Today is Passion Sunday - the fifth Sunday in Lent when Christians traditionally begin their particular contemplations of Christ's sufferings and drape their altars and crosses with the purple of mourning. The Passion, traditionally celebrated by Christians two Sundays before Easter commemorates the sufferings of Christ upon the Cross. It is a kind of preview of the Crucifixion on Good Friday and a consideration of its meaning. Christ's self-sacrifice on the Cross, "even unto death" is interpreted by orthodox Christians as Christ's atonement for man's sin, or as God reconciling the world unto Himself by the death of Christ on the Cross. It is Christ bearing the burden of man's sin, expiating, that is paying the penalty of or making amends for the sins of men.
It is probably in relation to the Doctrine of the Atonement that Unitarians find themselves most at variance with official Christianity because to Unitarians the doctrine seems unreasonable as an interpretation of scripture, and in any case amoral and unjust. The Doctrine of the Atonement is classically expressed in a very popular hymn by Cecil Frances Alexander:
There is a green hill far away,
Outside a city wall,
Where our dear Lord was crucified
Who died to save us all.
We may not know, we cannot tell,
What pains he had to bear,
But we believe it was for us
He hung and suffered there.
He died that we might be forgiven,
He died to make us good,
That we might go at last to heaven,
Saved by his precious blood.
There was no other good enough
To pay the price of sin,
He only could unlock the gate
Of heaven and let us in.
O dearly, dearly has he loved!
And we must love him too,
And trust in his redeeming blood,
And try his works to do.
In a modern age of Enlightenment why does this hymn remain so extraordinarily popular? It's not only the attractiveness of the tune. We need to recognise that it is exceedingly for man to free himself entirely from the influence of certain archetypal myths; deep down in the recesses of the unconscious mind, such ideas as the dying god, and the efficacy of blood sacrifice still grip. Still for many Christians personal salvation is based firmly on the Doctrine of the Atonement. Christ is their personal saviour through his sacrificial death on the cross - "He died for me, he atoned for my sin."
Now whilst Unitarians and Liberal Christians accept the historicity of Jesus, they believe that this kind of interpretation of Christ's death is invalid and amoral. Invalid because it is contrary to the teachings of Jesus himself concerning the love and forgiveness of God, and it is based on a misinterpretation of the texts. Amoral because it removes the responsibility of moral choice by a supernatural intervention. It eliminates moral choice: at every point in life there is always a moral choice! As Jesus said, "Why even of yourselves judge ye not - what is right?" Of course, the Doctrine of the Atonement may be seen as logically following the premise of "Original Sins". If you begin with the assumption that man is inherently sinful (because of his inherited taint through Adam) then it becomes expedient to introduce some kind of supernatural intervention by which man is saved from his guilt. This is what the Doctrine of the Atonement is about. It is a kind of theory of satisfaction which makes necessary the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross as our expiation for the sins of the world. The basic idea of the Doctrine of the Atonement is that infinite sin demands an infinite sacrifice which only an infinite being can supply. In the orthodox scheme Christ is that infinite being (God), and, in the words of that hymn, "He only was good enough" and there was no other way "to pay the price of sin". This may appear to be sound logic, but only, of course, if one accepts the premise of "original sin" and the idea that Jesus is God.
Further, and more importantly, the doctrine is unjust for it inflicts on the innocent punishment due on the guilty, and this does not satisfy any principle of justice we know. It is amoral because it removes moral responsibility from the believer. It violates the principles of moral responsibility explained by the Hebrew prophets. No more shall they say, "The fathers have eaten sour grapes and the children's teeth are sat on edge." He that eateth sour grapes, his teeth shall be sat on edge. Everyone shall give account of himself.
The drama of the passion of Jesus is the story of the passion of Everyman and Everywoman. In many ways men and women are called upon to suffer for others, that is vicariously. Vicarious suffering is a fact of human life. Every effort to counteract evil in the world, or to uplift society, is an attempt to redeem the world to a better life, an act of substitutionary-redemption, great sacrifices being made on behalf of others. This goes on in every generation -it is not unique in one man on a cross.
So the Unitarian speaks not of one unique saviour only, but of many saviours. Redemption, to the Unitarian, is not a solitary event occurring in one saviour at one single moment in history; it is a continued and continuing process in the individual and collective conscience, soul and mind of man. The saving power is not in the suffering and dying, it is in the effort made and the spirit of man which moves him to the effort. The nobleness of the story of the cross is missed by those who stress the actual death of Jesus at the expense of the spirit he manifested in his last hours. It is service to humanity is manifest in his life rather than in his death. As for Jesus, so for all - it is salvation by character. When we affirm this we assert that salvation does not depend upon any external scheme, but on the moral co-operation of the human spirit with the Divine Spirit
To sit and listen to the drama and music of Bach's Oratorios - The Passion according to St. Matthew and St. John - is a profound and moving experience, because the story is so universal in its impact and in its meanings. The drama of the Passion of Jesus does not simply refer to historical events in the past, nor is it in any way exclusive, for Jesus, here, represents humanity, every man and every woman. This drama is truly the Passion of Everyman and Everywoman -this story is a present and continuing reality.
The late Rev. Ernest Penn, 1997
Pluralist - Liberal and Thoughtful