When I was still at school, a girl gave me one of those religious tracts. It wasn’t the Four Spiritual Laws, but it was one of the others.
I had been to a methodist Sunday School every week since I was four years old. (Beginners, Primaries, Seniors and the terribly, terribly '60s Sunday Session for “older fellows and girls.”) John and Charles Wesley were arminian (*) evangelicals who thought that anyone — anyone at all — could be saved, but that no-one — no-one at all — could be saved without the Blood of Christ. Somehow that had all slipped past me over a decade of church. Including confirmation classes.
I assumed that my friend belonged to some weird cult, like the moonies or the catholics or even worse. I knew that Jesus was a hippy and a preacher, John Lennon and Ghandi and Martin Luther King all rolled into one. He preached a radical and innovative philosophy of love which had never occurred to anyone before. Certainly not anyone Jewish. And then, one Thursday, nearly two thousand years after one man had been nailed to a cross for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change…
I thought maybe the tract my friend gave me was working from a different Bible. It didn’t appear to be in the least bit interested in a road to happiness through love and charity (Cash, J 1971) or even about believing in what I could be in all that I am (Martell, J 1979). It appeared to say that the crucifixion was not a terrible misunderstanding, but that Jesus had come to earth specifically in order to be crucified. It laid out, in very concrete language, how the death of Jesus was all about retribution and punishment. Laws without punishments are merely advice. It was something like a schoolboy walking to the front of the classroom and holding out his hand so one of his friends could avoid getting the strap. It was specifically like a judge who had dedicated his whole life to the principal of retribution finding his best friend in front of him in the dock. He imposed the severest possible fine on his friend and then paid it himself.
The Gospel, in other words, of Penal Substitution, as laid out in sadistic detail in the Gospel According To Mel Gibson. Jesus, you remember, forces himself to remain conscious during his ludicrously extended flogging because the more he is hurt the more forgiveness there will be for humans.
At some point after reading the tract I decided I had better actually read the New Testament. I read it in secret, with a torch, with my lights out. I may have gone to Sunday School every week but I would not have wanted my sister knowing that I read the Bible on my own time. I was hoping to find my faith in the Godspell according to Schwartz confirmed: Jesus invented love, and indeed Love, and Christianity was about trying very hard to be as much like him as you could possibly be. But I was open to the possibility that The Tract had it right. Sin separates man from God. Jesus took the penalty for sin. Anyone can go to heaven provided they ADMIT that they are a sinner (A) and BELIEVE that Jesus died for them (B) and COUNT the cost of being a follower (C) and DECIDE to give their life to him (D).
I was expecting to find one or the other. I assumed that reading the actual Gospels would settle the question.
But of course, it really didn’t.
* Arminian — A Christian who attaches far too much importance to human free will, according to Calvinists
Calvinist — A Christian who attaches far too much importance to predestination, according to Arminians