Alpha course 3: Why did Jesus die?

Having previously been frustrated having to leave just when the discussions were getting interesting, this time I decided that I’d stay and have to wait for the late train.

I was one of the first to get there, but was glad to recognise Kim and Jeff from last time. We chatted about children and work while Matt brought in cakes and wrestled with the projector. Jeff also mentioned that he liked my suggestion from last time about finding out whether other religions offered an Alpha course-style introductions and going along. Other people also made enthusiastic noises. To be honest, I had only expected people to pay lip-service to the idea, in the spirit of open-mindedness. I’m pleasantly surprised that this was brought up again.

Tonight’s half-hour video was called “Why did Jesus die?”, presented by a youthful and charismatic chap called Toby. ‘Fraid I didn’t catch his surname. He spoke humbly about how we all have things we’ve done we’re not proud of and that this sin separates us from God and how Jesus died to take on all that sin so we could have a relationship with God. He went to some length to explain this with a book covering one hand (us) blocking us from God (up there), then the other hand (Jesus) taking the book away. This seemed a bit unnecessary and, for me, simply laboured the point (that Jesus died for our sins), rather than addressing the more important “why” question.

Although they set the theme for the discussions which follow, I find the videos tedious. Having been a Christian in my younger days and attended a friendly church youth group for years, this didn’t teach me anything new. While the talk was peppered with some amusing stories and jokes, it still felt like preaching. Thankfully we soon got into our familiar groups, mine led by Dannii, along with Jeff, Beth and Jenny.

We spoke a bit about the contents of last week’s talk and I mentioned the Liar, Lunatic, Lord trilemma to which Dannii responded with interest. While, by their own admission they didn’t have satisfactory answers, my group didn’t try to avoid the questions by acting like it wasn’t an issue or answering an easier one instead. I like their attitude, I have a feeling this is going to be fun. Jeff spoke a bit about how he became a Christian and his many doubts and experiences. He only summarised the main bits, but it was interesting and I hope to hear more of this another time.

People talked for a while about how amazing they thought it was that God was willing to die for them. I asked why they thought that was necessary. If a human wants to forgive someone, we don’t have to have someone killed first. So a human can do something that God can’t do? There was a frank admission that this didn’t make sense and that it was something that they struggle with as well. I was relieved not to get a typical “politician’s answers” to this, though they did move on to saying that there are lots of things in the world we don’t understand, yet accept and “I guess that’s where faith comes in”. I did briefly ask why they should choose one faith over another, but I think faith is next week’s subject so I guess we’ll discuss that more later.

The conversation moved onto the Alpha video’s themes of guilt and forgiveness and we were invited to share personal stories on this theme. I racked my brains but couldn’t think of any interesting examples. No problem as others did. They were in some cases personal, so I won’t share the details, but I found their experiences interesting and increased my feeling that they’re a decent bunch of people. In one case I was able to sympathise having also experienced the conflict of forgiving someone whom others did not. I think forgiveness between humans is a rather different thing to what they’re describing with God.

God’s forgiveness was described as a blank cheque, forgiving anyone who accepted it of whatever they might have done. We talked through the implications of this, arriving at original sin, which in my opinion makes what people have done wrong in their lives seems a bit irrelevant when it comes to God’s forgiveness. In fact original sin is a bit of a philosophical mess in many ways, which may be why it wasn’t mentioned in the video.

I said I thought that it was an odd kind of justice that condemns people for failing to meet an impossible standard and that access to the salvation of Jesus was rather unevenly distributed, comparing the opportunity of the apostle Thomas, who supposedly touched the resurrected Jesus to check if he was real, and the Australian Aboriginals who died many years before Christianity reached their shores.

Dannii and others have obviously thought this through before. They said they believe that God is a just god and wouldn’t condemn people unfairly. Dannii also offered to find the bible verse which confirmed this. Someone else added that the same would apply to those mentally incapable of understanding.

“Or just a bit difficult?”, I said with a grin, indicating myself.
“Ah, that comes down to choice, James”, Jeff responded.
I said “Oh don’t get me started on choice…”. This got a little laughter, but I knew that we were drifting from the topic and I don’t want to bore people with my opinions at the expense of listening to others. My main reason for going to Alpha is to better understand people who disagree with me and you don’t do that by talking all the time. As it happened time was up, so maybe we’ll discuss that another time.

As promised, Dannii later posted on the Alpha course’s Facebook page with the reference, Romans 2:1-16. It’s worth reading the whole thing, but here’s a quote which seems to support her argument of people being saved without necessarily knowing Jesus.

 God “will repay each person according to what they have done.”[a] To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life.

On it’s own that sounds quite a convincing argument, but if you look at other Bible verses, faith in Jesus, specifically Jesus, not just a vague, benevolent creator, is required. See John 14:6.

Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

So it’s not looking good for the early Aboriginals. Looking at what people have written online about this, most of the debate is not over whether faith is required, but whether good works are required in addition to faith. There’s a fair bit of inconsistency and contradiction. Christians don’t all agree on this apparently-important issue.

But let’s say for the sake of argument than Dannii is right and people such as the early Aboriginals who never got a chance to hear Jesus’ message can be saved by good works alone. If that’s true, then why are Christians always preaching about opening up to a relationship with Jesus, instead of telling everyone to be as morally good as they can? Why did missionaries go to great lengths to spread the word of God? Were they misguided? On the other hand, maybe even if it isn’t strictly necessary, there is some advantage in the relationship with Jesus, with regards to salvation. Perhaps it makes it easier to do good works and resist evil? If so, we’re back at the unfair advantage for some over others.

At this point some Christians might throw up their hands and say, “We don’t actually know how God judges people to be worthy of salvation, but we trust that he’s fair about it”. Yet that’s not how it sounds when they’re talking about the importance of Jesus and accepting his sacrifice. If it’s reasonable to say that God’s will is mysterious and unknowable, then there doesn’t seem to much point trying to understand the Bible and various views on it, because one person’s guess is as good as another’s.

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