Sin and atonement [Part – 1]
December 22, 2010 3 Comments
Now we turn to the second very important article of Christian faith. I must clarify however that all Christians do not believe exactly in what follows. Even some Church leaders have deviated from the stiff dogmatic attitude of the Church. Even so, the philosophy of ‘Sin and Atonement’ is a fundamental principle of orthodox Christian faith.
The first component of the Christian understanding of Sin and Atonement is that God is just, and exercises natural justice. He does not forgive sins without exacting retribution; as it would be against the dictates of absolute justice. It is this particular attribute of God that makes necessary the Christian version of atonement.
The second component is that man is sinful because Adam and Eve sinned. As a result their progeny began to inherit sin, as if it was infused into their genes and, ever since, all children of Adam are born congenital sinners.
The third component of this dogma is that a sinful person cannot atone for another person’s sins; only a sinless person can do so. Based on this, it becomes evident why, according to Christian understanding, no prophet of God, however good or near perfection he may have been, could have cleansed the mankind of sin or was able to rid them of it and its consequences. Being a son of Adam, he could not have escaped the element of congenital sin with which he was born.
This is a simple outline of the entire doctrine. Here is the solution advanced by Christian theologists.
The Atonement of Mankind
To solve this apparently unsolvable problem, God conceived an ingenious plan. It is not clear as to whether he consulted his ‘Son’ or if they both conceived the plan simultaneously or even if it was entirely the idea of the ‘Son’, and then accepted by God the Father. The features of this plan unfolded at the time of Christ as follows. Two thousand years ago the ‘Son of God’, who literally shared eternity with Him, was born to a human mother. As the ‘Son of God’, he combined within him the perfect traits of a human being as well as those of God the Father. Next we are told that a pious and chaste lady by the name of Mary, was chosen to be the mother of the ‘Son of God’. She conceived Jesus in partnership with God. In that respect, being a literal ‘Son of God’, Jesus was born without sin, yet somehow he retained his human character and entity. Thus he volunteered himself to take the burden of the entire sin of those of mankind who would believe in him and accept him as their saviour. By this clever device, it is claimed, God did not have to compromise His eternal attribute of absolute justice.
Remember that according to this modus operandi, man would not go unpunished, however sinful he may be. God would still be able to exact retribution from the sinful without compromising His sense of justice. The only difference between this and the previous position, which was responsible for this dramatic change, is the fact that it would be Jesus who would be punished and not the sinful sons and daughters of Adam. It would be the sacrifice of Jesus which would ultimately be instrumental in atoning for the sins of the children of Adam.
However strange and bizarre this logic may seem to be, this is exactly what is professed to have happened. Jesus volunteered himself and was consequently punished for the sins he had never committed.
The Sin of Adam and Eve
Let us re-examine the story of Adam from the beginning. Not a single step in the above doctrine can be accepted by human conscience and logic.
Firstly, we have the idea that because Adam and Eve sinned, so their progeny became genetically and eternally polluted with sin. In contrast to this, the science of genetics reveals that human thoughts and actions, be they good or bad, even if persistently adhered to during the entire lifetime of a person, cannot be transferred to and encoded into the genetic system of human reproduction. A lifespan is too short a period to play any role in bringing about such profound changes. Even the vices of a people, generation after generation, or good deeds for that matter, cannot be transferred to the progeny as genetic characters. Perhaps millions of years are required for etching human genes with new characteristics.
Not only this, even if by a most absurd and unacceptable extension of one’s imagination one could conceive of such a bizarre happening, the contrary will have to be accepted by the same logic. This would mean that if a sinful person repented and came out clean at the end of the day, then that act should also be recorded in the genetic system; effectively cancelling out the effect of the previous sin. Scientifically this may not happen, but certainly there is far more logic in this balanced picture than imagining that it is only the propensity to sin which can be genetically encoded and not the disposition to do good.
Secondly, by attempting to resolve the problem of Adam by proposing that sin is genetically transferred to the future generations of Adam, all that has been achieved is the total demolition of the very foundation on which the Christian doctrine of ‘Sin and Atonement’ is based. If God is absolutely Just, then where is the sense of justice in eternally condemning the entire progeny of Adam and Eve for the transient sin they committed and repented? A sin for which they themselves were heavily punished and driven out of heaven in such disgrace. What manner of justice would it be for God, who even after having more than punished Adam and Eve for their personal sins, still did not have His passion of revenge abated until He had condemned the entire human race to a helpless degradation of being born as congenital sinners? What chance did the children of Adam have to escape sin? If parents make a mistake why should their innocent children suffer for that mistake eternally?
That being so, again what distorted sense of justice does God claim to possess and to enjoy, to punish a people who are designed to act sinfully, however much they abhor sin? Sin is made a part and parcel of their mechanism. There is no chance any more for a child of Adam to remain innocent. If sin was a crime, then logic demands that it should be a crime of the Creator and not that of the creation. In that case, what justice could require the punishment of the innocent, for the crimes of the perpetrator?
How different from the Christian understanding of sin and its consequences is the proclamation of the Holy Quran, which says:
No one can bear the burden of another.
God requires not of any one that which is beyond his capacity.
Compared to the Christian concept of Sin and Atonement these declarations of the Holy Quran are pure music to the soul.
Let us now turn to the Biblical account of what actually happened at the time of the sin of Adam and Eve and the consequences that ensued the punishment. According to Genesis, God accepted their apology only partially and an eternal punishment was meted out to them, prescribed as follows:
To the woman he said, ‘I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing; with pain you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband and he will rule over you.’
To Adam he said, ‘Because you listened to your wife and ate from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat of it,’ ‘Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it were you taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.’
Mankind existed long before Adam and Eve came to be born. Western scientists themselves discovered the remains of many a prehistoric man and labelled them under different distinctive titles. Neanderthal man is perhaps the most widely known of them. They lived between 100,000 to 35,000 years ago, mostly in the regions of Europe, Near East and Central Asia. A carcass of a fully developed human being has been discovered, who happened to roam the earth about 29,000 years before Adam and Eve are known to have begun their short-lived sojourn in paradise. At that time, human beings were physically just like us and lived in Europe, Africa and Asia, and later during the Ice Age they spread to the Americas as well. Again in Australia, the authentic cultural history of Aborigines is traceable up to 40,000 years ago.
Compared to these relatively recent times, a skeleton of a female from Hedar in Ethiopia has been discovered which is 2.9 million years old. Now according to the Biblical chronology, Adam and Eve lived around six thousand years ago. One may look back in wonderment at the reported history of human beings, or Homo Sapiens as they are titled in scientific jargon.
Human Suffering Continues
Having read the Biblical account of how Adam and Eve were punished, one cannot help wondering if the pain and throes of labour were unknown to woman until the beginning of the era of Adam and Eve. A scientist will be hard to come by, who believes in such fantasies. Again, we have plenty of irrefutable evidence that man, long before Adam and Eve, had occupied all the continents of the world, even remote Pacific islands and had always laboured hard to survive. Therefore, to say that Adam and Eve were the first to commit a sin and because of that, painful child-birth was ordained as punishment, is totally proven wrong by the study of life. Even animals, who are much lower in the order of life, give birth in pain. If one watches a cow giving birth to a calf, her suffering seems similar to the pain of a human female. Many such animals, we know, inhabited the earth millions and millions of years before Adam and Eve.
To earn ones livelihood with labour is common to man, but not distinctive at all. Women also labour for their earnings and livelihood. Before that, every specie of life earns its livelihood through labour. This fact is the key motivator in the evolution of life. The struggle for existence is perhaps the very first distinctive mark of life which separates it from the world of the inanimate. It is a natural phenomenon, with nothing whatsoever to do with sin.
Again, if this be the punishment prescribed as a consequence of Adam and Eve’s sin, then one wonders what would happen after Atonement? If Jesus Christ atoned for the sins of the sinful human beings, was the punishment prescribed for the Sin abolished after the Crucifixion? Did those who believed in Jesus Christ as the ‘Son of God’, if they were women, cease to have painful childbirth? Did the believing men start earning their livelihood without exerting manual labour? Did the propensity to sin cease to pass on to the future generations and innocent children started being given birth to? If the answer to all of these questions were to be ‘yes,’ then of course there would be some justification in seriously contemplating the Christian philosophy of Sin and Atonement. But Alas, the answer to all these questions are no, no and no. If nothing seems to have changed since the Crucifixion, both in the Christian and non-Christian worlds, then what would be the meaning of Atonement?
Even after Jesus Christ the sense of common justice continues to dictate to human beings all over the world that if any person commits a sin, punishment of that sin has to be given to that person alone and to none else. Every man and woman must suffer the consequences of their sins by themselves. Children are always born innocent. If this is not the truth then God’s attribute of Justice is thrown overboard.
We as Muslims believe that all divine books are based on eternal truth and none can make any claims contrary to that. When we come across inconsistencies and contradictions in any so-called divinely revealed book, our attitude is not that of total denial and rejection but that of cautious and sympathetic examination. Most of the statements of the Old Testament and the New Testament, which we find at variance with the truth of nature, we either try to reconcile by reading some underlying cryptic or metaphoric message, or reject part of the text as the work of human hands rather than that of God. While Christianity itself was true, it could not have contained any distortions, unacceptable facts or beliefs giving a lie to nature. That is why we started not with the textual examination but with the fundamentals themselves, which through centuries of consensus have become indisputable components of Christian philosophy. Rudimentary among them are the Christian understanding of Sin and Atonement. I would much rather believe that someone, somewhere during the history of Christianity, misunderstood things and tried to interpret them in the light of his knowledge and misled the following generations because of that.