I question my faith tradition because I love it
“Hell” by early Netherlandish painter
Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450 - Aug. 9, 1516)
By Jason Chesnut
Originally posted Aug. 19, 2013, at the altar ego. Republished with permission of the author.
Growing up in a fundamentalist Christian household, I remember one day going to my dad (who was a pastor), tears welling up in my eyes. “I think I’m going to hell, Dad.” He considered me for a second. ”Why would you say that, son?” ”Because,” I sniffed, “Jesus died for my sins, and I don’t think I deserve it.”
I was convinced, through nightmares and continual worrying, that Jesus primarily died for my sins, and yet, I was still not good enough.
One of the major ways we have understood Christianity — or the Jesus Movement — has been through what has been called “atonement.”
It’s something that seems to roll off the tongues of Christians with great ease. “Jesus died for your sins!” is often said (or yelled) in a way that sounds more death-dealing than life-giving (especially in a scene from the movie “Saved!”).
Yet the biblical basis for such theology is limited. It can be argued that no such understanding exists in the Gospel accounts of Jesus — it’s only in Paul’s own grappling with the meaning of Jesus’ death (and subsequent work by other theologians centuries later) that we find the theory of atonement.
One of the most well-known verses in the New/2nd Testament, John 3:16, is often interpreted to mean that Jesus was specifically sent into the world by God to be murdered on a cross. But that’s some sketchy framework. At no point does this verse mention death.
Even the Greek word used for “sent” isn’t the same word John uses later to discuss the action of “handing over” or “sending” Jesus to be crucified. (More on this can be found in chapter 2 of a phenomenal book, “Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire.”)
Quick reminder: I don’t assume I have all the answers. I just want to contribute to the conversation surrounding this critical event in the narrative of the Jesus Movement. I’m not a scholar. But I’m very passionate about how we understand this horrific, sickening event of Jesus being crucified.
Because, in many ways, when Christians don’t question the violence inherent in theories of atonement (of which there are many), it leads to a deep and troubling irony — followers of a movement that repudiated violence becoming increasingly violent and using Christianity as a framework to justify that same violence.
Full disclosure before the theology police try and take me in: I trust that Jesus’ death has real significance for me, a Christian, a follower of the Jesus Movement — but, just as in the legitimate critiques surrounding Mel Gibson’s excessively violent “Passion of the Christ,” Jesus’ death does not outweigh his life, his new life, and his act of destroying the power of death.
It gets even crazier when we remember that the cross wasn’t present in early Christian art, murals, etc. It was just too horrifying to consider.
The earliest followers of the Jesus movement understood that Jesus’ death primarily led to new life.
But when we continue to chant the “Jesus died for your sins!” mantra, it can lead to an 8-year-old wondering and worrying that even that wasn’t enough to save him from eternal damnation.
All we have to do is look at the verse that follows the immortal John 3:16 — “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
Find a link to Jason Chesnut’s the altar ego at Lutheran Blogs.
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