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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.