Jesus earliest followers most likely believed that he was the promised Jewish Messiah, who would become the king of a restored Israel after the imminent, cataclysmic arrival of the earthly Kingdom of God. Let’s try, then, to grasp their traumatic shock and potential despair, when he was arrested, cruelly humiliated, and crucified. That was the very opposite of the expected heroic, charismatic, militarily and spiritually victorious Messiah. What credible explanation could they come up with, to make sense of this?
Being Jews, the obvious resource was their own scriptures, and so they searched for anything that seemed relevant or helpful, and they weren’t, in their view, disappointed. What emerged from their search (unsurprisingly perhaps) was a view of the Messiah which hadn’t previously been apparent to any Jewish readers despite centuries of study of their own scriptures. 40 years later, when the Gospels began to be written, they put the incentive for this search into the mouth of Jesus himself. “Beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.”
In point of fact, “All the scriptures” can largely be reduced to some of the ‘Psalms of Lament’ (22 and 69), and the fourth ‘Servant Song’ in Isaiah 53. Some verses in these Psalms have details mirrored in the Gospels, such as gambling for Jesus’ clothing, and his being offered vinegar to drink. The question, however, is whether these details foreshadowed actual events, or were themselves the reason for their inclusion in the stories. Plenty of other verses were ignored, because they had no obvious or useful relevance. In the case of the Servant Songs, in one of these, Isaiah makes it clear that the suffering servant is Israel itself. In any case, in none of these texts, does the word Messiah appear.
What about the idea that, not just a death, but the bloody horror of crucifixion was planned by God as the necessary means of forgiveness for the wrongdoings of human beings? This idea has its origin in the earliest days of the human race. When creatures died, their blood either flowed out of them, or dried up within them. Blood, therefore, was a source of life. Humans experienced guilt at having to kill other creatures in order to eat, but obtained ‘forgiveness’ by offering up their blood to the ‘gods of the hunt’, to ensure a fresh re-supply of animals. There’s a certain ‘logic’ in this, but not one that we’d now subscribe to.
What about the idea, then, of the life blood of Jesus being offered as a sacrifice to God, so that you and I might obtain forgiveness and live forever instead of, as is our just desert, being endlessly tortured for our wickedness and sin? I can understand that people hold this view, because I used to hold it myself, but now find it intellectually and morally bankrupt. If people, in today’s UK, any longer believed they were hell deserving sinners, the churches would be full, instead of becoming increasingly empty. Whatever people’s deepest needs are, being ‘saved from their sins’ isn’t top of, if even on, the list.
Most people, I think, would agree that a parent should forgive a regretful child, without first needing to painfully punish them. And any idea that some other person should take the punishment instead, would be regarded as ridiculous. How could we respect a God who cannot forgive anyone for anything, unless blood is spilled, suffering is endured, and life is taken? And how should we react, except with outrage, to the idea that an innocent person should have to suffer so that a guilty one can be forgiven? I can’t therefore regard Jesus as my ‘saviour from sin’. Human wrongdoing is our own responsibility. We must look within, and at the world around us, and save ourselves from ‘sin’, with the lifestyle and teachings of Jesus as being among the best of guides.
I’m adding this final sentence because, with the word “guides”, I’d reached a total of 666 words. Some might see in that a warning message …..