atonement

Christianity Divided by the Cross

Christianity Divided by the Cross

A guest post by theologian and scholar Marcus Borg – a fitting addition to our series on Atonement. (This piece originally appeared on patheos.com)

American Christians are deeply divided by the cross of Jesus – namely, by how they see the meanings of his death. At the risk of labels and broad generalizations, “conservative” Christians generally believe a “payment” understanding of the cross: Jesus died to pay for our sins so we can be forgiven.

Most “progressive” Christians (at least a majority) have great difficulty with the “payment” understanding. Many reject it. Some insist that rather than focusing on Jesus’s death, we should instead focus on his life and teachings. They are right about what they affirm, even as they also risk impoverishing the meaning of Jesus by de-emphasizing the cross.

It is the central Christian symbol. And ubiquitous. Perhaps even the most widely-worn piece of jewelry. Its centrality goes back to the beginnings of Christianity. In one of the earliest New Testament documents, Paul in the early 50s summarized “the gospel” he had taught to his community in Corinth as “Christ crucified” (I Cor. 1-2). In the New Testament gospels beginning with Mark around 70, the story of Jesus’s final week and its climax in crucifixion and resurrection dominates their narratives. All four devote more than a fourth of their gospels to Jesus’s final week. And all anticipate the end of Jesus’s life earlier in their narratives. It is as if they are saying: you can’t tell the story of Jesus unless you tell the story of the cross.

Thus for Christianity from its beginning, the cross has always mattered. The crucial question is: what does it mean? Why does it matter? What is its significance?

The most common meaning in much of Christianity today is the “payment” understanding: Jesus died to pay for our sins. Insisted upon by “conservative” Christians, it is foundational and fundamental to their theology. Its influence extends beyond. Many, perhaps most, of today’s mainline Protestant and Catholics grew up with it even if perhaps in a softer version. The language of most Christian liturgies is shaped by the payment understanding and thus reinforces it through ritual repetition.

But the payment understanding has serious problems, both historical and theological. The historical problem: the payment understanding was not central in the first thousand years of Christianity. In the New Testament, it is at most a minor metaphor. Some scholars argue that it is not there at all. I am inclined to agree.

But regardless of the verdict on that question, the first systematic articulation of the cross as “payment for sin” happened just over nine hundred years ago in 1098 in St. Anselm’s treatise Cur Deus Homo? Its Latin title means, “Why Did God Become Human?” Anselm’s purpose was to provide a rational argument for the necessity of the incarnation and death of Jesus.

He did so with a cultural model drawn from his time and place: the relationship of a medieval lord to his peasants. If a peasant disobeyed the lord, could the lord simply forgive if he wanted to? No. Because that might imply that disobedience didn’t matter that much. Instead, compensation must be made. Nothing less than the honor and order of the lord were at stake.

Anselm then applied that model to our relationship with God. We have been disobedient and deserve to be punished. And yet God loves us and wants to forgive us. But the price of sin must be paid. Jesus as a human being who was also divine and thus perfect and without sin did that.

To repeat: familiar as it is, the payment understanding is less than a thousand years old. On historical grounds, it is not ancient Christianity, not traditional Christianity, not orthodox Christianity, even though it has over the last several centuries become dominant in Western Christianity. It has become a lens through which a number of New Testament passages that seem to support it are seen. But without that lens, they can be understood quite differently.

The theological difficulties of the payment understanding are even more serious. It seriously distorts the story of Jesus and the meaning of the cross:

*Makes Jesus’s death part of God’s plan of salvation – indeed, God’s will. It had to happen so that we can be forgiven. Really?

*Emphasizes God’s wrath and that it must be satisfied. But is that what God is like?

*Makes Jesus’s death more important than his life, and thus obscures his message and what he was passionate about (for example, Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ focuses on the last 18 hours of his life).

*Makes believing in Jesus more important than following him

*Makes Easter irrelevant. Of course, Christians who believe that Jesus paid for our sins also emphasize Easter. But there is no intrinsic connection between his death and resurrection. What matters most is that he paid for our sins.

Given the theological implications of the payment understanding, it is not surprising that progressive as well as many moderate Christians have problems with it. They should be problems for all Christians.

The rejection of the payment understanding does not make Jesus’s death irrelevant for Christians. On the contrary, it has robust meanings in the gospels and the New Testament as a whole. In my next blog, I will describe those. The purpose of this blog is to invite conversation about the payment understanding and its effects upon Christianity.


Marcus Borg_FMarcus J. Borg is Canon Theologian at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Portland, Oregon.  Internationally known in both academic and church circles as a biblical and Jesus scholar, he was Hundere Chair of Religion and Culture in the Philosophy Department at Oregon State University until his retirement in 2007. He is the author of many books including Reading the Bible Again for the First Time

Crime and Punishment

We’ve been looking at atonement theories over the past few weeks: When Jesus Died – A Conversation on Atonement, Wonder-Working Pow’r, and A Soothing Aroma.

The big question is: how do we understand/interpret Jesus’ death? This might seem a merely academic debate that should stay behind church doors between some old, dusty theologians. But I’m interested in the issues because there are societal and cultural realities that are shaped and guided by certain theological views – and this impacts all of us, whether we are people of faith or not. Today we are drawing from two books that seek to show how certain atonement views have helped to shape the world we live in. First up, J. Denny Weaver’s The Nonviolent Atonement:

Atonement theology starts with violence, namely, the killing of Jesus. The commonplace assumption is that something good happened, namely, the salvation of sinners, when or because Jesus was killed. It follows that the doctrine of atonement then explains how and why Christians believe that the death of Jesus—the killing of Jesus—resulted in the salvation of sinful humankind.

In much of the world generally and in the United States in particular, the prevailing assumption behind the criminal justice system is that to “do justice” means to punish criminal perpetrators appropriately. “Appropriately” means that the more serious the offense, the greater the penalty (punishment) to be imposed, with death as the ultimate penalty for the most serious crimes.

There is a pervasive use of violence in the criminal justice system when it operates on this belief that justice is accomplished by inflicting punishment. Called retributive justice, this system assumes that doing justice consists of administering quid pro quo violence—an evil deed involving some level of violence on one side, balanced by an equivalent violence of punishment on the other. The level of violence in the punishment corresponds to the level of violence in the criminal act.

Satisfaction atonement assumes that the sin of humankind against God has earned the penalty of death but that Jesus satisfied the offended honor of God on their behalf or took the place of sinful humankind and bore their punishment or satisfied the required penalty on their behalf. Sin was atoned for because it was punished—punished vicariously through the death of Jesus which saved sinful humankind from the punishment of death that they deserved—or because the voluntary death of Jesus paid or satisfied a debt to God’s honor that sinful humans had no way of paying themselves. That is, sinful humankind can enjoy salvation because Jesus was killed in their place, satisfying the requirement of divine justice on their behalf. While the discussion of satisfaction atonement involves much more than this exceedingly brief account, this description is sufficient to portray how satisfaction atonement, which assumes that God’s justice requires compensatory violence or punishment for evil deeds committed, can seem self-evident in the context of contemporary understandings of retributive justice in North America as well as worldwide systems of criminal justice.

In other words, our theology (our view of God) shapes our sociology and public policy (our view of each other, and how to live together).

prison-01
Not convinced yet? Keep reading. The following is taken from Ted Grimsrud’s new book, Instead of Atonement: The Bible’s Salvation Story and Our Hope for Wholeness, published by Wipf & Stock in 2013. Grimsrud shows how certain theological views (especially God’s response to human sin) came to shape political realities, in particular, crime and punishment:

Justice became a matter of applying rules, establishing guilt, and fixing penalties—without reference to finding healing for the victim or the relationship between victim and offender. Canon law and the parallel theology that developed (in the early Middle Ages) began to identify sin as a collective wrong against a moral or metaphysical order. Crime was a sin, not just against a person, but against God, against God’s laws, and it was the church’s business to purge the world of this transgression. From this understanding of sin, it was a short step to assume that since the social order is willed by God, crime is also a sin against this social order. The church (and later the state) must therefore enforce order. Increasingly, focus centered on punishment by established authorities as a way of doing justice.

By the end of the sixteenth century, the cornerstones of state justice were in place in Europe, and they drew deeply from the underpinnings of retributive theology. New legal codes in France, Germany and England enlarged the public dimensions of certain offenses and gave to the state a larger role. Criminal codes began to specify wrongs and to emphasize punishment.

The primary instrument for applying pain came to be the prison. Part of the attraction of prison was terms that could be graded according to the offense. Prisons made it possible to calibrate punishments in units of time, providing an appearance of rationality in the application of pain.

Between the mid-1800s and the 1970s, the practice of criminal justice in the United States evolved away from strictly retributive justice. David Garland, in his important book, The Culture of Control, argues that the “penal-welfare” model gained ascendancy among criminal justice professionals, with a concern for rehabilitation of offenders and a diminishment of focus on strict punishment. This model, however, never received widespread support among the general population. Because politicians  for a long time found it disadvantageous to try to intervene in criminal justice issues due to conventional wisdom that criminal justice was a no-win issue to be identified with, the prison system was allowed to pursue its own agenda.

However, with a significant increase in the crime rate in the United States after World War II, politicians discovered that “law and order” rhetoric actually gained them popularity. (See the documentary: The House I Live In [streams free online or on Netflix] for more on how Nixon and Reagan especially used this rhetoric, culminating in the “War on Drugs”).

The logic of retribution that became embedded in our criminal justice practices by the nineteenth century, even though it was mitigated against somewhat during the penal-welfare era, has returned with a vengeance in the last quarter of the twentieth century and the early years of the twenty-first. As summarized by legal scholar William Shuntz, “No previous generation of Americans embraced the version of retributive justice that has held sway in the United States over the past thirty years… Only in the last decades of the 20th century did most American voters and the law enforcement officials they elect conclude that punishing criminals is an unambiguous moral good. The notion that criminal punishment is a moral or social imperative—the idea that a healthy criminal justice system should punish all the criminals it can—enjoyed little currency before the 1980s.” In the retributive model of justice, crime has come to be defined as against the state, justice has become a monopoly of the state, punishment has become normative, and victims have been disregarded.

Going back to the Middle Ages, penal theory helped reinforce the punitive theme in theology—e.g., a satisfaction theory of atonement that emphasized the idea of payment or suffering to make satisfaction for sins. Retributive theology, which emphasized legalism and punishment, deeply influenced Western culture through rituals, hymns, and symbols. An image “of judicial murder, the cross, bestrode Western culture from the 11th to the 18th century,” with huge impact on the Western psyche. It entered the “structures of affect” of Western Europe and “in doing so, . . . pumped retributivism into the legal bloodstream, reinforcing the retributive tendences of the law.” The result was an obsession with retributive themes in the Bible and a neglect of the restorative ones—a theology of a retributive God who wills violence.

The paradigm of retributive justice that dominates Western criminal justice is a recipe for alienation. By making the “satisfaction” of impersonal justice (or in theological terms: “God’s holiness”) the focus of society’s response to criminal activity, the personal human beings involved—victims, offenders, community members—rarely find wholeness.

Moreover, the larger community’s suffering only increases. Instead of healing the brokenness caused by the offense, we usually increase the spiral of brokenness. Offenders, often alienated people already, become more deeply alienated by the punitive practices and person-destroying experiences of prisons.

Garland portrays our “culture of control” in criminal justice as a new form of segregation. We focus on on rehabilitating and reintegrating offenders, but on identifying and isolating offenders. “The prison is used today as a kind of reservation, a quarantine zone in which purportedly dangerous individuals are segregated in the name of public safety.” That this “segregation” has a decided racial aspect in the United States is confirmed in Michelle Alexander’s powerful book, The New Jim Crow. (This one is a must read!!!)

Present dynamics emphasize the difference between offenders and law-abiding citizens. Garland writes, “being intrinsically evil or wicked, some offenders are not like us. They are dangerous others who threaten our safety and have no call on our fellow feeling. The appropriate reaction for society is one of social defense: we should defend ourselves against these dangerous enemies rather than concern ourselves with their welfare and prospects for rehabilitation.”

James Gilligan, former director of psychiatry for the Massachusetts prison system, draws on his experience working closely with violent offenders to critique retributive justice in our criminal justice system. “A society’s prisons serve as a key for understanding the larger society as a whole.” When we look through the “magnifying glass” of the United States prison system, we see a society focused on trying to control violence through violence, a society that willingly inflicts incredible suffering on an ever-increasing number of desperate people.

There is much more to be said, of course, and these are complicated matters with many causes and effects. A few questions in closing:

  • Are you surprised at the possible connection between atonement theologies and criminal justice practices? Do you think it’s a legitimate connection?
  • Can you think of other ways to view forgiveness and wholeness that breaks out of the crime/punishment narrative? Are there biblical texts that support your view?
  • What other questions are on your mind regarding atonement issues?
A Soothing Aroma – Atonement, part 3

A Soothing Aroma – Atonement, part 3

This is the third in a series of posts about atonement.
Previously: When Jesus Died and Wonder Working Pow’r.

Today I want to get into the background of sacrifice in ancient Israelite practice. Stephen Finlan, professor of NT at Seton Hall and Fordham (and whose work inspires much of this post) notes that “For many centuries, sacrificial practice and interpretation in Israel resembled that of Israel’s neighbors: Canaanites, Moabites, Babylonians and others.”

A sacrifice often involved the killing of an animal, most often a bull, a goat, or a lamb. Sometimes birds such as doves were offered. Sometimes grain offerings were offered. At base, sacrificial meat was considered “the food of the deity.” In Numbers 28:2, YHWH calls it, “My food, the food for my offerings by fire, my pleasing odor.” The phrase “pleasing odor” occurs 42 times in the Hebrew Bible. Finlan notes that figuratively it means a sacrifice that God accepts, but its literal and older meaning is smoke that is tasty to God. The verbal root of nuah (which occurs in the phrase ‘pleasing odor’ or reach nichoach) means rest, so it is a restful or “tranquilizing” aroma, pacifying God’s anger, as is evident in Genesis 8:21, where “Noah’s sacrifice assuaged God’s wrath.”

A soothing aroma
A soothing aroma

Finlan extrapolates:

This is what the term “propitiation” means: appeasing and making peace with someone who is angry. Sacrificial ritual preserves this idea of the offering being persuasive or even coercive, but other ideas are added to the understanding of sacrifice. The food-offering gets described with the more dignified label of gift, thus emphasizing respect and obeisance rather than manipulation. However, we must notice that the gift still consists of the culture’s best available food items, just what an anthropomorphic god (and one capable of being persuaded) would want.

What’s interesting is that there are varying threads of how sacrifice is perceived in the Torah (or Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible) by its various authors. One of the authors (or one group of authors) is labelled P by scholars. P, notes Finlan, is uneasy with the notion of God smelling the sacrifice, of ‘receiving pleasure from the sweet aroma.’ Perhaps too archaic a notion, or perhaps they’re trying to modernize the reasons for carrying out the sacrifices. So they bring in a new concept: sacrifice as a kind of technology for spiritual cleansing, not for persuading God. Impurity is taken quite literally, as a stain on the sacred installations and altars of the Temple needing to be removed. God will abandon the Temple if impurity is allowed to persist. Impurity stands – in this view – for disorder, for a kind of spiritual chaos. Ritual sacrifice then, is seen to restore order, and is protective, rather than propitiatory.

Another author of the Torah, H (standing for Holiness Code), reintroduces anthropomorphism, and repersonalizes the cultic transaction. For H, it is the attitude of God that matters most. The role of blood remains, but is lowered in importance. The notion of the pleasing aroma returns, but here it is added with a ransoming effect. 

Finlan summarizes:

So we have three distinct concepts: sacrifice as a food-bribe (indicated by the “sweet aroma” in J [standing for JHWH – originating from the German in which Y’s are J’s]); sacrificial blood as a spiritual detergent (P’s purification idea); and sacrifice as ritual payment (H). Blood has literal, payment value in J and H. It has supernatural power in P and H.

The ritual was the means by which forgiveness was attained. No ritual, no forgiveness. The social corollary is: no professional priesthood, no forgiveness.

And if you perform the ritual wrongly, or are unauthorized in performing the ritual (not part of the priesthood), there is a narrative of divine violence upholding the mythology of holiness, says Finlan. Note the stories of Uzzah, who reached out to steady the ark of the covenant and was struck dead, or if you offer the “wrong fire” (or strange fire) as Aaron’s sons did: also struck dead. Or if you are a non-Aaronid and you approach the incense altar: “fire came out from the Lord and consumed the two hundred fifty men offering the incense” (Num 16:35).

In light of this, it is no surprise that independent prophets like Isaiah and John the Baptist meet strong resistance from the professional priesthood. Why? Because a God who says, “come, let us reason together” (Isaiah 1:18) can grant forgiveness without the intervention of the ritual class, and this is a threat to their power, authority, and reason for existence.

So the argument around atonement as found in the Hebrew Scriptures often boils down to two views: a) propitiation, or persuasion, appeasement, a payoff or gift meant to soothe God’s anger; and b) expiation, a wiping-away, a cleansing. Most scholars would concede that both ideas are present, though they argue about which is primary and which is secondary. Most hold to the idea of appeasing God’s anger (propitiation) is the older, or more primitive view. But in light of the development of the priestly class, expiation or cleansing due to lack of holiness later took the primary focus.

There is much more to say along these lines, but in light of this cursory overview of sacrifice, what are your thoughts? Do any of these reflect the kind of God Jesus seems to represent? Is it possible to hold to an ancient Near Eastern view of God’s anger needing to be appeased through blood being spilled? Do you think Jesus thought of himself, God, or his own mission in light of any of these views? Or was Jesus more in tune with an independent prophet, outside the establishment, like Isaiah or John the Baptist? If so, does it make sense to define his life and death in terms of establishment ideas? Or would it be even more radical if Jesus was echoing the idea that the God is so loving and forgiving, that he can be approached directly, apart from the priestly class, without sacrificial or ritual intervention, that indeed, God “desires mercy, not sacrifice”?

Wonder-Working Pow’r

Wonder-Working Pow’r

Part two in a series on Atonement. Read part one here: When Jesus Died.

This week: a primer on penal substitutionary atonement.

nothing1

I’ve recently been reading a book, Problems with Atonement. Some might say, “Problems? What problems? Is there a problem?” Or even: “There isn’t a problem.”

The traditional view is that humanity has a problem: sin, and God solves it: Jesus dies on the cross. It’s a concept many  of us learned in Sunday school, and perhaps haven’t thought much about since.  In other words, because we grew up with it – it is harder for us to see why there might be any sort of problem(s).

So let’s sketch out the usual, or at least traditionally evangelical, view:

1) Humanity is sinful (this is a state we  are born into,vis-à-vis Adam and Eve). It is not simply that we sin, but that our essence is sinful.

2) This sinfulness cuts us off from God.

3) God made provisional ways for people to  approach him in the ancient world of the Hebrews through the sacrificial  system, particularly  the ‘day  of atonement’.

4) But this didn’t change  the heart issue: only whether people could at some level approach God through mediators (the priestly system and  sacrifices).

5) Jesus arrives and God’s final plan for redemption is revealed: Jesus’  death is seen as the final and ultimate sacrifice, bridging  the gap between humanity  and God for all  time. Earlier  attempts are now seen as foreshadowings or  ‘types’ that were all along pointing to Jesus.  This includes both sacrificial language and language of  temple, priesthood, and even Passover.

The idea is simply  this: humanity is so sinful, and God so holy, that rectification or cleansing must occur for us to approach God.

A closely related point is that God requires sacrifice to appease his anger over sin.

All of these points seem to be in  play in the Old Testament cultic (read: *priestly*) system, and get transferred over to Jesus in the New Testament.  (I prefer to use Hebrew Scriptures and Gospels and Paul instead of ‘Old’ and ‘New’, but will occasionally use OT and NT to help us see how those terms even came to be used – and why ultimately it may be better to avoid them).

This is a comforting view for many: God love us so much that he sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.  In other words, because God knew we could never cross the gap, he crossed it for us. (No pun intended).

Bloody Good Music

There are plenty  of songs  that celebrate this view:

There is Power in the Blood
Would you be free from the burden of sin?
There’s pow’r in the blood, pow’r in the blood;
Would you o’er evil a victory win?
There’s wonderful pow’r in the blood.

Refrain:

There is pow’r, pow’r, wonder-working pow’r
In the blood of the Lamb;
There is pow’r, pow’r, wonder-working pow’r
In the precious blood of the Lamb.

and

Nothing But the Blood

What can wash away my sin?
Nothing but the blood of Jesus;
What can make me whole again?
Nothing but the blood of Jesus.

Refrain

Oh! precious is the flow
That makes me white as snow;
No other fount I know,
Nothing but the blood of Jesus.


And there are plenty of others (feel free to remind us of some others in the comments).

This view we have been describing here has a technical name: penal substitutionary atonementPenal in that there was a penalty to be paid for justice to be done. Substitutionary in that Christ took the place of humanity by paying the penalty. And the word atonement itself means that this has happened: someone ‘atoned for’ or ‘covered over’ our sins.

This is what a person will generally mean when he says, “Jesus died for me.”

A similar definition is given in the book Pierced for Our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitutionary Atonement:

The Doctrine of penal substitution teaches that God gave himself in the person of his Son to suffer instead of us the death, punishment and curse due to fallen humanity as the penalty for sin . . . the Lord Jesus Christ died for us — a shameful death, bearing our curse, enduring our pain, suffering the wrath of his own Father in our place.

I  wanted to give this view a basic representation before beginning to get to some of the potential problems inherent in such a framework as mentioned at the outset.

A few  more questions to leave you with:

  • Does this view resonate with you? Why? Why not?
  • What texts  support this view? Are there others that undermine it? What view(s) did the earliest Christians hold?
  • Do you think Jesus had this view of his own role in God’s larger plan? Did Jesus more or less come to earth just to die?
  • Is it moral to punish one person so that others escape such punishment?
  • Is God ‘purchasing’ salvation in this framework? If so, from whom?
  • If God had planned such a complete and total way to enact forgiveness, why wait so long?
  • Why does God need someone to be punished for sin? Why can’t he just forgive straight out?
  • If God created humanity capable of committing sin, then placed them in a situation in which such sin was likely, is it moral or just to expection perfection, and then hold out eternal conscious torment as the appropriate sentence?


Next time we’ll get into some of the background of the Hebrew sacrificial system, how it is presented (and develops) in the text, how it compares to contemporary Ancient Near Eastern cultic approaches, and how this language is re-appropriated by some of the New Testament authors.

Read Part 3 here: A Soothing Aroma.

When Jesus Died: A Conversation on Atonement

cross-lyrics

Familiar words. A classic song.  Lovely. Life giving. Theologically rich. But not to everyone. Much virtual ink has been spilled about the recent hub-bub over this hymn. The Presbyterian Church U.S.A. decided not to include the familiar hymn because of these lines and the view of atonement it projects.

It prompts us to ask: what really happened when Jesus died?

I’d been thinking about this topic recently, and then a colleague posted a link on FB to a piece by Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville as an example of how the church can recover a more traditional theology despite internal efforts for a broader view. The title of Mohler’s piece? The Wrath of God Was Satisfied: Substitutionary Atonement and the Conservative Resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention. He gets into some interesting history in the Southern Baptist Convention over this issue, and how two seminaries decided to move toward a traditional view of substitutionary atonement when several professors started to teach that there are actually multiple views even in the Bible about the nature of Jesus’ death, and that perhaps substitutionary atonement is not the main one.

So I’ve decided to cultivate a conversation – via a series of posts – on atonement. I’d love your thoughts, comments and reflects on the topic – as well as any links or references to talks, articles, and posts that have helped your understanding of the issue.

I’ll begin with a few questions:

  • What did happen when Jesus died?
  • Does true forgiveness require someone to suffer?
  • Does God require a blood sacrifice to be appeased?
  • Was there a metaphysical transaction by which his blood really or metaphorically covered over the sins of people?
  • Was there something else, like a display of the extent of God’s love over a broken creation?
  • Was there not even that, but simply a man dying for provoking the powers that be?

These are questions with which we must wrestle, and such discussions should be happening in the church, not simply in academic circles, and yes, at the pub (for some of us the line between pub and church is a thin one).

So let’s get it started! Post your atonement questions and thoughts below! More posts to follow.

Pub Theology Recap March 24

Nothing beats a good porter

A low-key evening at the pub, and some very enjoyable conversation.  The Black and Blue Porter was a nice addition on the whiteboard – a roasty porter with some blueberry mixed in (better than it sounds).  Speaking of sounds, did I mention Gish was mixed in the soundtrack last night?  “And she knows and she knows and she knows…”  Excellent.

Topics for the evening:

Does love win?

forgiveness

heroic gestures

free gifts

the future

Topics in detail:

1.    Does love win?

2.    Is God’s forgiveness unconditional?  Is it for everyone?

3.    “The ultimate heroic gesture that awaits Christianity is this:  in order to save its treasure, it has to sacrifice itself – like Christ, who had to die so that Christianity could emerge.”  What might this look like?

4.    Is there such a thing as a ‘free’ gift?

5.    “Does the future of evangelicalism lie with progressives who can adapt and change or with conservatives who remain faithful to the old paths?”

6.    “What is the biggest problem in the church: people can’t stand us or we can’t stand the gospel?”

7.    “Conversation works in the foyer, but behind the pulpit clarity is king.”

So discussion began with number one.  Does love win? What does that mean?  Well, after reading the book my understanding was this:  if the vast majority of people who have ever lived – billions and billions of human beings, created in God’s image – end up suffering eternal conscious torment and horrible suffering in hell, then love does not win.  In other words, God cannot be rightly called good, loving, and all-powerful if this is how things ultimately turn out.  He admits that if this is how things go, we can say God is all-powerful, but don’t call him good and loving, or call him good and loving, but clearly not all-powerful.  Something like that.  He does a much better job, so read the book if you want the straight scoop.  Yet it appears that there are many many people who are not Christians, who don’t appear to ‘choose Christ’ or worship the God of the Bible.  Will they all be in hell?  And what is hell?  Is it separation from God?  Is it being in God’s presence but not being able to stand it or enjoy it?  Is it death and annihilation?  Will there be a chance for people to choose God after they die?  Is there a statute of limitations on repentance that’s limited to this life?  Here’s an excerpt from the book:

From Love Wins, by Rob Bell:

“Millions have been taught that if they don’t believe, if they don’t accept in the right way, and they were hit by a car and died later that same day, God would have no choice but to punish them forever in conscious torment in hell.  God would, in essence, become a fundamentally different being to them in that moment of death, a different being to them forever.  A loving heavenly father who will go to extraordinary lengths to have a relationship with them would, in the blink of an eye, become a cruel, mean, vicious tormenter who would ensure that they had no escape from an endless future of agony.

If there was an earthly father who was like that, we would call the authorities.

If there was an actual human dad who was that volatile, we would contact child protection services immediately.”

Wait – did he get this off my blog post – An Angry God? 🙂  (which I wrote a week before Love Wins came out).

What do you think?  Is this a picture of God you adhere to?  Is it accurate?

a powerful symbol

On to topic no.2 – Is God’s forgiveness unconditional?  Is it for everyone?

The first response:
“No, it is not unconditional.  I grew up in the church hearing that if God forgives you, you’ve got to start living differently, otherwise it obviously didn’t make any difference, and in that case – you’re not really forgiven.  There are conditions.”

Next response:
“What about God removing our sins as far as the east is from the west?  And what about Jesus saying that we need to forgive people seventy times seven?  Doesn’t that imply that forgiveness is unlimited, and therefore unconditional?”

Other examples came up:  the lost sheep, the lost coin, the prodigal son (all Luke 15, btw) – which all seem to note that forgiveness happens before repentance.  That forgiveness happens regardless of our response or of our deserving it.  So in that case, forgiveness appears to be unconditional.

So does God forgive everyone? If we are called to ‘love our enemies’ and forgive ‘seventy times seven’, and if while we were enemies, Christ died for us – doesn’t that imply that forgiveness is not based on response?  Or at the least it seems unconditional.  But does this apply to *all* of God’s enemies?  Which would include everyone, right?  It seems that there is a case to be made for this.  That God forgives everyone, but not everyone chooses to accept that forgiveness, or live in the reality of that forgiveness.  (There’s a nice chapter on this issue in Love Wins, by the way).  Also, if we are called to forgive seventy-times seven (i.e. infinitely) and to love our enemies – doesn’t that also apply to God?  Or does that not apply once you die?  And someone asked, “How are we going to love our enemies when we’re in heaven and they’re in hell?  That puts us in an awfully difficult spot.  Or aren’t we supposed to love them anymore – which would make us held to a higher standard here on earth than in heaven, which is supposedly perfect.”

Other tangents that came out of this:  was Jesus’ death necessary for God to forgive us?  If so, then it wasn’t unconditional.  It was dependent on a certain condition happening, i.e. someone dying in our place.  *Or* was it the case that God unconditionally forgives – that is his nature – and the cross was the outworking of that reality – the expression of the love and forgiveness that God already extends (because clearly we see God forgiving in the OT, or was that just ‘provisional forgiveness’ but not the real thing?  Or somehow backwards dependent on a future event?)

Another tangent:  if Jesus ‘became sin for us’ and took on ‘the sin of the world’ – why would anyone be punished anymore?  The theological way around this is that actually Jesus didn’t die for everyone, which again, isn’t really that good of news.  Not to mention that it seems to deny the cross the fullness which it is due.  But we have to explain why not everyone gets in, and also that God is all-powerful, so then we say that actually Jesus only died for those who actually respond to him.  But then the offer of salvation to all people isn’t actually a genuine offer, and the whole thing unravels (or is given a fancy theological name).

Or could it be the case, that Jesus *did* die for everyone, and God *does* forgive everyone, but not everyone chooses to live in the reality of that forgiveness (see the older brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son).  He’s standing right there at the celebration (heaven), but doesn’t join in the party (hell), despite the reality that the father says, ‘all that I have is yours’.  (again, great chapter on this in Love Wins).

a free gift?

We skipped no.3, and went on to no.4 – is there such a thing as a free gift?

First response:  ‘I was trying to buy something the other day, but there was a minimal debit card purchase amount, and I didn’t have any cash.  The clerk decided to buy it for me.  I was amazed.  A free gift!’

Second response: ‘Was it actually free?  He still had to pay for it.’

Here’s where the question came from:

Excerpt from The Puppet and the Dwarf, by Slavoj Zizek:

“Is there such a thing as a ‘free’ gift?

Or does such an offer aim at putting you in a position of
permanent debt?  When the message is: “I don’t want
anything from you!,” we can be sure that this statement
conceals a qualification:
“…except your very soul.”

On a more anecdotal level, is it
not clear that when, in a lovers’ quarrel, the woman
answers the man’s desperate “But what do you want
from me?” with “Nothing!,” this means its exact
opposite?”

What do you think?

And a bonus post from the backside, from a blogger who has issues with some of the theology in Love Wins, as it seems many do, most especially over theories of atonement (relates to above discussion):

Posted on a blog:

“Any Christian worth listening to loves the cross and is
loath to see it robbed of its glory. To ridicule what the
cross accomplished is to make war with the heart of the
gospel and the comfort of God’s people.

J. Gresham Machen understood this well:
They [liberal preachers] speak with disgust of those who believe ‘that
the blood of our Lord, shed in a substitutionary death, placates an
alienated Deity and makes possible welcome for the returning sinner.’
It never seems to occur to modern liberals that in deriding the
Christian doctrine of the cross, they are trampling upon human hearts.

No doubt, some Christians get worked up over the
smallest controversies, making a forest fire out of a
Yankee Candle. But there is an opposite danger–and that
is to be so calm, so middle-of-the-road, so above-the-fray
that you no longer feel the danger of false doctrine. You
always sound analytical, never alarmed. Always crying for
much-neglected conversation, never crying over a much-
maligned cross. There is something worse than hurting
feelings, and that is trampling upon human hearts.”

We didn’t actually get very far discussing this post, but it isn’t exactly clear what is meant by ‘trampling upon human hearts.’  It seems it’s just a fancy way to sound theologically adept and serious, while making people afraid.  It attempts to create fear when alternative ways of reading the story are presented, more than actually living in the delight of the story, which at its heart is a bit of mystery, after all.

Do you have a thought on any of the above? Post your comments below!


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