I saw a bumper sticker that said, “Forgiven and Free.” In that phrase lies the appeal of Christianity that has survived throughout the centuries.
As a young child, I had already been indoctrinated with the idea that I was a sinful being worthy of being roasted in the fires of hell. This was all because of Adam’s sin, I was told. I was quite upset with that and thought it rather unfair that I should suffer for his stupidity.
“It’s not like that,” my teacher said. “We’re not paying for something he has done. Rather, his fallen nature has transferred to his descendants. We are therefore paying for our own sins. I mean, you’ve committed some sins, haven’t you? You’ve lied, or disobeyed your parents, or fought with your classmates? We can’t help it because no matter how much we try to be good, our fallen nature pulls us down.”
I thought about that for a moment. It seemed to make some sense. So I nodded my head.
“That is why,” the teacher continued, “God showed his love for us by sending his only son Jesus, to die for our sins. Can you imagine that? That is why the Bible says that ‘whoever believes in him will not perish but have everlasting life.’”
At that time, I didn’t think about how God could have had a son when he didn’t have a wife, and if he did, why wasn’t she a Goddess ruling beside him? I didn’t think about the irony of God’s son being himself and the self-imposed sacrifice he penalized himself with for a situation he could have prevented easily by not putting that godforsaken tree in the middle of the garden. I didn’t think about how hollow such a sacrifice was. I mean, even I would go through 3 days of hell if I knew at the end of it that I would be resurrected and raised to the highest throne above all creation. Excruciating pain and suffering for a few hours and death for 3 days in exchange for an eternity of glory and all of creation worshipping me? Where do I sign up?
But like I said, I didn’t think about any of that. I just thought, “Yeah, he’s right. I’m a turd worthy of being flushed down into the fiery abyss, but thank you Lord for saving me.”
This is the doctrine of depravity — that we are born depraved, broken, shameful, enslaved and condemned — and out of all the religions that play this game, Christianity has played it very well. First, it convinces us that depravity is a fact. As illustrated by my Sunday School example above, it often starts at childhood when adult Christians show children that they are inherently sinful because they cannot control their undesirable impulses and actions. And then, contrary to other religions where you need to work yourself out of that situation (by doing good works, thinking good thoughts, constantly improving yourself, etc.), Christianity offers a relatively easy way out — have faith in Jesus and you are already saved.
But doesn’t make one free to do evil things after one has believed in Jesus’ redemptory sacrifice? Not at all, because now they say that you “prove” your belief is real by your actions. If your actions are contrary to Christian teachings, then that only shows your belief is simply lip service and God will not be fooled that easily.
Finally, it puts the fulfillment of salvation just beyond your reach — after death — where no one can demonstrably verify the truth of its claims about heaven or hell, of being united again with your departed loved ones, or of mansions and rewards and meeting Jesus face-to-face. So one goes through life constantly nurturing this hope, afraid to doubt and let go of belief because the cost of that is too high — one might lose the golden ticket and be turned away at the pearly gates for lack of faith.
It is a stroke of genius, really. It is easy to get in the door, yet hard to leave because the perceived rewards are too great to give up, or the perceived punishment for doing so is too gruesome to contemplate. That is why a preacher remarked that if he cannot get a person interested in the beauty of heaven, then the next strategy was to put the fear of hell into him.
Yet it all hinges on one accepting that initial premise — that one is broken and depraved and the only solution to that is Jesus.
It is a worldview I no longer accept. Humans aren’t broken. We simply go through stages in life, learning along the way, making mistakes as we grow and adapt to our environment. This is true all throughout nature. Seeds become seedlings, then saplings, before becoming full-grown trees. There is no talk of seeds being imperfect trees, or tadpoles being imperfect frogs.
Yes, it is the nature of children to be rude, selfish and petty, but that is not due to the inborn stain of original sin — as if it was a manufacturing defect — that is simply how children are. Then we learn how to become social beings. We learn how to act unselfishly and relate to others in a friendly manner. We learn how to forgive others and ourselves. We learn how to love others and ourselves.
Loving and forgiving ourselves is actually more difficult than it sounds. If there is anything that children are burdened with, it is the illusory guilt of not being good enough, of not knowing enough, of being “just” kids. We grow up with this guilt and feeling of inadequacy, and this is where Christianity’s vast appeal comes in. It is our nature to value other people’s approval and validation, and what could be more appealing than having the approval and acceptance of the creator of the universe, the ultimate father figure?
I believe this is just a subconscious projection. When we think we have been forgiven by God himself, we are actually giving ourselves permission to forgive ourselves in a way that circumvents the feeling of being self-serving when we just forgive ourselves anyway.
But it is possible to truly love and forgive ourselves. That is all we really need. Because when we learn to see ourselves for who we really are, and learn to accept that, we realize there is nothing to forgive, and we have always been free.
Originally published in Sunstar Davao.