This is Good Friday, which commemorates the day Jesus Christ was tortured and killed. I’m an atheist. This is an atheist’s point of view, concerning what true Christianity is all about.
Before Jesus Christ came along and upset the apple cart, the Jewish religion was plugging along as best it could. But it was laden with all kinds of rules and punishments, many of which could never pass muster under the U.S. Constitution. I mean, in those days women were put to death on their wedding night if they were found not to be virgins. You could be stoned for breaking the Sabbath. Disobeying a parent could warrant death. And you’d better not take the Lord’s name in vain.
Anyway, Jesus said to hell with all those silly rules, and all that cruel and unusual punishment. He made just one rule, which is considered to be golden. The King James version of the Bible, at Matthew 7:12, quotes Jesus as saying, “Therefore, whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.”
Just like that, this diktat from Christ wiped away all the rules the Jews were following, and replaced them with the very simple Golden Rule. Christianity is centered around it. There is nothing more or less to true Christianity than the Golden Rule.
The Golden Rule is based upon empathy. Empathy is what we ultimately need from others. We need our feelings to be understood and our needs to be appreciated. We need our pleasures to be celebrated and our pains to be commiserated. And we need to empathize with others, as we would have others empathize with us.
Empathy dissolves hatred and bridges communication gaps between the estranged. Empathy establishes trust, and makes human relationships manageable and enjoyable. And empathy has been found to be the only psychology that truly reforms criminals.
Those who wrote the gospel did a masterful job of portraying the Golden Rule, and empathy, at play between God and humans. The authors realized that if you follow the Golden Rule completely, you must be willing to experience pain and death for the benefit of others. Because after all, wouldn’t you want others to be willing to do the same for you?
And even if others are unwilling to die for you, you must be willing to die for them. After all, if your empathy was underdeveloped, wouldn’t you still want others to have more empathy for you than you could dredge up for them?
So Jesus told Peter at the Last Supper that he would deny him three times. Ah yes, he knew in advance that his most devoted disciple still had not developed enough empathy to die for him. And yet he was still willing to die for Peter. This was the point the Gospel authors were trying to make.
Peter did go on to deny him three times. Had he not, he too would have been tortured and killed. He knew how to save his own skin, even if that meant turning his back on his best friend. The lesson here is that a good Christian has developed so much empathy for Jesus, that he would be willing to sacrifice his life for Jesus. Peter was not quite yet a good Christian.
But Peter redeemed himself. About 30 years later Nero blamed the Christians for the burning of Rome and had Peter crucified. At last, in his old age, he was finally willing to give up his ghost for the Lord.
Judas was a different story. He never developed any empathy at all, and went on to betray his best friend for the monetary gain of 30 pieces of silver. And yet Jesus was still willing to die for him. Now that’s empathy. That’s following the Golden Rule to the hilt.
I believe the story of the life and death of Christ is one of the most beautiful didactic tales of love and sacrifice that has ever been told. I also strongly suspect it’s a myth.
But suppose it’s actually true. In that case, I hope Jesus Christ would understand how hard it is for me to believe it. Walking on water? Feeding thousands of people with five loaves of bread and two fish? Raising the dead? Being resurrected, himself?
Yes, I doubt. And I wonder just how wise it would be to sacrifice your life for those who would abandon you or kill you for their own gain. I do try to practice empathy, but I also try to practice the Middle Way that the Buddha taught. Therefore, I try to avoid taking anything to an extreme, including empathy. I don’t practice empathy in the true, extreme Christian way.
So if the Gospel is true, I hope Jesus Christ would understand and forgive me for my dubiety. I hope he would appreciate why I did not bet on him, or go all-in with his Golden Rule. And I hope he would intercede on my behalf when a judgmental God would try to hurl me into the fiery pit of Hell.
After all, I would do the same for him.