Since it’s Good Friday, I’ve been doing some thinking about Jesus and what his death means … and just as importantly, what it doesn’t mean.
Growing up in the heart of midwestern evangelicalism, I learned that “Jesus died for our sins.” What this meant was that, absent a perfect sacrifice (which turned out to be Jesus), God couldn’t forgive our sins. God, in this telling of the story, is a judge, overseeing the trial of every single person ever. In this case, every person—because of sin (original or otherwise—depending on your denominational commitments)—has been judged guilty. Guilt, if (retributive) justice is to be satisfied, must be punished. As a consequence of the universal nature of sin, every single person deserves punishment—eternal, in this case.
The dilemma, from God’s (i.e., the judge’s) perspective is that God also created us and loves us, and is less than enthusiastic about the prospect of flushing us all down the celestial toilet. For that reason, God feels responsible for coming up with a way to satisfy the demands of retributive justice, so that humanity may be “saved” from the penalty it deserves—which is where Jesus comes in.
Jesus, who has committed no sin, is therefore sent by God to take the punishment on behalf of the rest of humanity—so that only those people stupid enough (or isolated enough from the story of Jesus) not to accept the “get out of jail free” card offered by Jesus—acting as a penal substitute—will be punished … horribly, unthinkably, unceasingly, and forever in a place called hell.
Let me offer a disclaimer before moving forward: This is an overly simplistic rendering of what is technically named in theology, the “Penal Substitutionary Theory of Atonement.” There are other theories of the atonement that also try to make sense of the death and resurrection of Jesus, but this is the one that remains dominant in the West as the presumptive “orthodox” understanding of the meaning of what happened between Good Friday and Easter.
But this version of the meaning of the death and resurrection of Jesus has always troubled me. In fact, the whole thing raises at least a few questions:
- If God loves us all so much, why can’t God just forgive us for being the hellspawn, which, if this theory of the atonement is true, we apparently all are?
Take the father in the parable known as the “Prodigal Son,” whom we’re meant, I think, to believe is a stand-in for God. The younger son (Hellspawn the younger.), after his profligate sojourn in the seedier environs, is embraced by the father when he returns home … before any words are spoken or any sacrifices to the gods of retributive justice are offered up. Likewise, the older son (Hellspawn the elder), after his self-absorbed tantrum is also embraced by the father, invited into the party, and given the keys and title to the rest of the estate … before he can apologize or make amends for being such an egocentric prat.
If God is indeed to be viewed as the father in this parable, how can we square the loving parent who receives his reprobate kids back after they’ve sinned—but before the demands of justice are satisfied—with the God who just can’t find the necessary resources internally to receive God’s own reprobate kids back, but has to rely on the external conceit of the “perfect sacrifice” to be able to forgive?
- Why does God have to trick Godself into thinking that justice has been satisfied by setting up some elaborate Rube Goldberg forgiveness machine?
Because, I mean, we know we’re still guilty of committing the sin—even after Jesus’ sacrifice. We may not be doing the time for it, but we all know that we did the crime. That is to say, even if Jesus were taking our place at the sentencing hearing, we know that he’s taking our punishment, but not responsibility for our sins. If we know this, how is it that God can’t see through such a convoluted narrative conceit?
And even more importantly, why would God need to? If that’s what God really wanted to do, why not just forgive us—without making it seem that the all-powerful, all-loving God is neither powerful enough nor loving enough to forgive without blood being shed?
In other words, why does God need a “perfect sacrifice” or “innocent blood” in order to extend mercy to those whom God has already claimed to love?
Morally and forensically, the logic feels tortured. You can’t just punish an innocent person, while letting all the other weasels off the hook. In what world is “justice“ being served by this arrangement?
The whole thing renders God as transactional rather than loving: “You give me a little innocent blood, and I won’t punish you forever. But you know, whatever happens, please know that I love you.”
Look, if I tell my children to bring back all the plates, silverware, glasses, mugs, and the odd potato peeler from where they’ve apparently been squirreling them away in their rooms for the apocalypse, but they (for whatever reason) fail to follow my commandment, do I need to figure out extraordinary ways to reconcile with them—ways that include conditions external both to me and to my kids that must first be satisfied? And if somebody besides my children or I were somehow to fail to satisfy those conditions, should I then be prepared to invent the most cruel and heinous way to punish them … forever?
Assuming I find those conditions morally reprehensible when applied to me—even taking into account how pissed I’d be that they didn’t do what I asked them—shouldn’t I expect God, at the very least, to be a better parent than I am?
- Why Hell? And why “forever?”
I mean, seriously, what is that all about anyway? God is God, after all, and can, therefore, do anything God wants, but what is the logic behind creating human beings, saying you love them, but when they don’t live up to your expectations of gratitude, selflessness, reverence, and love, you don’t just go back to the drawing board, you have to invent the most ghastly and cruel way to drop the hammer on them … endlessly?
As I say, God is God and I’m not, but still. I don’t know how that kind of logic depicts God as anything other than a James Bond villain. If we’re made in the image of God, if we’re supposed to model our lives on God’s example, if we’re supposed to love one another the way God loves us, then how does this version of God make any sense?
This just feels gratuitous, not to mention once again, like abysmally crappy parenting.
* * *
But just because the penal substitutionary theory of atonement is morally and theologically problematic, that doesn’t mean that Good Friday and Easter aren’t central to what it means to follow Jesus.
Jesus—who was very clearly put to death as a political insurgent by the Roman authorities (cheered on by their enthusiastic collaborators in the Temple hierarchy) in a very public and political execution—definitely died because of sins common to all humanity, but that doesn’t mean ipso facto that he died for the sins of humanity. Jesus died because he announced a new world in which God and not Caesar is sovereign—and in an empire in which Caesar couldn’t afford to brook opposition, Jesus posed a threat of grassroots revolution.
Jesus’ death on Good Friday, in other words, was the judgment by the domination system overseen by powers and principalities that keeping the first first and the last last is worth killing people for.
That God raised Jesus on Easter was God’s judgment on that system of domination in favor of a new reign in which the last shall be first and the first shall be last.
Good Friday and Easter don’t mean that now God can finally love us unqualifiedly because God’s tricked Godself into thinking we’re pure; it means that God loves us too much to let the power of subjugation and oppression be the final word—that in fact, God was determined through Jesus to shine a spotlight on a new world in which peace, justice, and love inevitably and irresistibly overcome violence, injustice, and hatred.
Easter means that though the way humans have currently ordered their life together results in the trampling of the poor and the weak and the protection of the rich and the powerful—marked by the violent, sometimes deadly, response to anyone who challenges the arrangement—God has said “yes” to an ordering of life in which the poor and the weak become the central focus of our concern … because in Christ, they are the focus of God’s concern.
That feels like a much better version of parenting.
Previously published on Derekpenwell.net.
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