One of the criminals who were hanged there was saying,
“ Save Yourself and us!” The other was saying,
“Jesus, remember me when You come into Your kingdom!”
And He said to him, “Truly I say to you,
today you shall be with Me in Paradise.”
– Jesus’s Crucifixion, from the Gospel of Luke (LK 23:39-43)
A question often asked at this time of year is whether the Easter story is true. Most people who ask the question consider the Resurrection to be the unbelievable part: they are sure Jesus cannot have died on a Friday and come alive again on Sunday. Actually, though, there is good evidence that Jesus did indeed rise from the dead. No, the part of the Easter story that turns out to be unbelievable is the Christian idea that Jesus died for our sins.
Jesus told us long before His death that God never judges anyone. For Him to speak against the prevailing religion was a capital crime, so He had to use some clever tricks to get the truth to His followers without alarming the Temple guards who were often nearby. For example, He used three different events to tell His flock what the dead now universally confirm to us is true about judgment, since the guards changed often but His followers were constant. And to further confound the Temple guards, He buried these essential truths in a blizzard of words! One day He inserted a potentially fatal statement into what the guards must have heard as just preacher-blather. He said, “For the Father loves the Son, and shows Him all things that He Himself is doing; and the Father will show Him greater works than these, so that you will marvel. … For not even the Father judges anyone, but He has given all judgment to the Son, so that all will honor the Son even as they honor the Father. He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent Him” (JN 5:20-23).
That underlined statement that God doesn’t judge us went unremarked, so then on a different day Jesus elaborated on it by added that He never judges us either. He said, “He who sees Me sees the One who sent Me. I have come as Light into the world, so that everyone who believes in Me will not remain in darkness. If anyone hears My sayings and does not keep them, I do not judge him; for I did not come to judge the world, but to save the world” (JN 12:45-47). It was just more of what the guards would have heard as the ramblings of an itinerant preacher, with again that nugget of truth that Jesus doesn’t judge us slipping past their notice. Of course, at this point we can hear some ardent Christians saying, “Aha! So He did say He came to save the world!” But since Jesus has already told us that God doesn’t judge anyone, we can be sure He didn’t come to save the world from a divine judgment that never happens. No, it is clear from the Gospels that what Jesus came to save the world from was fear-based religious traditions. For example, He said, “Why do you transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?… You hypocrites! Rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you: ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far away from me. But in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men’” (MT 15:3-9).
Jesus even told us that each of us will be our own afterlife judge! Different day, different Temple guards, He said something that also failed to alarm them. Deep in His Sermon on the Mount He said, “So do not worry about tomorrow; for tomorrow will care for itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. Do not judge so that you will not be judged. For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?” (MT 6:34-7:3). We now understand that after our deaths no religious figure will judge us, but instead we will face the sternest possible judge. Each of us will judge ourselves.
The notion that Jesus had to die to redeem us from God’s judgment – what Christians call “penal substitutionary atonement” – is not based in anything that Jesus said. Indeed, it directly contradicts the truths that He shares with us in the Gospels! Even worse, it is a disgusting teaching. Try asking yourself which of your own children you would most like to watch being horribly murdered so you can forgive the rest of them for messing up your living room. And still, God insists that you and I must forgive every wrong ever done to us? Jesus tells us to forgive “not up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven” (MT 18:22). So God insists that you and I forgive, while at the same time God demands that we participate in the sacrifice of His Son to Himself or else God will not forgive us?? I had a lot of trouble with this teaching even when I was an ardent Christian, and the emails I receive suggest that the repellent Christian teaching that God cannot forgive us without the murder of God’s Own Son is the single biggest reason why people are leaving Christianity now. The theory that God is unable to forgive us unless God first gets to watch His Son being murdered is an insult to the genuine God, Who in fact is infinite love. And the notion that the greatest Teacher Who ever lived was born primarily to be sacrificed is humiliating to Jesus!
Who is Jesus, anyway? When my primary guide came out to me in February of 2015, the first thing I asked him was whether Jesus really was the Son of God or in some other way unique, or whether He was only a wise prophet. Thomas told me that Jesus is a great deal more than just the Son of God! He said Jesus entered that lifetime from the highest aspect of the Godhead. So since the evidence suggests – and both Thomas and Mikey Morgan confirm – that God is a Collective of Perfected Beings, my beloved Thomas is telling us that God actually walked the earth in the Person of the historical Jesus. The Lord hints at His divinity in the Gospels, although those who heard Him speak and then passed His words down orally for a couple of generations before they were written down may not have fully understood what He was saying. He would say things like, “He who has seen Me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father is in Me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on My own initiative, but the Father abiding in Me does His works” (JN 14:9-10). The fact that few of His listeners seemed to grasp the fact that God had actually incarnated on earth in the Person of the Lord is not surprising.
I am a skeptic by nature. I began researching death and the afterlife in the nineteen-seventies in an effort to understand my childhood experiences of light, and it took me more than a decade to accept the fact that hundreds of perfectly consistent communications from people that we used to think were dead – received on two continents over nearly a century – did make it pretty much statistically impossible for the afterlife that they all talked about not to be real. And although I was very familiar with the Gospels – and always uneasy about the fact that Christians mostly ignore the Lord’s teachings – it was only when I realized at the end of the nineties that the dead were actually confirming what Jesus had said, and in detail, that I was able at last to abandon Christianity and give my whole heart to the Lord.
So for a long time I have doubted the claim that the burial shroud and sudarium (face-covering) of Jesus still exist to this day. But here, too, I am a skeptic no more! As was true of all that afterlife evidence and the evidence confirming the Lord’s words in the Gospels, the modern evidence that these relics are genuine is abundant and irrefutable. Here is what has persuaded me:
So there you have it. Two thousand years ago God came to earth as a human being and lived among us for thirty-three years, and then He was tortured, crucified, murdered, wrapped in a shroud, and laid in a tomb. Three days later He re-animated His dead body with an extraordinary burst of energy, and He showed Himself to His disciples. But why did He go to all that trouble? Next week we’ll give some thought to this question….
And a man named Joseph, a good and righteous man from Arimathea,
this man went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus.
And he took it down and wrapped it in a linen cloth,
and laid Him in a tomb cut into the rock, where no one had ever lain.
– Jesus’s Crucifixion, from the Gospel of Luke (LK 23:50-53)