Sin and atonement [Part -2]
December 23, 2010 4 Comments
Let us suppose for the sake of argument that Adam and Eve sinned literally as described in the Old Testament, and were duly punished. As the story goes, the punishment was handed out not only to them but to their entire progeny. Once that punishment was prescribed and delivered, why was there the need for any other punishment at all? Once a sin has been punished, it is done with. Once a judgment has been passed, no one has the right to continuously add more and more punishments. In the case of Adam and Eve it is not only that they were severely reprimanded and if anything more than punished for the sin they had committed, but also the nature of the punishment which was extended to their progeny in itself is highly questionable. Of that we have said enough. What we are attempting to point to is a far more heinous violation of absolute justice. To be punished continuously for the sins of our forefathers is one thing but to be compelled to continue to sin as a consequence of one’s forefather’s error is simply abominable.
Let us get down to the hard realities of human experience and try to understand the Christian philosophy of crime and punishment in relation to our everyday experience. Let us suppose a judgement is passed against a criminal, which is far too severe and harsh in proportion to the crime committed. That could, of course, lead to loud and severe condemnation of such a gross disproportionate penalty by every sensible man. In view of this, we find it very difficult to believe that the penalty imposed on Adam for his sin, came from a Just God. It is not just a case of an out of proportion penalty. It is a penalty, that according to the Christian understanding of God’s conduct, outlived the life span of Adam and Eve and was extended generation after generation to their progeny. For the progeny to suffer for the punishment of their parents is actually an extension of the violation of justice beyond its ultimate limits. But we are not talking of that either. If we had the misfortune to observe a judgement passed by any contemporary judge, making it compulsory for the children, grand children and great grand children, etc. of a criminal to be coerced by law to continue to sin and commit crimes and be punished accordingly till eternity then what would be the reaction of contemporary society, which has acquired a universal sense of justice through civilisation?
In the fifth century, Augustine the Bishop of Hippo, was involved in a confrontation with the Pelagian movement, concerning the controversy of the nature of the fall of Adam and Eve. He proclaimed the Pelagian movement as being heretical because it taught that Adam’s sin affected only himself and not the human race as a whole; that every individual is born free of sin and is capable in his own power of living a sinless life and that there had even been persons who had succeeded in doing so.
Those in the right were labeled as heretics. Day was denounced as night and night as day. Heresy is truth and truth, heresy.
The Transfer of Sin
Let us now re-examine the theme that God does not forgive the sinful without punishing them because it is against His sense of justice. One is horrified to realise that for century after century Christians have believed in something which is most certainly beyond the grasp of the human intellect and contrary to human conscience. How on earth, or heaven for that matter, could God forgive a sinful person merely because an innocent person has volunteered himself to take the punishment instead? The moment God does so, He violates the very fundamental principles of justice. A sinful person must suffer for his sins. In short, a multitude of complex human problems would arise if the punishment is transferred to someone else.
It is argued by Christian theologians that such a transfer of punishment does not violate any principle of justice, because of the voluntary acceptance by the innocent person of the other person’s punishment. What would you say in the case of a debtor, they ask, who is overloaded with debts beyond his capacity to pay and some God-fearing philanthropist decides to relieve him of his burden by paying his entire debts on his behalf? Our answer would be that indeed we would loudly applaud such an act of immense generosity, kindness and sacrifice. But what would be the reaction of the person who confronts us with such a question, if the debt payable runs into trillions of dollars and there steps forward a philanthropist who takes out a penny from his pocket, demanding that all that is due to the debtor should be canceled out against that kindly penny offered as a substitute for that debt. What we have in the case of Jesus Christ offering himself to be punished, for the sins of all humanity, is far more grotesquely unproportionate. Again, it is not only one debtor or all the debtors of one single generation, but we are talking about billions of born and unborn defaulters extending up to Doomsday.
But that is not all. To conceive of crime as only a debtor who owes money to someone else is the most naive definition of sin that I have ever come across. This scenario which has been presented deserves to occupy our attention a little longer before we turn to some other aspects of crime and punishment.
Let us consider the case of a debtor called ‘A’, who owes a hundred thousand pounds to person ‘B’. If a rich philanthropist, in full command of his senses, seriously and genuinely wants to relieve the debtor of his burden, the common law would require him to pay to ‘B’ all that person ‘A’ owed him. But suppose the hypothetical philanthropist steps forward with the plea that person ‘A’ should be absolved of his responsibility of payment to person ‘B’ and instead he himself should be beaten up a little bit or imprisoned for three days and nights at the most, in his place. If it really happened in real life it would be a treat to watch the horrified faces of the astounded judge and the confounded poor creditor ‘B’. But the philanthropist has yet to complete his plea for clemency. He would further stipulate: ‘O my lord, that is not all I want in return for my sacrifice. I require all the debtors of the entire kingdom alive today or to be born until the end of time to be absolved of their dues in return for my suffering of three days and nights.’ At this point one’s mind boggles.
How one wishes to propose to God, the Just God, that at least those who had been robbed of the fruits of their labour, or of the savings of their lives should have been compensated to some degree at least. But the Christian God, it seems, is far more kind and clement to the criminal than to the innocent who suffer at the hands of the criminal. A strange sense of justice indeed which results in the forgiveness of robbers, usurpers, the abusers of children, the torturer of the innocent and the perpetrators of all sorts of beastly crimes against humanity, provided that they believe in Jesus Christ in their dying moments. What of the incalculable debt they owe to their tormented victims. A few moments of Jesus in hell seem sufficient to purge them of their long lives of unpunished heinous guilt, generation after generation.