There’s an old saying (frequently attributed to Mark Twain) that goes something like this: “Tell the truth. It’s easier.” Or alternately, “Tell the truth, there’s less to remember.” The trouble with untruths is that they never quite line up with reality, which means you have to keep lying in order to cover up the discrepancies. And even then you still have problems. It’s just too darn hard to keep one lie from exposing another.
Take, for example, Romans 6:23: “The wages of sin is death.” According to the Bible, we’re all sinners, and that means we all deserve to die. But (the Gospel tells us) we can escape God’s judgment because Jesus paid the price for us, by dying in our place. His death pays the penalty for our sins, so now we can go to Heaven essentially for free. In fact, that’s the whole reason Jesus died in the first place: because he wanted us to go to Heaven, and that couldn’t happen unless there was a death to pay for our sins.
There’s just one little problem with this simple, appealing story. We still die. Believers die, unbelievers die, agnostics die, everybody dies. And that means everybody pays the price of sin anyway, even without Jesus’s help. So what do we need Jesus for?
Some people try to get around this issue by saying that true death isn’t mere mortal death, i.e. mere separation of the soul from the physical body. True death, the death that is the wages of sin, means spiritual death, i.e. everlasting separation from God. Thus, you can’t go to Heaven because by sinning, you have incurred the necessity of a payment in the form of everlasting separation from God. Unless that debt is paid, you must go to Hell in order to fulfill your debt, since (in more liberalized versions of the Gospel) Hell essentially is separation from God.
This is where Mark Twain comes in. We’ve been told a story in which the evangelist assures us that there must be a death in order to pay for our sins, and therefore we need Jesus to die for us. But there’s a discrepancy in that story, because we can die just fine on our own. If a death is the wages of sin, then by the time we get to any future resurrection, we’ve already paid the wages we owed. So the evangelist has to elaborate on the original story, and spin us a new tale to cover the problems with the original one.
Unfortunately this new tale has even worse problems than the original, because if the wages of sin is eternal separation from God, then Jesus didn’t pay it either. The death of Jesus, so the Bible assures us, was only a temporary separation from his physical body. In fact, anybody who dies more than three days ahead of the Last Judgment is going to be dead a lot longer than Jesus was. Jesus not only failed to pay any penalty of eternal separation from God, he barely counts as having experienced any significant physical death relative to how long everybody else stays dead.
What’s more, if we can’t be forgiven until the wages of sin are paid, then nobody can ever be paid. There’s no such thing as after eternal separation from God. By definition, it goes on forever, so you can never say you’ve paid the debt in full. Even if Jesus had died and stayed in Hell for 2,000 years and counting, that’s nothing compared to an eternity of separation from God. So if sin requires eternal separation from God, then that debt has not been fully paid and never will be fully paid, by Jesus or anyone else.
And even that’s not the end of it, because according to post-Nicene orthodox Christian teaching, Jesus is God, so he can’t be separated from God at all. If the wages of sin is any amount of separation from God, then a divine Jesus is the last person who could ever pay that penalty on our behalf. Jesus cannot be separated from Jesus for any amount of time, and certainly not for all of time, or else he’s not really Jesus.
At this point the evangelist will try, like Pinocchio, to extend his story even further to try and cover up the holes. In fact, different evangelists will invent different stories, only to find, like the famous puppet, that “a lie keeps on growing until it’s as plain as the nose on your face.”
So you’ll have an evangelist tell you that, no, Jesus could not, of course, be separated from God, but he might suffer from a form of temporary insanity which caused him to sincerely believe he had been separated from God. That’s a nice sounding story, and it fits in well with the other story about Jesus crying out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” on the cross. The only problem is, the original story declared that the wages of sin is death. Not a false perception of being dead when you really aren’t. Death. Temporary insanity isn’t going to meet the requirements. Or if it does, just give us all a bout of temporary insanity, and fix the Bible so it says “The wages of sin is a brief period temporary insanity causing you to believe you’re dead when you’re not.”
Some other evangelist might prefer to spin a web of misdirected abstractions, trying to dazzle us with undefined metaphysical speculations that boil down to saying true is false, up is down, and good is evil, so of course Jesus can both be God and be “eternally” separated from God for about 3 days. It’s all just a mystery, you see, which means that you must believe whatever I tell you, even when—no, especially when I contradict myself. The contradictions are a sign it’s from a marvelous and wonderful God who is so great He transcends and confounds our understanding…and why are you all staring at my nose like that?
Other evangelists might try to distract us with stories about how full they are of the Holy Spirit, and who cares what all these fancy pants theologians are arguing about anyway, cause it doesn’t mean nothing if you ain’t got the Holy Ghost. Or in other words, pay no attention to that man behind the curtain, and just look at these sparkly mirrors I’ve got over here. And so on and so on.
The truth, if there is any truth behind this story, is going to be far simpler than these never-ending improvisations and contradictions. Jesus, if he ever existed, probably just died unexpectedly and unjustly, and his disciples, in grief and bewilderment, took refuge in the thought that his death might have served some higher purpose. So they just made up a story about his death being a sacrifice that saves everyone. That’s all.
That may or may not be historically accurate. Perhaps there never was any real Jesus to begin with. But it’s a lot simpler than spinning a story about paying wages (to whom?) for all the sins we’re supposed to have committed, and then trying to explain how one temporary death does a better job of that than the more permanent variety we all experience sooner or later.
Just tell the truth. It’s easier, because there’s nothing to invent, and therefore less to remember.