From the 4th– 12thgrades I went to a Christian school. And then after that I went to college for 4 years at a fairly conservative Bible college. And then I went to seminary for 3 years to get my Masters. And then I went to pastor an old (very theologically conservative) Dutch Reformed Church and took some more seminary classes at another seminary. Then my wife and I planted a church in our garage at which time I threw myself full force into all things church planting, leadership, church growth, etc.
I made connections.
I asked questions.
I tried new things.
I preached sermons.
I shared vision.
And after that didn’t go quite as planned, I started up a blog called Morning Encouragement where I posted 500 blog posts for 500 days in a row, took a week off, and then posted for another 200-ish days in a row. Right around post number 600 I went back to school for 3 years at the same seminary I got my Master’s degree to get my Doctorate degree (well, I don’t have it yet. I’m actually scheduled to defend my dissertation next week, so … ). In between all of that I went to Sunday school as a kid, did a few church internships in college, and read an absurd amount of books (both for school AND on my own, because I’m nerdy like that).
Why am I telling you all of this?
Because as someone who had the Bible and theology ingrained in his head since the 4th grade, I rode into my 20’s on my high horse of evangelicalism and could have easily been the poster child for all things evangelical Christianity.
That phrase (evangelical Christianity) has a ton of baggage and a ton of meanings and so let me explain what I mean by being the poster child for evangelical Christianity so that everybody is on the same page of exactly how offensive I’m trying to be.
(More on me trying to be offensive in a moment.)
Traditionally, evangelicals are followers of Jesus who are all about “evangelizing” the lost. In other words, they’re all about telling as many people as possible about Jesus – who He was, what He was like, how He lived, etc. And, if I’m being really honest, I think I might still somehow and in some way fit into that piece of evangelicalism today … to some minor extent, anyways.
I say that because …
I love Jesus.
I like to talk about Jesus.
I find Jesus compelling and fascinating.
I think He shows us the face of God.
And I think the way He lived is the best way to live.
Here’s where I differ, though. Most evangelicals (at least in my and many people I know experience) go way beyond talking about Jesus and believe that their mission is to share Jesus with people so that they will believe in Him, surrender to Him, invite Him into their lives, and say a special prayer that will get their name written into the Book of Life so that someday when they die they will go to heaven and spend eternity in God’s presence as opposed to hell where God is absent, people are tortured, and eternity is pretty hot.
Some believe hell is literal fire.
Others believe hell refers to a place where people go, are allowed to do whatever they want, and end up creating their own hell.
Still, others believe it’s a place where God is absent, a place of no hope.
We’ll tackle some of the topic of hell in a couple of weeks, but for now whatever the case may be and however you describe it – it’s a horrible place.
As I said in week 1 of this series, that’s the kind of Christianity I found myself latched onto when I left high school and rode through college. I believed 1000% in the particular evangelical narrative that says …
Adam and Eve sinned.
Humanity inherited their sin nature.
Sin has to pay.
God sent His Son, Jesus, to take my punishment and die in my place.
So that if I believe in Him.
And surrender to Him.
And believe that He died on the cross for my sins.
Then God won’t pour out His wrath on me.
And I will get to go to heaven when I die instead of hell.
And I believed that it’s my job to get as many people as possible to believe that, no matter what the cost.
I could have pointed to 2,000 Bible verses to prove the point (I still can), I had all but memorized my systemic theology books (which I still have), and I believed beyond a shadow of a doubt that THIS was the Good News. God had, in essence, sentenced His Son to a painful death on the cross so that His anger against sin could be satisfied and I could be assured of eternal bliss if I would just “accept Jesus into my heart” and “surrender my life to Him”.
A few weeks ago I wrote about how the last 10 years or so have been a slow season of deconstruction for me where I’ve been taking apart pretty much all of those beliefs piece by piece.
Did God really kill Jesus?
Is God really that angry?
Is God even angry at all?!
Does God require a blood sacrifice in order to be appeased?
And if He does, is He loving? Or a monster?
Do people who don’t “believe in Jesus” and “surrender to Him” go to hell?
Is hell even real?
At least in the sense of fire and torture and gnashing of teeth?
Is getting to heaven all there is?
Like, is that the Good News?
And if it is, is it really that good at all? Because it sounds pretty terrible to me.
Slowly but surely I’ve been asking those questions for the last 10 years or so, have been quietly exploring possible answers, and have recently began to more vocally reconstruct the things I’ve deconstructed so that those pieces can be rebuilt into something drastically different, more beautiful, and (I think, at least) much closer to the heart of Jesus, and much more beneficial to the world around me.
And so today I wanted to talk to you about the cross. We’re about halfway through the season of Lent as we inch our way towards Good Friday, the day when the church looks back and remembers the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross.
If the cross isn’t about Jesus dying to satisfy God’s anger against my sin so that by believing in Him and His sacrifice I can go to heaven when I die instead of hell.
Then what was the purpose of the cross and why do I wear one around my neck?
Let me start by saying I realize this post is going to be offensive to a lot of my church friends, in particular my church friends from the first 30 years of my life. So if that’s you and you’re still reading, thank you. And I realize that a lot of my close friends hold closely to a lot of the ideas I mentioned above – friends, pastors, professors, family.
I get it.
But know that what I’m NOT trying to do here is tell you that you’re wrong or that you’re not believing the right way. I’m not trying to prove you wrong, nor am I hoping that you come to the end of this and see things my way. I’m not on some expedition to change the way people see this stuff.
I love you.
I’m simply sharing a different perspective. And, yes, I’ll be honest – if you’re from my old tribe of western evangelical Christians, I’m trying to offend you. I kind of want you to be offended, really.
Because being offended (I’ve learned) is how we grow and learn to think differently and think deeper about what we believe and why we believe it. That’s why Jesus, I think, not only came to comfort the afflicted, but maybe more so to afflict the comfortable.
And so in the spirit of the What If Project, I’m wondering if there are other ways of understanding the cross of Jesus and I’m wondering if the typical Western Evangelical explanation that I quickly ran through above is the only understanding or even the best understanding.
Like, what if there’s a different way to understand this very important event in human history? I think there is and so I want to take the rest of the time to share with you where I’m at on my journey in seeing the cross and Jesus’ death.
As we already said, the traditional thought says that God killed Jesus (or sent Him to die – same difference) because God was mad at human sin. Sin needs to be punished (violently, even) and so rather than inflict His wrath on the entire human race, God provided His Son Jesus as a solution. Jesus would take my punishment and your punishment and everyone else’s punishment so that if we would just believe in that good work and surrender ourselves to His Lordship, we’d get to go to heaven when we die instead of hell.
“Go and make disciples of all nations”, Jesus said in Matthew’s Great Commission, “and baptize them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” Why? Because (to quote Jesus in John’s Gospel), “God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son so that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.”
There it is – black and white . One verse from Matthew, and another from John. This is why Jesus died and this is our mission.
Get them to believe.
So that they don’t perish, go to hell.
BUT. Here’s what I’m wondering:
What if that’s not why Jesus died?
What if that’s not the mission?
And what if that’s just one way to understand and think about Jesus’ words?
Me? I don’t think that God killed Jesus because God was angry at human sin and needed a release valve for that anger. And I don’t think that believing in Him or surrendering to Him gets me a free ticket to heaven and an escape from hell when I die.
I think that humanity killed God because humanity was angry at the life of love and grace and forgiveness and inclusiveness that God came to bring when He put on Jesus’ human skin. Jesus’ way of life was a way of life that ran directly up against the top-down power structures that were built by both the church and the Empire and so the only option those in power had was to make Jesus go away. And so humanity acted on its worst possible evil and committed the worst possible sin by killing God. God, however, didn’t seek revenge. He didn’t seek to provide Himself freedom by killing His enemies or fighting back or shouting threats from the cross. He didn’t become angry, wrathful, or full of hate.
Instead, He shouted forgiveness.
All the while He hung from the cross with blood dripping from His body and all the while His accusers accused Him, laughed at Him, and spit on Him … He practiced what He had preached for the 3 previous years of His ministry – love, grace, and forgiveness for His enemies.
He died, of course, but 3 days later in a shocking turn of events He rose from the dead and began a process where heaven came to earth. Indeed, He showed that in the end it’s not hate and violence that wins, but love. Yes, love wins.
So, YES – Jesus did make a very important sacrifice on Good Friday. To quote Brian Zahnd in his book, Sinners In The Hands Of A Loving God,
“Jesus sacrificed His life to show us the love of the Father. Jesus sacrificed His life to shame the ways and means of death. Jesus sacrificed His life to remain true to everything He taught in the Sermon on the Mount about love for our enemies. Jesus sacrificed His life to confirm a new covenant of love and mercy. Jesus sacrificed His life to death in order to be swallowed by death and destroy death from the inside. The crucifixion of Jesus was a sacrifice in many ways. But it was NOT a ritual sacrifice to appease a wrathful deity or to provide payment for a penultimate god subordinate to justice.”
… YES, Jesus made a very important sacrifice on the cross.
And YES – the call is to believe in and surrender to Jesus. But not so that I can get to heaven when I die, but so that I can live a life that mirrors His life of love and mercy and grace and forgiveness right here and right now and thus bring heaven to earth TODAY – a process that I get to join in right here and right now, a process that He will finish and complete one day when He returns and makes all things new.
God didn’t kill Jesus, because God’s not a monster. But humanity did kill Jesus because humanity didn’t have room for the life of love and inclusion and forgiveness that He came to bring. In the face of the greatest injustice, though, God shouted forgiveness with His dying breath to those who NEVER ASKED FOR IT and rose from the dead 3 days later to show us once and for all that violence doesn’t win, love does.
And now, today, you and I are invited to join Him in doing likewise.
Much love to you, friend.