The ability to apportion guilt and blame can be seen as a virtue, part of our sense of justice and fair play. It enables us to affirm the innocent. It enables us to run society in a smooth way: identify the guilty and you can administer correction, due punishment and, where justified, make restitution to innocent sufferers. You can also vent righteous anger in the proper direction.
This ability can, however, be distorted. You can condemn a lone scapegoat to lynching or an enemy nation to genocide. Judge someone guilty and he is in your power, a victim on whom you may pour out all your hatred at his expense. Stripped of their influence, the guilty can be bound and disposed of with impunity by their captors who are then free to behave as they will. Watch the heads roll after any revolution. The executioners' sense of justice is mixed with more than a little malice. The destruction of yesterday's guilty tyrant satisfies an innate evil urge that runs through our nature.
The ultimate tyrant is an omnipotent God. Whether he is perceived as a reality or merely as a false invention of our psyche, his unlimited power to control and direct is in turn feared, resented and despised. A Godless world over which humanity, redeemed from the clutches of a whimsical deity, has total power, is a seductive dream. Pronounce God guilty and one has the right to seek his destruction, either metaphorically or literally.
So do those who denounce God for the ills of the world find justification for abandoning, even persecuting, religion. The God who is guilty of allowing the Holocaust deserves to die. The misfortunes and evils of life as we know it, from earthquakes and disease to our own flawed human nature, are so shot through with misery and sheer wickedness that, if anyone created the universe, he or she ought to be punished and obliterated in the cruellest way possible. Heap the blame for everything on such a bloodthirsty Creator and we go free.
These are sentiments which even the most pious share at some time or other. The belligerent atheist is not alone in denigrating a God who condones, even causes the world's sufferings. If we could rid ourselves of this turbulent deity and replace him with the God of self - set ourselves up as our own God and master - it is obvious how much better things would be.
There was one moment in history, late on a Thursday evening nearly 2,000 years ago, when God Incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ was literally seized, bound and put on trial. We humans - not a certain section of humanity, not a particular race or generation or a corrupt and unrepresentative few but the common flawed humanity we all share - had our chance to judge God and declare him innocent or guilty of crimes against our indignant selves.
Then as now there was no question of weighing up the irrefutable good which we witness daily: acts of love, acts of mercy, beauty and harmony and sheer delight. Instead there was only bitterness and hatred and the longing to do away with the threat to our autonomy. For an unbelievable moment the tyrant walked into our hands; we had the power to blame him for everything, and to use that as an excuse to rid ourselves of him for ever.
The Gospel accounts of Christ's trial make it clear that it was not for doing any good or lack of good that he was condemned. In the last analysis no one was interested in whether he had healed the sick, fed the hungry or failed to avert natural disasters. He declared himself the Son of God and, as he himself foretold in the parable of the vineyard, humanity saw and took its chance.
Is God guilty? We have already given our answer at the Crucifixion. He is guilty of being a thorn in our flesh, He is guilty not so much of causing catastrophes and pain but simply of being when we would rather He were not.
'I am' - the God who refuses to succumb to human hatred by staying dead and so removing Himself from our lives - rises to bestow upon those who would accept it undying, eternal love. But that acceptance calls for a response on our part which we do not find easy to give. We prefer to align ourselves, so often, with the murderous part of our nature rather than the murdered.
And so we are caught in a terrifying quandary. If we proclaim God so guilty of offences that He could not possibly exist, then we have no God left to blame or condemn. But if we insist on affirming His existence, then we must with honesty face the question: what are our motives for putting God in the dock? What are our motives for wanting to declare Him guilty?
If He is truly omnipotent as a God should be, why are we not afraid of doing so? Our fearlessness can only derive from the feeling that we already have Him bound and in our power: that in other words we stand at Christ's trial, in the shoes of His accusers.
And are not our motives exactly theirs: that we wish to share in the call for Him to receive His just deserts, death on the cross?
Christian art and literature both paint extravagant scenes of the Last Judgement, depicting humanity on trial. Will it not rather be a re-run of Christ's own trial, at which we are in danger of finding ourselves in horror face to face with him, calling for eternal separation from this God whom our bitter human pride cannot endure?
The great wonder of Christianity is that all this is true. But God's response is not to pronounce humanity guilty of deicide, but to forgive and to love.Reuse content