CHRISTIAN FAITH

“Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved, you and your household” (Acts. 16:31).

          “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that he who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life” ( J n. 3:16).

          “He who through faith is righteous shall live” (Rom.J:17).

          “He who believes and is baptized will be saved, but he who does not believe will be condemned” (Mk. 16:16).

These are verses from the Bible familiar to most Christians. The verses are the basis for the familiar doctrine that if one accepts that Jesus was divine and underwent punishment on our behalf, then such a person would be forgiven of all sins and be admitted to heaven. And for those who find it hard to accept this belief, hell will be final end.

            But is God cruel and ruthless, adamant on reparation through punishment? In what way does such a punishment help redress the damage done to the victims of sin? Should not God be more concerned with compensating and restoring the losses incurred by those affected by sin rather than to seek to be redressed by punishment by proxy borne by Jesus? These are genuine questions however such questions are usually dismissed as being im­pious. Let us try to understand what it means to have faith in Christ…

Who was Jesus of Nazareth?

                        Jesus was born to Mary, wife of Joseph, a carpenter in Nazareth in Galilee. At this time in history, the Romans were ruling over Jewish people living in the land of Palestine. Roman rule was harsh and hated by the Jewish people. Now in Galilee where Jesus was born, people were less orthodox and more prone to rebellion, thus constantly exposing the whole community to the danger of reprisals by the Roman power. For this reason, Galilee was despised by the leaders of Judaism.

                        Not only did Jesus come from Galilee, he chose to remain in Galilee for the larger part of his life when he gave up the family profession and became a prophet of God's Kingdom. The Galilean masses thronged to listen to Jesus. He befriended the ordinary people of Galilee. He also associated with the much-reviled tax collectors (who were Jewish people colluding with the Roman rulers) and women who were working as prostitutes. The 'undesirable' company that he kept  angered the religious leaders all the more.

                        Jesus challenged the religious sentiments of the pious of his day. He broke the Sabbatical restrictions by healing people with chronic illnesses on Sabbath day. The Jewish tradition only allowed physicians to provide first-aid assistance on Sabbath day to those whose condition had suddenly turned critical. Those whose needs were not pressing or chronic were required to wait until the end of the Sabbath. See Mark. 3:1-6 - “Another time he went into the synagogue and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Some of them were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal him on the Sabbath. Jesus said to the man with the shriveled hand, "Stand up in front of everyone." Then Jesus asked them, "Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?" But they remained silent. He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, "Stretch out your hand." He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored. Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus.”

Jesus' Galilean origin, his friendship with persons rejected by those considered "decent", and his defiance of traditions - all these led the Jewish leadership to conspire to do away with Jesus. And the fact that Jesus repeatedly proclaimed the coming Kingdom of God's righteousness, his criticism of the Roman authoritarianism (Mk. 10: 42-45), his criticism of the taxation imposed by the Romans (Mt.17: 24-26), etc. made it easy for the conspirators to betray Jesus to the Roman authorities under charges of sedition and treason. So the imperial Roman Government crucified Jesus on a cross.

                        The above account can be taken as a historian's summary of the story - free of faith assumptions. However, our interest in Jesus cannot stop with a historically acceptable biography of Jesus of Nazareth. For his disciples claimed that this Jesus, crucified by a joint conspiracy between religious and political authorities, was raised from the dead and is alive for evermore. Because of this claim – a claim which could not be suppressed even by severe persecutions, the affirmation that this Jesus was none other than God's own Son has been made and received by millions ever since. Jesus' disciples also saw special significance in the death of Jesus. They interpreted his death as a means of salvation for the whole world.

            Can such claims be sustained? Upon the answer to this question hangs the validity of the Christian faith. Therefore, in order to arrive at an answer, first let us find out if Jesus himself anticipated his death and whether he saw any special meaning in it.

            Jesus anticipated that the leaders of the day would conspire to eliminate him (Mk. 8:31-38; 9:31 and 10:45). However, there was nothing extraordinary about this anticipation. It was probably a realistic assess­ment of what could happen to one who tries to expose and fight the injustices of the system. What was extraordinary however, was Jesus' self-designation of himself as the Son of Man (or the Human One). This self designation is significant for the two inferences which become apparent when we have a closer look at the Bible.

            The first inference is to do with the insight we gain into what happens to one who tries to be truly human. Jesus met with a violent response from a sinful world. Read Jn. 19:1-6 - “Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged. The soldiers twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on his head. They clothed him in a purple robe and went up to him again and again, saying, "Hail, king of the Jews!" And they struck him in the face. Once more Pilate came out and said to the Jews, "Look, I am bringing him out to you to let you know that I find no basis for a charge against him." When Jesus came out wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe, Pilate said to them, "Here is the man!"”

 Paradoxically, it was Pilate who identified Jesus with 'Here is the Man.' when he sees Jesus scarred and bleeding, wearing the purple robe and the crown of thorns.   The meaning seen by the evangelist John is clear. This is the fate of all those who seek to be true to their humanity.

The second inference is more complex. Implied in the claim of Jesus to be the ‘Human One’ (i.e., the Son of Man) is an assertion that he is the representative of all who are oppressed, marginalised and exploited. This we see from the way our lord talked about the Son of Man coming in the clouds and being seated at the right hand of God. It is clear that Jesus had Daniel's vision in the seventh chapter of the Book of Daniel in his mind when he referred to himself as the Son of Man. The "Son of Man" in Daniel represents people who were severely persecuted under the Greek tyrant Antiochus who nonetheless persistently fought against him to preserve their religious integrity. They resisted Antiochus' attempt to corrupt and defile their religion by offering pigs as sacrifice, by bringing idols into the Temple, etc. The vision assured God’s people that they would be vindicated and would be crowned with honour and dominion. Therefore when Jesus assumes the title "Son of Man", recalling the vision of Daniel, he was trying to convey that he was the representative of all oppressed people. 

Thus the meaning of Jesus' self designation as the Son of Man becomes self-evident, i.e. he had come to include into himself all suffering people. Jesus associated with the "Lost sheep of the house of Israel" by choosing to operate from despised Galilee, by choosing all his disciples from among the Galileans, by allowing himself to be looked after and cared for by a few dedicated women of Galilee, by touching and embracing those deemed untouchable - leprosy stricken people, by challenging the abuse of the institution of the Sabbath saying that it was meant primarily for people, by reprimanding those who plunder the homes of widows and neglect the needs of the poor... In this way Jesus showed that it was such people who were the lost sheep of the house of Israel, the incorporated community of the Son of Man. 

            It is on the basis of such a self-understanding that Jesus claims to have the authority to forgive sins. That is, Jesus does not offer forgiveness because he died in the place of the wicked. Not at all. Rather, Jesus offers forgiveness to the oppressors and sinners of the world as he is the representative of all those who are  aff1icted and sinned against.

            Unfortunately much of the subsequent development of Christian doctrine has failed to proclaim the significance of Jesus' death in accordance with his self-understanding. Belief in Jesus then cannot be separated from a turning (in repentance) towards the oppressed. This is the true meaning of having faith in Christ.

            God respects the freedom of all creatures. God shares power and authority with them. Alas, this God-given freedom is abused. Oppression and injustice have become rampant. But God refuses to be defeated. God also does not take back the responsibility willingly and lovingly conferred upon crea­tion. Through a thorough-going identification with the victims of oppression, God challenges the arrogant to realise that in their selfishness and greed and pursuit of power, they hurt their Creator who is the basis for their being. Salvation then consists in the oppressors turning towards the oppressed in repentance. Salvation does not depend on following creeds and rituals.

Case Studies

A.     A dishonest mechanic fails to repair the brakes on a bus properly. This act leads to the death of several passengers in the coming days. The mechanic is obviously the one who has sinned in causing the deaths and sufferings of so many. Is it enough if he goes to a church and prays for forgiveness? Is appeasing God for the sin all that is required of him? How does he atone for the suffering he has caused to so many? What does the Bible say? Read Leviticus 6: 1-6 and Matt. 5: 23. If we can identify the people hurt by us we may be able to seek their forgive­ness. But when this is not possible what do we do? Do you believe that Jesus as the Human One offering forgiveness to the offender(s) meets this need?

B.     Let us take the case of those affected by radiation from an atomic power plant. Many people work together to build such plants. Governments are influenced by big business men and industrialists in favour of these plants. And quite often, the public also support these projects as they expect various benefits from these undertakings. However, it is those who work in these plants or live near them who are affected. In such cases, who is to be blamed? The Govt? The industrialists? The scientists? Or the public itself? How is this sin to be atoned? Do you think Jesus as the Son of Man provides a clue towards a solution?

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