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    April 9th, 2012 @ 12:43 pm by Kevin

    Like many Evangelical Christians, I was raised under the idea that the central problem of humankind is sin. Our sinfulness doesn’t just separate us from God and alienate us from each other and creation, it offends God so much he can’t even stand to look at us. Hence the need for Jesus, whose death appeased God’s wrath and put Jesus in a position to lobby on our behalf. Even though God still can’t stand to look at us directly, if he looks at us through Jesus, everything will be okay. But if anyone rejects the solution Jesus offers, there’ll literally be hell to pay.

    The more I thought about this narrative over the years, the less sense it made. For one thing, it turns God into a Supreme Being with a SUPREME anger-management problem. Jesus said, “He who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:4-14). I don’t know about you, but it’s pretty tough for me to imagine Jesus punishing an innocent person for someone else’s sin (as the model of the atonement I outlined above suggests). Just imagine if he had taken this approach to the woman caught in adultery, for example (John 8). Instead of writing in the dust and then delivering one of his most famous lines, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her,” Jesus would have grabbed some random guy out of the crowd and stoned him instead.

    Some may object that this is not a fair analogy. It would be more accurate to say Jesus would have stood up and said, “Don’t stone her, stone me instead.” Fair enough. But he didn’t do that either. Once he steals the thunder from her accusers, he explicitly states that he does not condemn her, and then tells her to go and sin no more. If Jesus is the image of the Father, we don’t see any evidence here of the offended deity who is so outraged by sin that he can’t even look at sinners. Rather, he seems to be the only one who CAN look at the woman caught in adultery and see her for who she really is. Rather than condemn her, he takes her side against her accusers. In fact, it’s her accusers–not Jesus–who are so offended by her sin that they feel compelled to obliterate her from their sight. So if Jesus is standing between us and anyone, this passage illustrates he’s standing between us and our accusers, not us and God. With stories like this in the gospels, it’s difficult for me to imagine Jesus condemning and punishing anyone for their sin, let alone for all eternity.

    Now, this isn’t to minimize sin and its effects. After all, Jesus didn’t tell the woman to go and continue living in adultery. He wanted to set her free not only from her accusers but also from the lifestyle that originally put her in their cross hairs. So sin is definitely a problem. But it’s our problem, not God’s. Sin doesn’t cause God to turn away from us, it makes us turn away from God due to fear and shame. Go back to the narrative of the Fall in Genesis. Who was hiding and who was seeking?

    Once sin causes us to turn away from God, it also causes us to turn away from each other for much the same reasons–fear and shame. And then it compels us to use and abuse creation essentially to shield ourselves from the perceived threat posed by God and other people. All of this is captured in the Genesis narrative as well. Sin turns Adam against Eve, Cain against Abel. And after he kills Abel, what does Cain do? He goes off and builds a city, which is essentially a defensive maneuver now that he’s opened the Pandora’s Box by taking another man’s life. The way I read it, this story tells us that murder essentially became the foundation of human civilization from that point onwards.

    So there’s no question that sin is horribly destructive–ultimately self-destructive. But what is driving all of this destructive behavior? Whatever that thing is, that’s our real problem. And that’s exactly what I’m going to write about… in my next post.

leave a comment on this post (12 Comments)

  1. Hi Kevin,
    Your project looks interesting. I came over from Dr. Beck’s link. Sounds like you were raised under the same theology as I was. Of course questioning the “truth” as it was presented was simply “heresy,” so thinking outside the given parameters was absolutely off limits if you valued your soul, right? I had to grow up and hit middle age before I realized that the heart, mind, soul, and strength God gave me were actually mine to use. I’m so glad this conversation about hell is finally happening. George MacDonald’s Unspoken Sermons started me on a journey from which there is no turning back, the idea that God’s love and God’s justice are not opposites in intent and purpose (chapter Justice).

  2. I thoroughly agree with this. I don’t want to sin… period. Not because I don’t want to go to hell, but because its wrong! I don’t want to do bad things. It’s the Holy Spirit in me, not condemning me (we know who really does the condemning and accusing) but compelling me to follow my Master Jesus’s commandments to love God, and to love others. When I was following sin, it brought me away from God, when you repent, it brings you closer to the Father.

  3. It’s amazing to me how so many Christians have completely been blinded to the obvious, glaring inconsistencies with the Hell doctrine and the nature of the Father. I’m learning that we need to FIRST understand His heart, if not from purely a human direct-inspiration standpoint, then at least from the Law itself (jubilee being the ultimate forgiveness). But theologians don’t start there. They start with the “Jesus talked about “hell” more than any other subject.” Never mind the overarching theme of Scripture – God’s unconditional love and perfect plan for His creation.

    If we begin with the God-given moral compass in us all, non-Christians included, we understand that when Jesus repeatedly used the mundane depictions of God as a “father” and a “shepherd”, and even “daddy”, He was trying to let the people know what God was truly like, and what we are truly like. God loves and corrects his children, and we are no better than sheep in comparison. Sheep are DUMB. God is LOVE. Eternal torture for making a wrong decision in this short life makes no common sense whatsoever, and no matter how the theologians try to dance around this problem, they will come up short.

    On the other hand, if God is playing out a story that ultimately displays the depth of His love, He is ultimately bringing ALL His children (all created in His image) into the fold, however long it may take.

  4. Kevin,
    Once again thanks for the thoughts. I agree with much of what you shared but I’m one who believes the ambiguity of the Genesis story allows us to see different points of view all at the same time. When you say God was seeking and they (A&E) were hiding, scripture also says it was God who banished them from the Garden, they didn’t abandon it. So to be fair, I think there’s something important about both of those elements. And there’s no sin in being angry with evil doers. After all, Love is patient and slow to anger – but it’s still love, isn’t it?

    • I hear you, Gene. And I agree, there’s nothing incompatible between love and wrath. Just ask my kids! And there’s certainly many different ways to approach the Genesis account, much of which still remains a mystery to me. The point I’m trying to draw out though is that even though God expresses anger, overall he responds with mercy. First of all, he doesn’t kill them outright, even though they were told if they ate of the tree they would surely die. Second, after pronouncing their punishments, he meets them where they’re at by creating garments to cover their nakedness. Third, their expulsion from the Garden could be seen as a punishment, but ultimately, I think it was an act of mercy, because if they ate from the Tree of Life in their fallen state, there would be no chance for redemption. Fourth, when he curses the serpent, already he includes a hint that somehow he will rectify this situation.

      Again, this is a highly symbolic story that has been interpreted in a variety of ways over the years. I’m just trying to draw attention to one perspective that challenges the notion that God is so offended by sin that he must turn his back on humankind. We simply don’t see evidence of that in this story. And going beyond the Fall, we see God continuing a fairly intimate relationship with Cain and Abel for example, even after Cain kills Abel. Once again, the surprising part of the story is that God doesn’t answer the cry for vengeance that Abel’s blood cries out. Instead, he spares Cain’s life. Another act of mercy. And even before the murder, God is working with Cain to show him where he went wrong in the hope that he might come to a fuller awareness of what God desires of him–and he does this knowing Cain has murderous thoughts in his heart. Hardly a picture of a God who is so offended by sin that he turns his back on us. Instead, we see a God who is intimately involved with humankind even in the darkest of moments, always working to teach and guide and equip them for redemption. And if that sometimes involves punishment, so be it, but the punishment is never an end in itself.

      • Kevin,
        I Fully agree with your last post. I knew what you were getting at but I just wanted to share my opinion that the story is dynamic and often tells us things we often don’t see. Yes I agree, I even see his covering them as an act of mercy illustrating that God understands our delusions we’re under. There is no crime, transgression or sin in being naked before God – they were like that before the fall – but now they are in a world of confusion and God in his mercy meets them in their delusion. It’s something we all go through – that epic discovery that God is love and actually does look upon sin because he loves us is life changing. I’ll reserve my other thoughts on this story for our future discussions 🙂

        Again thanks for the thought provoking posts.

        • Exactly. “Confusion” and “delusion” are good terms. Nothing about their situation actually changed; merely their perception of it. Thanks for the feedback.

  5. Thank you Kevin for this post and for the discussion in response. I was taught the above “story” as well but I often wondered how Jesus, who was God in the flesh, was able to be in the presence of sinners while on this earth.

    Also, in light of certain dogmatic atonement theories, I was confused that Jesus’ inaugural sermon as to why He came was from Isaiah 61 where there is no reference to saving us from the God’s wrath of eternal hell but rather a pronouncement of a rescue and a release.

    • Exactly, Phillip. The whole fact of the incarnation blows away the idea that holiness equals separation. That’s the logic of the Pharisees, not Jesus.

  6. I hate to be that fresh doggie turd on the kitchen floor, but there seems to be some uncertainty as to whether chapter 8: 3-11 (Pericope Adulterae) is part of the original text of John. Nevertheless, there is enough evidence in the Gospels that the Father that Jesus reveals is quite different from the angry old fart that much of trad Christianity portrays. The “beat the crap out of my Son because your sin offends me” guy that is associated with a lot of Christianity (i.e. Jonathan Edwards style) seems more like some Roman or Greek god. Just my opinion.

    • Thanks for the note, Jim. I’m tempted to make a facetious exclamation at this point: “What? Someone edited the gospels? I thought we were talking about the Word of God here.”

  7. LOL Kevin, and maybe an idea for your next documentary?

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