dummies”.
    I’ve heard there will be one for formal logic too, that you could share with ‘jumbly.

    PS: I hope this helps.

  • JabbaPapa

    1) “just don’t understand” is a phrase that I never use

    2) I cannot see that I have accused you of misunderstanding the Faith — instead I expressed my shock at the extremely gross presentations of another member.

    3) You asked me if I dismissed your earlier comment — answer : no I don’t, for the reasons that I provided.

    4) Your “under-cover agent” rhetoric is amusing and entertaining, therefore I cannot find it in me to object it.

  • JabbaPapa

     And  S = K lnW  to you too.

    :o)

  • badjumbly

    I wrote that “entropic decay depends on there being NO competing forces to maintain the organised state”: i.e. decay happens in the ABSENCE of maintaining forces. Your statement that “entropy exists independently of any such forces” therefore does not contradict mine.

    You ask where I draw the line marking the start of capacity for sin. When a child wilfully and needlessly performs an action which he knows could be harmful to others, he shows that he has crossed that line. Asking for a precise time on a particular day to be pinpointed is like asking the exact starting time for moral consciousness, or the sense of self, or sexual feeling. Some psychological developments are too gradual for precise timing.

    Regardless of what the Blessed John Paul II said, the infliction of suffering cannot be sinful if it is involuntary. Your contention that babies participate in a “matrix of sin” by causing pregnancy pains, birth pains and, if they die, grief pains, is so ludicrous it requires no counter-argument. 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.

    I used “guilt” as a synonym for “sinfulness” (which is a state) rather than for “sin” (which is an action), and “guilt by descent” seems to me a fair way of describing the notion that all humans are automatically guilty (or sinful) on account of their ancestry.

    I did NOT fabricate a false dichotomy between good and evil people, nor did I suggest that Recusant had. Recusant suggested that I was neatly dividing humanity into two moral groups, which I denied.

  • badjumbly

    So the death that was meant to atone for our guilt has actually made us all guiltier? It looks as though THAT plan backfired then! No wonder he hasn’t tried it a second time.

  • JabbaPapa

    I’m tempted to respond “you just don’t understand” simply to thumb my nose at another of my critics…

    Christ’s **Resurrection** atones for our **SIN** ; not our guilt.

    The rest of your infantile “theology” is not worth responding to.

  • JabbaPapa

    I wrote that “entropic decay depends on there being NO competing forces
    to maintain the organised state”: i.e. decay happens in the ABSENCE of
    maintaining forces. Your statement that “entropy exists independently of
    any such forces” therefore does not contradict mine.

    :-)

    Most people don’t notice that sort of thing, well spotted !!

    You ask where I draw the line marking the start of capacity for sin.
    When a child wilfully and needlessly performs an action which he knows
    could be harmful to others, he shows that he has crossed that line.
    Asking for a precise time on a particular day to be pinpointed is like
    asking the exact starting time for moral consciousness, or the sense of
    self, or sexual feeling. Some psychological developments are too gradual
    for precise timing.

    I *really* can’t be bothered to engage in argument of this, sorry — but yours is the losing position.

    Argued backwards from the premises of your example, you inevitably end up at the position that harmful actions, voluntary or involuntary, are inherent to human existence. Which is indistinguishable from the doctrine of Original Sin.

    And “sexual feeling” ?? really ???!??? Cripes, then you complain about the Catholic Church being obsessed with sex …

    Regardless of what the Blessed John Paul II said, the infliction of
    suffering cannot be sinful if it is involuntary. Your contention that
    babies participate in a “matrix of sin” by causing pregnancy pains,
    birth pains and, if they die, grief pains, is so ludicrous it requires
    no counter-argument.

    You are confusing sin with guilt — Catholicism specifically and clearly defines involuntary actions that cause suffering as being sinful.

    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.

    Your so-called atheist definition of sin is very much derived from radical protestantism.

    I used “guilt” as a synonym for “sinfulness” (which is a state) rather
    than for “sin” (which is an action), and “guilt by descent” seems to me a
    fair way of describing the notion that all humans are
    automatically guilty (or sinful) on account of their ancestry.

    In other words you redefined all of the relevant concepts to suit your own prejudice, and then act surprised when other people deny your objectively biased conclusions ?

    I did NOT fabricate a false dichotomy between good and evil people, nor
    did I suggest that Recusant had. Recusant suggested that I was neatly
    dividing humanity into two moral groups, which I denied.

    Sorry, but I agree with Recusant. I do realise that it’s quite possible that the dualistic nature of your worldview (inso far as you have expressed it to the present time) may be subconcious and therefore not consciously developed as an overt philosophy.

  • badjumbly

    Be patient with me, for I have never been good at understanding what makes no sense, including your second sentence.

    You do well to put “theology” in inverted commas. It should always be written that way.

  • JabbaPapa

    Without the fruits of Revelation, man is indeed lost in the wilderness …

  • JByrne24

    So Jabba, you CHOOSE what to believe.

    I thought so.

  • JByrne24

    Message to Agent 00. 0dear Jabba:

    Leave the “just” out and you say it all the time (see above).

  • badjumbly

    Harmful actions are certainly an abiding aspect of human experience, but it does not logically follow that all humans are sinful. It certainly is hard to get through a life of average length without once sinning, but given the number of people that have lived on earth, I do not find it incredible that at least a few might have managed. Unfortunately, this type of negative is difficult to prove, and people who are sensible enough never to sin are unlikely to boast about it. The moral fallibility of the rest of us I attribute to evolved human nature, but this is not the same concept as original sin, which holds that everyone is sinful from the start. I believe that you cannot be sinful until you have sinned or intended to sin. You might call this another redefinition of terms, but I have always defined sinfulness this way, just as you define terms according to your own ideology. No-one can own such terms or dictate what they mean when there is ideological conflict over them.

    My brief mention of sexual feeling was just one random example of a gradual psychological development which, like the capacity for sinfulness, has no precisely determinable beginning. Since it was intended for a purely comparative purpose, I hardly think this makes me obsessed with sex, but how interesting that you seize on it like that!

    The Catholic definition of involuntary harmful actions as sinful does not mean that I am in any confusion over terms like “sin” and “guilt”. As I am not a Catholic, I am not obliged to accept the same definitions. If I use a term in the same sense a Protestant would, it does not follow that my definition derives from Protestantism, since I might have arrived at it by a different route, i.e. not involving God.

    I do not have a dualistic worldview, overtly philosophical or otherwise, and I think my previous postings make this clear, so I will not repeat myself.

    I am now signing off from this page, as the column’s getting thin and I have other things to do tomorrow.
    Goodbye for now.

  • aearon43

    I think the author was asking you to explain the evil of the cross, rather than merely the factual event of it. How do atheists deal with evil? How do atheists even distinguish it from good? Christians can say, God allows evil as a test. Evil is the result of God’s gift of free will. Evil is the refusal to go along with God’s plan. Etc. What is the atheist response to evil?

  • aearon43


    Are you aware that all the studies show that atheists know more about religion than the religious?”

    This is specious and dishonest. I’m genuinely sorry if you did not have proper instruction in the faith. But in the end that is not relevant to the question of whether the faith is actually true. 

  • aearon43

    Chesterton should be required reading in all schools.

  • aearon43

    Characterizing the Catholic Church as 2000 years of evil is hyperbolic, to say the least.

  • aearon43

    Not going to argue with Islam there, but Jews are our (Catholics’) seniors in faith, and should be treated with respect. Just saying.

  • JabbaPapa

    The notion that there can be someone who can live a life that is free of sin is utterly flawed.

    You’re talking cobblers.

  • Jonathan West

    Very characteristic use of the ad hominem logical fallacy.

  • JabbaPapa

    So, JB — you don’t mind using a direct self-contradiction of your own writing as a handy method of attacking someone for disagreeing with you.

    I am not surprised.

  • Parasum

    Mgr Ronald Knox, writing 70 years ago, noted the tendency of Catholics to complain if all the Ts weren’t crossed in a sermon. 

    It is all but impossible not to leave *something* out.

  • Parasum

    The Death of Christ atones for all human guilt of all human sin. It is universally efficacious.

  • daclamat

    The very notion of redemption is abhorrent: an infinitely loving father calling pay back time on his son for wrongs he never committed. Irenaeus was a creationist insofar as he believed all the human race to be descended from Adam. So we can forgive him for inventing original sin.  Thanks to Darwin we are able to understand the truth of Genesis: a literal historical account it isn’t.
    I am no more responsible for the Crucifixion than I am for the genocides and ethnic cleansings practised by the Church, not to mention Auschwitz,Screbrenica, the Lord’s Liberation Army, Abu Grael or 11th September; but I am capable of moral cowardice, treachery and pretty much any form of misbehaviour so I could well have participated or at least been too scared to take a stand. The thought of taking some perfectly innocent person and torturing him to death to wipe my slate clean is thoroughly indecent, but like many a child in a Catholic boarding school I have seen someone whacked in mistake for me. 
    Alexander Lucie-Smith teaches moral theology, Lord help us. As a professional social worker I am happily much more influenced by Polly Toynbee and her illustrious forebears. Somehow I can see a causal effect between what Jesus is believed to have said and done, which has been handed down to us across the centuries, and what we know as the facts of Oscar Romero’s (to name but one of thousands of undoubted saints and martyrs) life and murder. Mysterium fidei.

  • JabbaPapa

    OK trapped by the double meaning of the word guilt — sorry !!

  • JabbaPapa

    What is logically false about pointing out that your opinions, written around 2000 years after the event, are likely to be less reliable than first- or second- hand witness reports ?

    And what ad hominem ?

  • JabbaPapa

    No idea what you’re doing posting on a Catholic blog then, seems pretty weird to me that you’re doing so …

  • Jonathan West

    I suggest you look up 
    the ad hominem fallacy in order to understand what I meant.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ad_hominem

  • daclamat

    You’re right, if catholic means narrow-minded, sectarian, bigot with jaws that bite and claws that catch worshipping a cruel vengeful god who needs to be placated.  If on the other hand catholic means literally catholic, as Jesus said: in my father’s house there are many mansions

  • daclamat

    There is a quite credible theory that Jabba is based on the legend of the Lambton Worm. So don’t throw your pearls before  swine: whisht laads, haad yor gob, or verb sat

  • theroadmaster

    I mean’t “there can be no side-stepping the legacy left behind over the centuries” in my last comments.

  • http://twitter.com/tsavogadfly Marcella Carmen C.

    But the Jewish people in the crowd before the Praetorium DID demand Jesus’ cruxifiction!  How can anyone deny this historical fact that has been passed  down straight from the Apostles and their disciples who witnessed the events?  Some Jews may have been manipulated by their Jewish religious leaders and some truly believed Jesus was a blasphemer who deserved the ultimate penalty.  Why deny this?  This is not anti-Semitism.  Undoubtedly not every Jew in the world at that time participated nor would most have wanted to, because I am sure they were like us today, most of us basically kind.  I can accept that.  If you tell me that some of those who had been manipulated and brain-washed were in a sense innocent; had they understood better, they would have kept silent at the very least, I can accept that too.  But please don’t tell me that NO Jew was guilty nor ever had been, because that is revisionist history and it is plain wrong.  The Jewish leaders arranged with the Roman Governor to have Jesus killed.  They could not do it themselves for various reasons but they made sure that Pilate agreed.  Until present day Jews accept the historical facts of Jesus’ condemnation, they carry a share of their forefathers’ guilt in my view, just as I carry a share of the guilt of sin of my forebears as well as my own, and just as I am bound to make reparation for myself, and for my forebears, by praying and perhaps giving alms, or doing other good deeds, so should modern Jews try to be little more humble before God.