I OFTEN wonder why God has allowed different religions to co-exist in the world. Surely, one reason is for mutual enrichment: insights from other religious traditions can be derived to explain theological ideas more fruitfully. I want to try to explore whether the notion of atonement enunciated in the Bible can be enriched with ideas borrowed from Hinduism.
I will use a Hindu understanding of liberation through divine-human union as a lens to look at the atonement, confident that it is possible to do this while maintaining the historicity and uniqueness of the love of God in Christ revealed on the cross.
Christians believe that Jesus died on the cross not just for Christians, but for all. “God so loved the world” is the Bible verse. This implies that the cross has to be preached in a relevant and intelligible way to all, including Hindus. In both religions, divine-human union is a central idea, and viewing the atonement through this lens can speak powerfully to Christians, too, bypassing many of the problems that traditional theories of the atonement bring with them.
IT SHOULD be noted that many theologians within Hinduism readily accept the teachings of Jesus. Many Hindu households keep a portrait of Jesus alongside their other gods and worship him. But no Hindu has accepted the theology of the atonement as explained by traditional theories. Mahatma Gandhi, for instance, admired the Sermon on the Mount and wove it into his philosophy of non-violence, but rejected the concept of the atonement.
While he viewed Jesus as a martyr, an embodiment of sacrifice, and a divine teacher, he refused to accept that there was anything mysterious or miraculous about the death of Jesus on the cross.
Hindus, in general, struggle to see the necessity of the cross to overcome evil. For them, God is omnipresent and omnipotent. Rabindranath Tagore, an Indian poet and Nobel Laureate, argued that it was wrong to think of God’s love as being restricted to a blind lane abruptly stopping at one narrow point of history. God is generous in the distribution of his love, and evil has to be overcome every day.
Hindus also reject the notion of God’s punishing Jesus in our place. One question that is asked repeatedly is whether it is ever just to punish the innocent Christ for the guilty or to “impute” righteousness to the guilty.
Hinduism, in common with other religions, teaches the impassibility of God. One Hindu friend was, encouragingly, full of praise for Jesus’s teachings, passionate opposition to injustice, and solidarity with the impoverished. For him, Jesus was an ideal man who represented the best in humankind. But he was bewildered by my reference to the Christian belief that the salvation of humanity was won by the suffering and death of Jesus.
My Hindu friends hold the unshakeable faith that God is unable to experience pain and suffering. Would it not have been enough for God to just utter a word of forgiveness for all of humankind? Given his incomparable might, it would have been very easy for him to vanquish the evil forces.
FACING this seeming impasse, how do we continue the conversation? It is heartening that the desirable product in both religions is divine-human union.
In Christianity, sin is the cause of God-human alienation, and the atonement is God’s plan for the resolution of this estrangement. On the cross, Jesus, on behalf of humanity, takes pain unto death to himself so that human beings will be cleansed or forgiven and united with God. God, too, suffers in Jesus, out of his love for humanity so that we will be united with him.
An analogy will help here in dialogue with Hindus, but also with others learning about our faith. If impure gold is to be united with pure gold, it should be melted in fire first, removing its impurities. To be united with God — the purest gold — our impurities must also be removed. We cannot become pure unless we atone for our sins. But we are too frail to pay this price; so, out of his infinite love for us, Jesus — the purest gold — takes our suffering and death unto himself on the cross, enabling us to be united with God.
Jesus’s teachings contain a strong emphasis on the need for a divine-human union. In St John’s Gospel, through the imagery of a vine and branches, he says: “Abide in me as I abide in you.” The parable of the Prodigal Son illustrates the joy of reunion. St Paul says that Christ was before all things, and in him all things are held together. Only someone who is fully divine and fully human can execute the atonement.
IN HINDUISM, it is our avidya (ignorance) that keeps us in bondage, alienated from the divine. The essential self or atman (soul) is in union with God. But it is gnana (knowledge) — granted by God — that makes individuals aware of this union. To achieve divine-human union is to become aware that you are part of the body of God.
It is not mere abstract or even intellectual knowledge that God offers. It is the intuitive knowledge of God-human union that must be lived as a felt experience. Once this knowledge is received from God, any further obstacle for liberation is removed.
In addition to gnana (path of knowledge), the role of bhakti (path of devotion) and karma (path of action-result) are also important. Although God alone can grant the knowledge that brings liberation, Hindus, on their part, have to respond to God’s grace through sincere devotion and right action.
Some schools of thought hold that one path can be chosen to attain liberation, while some others propound the view that all three paths have to be blended together for the quest for liberation to be successful.
In Hinduism, then, God helps to liberate us from the ignorance that causes our alienation from God. And in Christianity, God, though the atonement, tackles the sin that causes alienation. At some level, the meanings of ignorance and sin overlap, as does the idea of a God who does not leave us to work out our liberation, or salvation, alone.
IN A world torn by religious violence, whatever brings people of different religious persuasions together is to be valued and promoted. One of the causes of this violence is that people are not informed of the beliefs and values underpinning religious traditions other than their own.
The eruption of religious violence in Delhi has shaken India and the outside world (News, 6 March 2020). Muslim families were sheltered and protected by Hindu families, but good news stories cannot diminish or play down the horrors of senseless violence.
God has blessed us with a world in which people of different religious persuasions co-exist. We need to engage in dialogue, because it is in conversation that we understand people of different faiths and ourselves better. Further, it is through dialogue that mutual enrichment becomes possible. My firm belief is that a Christian can be faithful to Christ as well as open to other religious traditions.
The atonement is not the only doctrine that I have discussed with Hindus. We have explored, for example, the difference between the Trinity and Hinduism’s three, distinctly different, gods. I have drawn on the Hindu idea of Avatar to explain the nature of Jesus’s incarnation and the concept of Guru-Shishya to explain Jesus as a unique religious teacher with disciples as pupils.
And it is not just conversations with Hindus which can benefit from this approach. Others, including Christians, struggle to comprehend the atonement. Some have construed it as child abuse by the Father. It is unfathomable for them that the Father should sacrifice the Son for the restoration of his own honour or for the so-called triumph of good over evil.
Christians know that the Church has not agreed on one theory of the atonement. I believe that there is nothing wrong in looking at it from many different angles, including those that interfaith conversations generate. It should be left open for imagination and reinterpretation, drawing us closer to God in Christ, and enriching our spiritual life.
The Atonement Creating Unions: An exploration in inter-religious theology by Godfrey Kesari is published by Wipf & Stock in its Pickwick Publications imprint (£23
(Church Times Bookshop £20.70); 978-1-5326-5262-2).
The Revd Dr Godfrey Kesari is the Vicar of the Holy Innocents, Southwater, and Interfaith Adviser for the diocese of Chichester.