Removing the punishment aspect of Easter

Stripping the notion of punishment out of Easter opens the way back to its true meaning, writes Ian Harris.

There's a lot that's right about the Easter just passed, but God punishing Jesus for the sins of the world isn't part of it.

Not even when you say: "Ah yes, but that simply shows how much God loves us.''

For one thing, that whole notion depends on the existence of the God of theism.

Any view of God requires us to speculate on what that God is like: in theism, humans project on to this external being the best and highest values we can conceive - love, justice, compassion, holiness, wisdom, truth, beauty - and a consequential hatred of their opposites.

In the 5th century, the creative mind of St Augustine teased that out further by saying the biblical origin myths mean human life began in a state of perfection.

Then Adam and Eve disobeyed their creator, and everyone since has been born into a state of sin, simply by virtue of their origin.

That is unavoidable, Augustine argued, because "original sin'' is passed on through the sex act.

And sin merits punishment.

Sinners need to be rescued.

But how?

In the 11th century Anselm, then archbishop of Canterbury, devised an answer by projecting on to God a feudal image of a just ruler who could not treat lightly any breach of his laws.

Offenders had to be punished, or the moral order would collapse.

Who could bring hope to all these miserable sinners?

Only Jesus, the perfect man, said Anselm.

So Jesus accepted God's just punishment for sin on behalf of everyone who identified with his sacrifice on the cross.

That narrative of sin, punishment, faith and salvation inspired Christian faith for the next 1000 years.

Then came the great advances in scientific knowledge of the past 200 years.

We learnt that human life did not begin perfect and whole, but evolved over millions of years from earlier species, gradually developing new skills and attributes.

As such knowledge expanded, the theistic model of God began to seem less self-evident than before.

For many, God became less an objective being in heaven and more a supreme influence within human consciousness.

Any mature view of Godness has justice at its core, but it is not the penal justice of a sentencing judge.

Rather it is doing justly, acting compassionately in everyday life.

If, then, there was no original human perfection and so no "fall'' into original sin, if there is no heavenly overlord poised to condemn sinners, no place called heaven and no physical hell, a new view of Easter becomes necessary.

Or rather, the oldest view can re-emerge.

The most telling corrective to the punishment-oriented interpretation of the cross comes from Jesus himself, twice over.

First there is his parable about a young blade determined to have a good time.

He asked his father to give him in advance the inheritance he expected from his father's estate, so he could take off and live the high life.

That was highly insulting - it was tantamount to saying he couldn't wait for his father to die - but he got his inheritance anyway.

Then everything turned to custard.

He squandered his money, sank lower and lower, and finally grew so desperate he had no option but to crawl back home.

He deserved a good whipping for his arrogance and waste.

Instead, his father laid on a feast to welcome him home.

For Jesus, that reflected the character of God.

You can't go beyond unconditional love.

Then there's the example of Jesus on the cross. 

He could have railed against the authorities and his executioners.

He could have threatened they would all pay dearly for their part in killing an innocent man.

He didn't.

He said: "Father, forgive them, they don't know what they're doing.''

You can't go beyond unconditional love.

Easter, shorn of the punishment motif running through well-loved hymns, rituals and much preaching, proclaims that unconditional love.

It is the clue to Jesus and the heart of Godness.

It does not judge or threaten.

It welcomes gracefully, offers love, and sets a wholesome direction for living.

In Christianity, this is summed up in the affirmation that though Jesus died, the Christ is risen, Christ being the archetype of love, grace and transforming power.

Like all archetypes, it is imprinted on the psyche, and is expressed in the lives of those who follow him.

That's what Easter is really all about - not Jesus paying for our sins, but the Christ releasing us into a new way of being.

Which is how it was at the beginning.

- Ian Harris is a journalist and commentator.

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