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For those who I left hanging on atonement, here's another entry.
Here are the questions I am left with as one who calls herself a
Christian, but who also rejects the prevalent doctrine of “subsitutionary
atonement”. Substitutionary atonement is the belief that all human beings are
sinful and deserving of punishment by God, but that Jesus took our punishment on
himself, on the cross.
If I reject that belief (which, actually, is not the only approach that
Christianity has offered) then I have to answer two questions: First, why do I
think Jesus died? Second, how do I think Jesus “saved” me, or more significantly
Jesus died on a cross because the Roman Empire crucified thousands of people. Jesus died on a cross the same way we strap men and women to gurneys and inject lethal drugs into their veins all over our country in prisons. Jesus died on a cross because he challenged the Roman authorities. He was not the first rabble-rouser to be crucified in the Roman Empireand he was not the last.
The cross was an event created by humans. There is nothing salvific
about a state-sanctioned instrument of torture that controlled citizens through
terror. My children refer to the day Jesus was killed as Bad Friday.
Jesus was not shocked by the outcome of his radical preaching. In fact, he expected it. The good news is that God turned the torture of the cross into
the triumph of the empty tomb. The miracle of the cross has nothing to do with
blood and sin. The miracle is that God transforms suffering into a new beginning
and death into life.
How am I saved? I rest my salvation in the entire story of Jesus, beginning from his birth and ending with his resurrection. What called me to the feet of Jesus as a young woman was not the gory story of his death, but the stories of his ministry, including the beatitudes, the parables, and the miracles. I wanted to follow that man from Nazareth who I recognized as the most perfect example of God’s love.
If all Jesus had to do was die on a cross to redeem us, doesn’t that imply his birth and ministry and teachings are insignificant? I cannot believe that Jesus lived among us only to die and save us. Instead I believe that he lived among us to offer us a new vision for the world through his ministry and teaching. This new vision, of a world turned upside down, where the last shall be first, where love reigns, where power comes through powerlessness, is what has saved me from aimlessness. This new vision is what has drawn me into the heart of God, seeking God’s grace first, and then clumsily trying to share that grace with the world.
_ This is for Kristin.
I remember the first time I heard John 3: 16. I was 12. I was at Methodist Church camp and a counselor explained to me it was THE scripture: For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
I remember the emotional and intellectual reaction I immediately had, God didn’t need to do that, as my well meaning camp counselor explained that Jesus died on a cross so that I could go to heaven. I remember wondering why God would need to kill someone else on my behalf. I wanted desperately to have a deeper relationship with God, because I truly loved God. John 3:16 was supposed to make everything clear to me, it was supposed to throw me fully into God’s arms, it was supposed to mark me as one of God’s saved. Instead the detailed explanation my camp counselor offered of dripping blood, crushed bones, and collapsing lungs repelled me.
It has been a long and winding journey since that summer afternoon in a musty chapel at Finley Lake. I am proud of my 12-year-old self for knowing God didn’t need any blood to love me. And I am deeply indebted to the many theologians, biblical historians, and others who along the journey offered me an antidote for John 3:16.
Let me attempt to lay out the theology behind John 3:16*. Simply, it’s about atonement. And just what is that? According to some, it is the reconciliation of God and humans brought about by the life and death of Jesus. It implies that Jesus’ sole purpose was to save humanity. This is why Jesus is referred to by some as a savior.
Those who tag John 3:16 on bridges and overpasses have been specifically taught substitutionary atonement or sacrificial atonement. And how is that different from the above definition of atonement? It asserts that Jesus died on the cross as a substitute for sinful humanity. He was punished for our sins, in our place.
Are you ready for this? Because it’s sick! This dominant theological view implies that God was hungry for revenge, because humanity had failed God over and over again. God could only forgive humanity—make things right between us and God—through a punishment so severe it ended in a gory, blood soaked death on an instrument of torture, the cross. Does this turn your stomach like mine? This violent view asserts that God and humanity could never be in relationship with one another unless God got blood, plain and simple.
I flatly reject John 3:16. I vehemently oppose this concept of God. It is not true that God could only love me if beloved Jesus died a brutal death. I believe John 3:16 glorifies violence and casts God as a child abuser. I’ve marked John 3:16 out in my bible.
Instead, I have been made at-one-with-God because God’s endless grace has called out to me my entire life, like a mother calling their child inside for dinner at the end of the day. I have been made at-one-with-God because it was God who knit me together in my mother’s womb and this God has never left me. My God, the God Jesus calls out to as Abba (Aramaic for daddy) is as tender as my father was each evening as I crawled onto his lap as a child. My God does not hold a belt, waiting to whip me for my day’s transgressions. Nor does God hold a belt that he used to whip someone else for my transgressions. No, God loves me regardless and I am free to wrap myself in God’s divine embrace always.
So why the cross? Why was Jesus crucified? That’s for another blog. Stay tuned. And yes, you have permission to cross John 3:16 out of your Bible. You belong in the Christian community even if you think that God abhors violence instead of requiring it. Maybe you belong in the Christian community because you think that God abhors violence instead of requiring it. All that blood on the cross was sickening and had nothing to do with you. I promise you, you belong.
*I am not and do not want to be a professional theologian. If you need more information about theories of atonement or the historical emergence of atonement theology in the western church—contact me! I would be more than happy to point you in the right direction.
Rev. Abigail A Henrich (ehm!) is an ordained minister who earned her stripes at Princeton Theological Seminary and Colgate University. That said, Abby is really a mother-pastor-spouse who lives in a kinetic state of chaos as she moves from her many vocations: folding laundry, preaching, returning phone calls, sorting lunch boxes, answering e-mails, and occasionally thinking deep thoughts in the shower. Unabashedly she is a progressive Christian who believes some shaking up has got to happen in the church.