The New Testament makes an astonishing claim concerning human guilt and innocence. The claim was a dramatic one in the earliest days of Christianity and it remains a shattering one today. This is the claim that guilt can be transferred from the guilty to the innocent in such a way that the guilty person can take up a new position as being completely innocent. How can such a transfer of guilt be possible? And how is such a transfer of guilt possible for you and me?
Shakespeare put words in the mouth of Lady Macbeth that are timelessly true from the standpoint of anyone who has ever been burdened by a guilty conscience:
"Out, damned spot! Out, I say!...
Yet who could have thought the old man
to have had so much blood in him?
(She refers to the murdered king, Duncan.)
Here's the smell of the blood still.
All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand."
(Act V, Scene 1)
These words of a tortured human being, tortured by her complicity in conspiracy and murder, are addressed directly by the 24th verse of the second chapter of First Peter.
"He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree,
that we might die to sin and live to righteousness.
By his wounds you have been healed."
Peter describes a direct transfer of guilt, from us and "our sins" to him and "his body on the tree". Moreover, he writes against the background of Isaiah 53, verses 5 and 6, where the prophet speaks of the suffering servant of God. "But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities, upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed." The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
The claim, running like a red thread connecting the Old and New Testament, is that the servant of God shoulders the responsibility for my actions, in particular my sinful actions, without qualification, thereby achieving something which to all rationality is impossible.
If a human being is human in part by virtue of his or her moral responsibility in cases where he has a genuine and unconstrained choice, then would it not deny our humanity to give that responsibility away?
This is the great wonderment. This is the astonishment, even the obstacle related to believing the Christian message of atonement. The old, old story asserts that "Christ bore our sins in his body on the tree." The story assumes human guilt and yet transfers it. It transfers guilt even for murder and conspiracy, as in the case of Lady Macbeth. No extent of guilt can not be transferred to his body on the tree. The early Christian theologian Marcion, who was branded a heretic for centuries, wrote something important about his Good News concerning the transfer of guilt. In fact, it is the only sentence of Macion's that was not expunged by Second Century heresy hunters. Marcion wrote concerning the Good News of the transfer of guilt. "O wonder beyond wonders, rapture, power and amazement it is, that one can say nothing at all about the Gospel, or even conceive of it, nor compare it with anything."
In contrast to the Good News of guilt transfer, I have never heard the story, so often related in Germany, concerning Simon Wiesenthal's encounter with a dying SS man, without wincing. The story is told in Wiesenthal's autobiographical book The Sunflower and seems to embody the frustrated search by post-war German people to receive forgiveness for the Nazi past. In the camps, Wiesenthal was one day summoned to the bedside of a dying SS man. The man confessed that he had taken part in atrocities. He asked Wiesenthal, "On behalf of your people, will you please forgive me?" Wiesenthal replied that he could NOT forgive him. He said that he would not. He would not and could not offer forgiveness on behalf of others, specifically on behalf of victims who were dead. The implication was... only the ones for whose deaths the man was directly responsible could possibly forgive him. And they were dead. So the SS man could in no way be forgiven for what he had done.
The moral? We bear our own burdens, we carry our own moral responsibility, and we bear our own sins. No message could be harder, more terrible, and at the same time more humanly true.
Yet I believe we are still entitled to wince at that story. For the Christian faith declares the possibility of forgiveness in every case. Christian forgiveness is based entirely and solely on the transfer of human guilt to the divine figure. Isaiah believed this figure to be the suffering Servant to come. We believe it to be One who has come.
It is a wonder. It goes against reason, and even human moral reason at its highest. It goes against the moral philosophy of Emmanuel Kant! But it also touches a very human impulse. It touches a further human constant, a factor as constant as sin: the desire for transformation. So transformed was Cathy by her love for Heathcliff in the novel Wuthering Heights, that she actually cried out, "I am Heathcliff!" We ourselves say, 'I don't want to be me.' 'I wish I were someone else.' Rather, 'I wish I were a different me'; one without the faults, one without the repeating patterns of my (weak) character, one without my particular (defeating) life-history. Woody Allen writes that his only regret in life is that he was not born someone else!
Here, too, is deliverance possible according to the Good News of the transfer of guilt? "For our sake he (God) made him (Christ) to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God." (2 Corinthians 5:21). That we might become the righteousness of God! Strange to say, when a person -- and I speak for myself -- believes that his sin has been transferred, by an act of God, to God, he becomes better in himself! He begins to show forth the fruits of righteousness. The forgiven sinner becomes the one who commits less sin.
What a wonder! And to go against Kant! Isaiah grasped the wonder of the Transfer, even as he prepared to speak of it. "So shall he startle many nations; for that which has not been told them they shall see, and that which they have not heard they shall understand." (52:15). On the basis of experience, that of others and myself, I can honestly say, responsibility for sin transferred (Christ's part) equals responsibility for good assumed (my part). If the root of Christian living is forgiveness by means of the transfer of guilt to Him, then the fruit of Christian living is the responsibility freely chosen by me to do good.
Imagine it: "all that flesh is heir to" transferred in a moment in time in 29 A.D. on Calvary hill. Sins canceled, debts paid, total responsibility taken; a new world for us, the "works of love" shouldered gladly.