Alpha Course: Reviewed

by Stephen Butterfield

WEEK 2: “Why Did Jesus Die?”

I arrive early for the second session of the Alpha Course. The pastor is pottering around in the hallway and as I enter the building he greets me with a warm smile and a pat on the shoulder. “Great to see you, Steve” he says.

Both of us sit down in the meeting room and begin to chat. We spend ten minutes or so becoming more familiar with each other. We ask about each other’s family, each other’s history, our likes and dislikes, and whatnot.

People begin to trickle in to the room and in a matter of minutes the group is made up of the same people that attended last week’s course opener. That’s a good sign.

As the pastor chats to another member of the group my eye is drawn to the table opposite. I notice something familiar. It’s a Christian apologetics book that I have at home. I go to pick it up and as I finger through its pages the pastor tells me that he has brought it along for me to read because, he assures me, “it answers all your questions”.

I break the news that I have read the book already, in fact I have several books by that particular author, but I don’t tell the pastor that the book offers no answers to the question of extra-biblical, contemporaneous historical sources that mention Jesus. It offers none. I don’t want to appear rude by refuting his claim that “it answers all your questions” so I thank him for being so thoughtful, and offer him my appreciation for the kind gesture.

He picks up the book and turns to a page that he has book marked. He reads a paragraph from the book that says, more or less, that the historicity of Jesus is as certain as that of Julius Caesar. Maybe he has forgotten that we touched upon this claim last week? I mention again that we have historical accounts of Caesar from the time that he lived. Could the same be said of Jesus?

The pastor says that Julius Caesar was a well-known man in the day, so people will have written things about him. Jesus on the other hand wasn’t such a big shot, suggests the pastor, and that is why we have no record of him from the time that he lived. Hmmm. God himself wasn’t that much of a big deal? Is the pastor pulling my leg or grasping at straws?

He then offers an analogy…

Pastor: “If, in two thousand years from now, people were to look back to the start of the 21st century there would be quite a lot of evidence about Tony Blair. There will have been a lot of people writing about him. There may be some evidence about us, but there could possibly be none.”

Is the pastor suggesting that Jesus was nothing more than a simple, unspectacular man who made no impact on the society in which he lived? Was Jesus just an ordinary, run-of-the-mill man like you and me? God in human flesh made no mark in history? Is this really what the pastor is suggesting? Surely not?

What if you or I were going around in 21st century Britain raising the dead, curing the blind, feeding thousands with a few crumbs, and walking on water? What if, upon our death, the skies darkened and the earth trembled, and out of their tombs sprang the dead, who walked in to the nearest town and revealed themselves to the multitudes? Would this not at the very least make the local newspaper? Such events are not everyday events; they are the miraculous, the sensational, and the fantastic. It would be WORLD NEWS. People in two thousand years from now would find tons of accounts referring to such earth-shattering events.

But think about this for a moment: if the Gospel accounts are to be believed [Matthew 27:51-53], such events DID happen in 1st century Palestine. But what most Christians today do not know is that not a single person at the time made any note of these astonishing events whatsoever. That’s right, there is absolutely no record to be found of such tales outside of the Bible. The contemporary silence is deafening.

And we are supposed to take such claims seriously?

It just doesn’t add up, as I’m sure you’ll agree.

The conversation then moves on to how people have personal experiences of God. I ask what he thinks of people who have experiences of other gods. I mention the Aborigines of Australia, who, prior to the latter part of the 18th century – when the British arrived – had never heard of Jesus. Why is it that they had absolutely no knowledge of Jesus, Abraham, Moses, and all the rest of the Biblical characters? Why hadn’t the Christian God revealed himself to them?

“They didn’t worship Jesus because no one had ever taken them the good news” explains the pastor.

Shouldn’t God have thought of that, though? Why would he want the Aborigines to get Christ’s salvific message 1800 years later than most?

Lets say that you have a message of utmost importance that you need to send to a few friends in various parts of the world. Knowing that their knowledge of the content of such a message could save them from an eternity of torture, how would you get it to them? Pretty quickly I’d imagine. Perhaps you’d send them an email, call them on the telephone, send a text message, or maybe even a fax. To make sure they received the message you may even hop on a plane and deliver it by hand. But what about this for an idea… you’d glue the message to the back of a tortoise, point it in the right direction and hope it gets there. Good idea? No, of course not. It’s a preposterous idea. Isn’t it?

Think about this for a moment. What kind of method would God employ in order to get an important message to his children? Remember, God is omnipotent. God could have revealed himself to the Aborigines instantaneously. He could have sent down a copy of his divine word for them to peruse and digest, there and then. Countless Aborigines died in the 1800 years it took for them to receive the word of God from the European colonisers, when all it would have taken was a click of the fingers from God to make them aware of his existence. He chose the tortoise approach rather than the email. What a flagrant misuse of omnipotence!

At this point I suggest to the pastor that the evidence in favour of personal experiences of the Christian God would be immeasurably strengthened if, for example, the first European explorers arrived in Australia to be met by Aborigines whose religious experiences were identical to their own. If the Aborigines already knew of Jesus, of Abraham, of Moses and Joshua, of Elijah and Enoch, and of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and if they already knew of Christ’s passion and his message of salvation, independently from people of another continent, wouldn’t this be good evidence in support of objective religious experiences? The fact is, though, they knew NONE OF IT. And this is precisely what we would expect if “religious experiences” were subjective and/or culturally influenced.

This impromptu discussion has been going on now almost one hour, and we haven’t even started watching the video presentation yet. A break in the action gives the pastor a chance to insert the DVD into the machine. We all quieten down, sit back, relax, and get ready to watch the second video presentation of the Alpha Course entitled, “Why Did Jesus Die?”…

Gumbel begins by explaining the significance of the cross. He tells us that Jesus “died for our sins” and that we should understand that, “All of us have done wrong. We have all sinned”.

He lists a few of these “sins” such as “evil thoughts”, “sexual immorality”, “theft”, and “murder”

He then tells us what Jesus thought of sin. Gumbel states that “Jesus said, really, if we’re angry with someone [then] that’s kind of committing murder in our hearts”.

A bit over-the-top I thought.

He then lists a few more of these sins – “greed, malice, deceit, envy, slander, arrogance”.

He then talks about the horrors of children being molested and abused, and of old people being attacked in their homes. “Something within our nature cries out for justice” he says. “The people who did that should be brought to justice. There should be a penalty for that” exclaims Gumbel. Of course we all agree.

Gumbel has us on his side – in that we agree that people who do bad things should be punished. I sense that we’re about to be told that being a non-Christian is also a ‘bad thing’, and that my fellow sceptic and I are about to find out that we’re in for some deserved punishment after we die, if we remain sceptical to the truth claims of Christianity.

Gumbel brings a Bible verse to our attention [Romans 6:23] and reads it aloud, “For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord”

What he’s saying here is that all of us “sin”, so we all deserve punishment of some sort. “There is a partition between us and God caused by the things that we do wrong” states Gumbel. God’s punishment for sin is death. “That’s the bad news,” he says.

Yes, I’d have to agree with him on that one, death isn’t particularly great news is it?

But, Gumbel assures us, Christianity isn’t all bad news, there’s a way that we can escape death. Christianity brings good news, and the good news is, according to Gumbel, that, “God loves you and me. God so loved the world – that’s you and me – that he sent his one and only son to do something about it”. Then he asks, “So what was the solution?”

He tells us that Jesus bore our sins into his body by getting nailed to a cross outside the gates of Jerusalem some two thousand years ago. “Jesus died in our place” says Gumbel. “He endured crucifixion for us”.

It doesn’t make a great deal of sense to me, to be honest.

Gumbel then goes in to graphic detail about the methods of crucifixion, and tugs at our heart strings by highlighting the kinds of torment and torture that Jesus must have suffered by being subject to such a punishment. And to make it all worse, “Jesus never did anything wrong. He lived a sinless life”, laments a now emotional Gumbel. “Jesus on the cross was carrying your sin and my sin.”

Gumbel reads us a Bible verse [John 3:16] “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

“We can receive total forgiveness!” says Gumbel.

By dying on the cross Jesus paid the “ransom price” to free us from sin. Whatever that means. To clarify this term Gumbel gives us an illustration of two school friends who, after leaving university, go their separate ways. One goes on to become a lawyer and later a judge. The other goes into a life of crime. One day the criminal appears in court before his old friend the judge. The judge loved his friend but he had to serve justice upon him. Gumbel likens this to God’s dilemma with us, in that he loves us but he must serve justice upon those that have done wrong. The judge eventually fined his old friend the appropriate penalty of £20,000… but… moments later the judge removed his robes, went round to meet his friend on the other side of the courtroom and wrote him a cheque for £20,000. Gumbel smiles as he says, “He [the judge] paid the penalty himself and almost tearfully adds “That’s what God has done for us in Christ” (There will be more of this later when the pastor and I discuss courtroom proceedings to see if justice has in fact been served).

Gumbel hits us once more with John 3:16 to emphasize the point that we can become free of sin and death, and that we can achieve eternal life by simply believing that God himself intervened in world affairs, in a certain way, at a certain place, in the form of a certain man, at a certain time in human history.

I don’t know about you but I’d much prefer to accept these sorts of claims based on the evidence that supports them (if any), rather than just “believing” something on faith because it’s emotionally, rather than intellectually, satisfying.

Gumbel then tells us how God is offering us a free gift of salvation. Like the judge and his old friend, God is “offering us a cheque”. According to Gumbel we should accept it. All we have to do is “believe”. In any case what do we have to lose? Who’d turn down a free gift anyway? God is being incredibly generous to us. Isn’t he?

I’m not sure that I agree that God is offering us a free gift in the first place. Think about it. If you give someone something and demand something in return then it’s hardly a “free gift”. Let me offer an illustration of my own. If I walk up to a lady in the street and hand her a wonderful bouquet of flowers and say, “Here’s a free gift for you!” and then moments later add, “all you have to do now is give me £75”. I’d probably get a slap in the face and be on the receiving end of a few choice words. Of course it isn’t a “free gift”!

But it doesn’t end there. Think about this, too. If the lady refused my “free gift” would I then be justified in torturing her for a few years? Wouldn’t this be the sort of “justice” that Christians find appropriate? Remember, it is Christians who believe that God is justified in sending us to an ETERNITY OF TORTURE if we do not accept his “free gift” of salvation!

If God REALLY wants us to have a “free gift” then he’ll give it to us without demanding anything in return, and that includes leaving us free to not believe that he did something a couple of thousand years ago. In fact it includes leaving us free to not believe that he exists in the first place!

The DVD presentation comes to an end. The lights are turned on and our talk begins…

The pastor begins, “Ok. Lots and lots of issues covered in that talk. So if you’ve got any questions then let them come to the fore”

The youngest male, a relatively new Christian and member of the church, wants to know a little more about sin, so the pastor explains a few points to him. They talk for ten minutes or so.

The long-standing male member of the church adds his few cents with regards to God’s nature, “The human aspect of God, Jesus, was that he was sinless. No sin. He never even had a bad thought!” How does he know that?? How can he possibly know what the creator of the universe actually thought?

He then supports what was said in the presentation by telling us that every sin deserves a punishment. He then gives us the account of Adam and Eve. It would appear that this group of Christians are Biblical literalists. This course is going to be interesting…

I’ve kept quiet for the best part of fifteen minutes, as I’m keen to let other people have a chance to air their views. I don’t want to come across as someone who is anxious to do all the talking. It isn’t long before there’s a lull in the action and it is at this point that the pastor turns to me and asks if I have any questions…

Me: [Scratching my head] “Well, I suppose I’m a little perplexed by the whole idea, to be honest. I don’t understand God’s apparent need to torture someone. Supposedly he’s sitting in heaven with such incredible power and, from what I’m led to believe, loves us all very dearly. Yet the BEST idea he can come up with to make things better is to send his son down from heaven and have him nailed to some wood. Is that really the BEST solution that omnipotence can produce?”
Long-Standing Male Member: “How would YOU have done it, Steve?”
Me: “I’m sure there are innumerable methods that are better than having your own son tortured and killed. God could have clicked his fingers and solved the problem. Surely?”
Long-Standing Male Member: [Seems shocked that I would even suggest such an idea] “So you think God could have just clicked his fingers and sorted everything out?”
Me: “God is supposedly omnipotent, so of course he could have. I think it’s better than torturing someone to achieve the same goal”
Long-Standing Male Member: [Long pause] “So where does freewill come in if I want to carry on sinning?”
Me: “I don’t know what you mean. Can you elaborate?”
Long-Standing Male Member: “When God made us he gave everyone freewill. So if God clicks his fingers and says that he wants everyone to love him, but I want to carry on sinning, then God is going to have to keep clicking his fingers every time!”
Me: “Well, he doesn’t have to keep torturing Jesus every time someone wants to sin, does he?”
Long-Standing Male Member: [Long pause] “But that only had to happen once”
Me: “So he’d only need to click his fingers once, then!”
Long-Standing Male Member: “But I’d need to make a choice that I accept Jesus as my Lord and saviour, that I believe that he died for us, and that I surrender my life to him.”
Me: “Well, you wouldn’t need to believe that Jesus died for you, only that he clicked his fingers for you, because he cares for you. You can accept Jesus as your Lord and saviour, and you can surrender your life to him. And, best of all, no one needs to have been tortured in the process. A much better idea, I’d say”

A few more people add their thoughts to the conversation, and all the Christians in the group cannot accept that any other method – than Jesus being tortured and killed – would have been good enough to save us from sin. This had to happen, they say. And their reasons for believing that? “Because he loves us!” they exclaim in unison.

I take a sip from my glass of water and we break for a moment as someone pays a quick visit to the toilet.

It strikes me as somewhat curious as to why they consider it a good thing to punish an innocent person (in this case Jesus) for the crimes of the guilty (in this case us). I’m reminded of Gumbel’s courtroom illustration that he gave during the presentation. I decide to use a courtroom illustration of my own in my next query…

Me: “Do you have any children?”
Pastor: “Yes. I have three”
Me: “Let’s say that one of your children is murdered by a madman. This man is brought before a court of law and the sentence of twenty-five years imprisonment is given to him. As the judge passes judgment I stand up and say “It’s ok, judge, I’ll do the twenty-five years for this guilty man. You can let him go.” Would you consider justice to have been done? Would you give me a round of applause for making such a sacrifice?”
Pastor: “No”
Me: “Why not?”
Pastor: [Pause] “Because the guilty one has gone free”
Me: “So the innocent shouldn’t be punished in his place?”
Pastor: “No, because the price hasn’t been paid”
Me: “The price is twenty-five years in prison. I’ve said I’ll pay that price. Will justice have been served?”
Pastor: [Long pause]
Me: “It’s not justice, is it?”
Pastor: “No”
Me: “But you consider it to be perfect justice when an innocent man, Jesus, pays the price for the sins of the guilty”
Pastor: [Pause] “Because he chose to take on our sin”
Me: “Yes, and I could choose to do the twenty-five years in prison for the child murderer. But that WOULDN’T be justice, according to you. But when it comes to innocent Jesus taking the punishment for the guilty you think it’s ideal”
Pastor: [Very long pause] “I understand what you’re saying”
Long-Standing Male Member: “But the thing is, though, God is the judge. The judge is paying the price.”
Me: “So if the judge stood up and said that he’d do the twenty-five years, that would be perfect justice according to you, yes?”
Long-Standing Male Member: [Thinks for a moment] “Yes”
Pastor: [Turns to the long-standing male member and says] “I wouldn’t consider that to be justice, no.”

I admire the pastor’s honesty here. He’s openly disagreeing with one of his congregation on this point when he could have sat back and kept quiet. This is turning out to be a very interesting conversation. These two Christians do not agree with each other on what does, and what does not, constitute justice. Yet the foundation of their belief demands that they know such a thing. I sit back and watch as they quietly discuss the matter.

Their conversation slowly drifts towards forgiveness, something my fellow sceptic isn’t quite sure about. They spend a minute or two explaining to him that all one must do to receive forgiveness is to accept Jesus in to your heart whilst sincerely admitting that you’re a sinner who is in need of forgiveness. My fellow sceptic states that he has a problem with the belief that on one hand a murderer or a rapist can gain entry to heaven just by asking the Lord for forgiveness, whilst on the other hand there can be people who spend their entire lives caring for the unfortunate, feeding the hungry, and giving shelter to the poor, who are then doomed to an eternity of torture in hell simply because they do not hold certain beliefs about a particular religion.

Isn’t it just absolutely preposterous?

I ask, “If Adolf Hitler had asked God for forgiveness moments before he killed himself in his bunker as World War II came to a close, would he be in heaven now?”

Pastor: “The answer is yes.”
Me: “And if [my fellow sceptic and I] remain sceptical about the truth claims of Christianity, despite genuinely investigating them, and despite being relatively “nice” people, God is going to burn us for an eternity?”
Pastor: “Yes. It’s because when we come to Judgment Day we’ll all be judged, and the only difference between you and me is that I stand clothed in the righteousness of Christ. When God looks at me he doesn’t see [pastor’s name] he sees a white robe. I’ve got Christ’s goodness all over me. If you stand next to me, and haven’t accepted Christ, then you’re not wearing Christ’s robe, so he sees you in your sin”

He continues…

Pastor: “The trouble is that we measure sin. We tend to think that our own sins are nowhere near as bad as, say, Myra Hindley’s, and Myra Hindley may think that her sins are nowhere near as bad as Adolf Hitler’s, but if the gap between us and God is this big [holds his hand about 5 feet from the floor], and I’m here [holds his hand about an inch from the ground] and Adolf Hitler is here [holds his hand about an inch and a half from the ground] there isn’t really that much difference.”
Me: “I disagree. I happen to think there’s A LOT of difference between someone being responsible for the deaths of FIFTY MILLION PEOPLE and someone harbouring a few doubts concerning the subject of religion!”

I must say I was quite troubled by the last couple of comments made by the pastor. He is without a doubt an intelligent, pleasant, honest, and passionate fellow, but can he REALLY believe in the sort of God he is describing? We’re only two sessions in to the course, but already this God character is coming across as inconsistent, petty, cruel, childish, and vindictive. It’s early days yet though, so I’ll reserve judgment until the end of the eleven weeks. I don’t want to reach a hasty, and perhaps inaccurate, conclusion so it’s only fair that I give these people more time.

We’re approaching 9pm – finishing time – and it is at this moment that one of the three ladies (the second youngest of the three, who I will refer to as “Lady two”) decides to give us an account of how she became a Christian.

Lady Two: “The night I became a born-again Christian I actually said to a friend that I didn’t believe that anyone could have 100% faith. I said that to her at about 11pm. At 1:30am that night God filled me with his Holy Spirit and I said sorry to him for the things that I had done wrong, and I prayed to him through Jesus Christ that he’d forgive me. I asked him to fill me up with the Holy Spirit and he did just that. And the whole Bible that I was holding on my chest… just… well… I couldn’t feel the weight of it. In this experience it [the Bible] just went into my body. I couldn’t feel the Bible at all, but I was filled completely with the Holy Spirit. Tears poured down my face because I knew that due to what I’d said a few hours ago God was giving me what I’d always wanted, and that was 100% faith”
Pastor: “And that’s what I pray for you too, Steve”
Me: “I don’t deny the strength of religious conviction, or indeed the power of a “religious experience”, but whether these experiences are supernatural experiences as opposed to psychological experiences, well, that’s another matter.”
Pastor: [Smiling]“And that is what we’re here to explore”

We all smile and the pastor brings the wonderful session to a close with a prayer.

These conversations are fuelling my interest in religion and religious people. I’m thoroughly enjoying the course, and next week’s session is entitled “How Can I Be Sure Of My Faith?”

Hopefully it will be as fascinating as the first two sessions!

Until next week….

September 14, 2008 Posted by | Alpha Course, Atheism, Christianity, God, Religion | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 55 Comments