Thursday, February 23, 2006

Charles Templeton

Charles Templeton was at one time the Billy Graham of Canada. In fact, he was and still is a friend of Graham's. But the evangelist Templeton began to question some of the essential teachings of Christianity. He undertook a critical study of his faith, and discovered "I could stay in the ministry and live a lie or I could make the break." Templeton made the break. In the 45 chapters of Farewell to God, Templeton catalogues numerous problems with the Christian story that brought about his break with Christianity. The following is one chapter from the book.

The Prayer in Gethsemane

(A chapter from Farewell to God: My Reasons for Rejecting the Christian Faith by Charles Templeton)

As his final hour approached and the forces opposed to Jesus moved to silence him, it is reported that he gathered the disciples in an upper room in Jerusalem and, after what has been called the Last Supper, spoke to them at length about what lay in store for them and for himself. It is a deeply moving scene and leaves little doubt in the reader’s mind that this, in its essence, is an accurate reflection of the authentic Jesus – compassionate, wise, dedicated, and profoundly troubled as he realizes that the end is near. He was, remember, a young man in his thirties.

It is a painful read – especially the prayer in the seventeenth chapter of John’s Gospel – because Jesus seems to be aware that, within hours, he will be dead and his followers scattered and persecuted, even driven, as Peter and Judas were, to betray him.

It is evident, however, that Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane is an imagined reconstruction of the event by the authors. Although the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke present what purport to be eyewitness accounts of what Jesus said and did in the garden, the text makes it obvious that their accounts differ and cannot be factual.

All three state that, having gone with the disciples to the garden, Jesus went off by himself. “sit here,” he told them, “while I go and pray yonder.” He then “parted from them a stone’s throw,” and, therefore, beyond earshot. Yet, despite the apparent impossibility of his having been overheard – much less his words inscribed – Matthew’s Gospel quotes verbatim the words of his prayer: “My father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me. . . . Nevertheless, not as I will but as thou wilt.”

Moreover, although it was dark and they were in a treed area and Jesus was a stone’s throw distance away, the apostles report seeing “his sweat, like great drops of blood, falling on the ground.”

That they could not have overheard his prayer is made further evident by the statement that “when [Jesus] rose up from his prayer, he came unto the disciples and found them asleep.” Three times, the records state, he withdrew to pray, and three times he returned to find the disciples asleep. The third time he said to them, “Sleep on. Take your rest.”

It would seem that Jesus did not want his prayer overheard. If he had, would he have distanced himself from the apostles after specifically instructing them to stand watch where they were?

There are further problems with this story. Christian teaching asserts that Jesus is the Son of god, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, Very God of Very God, and that the reason for his coming to the world was to purchase the redemption if humankind by the sacrifice of his life.

But the reported prayer in Gethsemane is at odds with this.

In his prayer Jesus pleads with the Father to abort the divine plan, saying again and again, “If it be possible, remove this cup from me.” This would be a reasonable reaction in a human being, but Jesus is presented as much more than that.; he is the manifestation in human flesh of the Godhead. Moreover, the stated reason for his coming earth as a human being was that he might die for the sins of humankind. Why then would he now want to abandon his reason for being?

But there is a larger, theological reason for questioning the story. Why would an all-wise, loving, and compassionate Father require the agonizing death of his Son as the means to achieve the forgiveness of the sins of mortal men? It was done, theologicans tell us, to satisty divine law. But is not God the Father the originator of the law? The concept reduces Jesus’ death to no more than the extension of the primitive “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life” principle. In early history justice was seen to be done only if a penalty equal to the infraction was wxacted. Having murdered, the murderer is himself slain.

A life for a life, a death for a death. Scales balanced.

The Christian plan of salvation is predicated on this primitive notion of justice. “The wages of sin is death,” says the apostle Paul, therefore the sinner must die. But, the argument goes, Jesus the man – who was himself without sin – died in our stead, and if we “accept him as Savior and Lord” we pass from condemnation to eternal life for he has paid our debt.

A life for a life, a death for a death. Scales balanced.

But the equation won’t bear examination. If Jesus was truly a man (and the incarnation was no more than a charade if he wasn’t) then his substitutionary sacrifice, his individual death, would be efficacious for only one individual – certainly not for all humankind!

Moreover, if one accepts the fact that Jesus actually did take to himself our sins, he died a sinner and would, as a consequent, himself be damned: “The wages of sin is death.”

But the intrinsic problems in the story go beyond this: If “the wages of sin is death,” and if “there is no other name under heaven given among men whereby you must be saved,” then the preponderance of the men and women who have lived and died since the dawn of time are in hell. Throughout history only a small portion of the world’s population has been Christian or has so much as heard the Christian message. Of the approximately 5.6 billion people now alive only a small portion call themselves Christian, which means that billions now living are on their way to hell – not to mention the billions throughout history who have lived and died without having so much as heard of Jesus!

The Christian concept of the universal need for divine forgiveness (and, failing that, the eternal punishment of the sinner) is not only illogical, it is nonsensical. And if Jesus’ mission on earth was to reconcile humankind to God, any objective judgement would have to conclude that is was a failure.

Indeed, God’s plan of salvation, as it is called, has been a series of disasters from Day One. In the beginning the deity entrusted his truth solely to a small Middle Eastern nomadic people, the Jews. But, instead of sharing the words of life, they jealously husbanded them. It was only after the passage of thousands of years that gentiles began to be accepted. Under the New Testament part of the plan, Jesus commanded his followers to “go into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature,” but centuries passed before the influence of Christianity on the world was at all significant. Even today, Christianity is only one of the major religions of the world.

1 comment:

manbooks said...

Templeton, as many others, seems to have struggled with the age old question: If there is a God, why is there such misery and suffering in the world? The Bible records another man's struggle with this, and his story is found in the book of Job. After many trials, which Job thought were unfair, as he had done nothing to deserve them, Job accuses God of being unjust. So God answers Job "out of the whirlwind" and basically asks him where HE was when God created the world. That is, Job, if you have the power to Create as I do, maybe, just maybe, I will let you question my purposes.

God does what God does. If it seems unjust to us that only a small minority of people who have ever lived will be saved, what is that to Him? We are not in a position to question the Almighty. He offers us reconciliation, but on HIS terms, not ours.

Thus God, "opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble". All our objections to Him are resolved when we, like Job, meet Him face to face. In the end, Job says, "I had heard about you, but now I have seen you, and I repent in dust and ashes".