Once I settled the nagging questions about Hell and could finally stop worrying about the whole damn (literally damnation) thing, another question surfaced and persisted: “Why, then, did Jesus die?”
Oh boy, Pandora’s box was open! I hadn’t realized the host of other doctrines and dogmas that hung on the concept of a literal place of eternal torment where unrepentant sinners, with no second chance, would reside forever after death.
My search for answers is a meandering labyrinth: “a complicated irregular network of passages or paths in which it is difficult to find one’s way.” A delightful maze I’m still in and most likely will remain in for the foreseeable future and possibly eternally. Unless I finally decide to just let it all go and live in the uncertainty. That sounds blissful about now.
The experience of revelation or enlightenment cannot be explained, but must be lived with the whole of your being… mind, body and soul. It comes in bits and pieces and seemingly has no end, probably because of the infinite-ness of the One who gives such revelation and enlightenment. Ironically, the more we experience these moments that trigger inner peace, the more we recognize how little we actually know. I am unqualified to teach or instruct on any of the stuff you are about to read.
Nonetheless, this blog is an effort to explain exactly what happened to me. Why did I leave Evangelicalism?
One of the main reasons is that I do not believe the atonement theories espoused by the Evangelical church any longer. Four atonement theories are explained in detail in this blog on the post so eloquently written by Jacqueline Wilson, titled Atonement Theories. They are labeled thus: Christus Victor, Satisfaction Model, Moral Influence Model and Penal Substitution. There are subtle differences in these four atonement theories. Most evangelicals adhere to some combination of all four of them, but usually lean more toward the latter three. For simplicity’s sake I will focus mostly on the Penal Substitution theory. It says that our sin has made God very angry and punishment must occur in order to pay for our sin and appease the wrath of God. In other words, we sin and we must be punished. Sin cannot go unpunished, otherwise there is no justice. The Penal Substitution theory claims that Jesus substituted himself in our place, endured our punishment and bore the wrath of God so that we could escape punishment and eternity in Hell.
I don’t buy this. If it is true that our sin deserves eternal punishment and Jesus became our scapegoat and endured our punishment, why is Jesus not still in Hell? Wouldn’t the perfect complete sacrificial love of Christ endure all of our punishment for all of eternity? In the framework of punitive justice, it would! So for me, this atonement theory doesn’t balance out. It never did make sense to me, but I thought it was my only option. Believe this or go to Hell.
I took me a few years to get over Hell. I guess it was more than a few. It was more like fifty years. Shifting away from a Penal Substitution atonement theory took a few years too. I don’t expect you, dear reader, to blindly accept any of what I’m saying, I’m just trying to explain, mostly in story form, why I left. That’s why this blog is so long and broken up into short chapters. So like I said in the first paragraph, after I stopped worrying about Hell, the question that therefore needed to be answered was; if not to take my deserved punishment of Hell, why did Jesus die? The simple answer is, because we human beings killed him. So, perhaps a better question is, what did the death of Christ accomplish? I’ll try to explain my understanding as it is today. I’m sure my understanding is very small and incomplete, and indeed the mystery of the cross is ultimately unfathomable, but…
In my fragile little nutshell of thinking, it goes something like this: By offering himself as a scapegoat, forgiving the retributive justice that we humans devised, Jesus put a stop to attributing retributive justice to God once and for all. I firmly believe the justice of God is always restorative, never retributive. (See the story of the prodigal son in Luke 15:11-32)
Retributive Justice definition: “a system of justice based on the punishment of offenders rather than on rehabilitation.”
We made that part up. Humans are responsible for the idea that sin must be punished and that punishment equals justice. We said, “an eye for an eye” a “life for a life”. It’s us that wants to settle the score. Not God. Just one of the many examples of how Jesus repudiates the very notion of retribution, which was formerly believed and even instructed in scripture, is indicated when he says, “when someone slaps you in the face, offer him the other cheek!”
A little known fact inside the “Christian bubble” is that Judaism (from which Christianity emerged) was heavily influenced by other world religions which assumed humans must be sacrificed to a distant and demanding god. Throughout the Old Testament we see God slowly weaning the Israelites off of this barbaric practice. The culmination of this weaning was at the crucifixion of Jesus.
Restorative Justice definition: “a system of criminal justice which focuses on the rehabilitation of offenders through reconciliation.”
As a final act in the weaning of us from our barbaric practices God, in human form, consented to our human system of sacrifice that places blame on a scapegoat. The system that says sin must be punished so that justice is served. I believe God did this, in part, to show us the only way to obtain true peace, within our own souls as well as in societies. Peace will never be found by retribution or revenge or retaliation or justice served as punishment. History testifies to this fact. Such practices only perpetuate the cycle of violence and continue to inflict pain. Peace is finally accomplished by forgiveness alone. Forgiveness that does not require a debt be paid or a punishment be meted out.
Think about it. Killing God, in human form, isn’t that the ultimate sin? What would you do if you were God (in human form) and they were going to crucify you? I’d fight back for all I’m worth! I’d strike them all dead! I wouldn’t lay down and die! Jesus could have resisted and retaliated. Jesus could have sought revenge and plotted our demise. Jesus could have returned evil for evil. Jesus could have cried out, “I am innocent!”, crawled off the cross and crucified all of us! But Jesus consented to our violence rather than fighting back. He didn’t fight back! He turned the other cheek. He loved. He forgave. It was the ultimate demonstration of love and forgiveness of us, for us and to us! He took the worst we could offer and forgave it while it was happening! He didn’t blame, or ask for retribution. He understood the justice of God in a restorative sense. He loved and he forgave.
Jesus offering himself as a sacrifice for us (not a sacrifice for God, he was our scapegoat, not God’s) is what breaks the cycle of blame, hatred and violence because he refused to blame, he refused to hate, and he refused to enact violence in retaliation or retribution. Jesus showed us how to live a life that continues to break that cycle by doing it himself, in the most extreme way imaginable. He is the ultimate example for us. I have found however, that personally I cannot accomplish this by only emulating him. I must go deeper. I must become more and more aware of the Christ incarnate in me, and in you. It’s like Franciscan priest Richard Rohr says, “We daringly believe that God’s presence was poured into a single human being, [Jesus] so that humanity and divinity can be seen to be operating as one in him – and therefore in us!”
Our world is rife with the cyclical violence that is caused by choosing a scapegoat to place the blame on and punish. I can ignore my own complicity in this system when someone other than myself is blamed and retributive justice is served. I reason that after we get rid of the perpetrator, that the problem has been solved and peace will ensue. And there is peace… for a while. But that perpetrator has relatives and friends that want revenge, that want to settle the score. The thing is, the score is never settled! Each retaliation is escalated. You hurt me. I hurt you in a way that I perceive to be equally painful and I think it’s settled. But you feel that pain worse than I intended. You cry, not fair! You didn’t deserve that imbalanced retribution. So now you must settle the score and punish me! You think I’ll give up, but I don’t. My anger is aroused and out of control: I kill you. What are your friends and relatives going to do now? And so the cycle continues.
God only loves and always forgives, all the time. It is the only way that the cycle of violence is stopped and peace is accomplished. That God only loves and always forgives is true of the Old Testament God and the New Testament God and the God of Revelation. God was not an angry God who commanded killings in the Old Testament and then suddenly changed, inexplicably, into the “forgive your enemies” type God that Jesus revealed. Nor will God again change into a blood thirsty vengeance seeker in the end. Jesus was the exact representation of God. God incarnate. Jesus is what God is like. God never repays evil for evil, even if that were to mean pouring out wrath on Jesus to repay the evil we did. If God punished Jesus in our place, is that real forgiveness? Someone still had to pay, and payment does not equal forgiveness. God always forgives unconditionally. I believe this is the nature of God. God is love.
Franciscan priest Richard Rohr aptly describes the true nature of love and forgiveness, “In the Franciscan view, God did not need to be paid in order to love and forgive God’s own creation. Love cannot be bought by some ‘necessary sacrifice’….If forgiveness needs to be bought or paid for, then it is not authentic forgiveness at all.”
Jesus demonstrated this truth first of all by the life he lived and by the lessons he taught, then by his death on the cross and by his descent into the grave to liberate the dead, and finally by conquering death at his resurrection. He did this for everyone, because that’s just who he is.
For an innovative telling of the gospel that beautifully describes what I’m trying to say, check out this podcast. Don’t be put off by the title.
For a simple to understand book about the five key Biblical concepts; sin, law, sacrifice, scapegoat and blood through the view of philosopher Rene Gerard’s theory of human behavior and human culture read this: Nothing But the Blood of Jesus by J. D. Myers.