« AnteriorContinuar »
of His attributes. His perfect Justice must be satisfied before He can shew mercy to the transgressor:—for He is holy!'
I hear thee, priest! We know thy solemn and mysterious croak well, old Bo-peep behind the altar-where thou hast stood for ages affrighting grownup children with horrible pictures of a Divinity who to preserve this ‘harmony of His attributes' can plunge millions into the flames of endless torture and be happy Himself to all eternity; and Who cannot admit any to share His happiness that have offended Him, unless blood be shed as an atonement ! He knows of the torture of hell's helpless tenantry: He hears their weeping and wailing': He sces their 'ynashing of teeth'; and He knows of their remorse for guilt; but He is happy amidst it all : He cannot forgive them: they must burn and suffer for ever; for He must preserve the 'harmony of His attributes!
Strange harmony. Does the most reprobate man that ever existed possess so horrible a nature? What! be happy while helpless worms writhe in endless agony? worms that He brought into existence without their will? who never asked to exist ? and whom he knew would tenant hell-fire for ever, even while He was creating them?
O priest, thou art either very blind and irrational, or very false and wicked! There is no God like that. He is a monster of thy own forming the feigned instrument of thy tyranny over men's minds—the grand staple of thy merchandise and trade with man's peace and happiness, of which precious possessions his ignorance has too long enabled thee to cheat him!
‘But how then came this widely-diffused notion of an Atonement into the world? Why is it that the records of every ancient nation tell of this doctrine ? It is as widely-«liffused as the idea of various deities.'
Just so; and it arose from the same source: the infancy of man's nature, And, furthermore, like the doctrine of Deity, the doctrine of Atonement has undergone countless modifications consonant with Man's progression from childhood towards manhood—from mere pruriency of sensation, passion, and imagination towards reason. Men's early gods were the sun and moon and mountains and trees and rivers and ocean and thunder and lightning-personified. Man saw them--knew nothing of their laws--and attributed to them his own passions and feelings, anger and revenge and wrath, or love and pity and goodness, by turns.
The thunder terrified him—the storm wasted him—the flood threatened him—the darkening of the sun's face, or the moon's, by eclipse, alarmed him, His gods were offended : he must propitiate them; as he was wont to propitiate his fellow-man who was stronger than he. The overflowing of a river had destroyed his flocks: the river was a god and demanded them: some of the firstlings of the flock must be sacrificed in future to appease the river's anger. The lightning smote a child: the god of thunder-the high god was wroth, and demanded the child: in future some children must be sacrificed to appease the anger of the thunder-god.
Rude tribes became nations with an approach towards settled polity: the gods, as well as governments must have their officers: the deities their separate temples and altars: the altars their appointed victims at stated seasons—that the favour of the gods might rest on the nation. The Greeks were too imaginative to give up the notion of many deities (except their leading minds, the philosophers ;) but they speedily gave up the abhorrent idea of human sacrifices. In old India it exists still, as it has existed for thousands of years : the car of Juggernaut, the Ganges river-god, have still their hundreds of victims. Old Egypt inclined rather to the inculcation of preserving human life, and dedicating it to the service of the priest and enriching of the temple. From the great Tritheistic idea of Deity-as a Myth for representing the powers of Nature-Creation, Preservation and Destruction or Regeneration-how easy was it to evolve the notion of the Deity of Nature as One! Moses was learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians’: he knew that the Egyptian priests believed in no personal triune god: it was merely Nature personified; and Moses would not have Jehovah depictured: He was to be likened to nothing that was on the earth or in the waters. But how coarse was this monotheistic idea which Mo. ses was compelled to present to the Israelites! There was but One God, and He was not to have any visible representation : But Moses himself saw him-'face to face' or otherwise His 'back-parts'--for the legend differs! And with all His spirituality He was a god that talked for days with Moses about snuffers, and candlesticks, and bowls, and spoons, and veils
, and hangings, and altars, and staves with silver sockets, and golden hooks, and dyeing of stuffs purple, and scarlet, and blue! And the sacrifice of rams, and lambs, and goats, and bullocks,--that must be continued. If the Greeks with their vivid intellect did not grow out of the notion of sacrifices, all at once-it was not to be expected that a wandering tribe of semibarbarians should. Indeed the One God of their leader was evermore becoming wearisome to them: they wanted to return to polytheism which they had doubtless been enured to, and their fathers before them.
At length, in the most enlightened nations, sacrifices became fewer: they were only celebrated on a grand scale, occasionally : at Rome and in Greece, philosophers, poets and statesmen ridiculed the prevailing notions of the gods --but believed they were necessary for the common people. A new religion was formed-partly from facts--and partly from the legends of old religions. A Jewish convert of great powers of mind and of extraordinary zeal promulgated this religion along the shores of the Mediterranean--turning the atonement doctrines of his old faith into a new form all the old atonements under Moses were but types of the one perfect atonement. Christ indeed was both 'sacrifice and High-Priest, who had entered into heaven to mediate for ever. The whole civilised world was glad to get quit of the actual slaughtering and sacrificing. They eagerly accepted the modified idea. Julian tried to revive sacrifices with his restored polytheism. But it was in vain: he was covered with laughter and ridicule. The Jew, who did not accept Paul's Messiah, even he, although abiding zealously in the belief of his old law---left off to sacrifice. The Jew does not sacrifice now. He has not sacrificed for nearly 1800 years. He has grown out of the infantile notion of its necessity-or has been shamed out of it, by the rest of the world. Mahomet! he could institute no sacrifices : it was too late for such an institution when he began his religion.
And now remains among progressive nations this only Atonement. The Jew has put away his old one---Mahomet adopted no new one, any inore than did the Jew. The Christian Atonement is the only Atonement among highly civilised nations. And look at the changes even in it. 'Purchased-redeemed—by his precious blood' says Paul. But that has a spiritual meaning say some of the doctors : it is not the red fluid which is meant: that is but a sign of Christ's death: it was the death, itself, for man, which was the atonement. 'Atonement!'
says the Unitarian, 'why the word actually only occurs once in the Greek Testament; and that is too feeble a text for you to build such a strangely revolting doctrine upon. His blood redeems us just as the blood of any other Teacher and Exemplar of Truth redeems us: it shews what strength there is in human nature-how capable we are of becoming virtuous -and even of undergoing death with triumph for virtue's sake.' So Civilisation -so the Progress of the Mind-enables Man to grow out of the fables of his childhood!
We come now, however, to a survey of the relation of those circumstances from which the christian doctrine of the Atonement is held to be derived. Let us pursue our enquiry in the same fair but candid spirit as before. What is there which is evidently legendary in the history of the Passion and Crucifixion as related in the Gospels? With the greatest sympathy and love for the grand and glorious sufferer—let us learn what there is that is doubtful about the narrative by analysing the internal evidence, as we would that of any other book.
The prophecies of Jesus respecting his own death first demand a brief consideration. Did Jesus really utter these? The conduct of his disciples makes this, at least questionable. “They understood not that saying ” (Mark, ix. ch. 32 v.) “ It was hid from them, that they perceived it not” (Luke, ix. ch. 45 v.)—“And they understood none of these things and this saying was hid from them, neither knew they the things that were spoken” (Luke xviii. ch. 34 v.)—are all expressions which appear to imply that the disciples absolutely did not understand what the words of Jesus meant. And so the death of their master being utterly unexpected, they are described as having given up hope when that came to pass. At least, the passage (Luke, xxiv. ch. 20 v.) seems to me to signify as much—“The chief priests and our rulers have crucified him : but we trusted that it had been he which should have redeemed Israel." Had Jesus spoken of his death to the disciples with such perfect openness Tapproiq (Mark, viii. ch. 32 v.) must they not have understood him ? If he had shewn them that his death was foreshadowed in the Messianic prophecies of the Old Testament, and was consequently a part of the Messiah's destination (Luke, xviii. ch. 31 v.; xxii. ch. 27 v.) could they, when his death actually ensued, have so entirely lost all belief in his Messiahship?
Do the Evangelists exaggerate when they state the dulness of the disciples to comprehend what Christ said ? Or, were these declarations of Jesus concerning his death composed after the event ?
The question whether the idea of a suffering Messiah was diffused among the Jews, or any part of them, in the life-time of Christ, is one of of the most difficult and disputed points of controversy. I shall not trouble you with the arguments, pro and con--but only call your attention to the fact that according to some of the profoundest scholars, the passages in Isaiah, Psalms, and other parts of the Old Testament, so often said to refer to a suffering Messiah-really refer to the calamities of the Israelites as a nation, or the ill-usage of the prophets or bards of the old time. If so, Christ either could not have applied them to himself: or,
if it be allowed that he could err, he erred in applying them to himself. I judge it better to leave the entire question- Whether Jesus predicted his own death ? to your own more complete enquiry, than to make any strict affirmation upon it.
There is another enquiry which we had better dismiss prior to a consideration of the circumstances of Christ's Passion and Death-the Betrayal by Judas Iscariot, and the death of the Betrayer. According to the first three Evangelists, Judas went a few days before the passover, to the heads of the priesthood, and offered to deliver his master into their hands ; for which base service they promised him money-- Matthew says 30 pieces of silver.
John knows nothing of this ; but represents the betrayer as forming his vile determination at the last supper. John has also a statement of which, on their side, the first three evangelists know nothing—that Judas was indignant at what he affected to regard as a waste of ointment, which he observed might have been sold for the poor ---but really wishing to purloin the money---for he was a “thief and had the bag.” It is not easy to account for the omission of this last relation by three of the evangelists, if it were true. Then again, John and the three differ respecting Christ's foreknowledge of the treachery of Judas. According to the three, Jesus first manifests his knowledge at the last supper, consequently at a time in which (according to them) the deed of Jesus had virtually been perpetrated. According to John, Christ declares before the last passover but one---that is to say a year earlier---that one of the twelve is a devil,---meaning, John says, his betrayer Judas (6 ch. 70 v.) Nay, according to this evangelist “Jesus knew from the beginning who should betray him” (5 ch. 64 v.) But what a strange character is then presented to us of Christ ! Encouraging sin, by entrusting the 'bag' to a covetous man---placing the weak in the very fire of temptation! How could he, then, have taught his disciples to pray Lead us not into temptation'? Besides, Matthew (19 ch. 21 v.) tells us that a short time before the last supper, Jesus promised all the Twelve, without exception, that they should sit on twelve thrones judging the tribes of Israel! What contradictions are these ? Who can avoid classing this account of Christ's foreknowledge of Iscariot's treachery as a legend ? Doubtless it arose out of the tendency to glorify Jesus : that Judas should have betrayed him and he not have known of it beforehand, would lessen him, it was conceived : that he should not have known Iscariot's real character before he chose him, would lesgen him; and so he must have known it ‘from the beginning' --and the act of Judas was all predetermined in the Divine councils ! Ought not orthodox people to be ashamed of these councils which are thus attributed to the Divinity
I need only remind you that innumerable treatises have been written on the character of Judas : many of you, no doubt, are acquainted with that fact. It has been maintained that he did not expect Jesus would be put to death, but that he would deliver himself from his foes ; and that Judas believed he should only hasten the accomplishment of the Messiah's kingdom in the person of his master, by betraying him. Christ's words—“ What thou doest, do quickly”---are interpreted as an actual encouragement to the execution of Iscariot's design, by this class of writers. Other hypotheses have been framed respecting the character of Judas; but it is sufficient to remark that covetousness alone is assigned as the motive of his treason, in the gospels.
Perhaps one of the most striking divarications in the entire New Testament is to be found in the accounts of the death of Judas. Matthew (27 ch. 3 v.) describes him as smittten with remorse on hearing that Jesus was condemned to death, and as hastening to the chief priests and elders to return to them the thirty pieces of silver, with the declaration that he had betrayed an innocent person ; they scornfully retort that on him alone rests all responsibility for that deed, and Judas cast down the money in the temple, and goes and hangs himself: they, holding it unlawful to put the money into the treasury, since it was the price of blood, buy with it a potters-field to bury strangers in. Matthew adds two remarks : that from this mode of purchase the ground was called “the field of blood' up to this time; and, secondly, that by these transactions an ancient prophecy was fulfilled. The rest of the evangelists are silent concerning the end of Judas. But in the Acts of the Apostia (1 ch. 16 v.) Peter is made to contradict Matthew very essentially : accord ing to this new statement it is not the chief priests and elders who buy the field with the money when Judas has returned it and gone to hang hire. self---but Judas himself purchases the field with the reward of his iniquits. And again, Judas is not said to hang himself at all---but falls headlong, bursts asunder in the midst, so that all his bowels gush out---and from this being known in Jerusalem, the field is called the field of blood'---not because it was bought with the blood-money' which the traitor returned to the priests and elders ! Matthew makes Judas a suicide : Peter is made to describe his death as a kind of divine visitation. In brief, the divarication is glaring; nor have all the thousands of pages which have been written with the endeavour to reconcile Matthew and the Acts, tended to smooth the difficulty. It remains---and where then again is the 'plenary inspiration of the writers the New Testament !---and which account is the true one? If we are to be sentenced to eternal perdition for not believing the narratives---how can we avoid asking “For not believing which ?”
Even the Last Supper itself is surrounded with difficulties in these narratives. John hot only knows nothing of Jesus sending any of his disciples to bespeak a place where they might keep the passover, and of the man they would find bearing a pitcher of water'- but he differs entirely from the other evangelists, both respecting the meal, and the time at which it took place. According to John, Jesus was crucified on the day in the evening of which the Passover was held, and the Last Supper was on the evening before. According to the first three evangelists, the Last Supper js the Pass. over itself!
Let no one suppose that I am representing this divergency between the Fourth and the other Gospels to be greater than it is. Take the case in the three gospels, first :
The day on which the disciples were directed by Jesus to prepare for the meal was “the first day of unleavened bread, when the passover must be killed” (Matthew, 26 ch. 17 v.) The disciples ask Jesus “Where wilt thou that we prepare for thee to eat the passover ?" (Matthew, 26 ch. 17 v.) Then it is said of the disciples, “ And they made ready the passover;" (19 v,) and of Jesus, “Now, when the even was come, he sat down with the twelve." (20 v.) Luke, also, makes Jesus open the repast with the words, “With desire I have desired to eat this passover with you ;" (22 ch. 15 v.) and Mark, in his narrative, repeats the word “passover," in describing the Last Supper, and the preparations for it.
John, on the contrary, commences his narrative of the Last Supper with the words, “ Before the feast of the passover;" and when he says to the traitor Judas, “What thou doest do quickly"—and this is after the meal-the words, the Fourth Evangelist tells us, are misunderstood by the rest of the disciples to mean, “Buy those things that we have need of against the feast" --that is to say the paschal meal, or passover. Then, it is said, (John 18 ch. 28 v.) that, on the following morning, the Jews would not enter the Gentile prætorium " Lest they should be defiled ; but that they might eat the passover”-so that he means the passover was yet in prospect. And this day, on which he says Jesus was crucified is—still more pointedly-called by him, “the preparation of the passover.”
The passover then, according to John, was on the evening of the day on which Christ was crucified : the Jews were eating the paschal lamb at the