I’m asking the question because, in my experience, what some churches say about the subject seems to be almost the opposite of what Jesus said. The church can end up making people feel guilty and unforgiven, when what Jesus said was meant to be liberating. I hope I can bring out what I see as the positives of Jesus’s teaching without being critical of individual Christians, only of certain Christian teaching.
So, what did Jesus say about forgiveness? Here are a couple of reported sayings:
‘For if you forgive people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive people their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.’—Matthew 6.14–15
‘Forgive, and you will be forgiven.’—Luke 6.37Although the exact wording might have been modified before it was written down—embellished in one case and stripped bare in the other—the basic idea here seems so fundamental to Jesus’s teaching that you have to accept it as authentic even if, like me, you’re quite sceptical of some of the other content of the gospels.
In both cases, it’s a very simple message: Make sure you’re right with other people, and you’ll be right with God as well.
But Christianity tends to say, in order for God to forgive you, you need to realise what a miserable sinner you are; you need to realise how every little thing you do wrong is offensive to God (even if it hasn’t affected any other creature on the planet); you need to feel ashamed; you need to understand that Jesus died in your place; you need to respond to all of this emotionally and ‘accept Jesus as your Saviour’; and, depending on which church you’re in, you also have to be baptised; you have to take communion and keep on doing so. And if you don’t understand the death of Jesus, or if you don’t really feel guilty, if you don’t repent ‘hard enough’, or you don’t join in with the church’s rituals, then God hasn’t forgiven you. You are not right with God.
This can result in people feeling more anxious about their standing before God than they were before they heard the church’s teaching! My own experience in certain Evangelical churches was exactly that: rather than freely offering me God’s forgiveness, each new sermon seemed to be making me more anxious about whether I had repented properly or not. I wasn’t finding myself emotionally affected by it all, so I wondered if I wasn’t really a proper Christian. I wondered if I’d missed some magical step that other people in the church had taken. Had I really ‘accepted Jesus’? Was the Holy Spirit really living in me?
I know not all churches have this effect, and I’ve had much more positive experiences of churches since then, but those that most closely follow orthodox Christian doctrine on the death of Jesus will still tend have this negative aspect.
Looking back on the time I spent in that sort of church, I think I was so pre-occupied with whether I was right with God or not, and kept myself so busy with church activities as a cover for this insecurity, that I didn’t have any energy left to think about living a good life or treating other people kindly or generously. I take some of the blame myself of course, but I think the church’s teaching also had a major part to play in making me rather self-centred, and critical of anyone else who wasn’t trying as hard as I was.
Jesus said the opposite of all this. He said, don’t worry yourself about your relationship with God. You don’t have to do anything special to get him to forgive you; you don’t have to make yourself feel guilty; you don’t have to take part in any ritual. Instead focus on living a good life; be forgiving to others, and you’ll be right with God.
And Jesus said this was already true. He didn’t say: ‘You’ll need to wait until I’ve died, and you’ve understood why it was necessary, and you’ve received me into your heart, and then God will forgive you.’ None of that stuff that preachers say. He said, if you’re right with each other, then you’re right with God too, right now.
Having understood this, it seems to me that what the church says about the death of Jesus—that it was a sacrifice, that it was necessary for God to forgive us—doesn’t fit with the original teaching of Jesus. Aside from finding the idea that God won’t forgive us unless blood is spilt rather abhorrent, it also contradicts the teaching of Jesus himself. According to him, nothing is necessary for God to forgive us; it just follows naturally from how we treat each other.
Now, I no longer believe in God as an all-powerful being, from whom we need forgiveness, for reasons I’m explaining in other posts. But, despite that, I’m still drawn to the teaching of Jesus about human relationships. In fact, now I no longer believe in God, I find Jesus’s teaching even more relevant.
Jesus put the emphasis on how we treat each other, not on how we treat God. Forgive, so that God will forgive you. God’s forgiveness is there for the taking. It’s almost taken for granted. It doesn’t need to be explained. It’s our behaviour towards each other that needs attention. God’s forgiveness follows automatically. Live as though God has already forgiven you.
While the church seems to teach that we should give priority to our relationship with God, and leave our relationships with each other as secondary, Jesus said exactly the opposite. We should give priority to how we treat each other.
You might ask, if Jesus says you should focus on other people first, rather than on God, how is that any different from if there weren’t a god in the first place? Isn’t it just humanism? That’s a very good question. You could actually accuse Jesus of teaching ‘practical atheism’—the idea that you can live as though there is no god. He certainly taught people to live as though there was no ritual uncleanness, no temple, no priests, no sacrificial system. In effect, he taught people to live as though God didn’t exist—at least not the God of the Old Testament that they were supposed to believe in. That’s why his cryptic saying about ‘destroying the temple’, whatever he really meant by it, was taken as evidence against him at his trial. To deny the need for the temple was to deny the existence of the God who had commanded the temple to be built.
Jesus referred to ‘the Father’, but the way he described him is very different from the God of the Old Testament. Jesus said that there isn’t a God who is angry with you; there isn’t a God who requires sacrifices; there isn’t a God who requires any religious beliefs or practices. There is only the Father whom you can know for yourself. Jesus was introducing a radical change in the concept of ‘God’.
If we apply the same idea today, I believe Jesus would still be urging the same radical change. He would be saying that there isn’t the God that the churches teach about. There isn’t a God who requires you to believe certain things about the death of Jesus, or who requires you to have a conversion experience, or who requires you to join a church. If there is a God at all, he accepts you simply based on how you treat others. There’s at least a bit of a parallel between the teaching of Jesus and the ‘Atheist Bus’ slogan that Christians got so bothered about: ‘There’s probably no god. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.’
The teaching of Jesus does actually fit remarkably well with modern atheism—at least better than it fits with modern Christianity. It’s not an exact match, of course, but it has some of the same effects, and comes from the same concern to set people free from the negative aspects of religion.
Jesus’s teaching also fits quite well with the New-Age idea of some universal spiritual force for good, that some people could call ‘God’—although I don’t myself see any evidence for such a spirit, and I certainly don’t think that it can have been our creator, for reasons I explained in ‘Evolution, Death and God’.
In part 2, I hope to say more about how forgiveness might work in practice between people, and how Christianity can sometimes hinder the process rather than help it.