What If it's not All About Reward and Punishment [A conjecture by John S Morgan]

It’s not all about reward and punishment

St. Paul, the earliest writer in the New Testament, said: “Christ died for your sins.”

The church mulled that over for a few centuries trying to answer the question why. Why would the death of Jesus have something to do with mankind’s sins? There appears to be no logical connection.

In the New Testament, the author of Mark expresses a rudimentary atonement theory: "The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" Mark does not, however, offer a rationale. Where is the logical or plausible connevtion?

Although the author of Luke used much of Mark's Gospel as source material, sometimes verbatim, he chose to omit this passage. Luke's view is that salvation comes not through any atoning sacrifice but by a forgiveness that comes through repentance.

From a secular point of view, Jesus led a very noble life. He ministered to folks and preached in parables how to live a good life. He summarized the scriptures of his tradition saying that they represented a summary of two ideas; one should love God above all and ones neighbor as ones self.

Jesus made enemies along the way. He criticized how the religious laws of his tradition were interpreted. He raised a righteous ruckus in the holy temple throwing out people and overturning tables. He was aware that his movement was attracting the attention of the civil authorities that were wary of any group that posed a threat to their power. It was brave of Jesus to continue with his mission knowing the possible repercussions. He was eventually executed by the state in a most cruel manner. Since the killing was unjust one could certainly argue that Jesus died for [because of] sin [evil action], which is the proclivity of mankind.

This answer would not have satisfied Paul and it was not the answer the church was looking for. Eventually the church came up with the “atonement theory.” According to this theory, which depends on the doctrine of the Trinity, sins are an outrage to the all-perfect God and serious sins require that the sinner spend his eternity in the afterlife in a place called hell – a place where the individual is placed in a fire yet it does not consume one. This all started with the sin of Adam, the guilt of which fell upon his posterity. God the Father sent his son (God the Son) to earth to die for mankind’s sins. This ‘sacrifice’ balances out the sins of mankind. This atonement becomes applicable to an individual if certain provisions are met. The provisions differ according to whether the individual is Catholic or Protestant and especially if not one of either.

The theory works well with Christian recruitment and membership. Now the church has both a carrot and a stick – Hey guy or gal, do you want to spend the afterlife in bliss or torture? No one has returned to tell us how things really are. It should be mentioned that the plausibility about the atonement theory is mentioned nowhere in Scripture. The trinity formula – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is mentioned only once in all of scripture and is not defined there. The word Trinity is not found in Scripture.

The problems with the atonement theory are many:

  1. The assertion that serious sin so offends God that his son’s death is required to compensate is just that – an assertion. One cannot think of any parallel in human experience. If someone were to injure me, I could forgive him or her without having a third party die. If God cannot overlook an affront, what can we say of this moral character?

  2. Why should one assume that two evil acts should cancel out something? One evil act [the torture & death of Jesus] + another evil [the sins of humankind] do not sum to zero. One plus one equals two not zero. I can’t really picture God the father purring like a cat while someone beats up on his son.

  3. What finite sin could merit an eternal punishment? The punishment would be the kind of punishment that Jesus argued against. He attempted to replace an eye for an eye kind of pseudo morality with an ethic of love and forgiveness. Taking another’s eye because he took yours may make some individuals feel good [I suppose] but does not restore any eyes. Retributive Punishment performed by anyone is always an evil. (My assertion! Think about it.) Corrective punishments and credible deterrent punishments are sometimes effective and reasonable. Retributive punishment never shows love of, or concern for, neighbor; it is pure malice.

  4. In a sense God must bear some responsibility for mankind’s sins having created creatures prone to self gratification at others expense. (I said responsibility not guilt.)

Many people have difficulties with this theory and many atonement theories have evolved in the church to answer the question of Paul but the one I described remains a favorite.

What is it all about?

If God’s intended purpose in the creation of mankind is not about punishment and reward, then what are we doing here? It seems unreasonable that we were placed here, in a finite time, to perform a very temporal choice that would determine our eternal fate. What then? We can only speculate! God has subtly hidden his presence and motives to the extent that those who spend their lives in philosophy remain unable to prove his existence. Why? Again, we can only speculate.

If one assumes that the creator of this exquisitely beautiful universe is personified by love, then we can confidently go about our business accepting that we are agents of his plan. Whatever it is.

Yet humans are curious. What might it be all about? To give a simplistic answer, my suspicion is it’s about appreciation and learning through experience how to get along with other people.

Although Christianity does not include reincarnation in its belief system, likely because of possible incompatibilities with the atonement theory, about one fourth of Americans believe in Reincarnation, as do most of the world religions.

In 553 AD the second Council of Constantinople occurred and concluded with anathemas against the church father Origen for his belief in the pre-existence of souls. This threw cold water on any possibility of room for reincarnation within Christian belief.

What does science have to say?

The inductive method of science seeks to put a theory to the reality test by performing an exhaustive number of repeatable experiments to see if there are conflicts. Reincarnation does not seem suited for this kind of scrutiny because the evidences are not repeatable.

Nonetheless there has been work among the people of science to substantiate a good possibility.

The ability of young children to remember a past life and have the details verified from the occurrences in a previously lived life have yielded remarkable results. Dr Ian Stevenson, who was the Director of Personality Studies at the University of Virginia, has devoted forty years to the scientific documentation of past life memories of children from all over the world - and has over 3,000 cases in his files. He did not use hypnosis.

Various researchers have documented thousands of cases around the world and many where children have disclosed the residences and names of family members by name and have successfully passed tests by these family members. On the Internet, Carol Bowman, who has written Children’s Past Lives, continues to record data of past lives given by children. Information on reincarnation can be readily found on the Internet by using a good search engine.

If true, the theory dovetails with my theory that a loving creator has put each of us here to learn how to get along with each other. I know I am obdurate and you likely know many people who would need the experience of many lifetimes to learn to be a contributive member of society.

Luke's gospel seems to illustrate that God is at work behind suffering to achieve his redemptive purposes. Suffering represents a total emersion into experience; it often offers an intense learning experience.

We were all born with a tendency for self-gratification at others expense. But perhaps it is not all about punishment and reward. Before the creator can effectively create “The City of God” he needs a community where people can get along.