Sunday, March 31, 2013

Some thoughts for Easter Weekend

I was living in the Northwestern United States on May 18, 1980 when Mt. St. Helens erupted.
The eruption was a very strange event for everyone in the Northwest.  We were on our way to
church the morning of the eruption.  When we left our house, it was light outside, but by the time
we arrived at our church, the sky had grown completely black and there were frequent lightning
strikes.  I’m sure many people in the vicinity thought at first that Jesus was returning for the Day
of Judgment.  I remember my father turning on the radio in our car to get news about what was
happening.  The announcers on the radio reported that St. Helens had erupted and that citizens of
our town should immediately head inside because scientists were not sure what effects breathing
in the ash would have on the human body.   
For the first and last time in the history of my family, we immediately left the church without
attending services and went home.  As we headed home, ash began falling out of the sky like
snow.  Over the course of that day, my hometown received six inches of ash.  My child’s mind
had a difficult time processing what was happening.  I wasn’t scared at all simply because I was
too young to understand the danger of my situation.  I found the whole event exciting and
interesting.  Since the day of the eruption, I have had a deep interest in geology. Eventually,
despite the ash, we got home safely and locked ourselves inside our house as the scientists had
At some point my mother realized there were probably homeless people out in this seemingly
apocalyptic landscape, so she loaded us all into the car, and we went looking for people who
needed help.  We eventually found two drunk, homeless men and took them to our house to wait
out the eruption until it was declared safe to go outside.  While we were driving to our house,
one of the young men asked my mother why she was helping them.  She replied she was helping
them because she was Christian, and she believed God wanted us to help each other.  Even
though I was barely five years old at the time, I will never forget the homeless guy’s response to
my mother’s statement.  His response was something to the effect of how he could not follow
Christianity because he could not follow a God, who was so violent as to require the death of His
own son in order to forgive people of their mistakes.  I found his statement shocking because I
had NEVER heard someone question Christianity or God.  I remembered being worried for this
young man because obviously he was going to go to Hell.  Up to this point I had felt like my
mother was crazy for bringing strangers into our home, but now I realized she was right.  If she
hadn’t brought this young man into our home, he might have died as a non-Christian, and then he
would have gone to Hell for sure (at least, this is what I thought at the time). We all stayed up
that night watching the news together, and eventually when it was declared safe to go outside
with a mask on, my father dropped these two young men off at the local shelter.
As I grew up, I simply accepted that God must be an angry God.  If God were not angry, then
why was He/She always wiping people out in the Bible?  If God wasn’t an angry God, then how
did you explain Uzzah, Sodom and Gomorrah, Nadab and Abihu, and all the other stories where
God was getting pissed and striking people dead?  I knew God had a violent temper.  I had heard
it preached over and over as a kid, and as I got older I read about God’s anger for myself.  I was
thankful Jesus had died on the cross for me to protect me from such an angry God because I
didn’t want to have to be punished by the God I had been taught about growing up.  I never
questioned the belief that Jesus died for our sins in order to keep God from wiping us all out and
sending us all to Hell; I was simply thankful somebody was willing to take my punishment.  I
never thought about what it meant about God that He/She needed a human sacrifice in order to
forgive humanity. 

For the majority of my life, actually, I never really thought about the crucifixion and what it said
about the God I followed.  I preached for years the same things I had heard growing up.  I
preached God was a God of love, but He/She was also a God of justice, who cold not just let our
mistakes go unpunished.  God wanted to forgive us, but He/She also required justice.  So at some
point along the way, Jesus and God came up with a plan for Jesus to die in our place as a human
sacrifice so that God could forgive us and yet still get the justice He/She demanded.  I remember
even preaching at times about what the conversation must have been like between God and Jesus
before God even created humanity.  I spoke of them discussing creating humanity, knowing
humanity would mess up, and realizing that something would have to be done about all of our
mess-ups.  At some point in the conversation, Jesus (motivated by his love for us), said, “I will
die for them when the time is right.”    

I loved teaching and preaching about this conversation because I loved the picture it painted of
Jesus as this loving, self sacrificing God, who would do anything for us.  We as humans are so
desperate to be loved that the message of Jesus being willing to die for us is very comforting. 
We want to feel loved and important, and what better way to feel loved than to have someone
willingly die for you?   If Jesus died for me, then his love was perfect; it knew no bounds.  And it
was the only consistent love I had ever experienced in my life.  I never thought to look the gift
horse of Jesus dying for me in the mouth.  I needed for the story to be true.   
As I began to heal from my emotional scars and self-hatred, I learned how to love myself and
forgive myself for not being perfect.  I also learned how to forgive others for their imperfections. 
Eventually, I even learned to see humanity’s imperfections as a natural, beautiful part of who we
are.  I wondered if we were actually ever meant to be “perfect” people.  I grew to love myself as
I was, and I grew capable of loving others for who they were, too.  I didn’t take my new-found
love fest as an excuse to not work to be a better human, but I could finally love myself in my
imperfection while I learned to be a better human being.  I learned over time that I was a good
person. For the first time in my life I loved me and “liked” me, as well.  I guess feeling loved
allowed me to begin questioning the only other source of love I had felt before: the love of Jesus,
which was proven by his death on a cross.    

Like the young man my mother had rescued from the eruption, I began to wonder what kind of
God would be as violent and abusive as to require the sacrifice of one of his children in order to
be able to forgive His/Her other kids’ mistakes.  I knew I was treading on dangerous ground for a
pastor and a Christian, but I could not shake the feeling that something was wrong with the
picture of God painted by the crucifixion.   
Suppose a father, who is supposed to be the epitome of love, comes home to his house one day
and walks in on a party at his house where there is drinking, dancing, sex, and even drug abuse
going on.  In his frustration, anger and “love,” the father stops the music and sends everyone
home except for his own kids.  He tells his kids they have been behaving unacceptably.  He
explains to his children how he loves them very, very much, but because he is a just Father, he is
going to have to kill them all because they have made themselves impure.  He says he deeply
regrets the fact that he has to kill them, but really they have left him with no choice.  He pulls out
a gun and takes aim at his children.  At this point the oldest brother, who has been at work
instead of joining in on the debauchery, steps through the door.  After finding out what has taken
place, the oldest brother falls on his knees before his father and begs the father to be merciful to
his brothers and sisters because . . . after all, they are only human, and they “know not what they

The father explains to his oldest son how he would love to be able to forgive his children, but he
cannot unless at least one person dies in order to appease his anger and his sense of justice about
the wrongs, which his children have committed against him.  The oldest son says, “Well, if
somebody has to die, then kill me.”  At this point the “loving” father turns the gun on his oldest
son and blows his son’s brains out.  The high velocity blood spray from the blast covers all of his
children in blood.  Upon seeing the blood, the father’s anger and sense of justice are appeased. 
He embraces his children and tells them how much he loves them. He tells them that from now
on if they mess up, they can just show him their brother’s blood when he is angry at them, and
their brother’s blood will appease his anger. 
What kind of Father would do such a thing?  Any of us in our right minds would say the father in
the story was at the very best crazy and at the very worst just flat out evil.  But most Christians
worship and proclaim this type of God as a “good God.”  It has become no shock to me that
Christians can be so harsh, judgmental, and cruel to each other . . . because they serve a harsh
and cruel God.  
Jesus taught us we should forgive people unconditionally and at the very minimum up to 490
times per person (Jesus seems to be calling for infinite forgiveness, actually).  Jesus’ followers
are expected to be forgiving people; yet their perfect, omnipotent God of love can’t forgive us
even one mistake without bloodshed?!  What type of sick, abusive God are people following? 
Jesus was a forgiving person, and he claims to have been the fleshly representation of what God
is actually like.  If this is true, then why is God incapable of forgiving me and you without
somebody dying?  These questions troubled me deeply.  Eventually, I just decided like the young
man from my childhood that I could not follow such a violent God.  I didn’t abandon faith of any
kind; I just didn’t believe in the God taught about in the majority of Christian churches. 
Historically, Jesus of Nazareth was crucified because he was a threat to the religious and the
powerful of his day.  The truth of the matter is this threat is likely the only reason Jesus was
crucified.  He was most likely killed not to appease God, but to appease the leaders of his day. 
This statement creates problems for people (like me, actually), who believe Jesus was more than
just a historical figure.  If Jesus was God’s son or even God himself in the flesh, then his death
had to have served some sort of greater purpose, right?  Surely God’s son wouldn’t have died on
a cross unless he had chosen to do so for some significant reason.  

If you need a reason for the divine to be found hanging on a wooden cross, let me paint for you a
different picture of the cross, which fits more with the character and nature of the good, loving,
forgiving God, whom Jesus himself taught about.  Imagine again the conversation in Heaven I
used to preach about, except this time we’ll change a few things.  God comes to Jesus and says,
“I’m thinking about making a whole planet full of children for you and me to love.”   
Jesus smiles and says, “Sure, I would love to have several billion brothers and sisters.  It gets
kind of lonely being your only child.”   
God then says, “I think I will make them imperfect, though.  It’s not all that fun to love
something perfect.  The best part of love is being able to forgive and seeing the beauty in
Jesus responds, “I agree with you completely.  Perfect would be boring!  The only problem with
them being imperfect, though, is they are going to hurt each other and treat each other badly. 
The pain will be hard for us and for them to deal with.”   
“Yes,” says God.  “I had thought of the pain, both for them and for us.  But there will also be
great joy when they love each other!”   
“Yes,” Jesus replies.  “It won’t be easy, but I think you are right.  And the beauty of the good
will outweigh the bad.  But I see another problem, Father/ Mother.”   
“What is the problem you see, son?”   
“Won’t they feel insecure in their imperfection?” Jesus asked.   
“Yes, you are right about that, as well, my son.  They will feel insecure, and they will often feel
unloved by me.  They will invent all kinds of crazy ways to try and make themselves acceptable
to us.”   
“Like what?”  Jesus asks.   
“Oh lots of things.  They will sacrifice animals to us.  They will try to give us their children,
crops, and money.  They will starve themselves for us and spend hours in prayer begging for us
to love them.  They will invent laws and rules, which they must follow, in order to be pleasing to
us.  Many will feel they must sacrifice everything just for us to care about them.  It is sad
because all we would want of them is for them to love each other and for them to take care of the
Earth and the things on the Earth, but they will not understand this.  Many of them will be
convinced they must live to serve us.”   
Jesus frowns.  “Why would they think a God, who could create them and the universe they live
in, would need anything from them?”   
“I know; it does seem silly, but it will happen.  They will commit terrible atrocities, both against
themselves and others, simply to try to please their creator.  They will come to view us as terrible
task masters, to whom they must sacrifice everything. The more I think about it, the more I think
maybe we should not create children; it is not worth it.” 

Jesus’ eyes light up once more.  “Maybe I could go and show them that we are not task masters. 
I could show them how good and loving we are and how precious they truly are to us.  If my
teaching them and trying to show them how much we care doesn’t work, then I could actually
serve as their sacrifice for them.  I could take all their laws and rules upon myself.  I could die
instead of some animals.  Then maybe they would be convinced of how much we love them.  I
could die in order to prove to them once and for all that they are okay in our eyes just as they
are.”  Jesus pauses and then continues, “It would suck to die, but you could just bring me back to
life, anyway, right?”  
“Of course I could bring you back to life, but son, that’s a lot for you to undertake.  And even
after that, many will still not understand.  Do you really think this will be worth it?”   

“Yes, I do.  Let’s go create a universe, Mom/Dad.”  

Is this scenario what really happened?  The truth is I have no idea.  This theory is simply
something I thought of on my own.  But if Jesus is truly divine and not just a historical figure,
who died at the hands of the powerful, then it seems much more likely that the God he
represented would be like the God I’ve depicted than the God I was shown as a child.  In my
version the cross becomes not about appeasing an angry God, but about a God, who sacrifices
part of himself in order to appease our own fears and insecurities about our identity . . . and our
value.  I like this version of God much better.  This God seems much more like a God of love to
me.  Upon reading this book, many will accuse me of trying to make God into man’s image, and
to some extent the accusation is true.  I am trying to make God into the image of one man: Jesus
of Nazareth.  Such a God is clearly a God of love, forgiveness, and tolerance. 
Whether or not my version of the cross is truthful and accurate, I hope it inspires people to
question a God, who demands death in order for forgiveness to take place.  Loving parents
discipline their children in order to help them have safe and happy lives, but they would never
kill someone so their own senses of justice could be appeased. In the story from before, about the
father who caught his children in a “debaucherous” party, a loving father would have many
options for dealing with what his children had done, but killing one or all of them would not be a
loving response; it would be an evil one.  I believe that if Christians and other religions are going
to have any God, then He/She should be a God, who is never evil.  Unfortunately, the God I was
taught about is not a good God; He/She wouldn’t even make a good person!  
People should look at the Gods they serve and determine if those Gods behave in good ways
before we mindlessly label them as good.  We should look at our Gods and see if they behave in
loving ways before we call them love.  If our Gods do not behave in good ways, we either need
to stop calling them good, or we need to find a God, who is truly good.  I challenge you the
reader to look at your God and His/Her actions.  Are those actions truly good?  Allah may indeed
be a good God, but the Allah of Osama Bin Laden is not a good God; I can tell by Osama’s
beliefs and actions.  God, the Father of Jesus, may be a good God, as well.  But the God of the
Church, who orders the crusades and calls for death in His name, is not a good God, either.  Just
because the Christian God orders the killing doesn’t make it any better than when Allah does. 
Like I have said before, if a behavior is evil, then it is evil—no matter what God or group of
religious people does it—nobody is exempt.  If killing my own son is evil for me, then shouldn’t
it be considered evil, as well, for God to demand the death of His/Her son?  I believe that either
we have made God up, that God is a twisted, abusive force we need to rebel against and not
blindly serve, or that we have simply misunderstood Him/Her (which I hope is the case). 
Self sacrifice is a beautiful thing.  The sacrifices of Oskar Schindler to save Jewish people were
beautiful, but if he had been forced to sacrifice in order to save his employees, the beauty would
also be tainted.  Gandhi gave up his life for peace in an amazing way, but if he had felt like he
had to give up his life in order to appease one of the many Hindu Gods, then his sacrifice would
have been deeply disturbing as well as beautiful.  What if we said that Martin Luther King Jr.
gave himself as a sacrifice so God could forgive African Americans of their many sins?  We’d
probably get lynched.  As Dr. Stephen Finlan points out in his book Problems with Atonement,
"The problem is not what all this says about Jesus but what it says about God: if God wants to
save, why is such intercession necessary? Why should Jesus' pleading for humanity only be
effective after he had been murdered? It does us no good to perceive Jesus as heroic if we are
forced to view God as sadistic." 
There is no significant historical question as to whether or not Jesus of Nazareth died on a
Roman cross.  The million dollar question is why did Jesus die on the cross?  He either died as a
martyr for his cause against the rich and the powerful and their oppression of the outcast,  he
died to show us how much God cared about us to convince us we are okay with God, or he was
forced to die in order to protect us from God’s wrath.  No matter what, Jesus was an amazing
person, who should be praised for his life, but if he died in order to keep God from destroying us,
then there is also something very dark and sick about his death.  We should question whether or
not a truly good God would need bloodshed in order to forgive our mistakes.

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