Monday, August 29, 2005

Why Did Jesus Have to Die?

One of the major objections to universalism is that it doesn't acknowledge the atonement Jesus (Yeshua) provided by dying for us. Some accuse us of not being real Christians because we don't take Yeshua seriously or we deny the importance of His sacrifice for us. Some even condemn us to hell for not believing the “gospel”. Our critics ask:
Why do we need Jesus at all, if all are going to be saved?
Why did G-d kill Jesus if not to “atone” for man's sins?

Actually, the second question is not directly related to universalism, even though it is the question I am addressing in this post. There are universalists who believe that G-d killed Jesus to pay for man's sins. They believe though that His sacrifice was for all mankind, not just those who believe or those who believe before they die. So, please don't read this post and assume it is what all universalists believe. This is what I believe and it falls in line with my views as a universalist.

These are most difficult questions, difficult even for “traditional” Christians. How do we reconcile the fact that a father, in fact The Father, cruelly tortured His Son for any reason? Jesus not only suffered the pain, humiliation and absolute terror of death by crucifixion. Some teach He suffered in Hell also, for our sins. Jews find this idea of human sacrifice too horrible to even think about. It's a major stumbling block for many devout Jews to believe that G-d had anything to do with this. The lesson Jews take away from Abraham's trip up the mountain with Isaac is that G-d does not want human blood. (Genesis Chapter 22) They believe this is why this story was in included in Torah. In case you don't know the story. G-d told Abraham to take his beloved son Isaac, the one the promise of the nations Abraham would father would come through, up a mountain and kill him on an altar. When Abraham got to the top, just as he was about to kill Isaac, G-d provided a ram caught in the bushes instead. How can that same G-d call for the blood of an innocent to satiate His desire for the blood of the guilty? When we tell this to devout Jews, many of them recall the story of Abraham and Isaac and walk away disgusted at this “pagan” thought of human sacrifice appeasing their beloved Jehovah.

I want to acknowledge Rev. V. E. Jacobsen (retired Luther Minister), George MacDonald and others for helping me organize my evolving thoughts on this. For the most part, these are not revelations that were given directly to me. Though some were given directly to me. I have been reading on this subject, voraciously and I I have read many things that I know are “inspired”. I cannot say enough good things about George MacDonald's Unspoken Sermons. I highly suggest reading "Justice" by George MacDonald (it's available free on-line). If it resonates with you as it did with me, get the book with all of the sermons in it. You won't regret it.

The "Traditional" View

Let's begin by examining the teaching believed by the majority of modern Christians. The starting point is not only that we all have sinned. Even worse, we were “born in sin”. Because Adam sinned in the Garden, we are born in a state that is offensive to G-d. Our sinful state is so repulsive to Him that His justice demands we be sent to a place prepared for the devil and his angels and there be tormented eternally. Since we followed the devil into sin (through Adam), we deserve to go where he's going.

(Matthew 25:41 KJV Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels)

Some teach that since G-d is infinitely good, any sin against Him, no matter how small is worthy of infinite punishment. Nothing short of unending, unbearable punishment can satisfy this deity's wrath. How this makes sense, I can't understand. How does our suffering make G-d feel better? Since the debt can never be fully be paid, why bother demanding any payment? But, let's follow along, for the sake of argument.

They tell us G-d doesn't really want to send us to Hell. But, he's schizophrenic (my words, not theirs). God's "justice" demands infinite payment. As a Father, He wants to forgive us. But, since He also has to be the judge, He cannot. His Mercy and His Love don't want to carry out the sentence. G-d is torn. G-d is bound by His own system to do something He would prefer not to do. So, G-d comes up with a plan to get around His own "justice" system. He chooses a substitute to do the sentence for us. A guilty person won't do. The substitute has to be completely innocent so that the punishment will be “big enough” to cover all of our sins. Back when I believed this and I wondered how Jesus could have possibly paid for an infinite amount of torture that we deserved, I read a scientist's explanation of how Jesus, while in the grave for only three days, because He was deity and could step outside of time could have endured an infinite amount of suffering during that “time”. So, Jesus could actually taste as much suffering in three days as every mortal ever born could taste in an eternity. Fascinating stuff and it satisfied me for a while. All except the twisted sense of Justice.

Because Jesus was infinitely good, the taking of His life would more than make up for all of our sins and balance out the scales. So, for those who are willing to accept that Jesus paid the price. G-d will let them off the hook. So, G-d has provided a way out through His Son. But, there's a catch. For those who cannot or will not accept this, G-d holds them accountable for their own sins. Unfortunately, for us (humankind), most people won't accept the story or won't even hear of the story and will “die in their sins”. G-d's wrath remains on them and they suffer anyway. Turns out Jesus died for only a few even though His sacrifice should have been enough for the many. His infinite atonement is only applied to a select few. These few are either selected by G-d's own will (predestination) or by choosing through their free will to be able to believe in and accept Jesus' atonement. Usually, they are taught this faith also requires them to believe in all of His miracles being literally true including the virgin birth, walking on water, turning water to wine and a host of other things.

At the risk of being redundant, the key thing in what has become the traditional Christian belief is they tell us man is alienated from G-d. Actually, if you think about it, what they really teach is the other way around. G-d is the one who cannot bear to look on man or be in the presence of sin. G-d is alienated by man. This never seemed quite right to me. G-d put man in the garden with the Tree of Knowledge. Surely, G-d knew that eventually man would eat from the tree. Yet, because man did what was inevitable, the vast majority of mankind is doomed to Eternal Conscious Torment? This is what they want us to believe.

So, G-d is pissed. I mean He's so mad, He can't stand it! I'm sorry if that language offends you. But, I can't think of a better way to put it. How else can you describe someone who is willing to eternally torment anyone? If you could torment your worst enemy, you might, for a season. But, after some period of time, wouldn't you let him go? But, G-d can't forgive His enemies (even though He tells us to). We are told some “good news” though. We're told, because G-d is Love, He redirects His wrath. Rather than taking out this sentence on us, He puts it on His Son. This was always problematic to me. First, this says G-d is a demanding perfectionist. Anything less than sheer perfection (in fact even being born “in sin”) deserves Eternal Conscious Torment. And this is “justice”? How would we perceive a country who's only penalty for any crime was capital punishment? Would we call that “just”? Trying to make myself in that image, I became a perfectionist. While I was taught that Jesus' blood “covered” me, I knew in my heart this was a sham, a fraud. I was told G-d would pretend I was righteous by looking on Jesus not on me. But, I knew this really meant He was still disgusted with the real me. As long as I held this view, I could never really believe that G-d loved me. He only loved me (the wolf) wrapped in Jesus' (the sheep) clothing. Really I felt that Jesus was the good guy, my protector and G-d was someone to be feared. My vision was of me standing behind Jesus while He took the wrath and contempt that G-d had for me. I could never be good enough for G-d was the message I got from this substitutionary atonement doctrine.

The Flip Side

OK. Enough criticism of the traditional view of why Jesus died. As they'd say in my daughter's Sunday School class, “Here's the flip.”. I think we've been looking at this upside down, backwards and inside out. When I flipped it around, it made perfect sense to me.

The New Testament doesn't talk about G-d being reconciled to man. Of course it teaches the reconciliation of man to G-d by the death of Jesus (Christ). That is clear. But, the problem was not a problem within G-d. It's not that G-d was schizophrenic or had a divided mind. The G-d who could not forgive without a pound of flesh was the god Baal (I Kings 15:32-32; 18:26-29; Psalms 106:28; Jeremiah 11:17; 19:5; 32:35. Zephaniah 1:4-5), the god Molech (Leviticus 18:21; 20:2-5; Jeremiah 32:35) and the gods of the Mayans and Aztecs. Frankly, I think the ancient Hebrews were influenced by the gods around them and attributed some of these traits to YHWH (the LORD). That's why they came up with the idea of blood sacrifice. The prophets said, on more than one occasion that G-d did not want Israel's blood sacrifice (see below). But, man knows that sin is wrong and wants there to be a way to make up for it. So, we create this idea that if we do something wrong, we can make up for it by “sacrificing”. If you really think about it though, this doesn't really make sense. Sure, in a few crimes, there is the possibility of restitution. But, the saying that two wrongs don't make a right is true. Punishment never reverses the course caused by sin. No amount of punishment can “pay” for sin. True Justice, the Justice of G-d “justifies” the ungodly (Romans 4:5). G-d takes the responsibility for the ungodly (Romans 5:6), as He should. 2 Corinthians 5:19 says “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself.”

Ponder these verses from the Tanakh (Old Testament if you will) concerning sacrifice:

For I spoke not unto your fathers, nor commanded them on the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt-offerings or sacrifices; but this thing I commanded them, saying, “Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and ye shall be my people; and walk ye in all the ways that I have commanded you, that it may be well unto you. (Jeremiah 7:22-23)

What I want is mercy, not sacrifice. (Hos. 6:6)
To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto Me?” sayeth the Lord. “I am full of the burnt offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts; and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs or of he-goats...bring no more vain oblations.... Your new moon and your appointed feasts my soul hateth;...and when ye spread forth your hands, I will hide mine eyes from you; yea, when ye make many prayers, I will not hear; your hands are full of blood. (Isa. 1:11-16)

I hate, I despise your feasts, and I will take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Yea, though you offer me burnt-offerings and your meal offerings, I will not accept them neither will I regard the peace-offerings of your fat beasts. Take thou away from me the noise of thy song; and let Me not hear the melody of thy psalteries. But let justice well up as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream. (Amos 5:21-4)

Who Killed Jesus?

OK, here's a major point that deserves a new paragraph. Brace yourself because this might be very new to you. G-d didn't kill Jesus. We did. We've been taught G-d sent Yeshua to die. That's true. We've been taught this was the will of the Father. That is also true. But, it's man that killed Yeshua. Our ridiculous judicial system, our religious rules, our pompousness, our hardheartedness, our anger, killed Him. We drove the nails into Him and hung Him up; not G-d. G-d allowed Himself (or His agent) to be murdered by us to show us how much He loves us. He allowed us to torture and kill Him without missing a beat of showing how much He loved us. He broke our hard stubborn hearts and showed us the Way to salvation. We have to die (to ourselves) and be resurrected to experience the Kingdom of Heaven. Yeshua's death was the ultimate act that showed man just how wrong we had been about G-d. Our projections of His anger and disgust with us were just that, projecting our own anger and disgust on Him. The G-d and Father of Yeshua is the ultimate friend of sinners. G-d is not the one who demands blood. G-d is the one who gives blood ”I have given you the blood upon the altar (Leviticus 17:11).

Was Jesus' Death Necessary?

Someone on a message board just told me that I don't believe in the necessity of the cross, therefore, I am not a true Christian. I have never said I do not believe in the necessity of Yeshua's sacrifice. What I have said is I do not believe that G-d killed the innocent and submitted His Son to torment to pay a penalty for the sake of the guilty. I think this is a grossly unfair characterization of G-d. I do honor Yeshua's sacrifice and I'm glad that He did what He did to show us the heart of the Father. I think it was absolutely necessary, but not in a transactional sense. It was not necessary so that G-d could forgive. It was necessary to show us that G-d had already forgiven! I think what we witnessed was the ultimate in sacrifice (on the part of G-d in Yeshua freely giving of Himself) to show us a few things:
  1. He was willing and able to accept us back home any time we were ready to return. G-d has never been far from us. It's that we perceive Him as far from us. The Kingdom of Heaven (really the Kingdom of G-d) is, and always has been at hand.
  2. Yeshua showed us the metaphorical path in a very literal way. We have to be willing to die, to take up our cross and follow Him to be born again. All of these metaphors, He acted out on the cross.
  3. Yeshua showed us how to give sacrificially in a big way. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friend (John 15:13)

Yes, Yeshua's death was necessary. But, His death was not necessary to appease a blood thirsty G-d who was a schizophrenic looking for a way to satisfy His justice while being able to give His mercy. G-d's mercy, justice and love are not different, competing attributes of Himself that He must balance out. They are all there, in the full. His justice is exercised by giving us corrective punishment (kolasis in the Greek), not retribution (timoria). G-d only punishes to correct, to drive sin out of us. Because of His mercy, love, grace, He exercises His justice to make us full Sons. On the cross when Yeshua uttered “Father forgive them for they know not what they do (Luke 23:34), His prayer was not to convince G-d to forgive us. His Father's forgiveness was freely forgiven even in the moment when we were driving the nails into Him and hanging Him up. But, many of our Christian traditions teach that G-d's forgiveness can only be given if there was this blood-letting. And, as even more of an insult to G-d can only be applied to us if we ”accept“ the sacrifice. G-d didn't require the blood of the sacrifice, He provided the blood and presented it to us, freeing us to surrender to His forgiveness. This is the exact opposite (flip) of what the church has been teaching.

What Does It All Mean?

You may say I'm splitting hairs here. I say that Yeshua had to come and die. I say I believe in the necessity of His sacrifice. So, why is it important that I believe He did not die to appease G-d? What has become conventional theology de-values G-d. It makes G-d a worse torturer and more vindictive than the worst human being that ever lived. Not only does this G-d not forgive, not only does this G-d extract the last amount of vengeance, not only does this G-d destroy- even worse, He keeps His enemies alive for an eternity for the sole purpose of making them suffer. Worshipping this type of god didn't allow me to worship Him with the love and abandonment that He wants from me. Allowing these heathen concepts about a blood-thirsty god that we have to placate, to taint our view of the Most High I believe is just plain wrong and damaging to the relationship of any but the most hardened of His followers. Anyone who would take glee in the Eternal Conscious Torment of any type of creature is not someone who has the Father's heart. This doctrine has the potential to harden hearts. Take a moment to read this quote from Tertullian, one of the early church fathers who believed in ECT. If it shocks you, think about that. If we attribute this idea of Eternal Conscious Torment to our Heavenly Father, shouldn't this be our attitude concerning anything He would do?
"How I shall admire, how I shall laugh, how exult,to see the torments of the wicked." "I shall then have a better chance of hearing the tragedians call louder in their own distress; of seeing the actors more lively in the dissolving flame; of beholding the charioteer glowing in his fiery chariot; of seeing their wrestlers tossing on fiery waves instead of in their gymnasium," etc. Referring to the "spectacles" he anticipates, he says: "Faith grants us to enjoy them even now, by lively anticipation; but what shall the reality be of those things which eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, nor hath it entered into the heart of man to conceive? They may well compensate, surely, the circus and both amphitheatres and all the spectacles the world can offer."

This idea of vicarious atonement, or G-d punishing the innocent for the sins of the guilty, is also a stumbling block to any thinking and caring non-believer. Many simply will not and cannot believe in this type of god or call him "good". It's time for us Christians to realize just how great the G-d that we serve is and to stop projecting these paganistic imaginings of vengeful, vindictive, petty gods onto the Father.


Jeanne said...

"I think it was absolutely necessary, but not in a transactional sense. It was not necessary so that G-d could forgive. It was necessary to show us that G-d had already forgiven!"

I love this quote from your post. Great summary of your thoughts. Great Blog... keep up the good work!

Chris Ledgerwood said...

I love your blog. You have been stating what I have been slowly coming to believe. I'm glad to see there are other heretics out there like myself.


peacemaker said...

"Man cannot comprehend the existence of error; he is to deeply immersed in it."

Indeed, the truth is:

"I desired Mercy, not sacrifice."

Leslie said...

Thank you for writing this blog. It is outstanding.

Do you think it possible that the REALLY Good News Jesus came to earth to share is that blood-thirsty religion is unnecessary and distasteful to G-d; that Jesus died on the cross to show how much G-d loved us without us having to jump through flaming hoops for him or men of religion and law?

I suspect it is men who love law and demand justice and fairness and not G-d. How often have we heard a toddler say, "That's not fair!" We want everything to be "fair", but G-d? Sounds a little immature to credit him with that characteristic when he is probabbly big enough to overcome that need and realize that unfairness and injustice is inherent in us being so different from each other, and the main reason we are able to have such an interesting life here, IF we are wiilling to embrace our differences and celebrate them, instead of molding everyone into the same sterile version of each other.

By developing a man-made system of spiritual justice (original sin, atonement, repentance, reconciliation) we have managed to muck up and complicate God's very simple and pure love for us.

Do you think it possible that the concept of original sin, is just that - a concept, that perhaps G-d loves us with the love of a father even before we are born and has looked upon us with love ever since, but because men of religion have twisted the image of G-d for their purposes of power and manipulation over the masses during the ages, that it was necessary to send Jesus to show us the true nature of God as one who loves us and cares for us?

How else could G-d show us how much he loves us, than to come down here and hang out with us, heal us, feed us, and tell us how important we are to Him?

Let's say I have six children and I tell them that I love them but after they reach the age of 18, the only children that I will allow to visit me are the ones that choose blue as their favorite color, who wear that color and tell everyone they know the virtures of wearing the color blue; that even though I want to love the rest of my children, the ones that choose pink and green and purple will not be allowed to come visit because they decided on the wrong color. In fact,I not only never want to see them again for choosing poorly, I will make sure they are punished eternally.

I know this is a lame analogy, but hasn't the church made it almost that inane? If you don't choose Jesus and bow down and worship him then, even though I created you, am part of you and love you as I love myself, I want nothing to do with you and am tossing you into eternal flames because I am a justice and fairness freak.

Not likely.

God is love. If we use that premise as a baseline for all interpretation of the Bible, we will all be reading a new book.

Brian said...

Hi Leslie,

I'm sorry it's taken so long to reply to your comment. I've been extremely busy. It seems we are kindred spirits. I read your story on your blog and I can relate to everything you said there and in your comment on my blog.


Roy said...

without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sins ,what does that mean