Tiresome fundie apologism

NaBloPoMo Day 26: Well, the goal is to post *something* every day, not necessarily something long or completely fleshed out, so here’s something ;) I’ve been traveling today and haven’t had much time or energy to write. I feel a bit silly that I need a prompt like this to give myself permission to share brief posts, but hey, whatever works.

trigger warning: spiritually/emotionally abusive theology.

So I really need to write that comments policy.

I got a comment from someone who attends Mars Hill on an old post (Mark Driscoll is not God) and it’s…well. It hits several points of Mark Driscoll Bingo: People have come to Christ through Mark, you’re taking Mark’s comments out of context, Mark/Mars Hill is doing God’s work, etc. Tiresome and predictable. Oh, and an extra special version of  Jesus wasn’t a peacemaker: “a fun fact, did you know that Jesus talks about hell more than anyone in Scripture? :)”

The smiley face is particularly charming touch.

Never mind that Jesus doesn’t talk about hell very much at all, so, you know. Certainly not as much as he talks about, say, greed or hypocrisy or judgmental Pharaseeism, or, you know, love. But yea, those handful of times that Jesus* (read: those texts claiming to be Jesus’ words that have become accepted as canonical) mentions hell (read: the words that we translate as “hell” but really had little or nothing to do with our notion of hell in their original cultural context) totally trump all those other parts of the gospels.

Also tiresome: the red herring argument that “a loving God must punish injustice.” Sigh.

Can I just say? I feel like we really need to examine and take apart that the proper response on God’s part to “injustice” is “punishment.” It’s unclear to me what purpose that really serves. Injustice needs to be remedied. Punishment can be part of that, but there’s something rather simplistic about seeing it as the primary response of a sovereign God, and also simplistic in its assumptions about what injustice is. There isn’t always a clear perpetrator in something like “injustice.” Who should God punish for rape culture? Who should God punish for institutional racism or classism or ableism? The assumption here is that “injustice” = discrete acts committed by individuals. There’s no room for thinking about systemic wrongs. And it’s a notion of a divine response to justice that centers the “wrongdoers” instead of those harmed – that God is primarily preoccupied with punishing people who do harm, not with restorative justice towards those who have been harmed.

But also, it’s a bit laughable to trot out that argument in response to a post taking apart the claim that all non-Christians (as defined by one tiny sect) are going to hell. To bring up, as this commenter did, actual injustices like sexual abuse, genocide, murder, as this commenter did, as a defense of Driscoll’s preaching divine punishment for anyone who doesn’t believe one specific interpretation of one particular religion, to imply that God needs to punish the “injustice” of people having different beliefs to be loving, to imply that genocide is comparable to not being a Christian? Well. It makes one seem rather out of touch.

I won’t even get into the strawmanning about how I claimed that all 12,000 people at Mars Hill are blind, angry, and brainwashed. *eyeroll*

So yea. Comments policy. Need to get on that.


Why is Ann Voskamp’s “mysticism” a problem?

Since I started questioning my religious upbringing, I’ve been increasingly aware of how incredibly narrow and anomalous fundamentalist and reformed evangelical understandings of Christianity are from a historical perspective. The kerfuffle over Ann Voskamp’s book is a perfect example of this; some reformed evangelicals claim it promotes a dangerous, heretical, and irreverent view of God and how God relates with human beings. But the things they claim are blasphemous are actually long established ideas and motifs in numerous Christian traditions, traceable in one form or another as far back as the earliest Church, and well within the bounds of Christian orthodoxy by any reasonable, historically informed standard.

For example, Everyday Mommy, the blogger who sparked the initial controversy over Voskamp’s book, has repeatedly criticized it for “embracing and promoting mysticism and contemplative spirituality” and drawing from traditions she finds heretical:

This extremely dangerous notion has it’s [sic] roots in the heretical, mystical teachings of a 16th century Carmelite nun who wrote of her ‘ecstasy’ with Christ achieved through trances and out-of-body experiences. Mrs. Voskamp is a devotee’ [sic] of this mystic. This metaphorical imagery is not Scriptural and is unsound at best and false teaching at worst. (comment)

Set aside for a moment that this is really bad history; this is an argument that doesn’t make sense even from a reformed evangelical perspective. The Bible is full of examples of people who had trances, visions, and other mystical encounters. Paul claimed to have been “caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know” (2 Corinthians 12, ESV). The entire book of Revelation is one big, trippy, out of this world hallucination. Biblical figures like Abraham, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Cornelius – just for starters – experienced visions. By EM’s definitions none of these experiences count as “mystical.” Nor is it “mysticism” when Christians claim to hear directly from God, to have God “living in their hearts,” or to speak spiritual languages that only God and other Christians (if anyone) can understand. No, we’re supposed to accept these pretty strange accounts as “normal” biblical Christianity, while rejecting Teresa of Ávila’s visions and raptures as obviously beyond the pale of orthodox Christian experience.

“Mysticism” has little meaning here beyond “spiritual experiences we’re uncomfortable with.” It’s a privileging of the reformed version of authentic spirituality over any and all alternatives, and a reading of the Bible and reformed Christianity’s own spirituality that’s blinkered by a priori assumptions. They either can’t or won’t acknowledge that Christianity – a faith which, after all, for most calls for belief that a virgin could conceive a child by the Holy Spirit and that a being can be both fully man and fully God – has always had a deep mystical streak at its heart. Nor are they aware of or willing to admit that there are mystics in virtually every Christian tradition and at all points in church history, not just in Catholicism or other traditions she deems heretical, and her tradition is no exception.

Stay with me Jesus

The husband sent me this video for Guster’s “Stay with me Jesus.” It’s hilarious and really captures so much of what bothers me about prayer and divine providence as I was raised to understand them – so self-focused, grounded in the absolute conviction that everything that happens is God doing something just for me, as part of a divine plan, that it can make people insensitive and even callous to other people’s suffering.

Appropriate for April Fool’s Day, given some of the comments on Youtube from Christians who don’t seem to understand that the song is satirical…

Mark Driscoll is not God

Trigger warning for the video in particular – emotional/psychological abuse.

Mark Driscoll is at it again, making pronouncements from on high about who’s going to be damned to hell.

There’s a lot that’s wrong here. He’s claiming yet again that a version of Christianity that teaches that the vast majority of the world will be tortured for eternity is “good news.” He continues to use manipulative and abusive tactics as tools of control. Many people who have been abused in one way or another by someone close to us will recognize “just because I’m yelling at you doesn’t mean I don’t love you” and “I’m yelling at you because I love you” as classic lines from abusers. It’s chilling. Once again he’s asserting his superior and exclusive access to truth and salvation over the rest of the world and everyone who disagrees with him.

As for his tears of gratitude – I’m sorry, I haven’t seen a crying act that transparent or unconvincing in a long time, and I have a toddler. I don’t believe for a second that he accepts that he’s just as deserving of God’s wrath as anyone else. Not when he’s just spent most of his time in this clip loudly damning all but a tiny portion of humanity to hell (does he realize how much of the world is Buddhist or Hindu? I don’t know that he cares).

But the point is so much bigger than Driscoll’s arrogance and bigotry. It’s important to debunk this dehumanizing theology and point out its dangers, and that’s a huge reason why I started blogging. But it’s also important to offer alternatives for people who feel trapped in a hostile and damaging faith, because they’ve been misled into believing that it’s the only way they can be good Christians, the only way God will accept them.

This is a lie. I know it can feel so true. But it’s a huge, audacious, breathaking lie.

Here’s the truth:

– Mark Driscoll is not God.
– Mark Driscoll has no idea who is going to heaven or hell, or even if any such places exist.
– If there is a God who decides our eternal fates, it’s not taking orders from Mark Driscoll. Whatever happens to us after we die has nothing whatsoever to do with Driscoll thinks, says, or does.

– Being a Christian doesn’t mean whatever Mark Driscoll says it means.
– Christianity is far, far bigger than reformed evangelicalism. Reformed evangelicalism is a tiny branch of Protestant Christianity and an even smaller fraction of all Christian traditions.
– The vast majority of Christians churches do not share reformed evangelical beliefs on hell or salvation.
A loving God is not going to punish everyone who “fails” to find – or find a home in – some random niche version of Christianity.

– It is not a sin to disagree with Mark Driscoll’s interpretation of the Bible.
– The Bible has very little to say about hell. What it does say has nothing to do with our image of hell and everything to do with ancient Jewish, Greek, and Roman beliefs about the afterlife.
– The Bible is a set of disparate documents created for many different purposes, produced in a wide variety of contexts, and written in ancient and difficult languages. It’s a complicated document that calls for careful, attentive reading. It can be read in many ways.

– No matter what Mark Driscoll says, there’s nothing incompatible about faith and “philosophical speculation” or “mental investigation.”
– It’s ok to have questions about faith and the Bible. It’s ok to ask those questions and to pursue rigorous, intellectually sound answers to those questions.
– People who reject scientific and historical inquiry as dangerous to faith and are opposed to or threatened by facts and research do not have strong faith. They have weak faith.

– No matter what Mark Driscoll says, there’s nothing wrong with kind, humane theology that upholds the dignity and worth of all people as sacred.
– There’s nothing sinful about believing in a God who loves everyone, without conditions or qualifiers.
– And there’s no reason to believe that belief in the Bible is incompatible with belief in such a God. Many, many Christians believe in a God who loves.

What about all of the verses within scripture that seem to imply a truly irresistible grace?John 17:2: For you granted him authority over all people that he might give eternal life to all those you have given him.
Luke 2:10: But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.
In John 1:9, the gospel’s author writes: The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world.
Romans 5:18: Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men.
Romans 8:20, 21: For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.
Acts 3:21: For he must remain in heaven until the time for the final restoration of all things, as God promised long ago through his holy prophets….

And I could go on and on. But my point in listing those verses isn’t to argue theology, it’s only to point out that there IS indeed biblical support for Jesus-centered redemption that is bigger and more merciful and gracious than what most evangelical theologies proclaim.

Do we believe that Jesus is good news for all men?

Or do we believe that Jesus is good news for all men who ask him into his heart?

Or do we believe that Jesus is good news for all men who follow some sort of evangelical equation that proclaims (in an earthly sense) that he’s a follower of Jesus?

Who are we to put limitations around the words “all men” or “all people”…

I’ve said this before, but I think sometimes the “evangelical God” we boast about is quite small. Or at least… how we talk about him is small.

Of course, Mark could be right. The God that we boast about, that we love, that we worship could be ready and willing to send BILLIONS and BILLIONS of people to the flames of hell. All in the name of justice baby! But then why does God ask us to care for the sick, the weak, the hungry? Why does he tell us to love one another? Why does he care about the relationships we pursue and value? How can we boast about a God who values unborn life but is fully willing to send 11-year-olds from India to eternal torment?….

I believe in a God who makes things right. I believe in a God who will leave the 99 to find 1 lost soul. I believe in a God who is my shepherd. I believe in a God who manifested himself through Christ to bring redemption to the world. (Jesus Needs New PR)

– You don’t need abusive theology or an abusive God to be a Christian.
– You don’t need fear, hatred, contempt, or bigotry to be a Christian.
– It’s a lie that making people live in constant fear is an act of love. Even the Bible says so: “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment.”

Mark Driscoll is one person, with one interpretation of the Bible, one version of a huge, old, complicated, diverse religion. Taking his teachings as gospel is nothing more than making God in Driscoll’s image. Mark Driscoll is not God. Thank God for that.

Praying for Japan?

Trigger warning for images and discussion of natural disasters.

Houses swallowed by tsunami waves burn in Natori, Miyagi Prefecture (state) after Japan was struck by a strong earthquake off its northeastern coast Friday, March 11. (Kyodo News/Associated Press; source)

In the wake of the largest earthquake in its recorded history, and subsequent tsunami and powerful aftershocks, Japan is in the middle of a huge effort to rescue survivors, and contain further damage like radiation leaks. The death toll is expected to be in the thousands; countless more are missing, stranded, or displaced, and millions are without food, water, and electricity. Infrastructure has been completely devastated in many areas and rescue workers have yet to reach many of the worst hit regions.

Aid and donations are urgently needed. Some good organizations to support in their rescue efforts include Doctors without Borders/Medicins San Frontieres, which has a local office in Japan and is already on the ground, and Global Giving, which distributes funds to the International Medical Corp, Save the Children, and other organizations.

I’ve been thinking about the issue of prayer a lot lately, and the news of the earthquake has brought it to mind again. I no longer believe prayer works in any traditional sense. Still, for many if not most people, I think it’s a natural to such devastation. It’s a way of reasserting some measure of agency and control when we feel vulnerable, helpless, and out of control. It’s often psychologically reassuring for people being prayed for, if they’re aware of the prayers, but perhaps even more so for the ones doing the praying, especially if there’s little else they can do to help.

But more than that, praying for others – especially strangers or people far removed from us – can be an expression of identification and sympathy based on a recognition of shared humanity. At its best prayer is an affirmation of the dignity and worth of fellow humans – a statement that the people one prays for are worthy of concern and attention. Often, being unwilling as a religious or spiritual person to acknowledge and pray for suffering people is indicative of a belief that those people are less than fully human. Already some remarkably callous people have called the earthquake “payback” for Pearl Harbor, implying that the Japanese are undeserving of American sympathy, undeserving of basic human compassion. There’s a similar sentiment in the tendency of some Americans to be dismissive and even supportive of the oppression of Muslims and Arabs in the U.S. and around the world. Such beliefs are sustained by dehumanizing people deemed to be “other” or the enemy in some way.

(Evacuees stand around Shinjuku Central Park in Tokyo Japan March 11, 2011.)

How someone prays also reveals a lot about how they see the subjects of their prayers. They can pray in a way that affirms others as full people with experiences, needs, rights, and feelings that are just as valid as their own. Or they can pray in a way that centers their own worldview and their own experiences, objectifying the people they are ostensibly praying “for” and making their prayers all about themselves.

Unfortunately, some evangelical leaders have responded to the earthquake in Japan in the latter vein, with opportunistic, patronizing, and self-centered prayers. Al Mohler, for example, tweeted that he is “Praying for the people of Japan in aftermath of huge earthquake and tsunami. May they seek Christ the Solid Rock.” In his Friday podcast he added:

When a natural disaster like this takes place, many questions immediately arise. But as you think about this, keep in mind the fact that Japan is a very secular nation in terms of its worldview. Even though ancestor worship and forms of Buddhism and Shintoism are still in the background beliefs of many Japanese, fewer than about five percent have much knowledge of Christianity at all, and the operational worldview of many Japanese when it comes to the events of everyday life is basically secular.

Mohler later managed to eke out a few words expressing concern for survivors and gesturing towards an obligation to help, but he’s otherwise focused on the theological and religious implications of the earthquake:

We must pray that this horrible disaster may be used to call the people of Japan to the Lord as their only hope and refuge. The nation is still shaped by its Shinto, Buddhist, and Animist roots….when the grieving turns to the hard work of recovery and rebuilding, the true test for American Christians will be whether our commitment to the Gospel of Christ will lead to a renewed effort to reach the nation of Japan with the message of Jesus Christ, the Solid Rock.

John Piper’s “prayer” for Japan is perhaps worse; he asks god to show mercy on Japan even though they don’t deserve it. In fact, none of us deserve it: “We are not more deserving of firm ground than our fellowmen in Japan…if we were treated according to our sins, who could stand? All of it would be gone in a moment.” Like Mohler, his main concern is that Japanese people would repent and convert to belief in his version of god:

Grant, O God, that the wicked will forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts. Grant us, your sinful creatures, to return to you, that you may have compassion…Deal tenderly now, Father, with this fragile people. Woo them. Win them. Save them.

Piper doesn’t spare a word of prayer for the rescue efforts, for efforts to provide the most basic necessities to homeless and displaced people, for the nuclear plants threatening meltdown. He doesn’t pray for the actual Japanese people who have been killed, injured, or traumatized. Neither he nor Mohler has made any public comment encouraging their followers to help Japan, or offering any information on how to do so.

Piper and Mohler are living in some ass-backward world where “helping” in a time of national crisis and devastation involves prayers for conversion, and criticisms of the religious affiliations of the Japanese pass for compassionate and relevant commentary. Of course, they’ll claim that the souls of Japanese people matter more than their bodies or minds or property, and as was frequently repeated in my church, “their greatest problem is that they are sinners in need of a savior.”

These aren’t prayers for Japan. In a sense they’re not prayers at all. They have little to do with the actual victims of the quake, or really with anyone who isn’t a conservative evangelical. Rather, Piper and Mohler have seized upon this disaster as an opportunity to  reassert the superiority of their beliefs, of their god, and their status as god’s chosen elite.*  They’re effectively saying they know what Japan’s “real” problem is, and it’s not that the nation has been devastated, or that people are in pain and shock and need. The real problem is that the Japanese don’t know enough about Mohler and Piper’s god and religion. And as this problem is effectively unresolvable – since they believe as a matter of dogma that prayers for mass conversion won’t (or can’t) be answered – the real message is that they will be saved, while most of Japan and the rest of the world is basically fucked.

They completely erase the voices and experiences of the Japanese people. They completely erase their actual material and psychological needs. They refuse to see them as real human beings, even in a moment like this. They are props.

What’s truly frightening about this is that people like Piper and Mohler don’t have to be evil to believe such evil things. Their view of faith as being in a special in-group chosen by god makes it impossible to see others as full and equal human beings. They can only see people in terms of what religious team they’re on; their dogma obligates them to refuse to take different beliefs and experiences seriously. They can’t stand with the Japanese as fellow human beings. They have to assess where they stand in some imaginary cosmic war, and in so doing they lose sight of them as people. Viewing everything and everyone through that lens alone is inherently dehumanizing. It’s a worldview that strips non-Christians of their humanity so completely that it leads some to see this horrific disaster as “day of opportunity” for Christians and a tool intended by god to “[pierce] the darkness of Japan with His light.”

A truly loving prayer would identify with the suffering of the Japanese people and acknowledge it as unjust and undeserved. It would be accompanied by whatever concrete help those praying could offer. A loving prayer would ask for Japan’s needs to be met on its own terms, not that its people live up to external and arbitrary expectations of who they should be. A loving prayer would show survivors the same respect and concern anyone would want for themselves, even though they aren’t “like us” in ways we might deem profoundly meaningful, because they are human beings who deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, not as pawns in some perverse cosmic game.

Rob Bell and the “heresy” of a loving God

Religious fundamentalism is dangerous because it cannot accept ambiguity and diversity and is therefore inherently intolerant. Such intolerance, in the name of virtue, is ruthless and uses political power to destroy what it cannot convert. It is dangerous, especially in America, because it is anti-democratic and is suspicious of “the other,” in whatever form that “other” might appear. To maintain itself, fundamentalism must always define “the other” as deviant.Peter Gomes

There’s a huge controversy brewing in the evangelical blogosphere and twitterverse over Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, an upcoming book by Rob Bell, a pastor associated with the emergent church movement. According to the promotional materials for the book, Bell argues that “a loving God would never sentence human souls to eternal suffering.” The immediate accusations of universalism and hand-wringing about the state of Rob Bell’s soul are yet another illustration of how swift, uninformed condemnation of people and/or ideas they don’t like is not only common among reformed evangelicals, it’s practically an art form.

(Image from The Naked Pastor, ht Jesus Needs New PR.)

Both the criticisms of Bell’s presumed argument and the way they were aired reveal some ugly truths about the values and priorities of the evangelical community. They dogmatically oppose even discussing the possibility that, regarding the fate of humanity, God’s love wins, because in their view, a Christianity that preaches God’s love without God’s wrath is heresy, and no Christianity at all. They insist on a divine love mixed with wrath that can’t be satisfied without blood, which isn’t love at all. They are literally against the idea of a God who loves.

What’s more, the incredible speed and vehemence of the backlash points to a deep investment in the idea that no one outside their tiny corner of Christianity could ever be loved and welcomed unconditionally by God. On some level, they cherish the idea that most of humanity will suffer for eternity. Sure, evangelicals warn people about the dangers of hell, and try to convert people. They express concern and sadness over the ultimate fate of “lost” souls. And yet, the words and actions of reformed evangelical leaders betray how attached they are to the belief that they are the chosen few.

The constant rhetoric of being “holy, set apart, and different” from the rest of the world is a subtle example of this (e.g., Joshua Harris’s argument that wifely submission is a sign of being specially chosen by God for a home in heaven). Evangelical leaders claim marginalized, “counterculture” status as a badge of pride, insisting that “the world” hates them because they are God’s people. They point to their “persecution” in this word as a sign and promise of eternal rewards in the next; their identity revolves around it. Of course, this means that the condemnation of the majority of humanity to hell is also a central aspect of their faith and identity.

This is made more explicit when evangelical leaders talk about hell at any length. Take, for example, the perceptible relish Mark Driscoll takes in describing the torments of hell, and pontificating on who will end up there: “There is an eternal hell. This is not a point for philosophical speculation. This is a fact. There is a real hell that will be full …. a place of conscious torment …  For ever and ever and ever and ever and ever and ever and ever.” Or take the example of Denny Burk, who flatly concurs that “only a few select people will make it to heaven” and asserts that a “countless throng of people” will be cast into hell.

Evangelical leaders often cite Augustine’s maxim: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” In other words, certain non-negotiable doctrines and practices exclusively define who is and is not a Christian; on other matters, Christians are free to believe and practice in many different ways. The reaction to Rob Bell reveals the perverted nature of evangelical understandings of what is “essential” and “non-essential” to Christianity. There’s room in their gospel for Bryan Fischer, who claims that God gave the Americas to Europeans because Native Americans “morally disqualified” themselves from “sovereign control of American soil.” There’s room for unrepentant race-baiters, nativists, misogynists, and even rapists. But the idea of a hell crammed to the gills with eternally, infinitely tormented people is an essential, non-negotiable doctrine, and anyone who dares to suggest otherwise is met with howls of outrage, ostracized, and condemned (Bell, Carlton Pearson, William Paul Young, among others).

They show what they truly value. They don’t care about having a church that works towards equality and more social justice. They don’t care about harm done to others not like themselves. They believe that hell will be FULL and call that “good news.” They condemn the world and call that a “liberating gospel of grace.” They preach emotional sermons complete with melodramatic tears, quivering lips, and and cracking voicess, waxing lyrical about the beauty of the gospel and how grateful we should all be for what God has done for us. But their gospel cannot be a beautiful thing for most people. It’s not a message of hope, not a message that anyone can be saved and spend eternity with God. By their own theology, most people cannot and will not be saved. No, their message is one of hatred and condemnation. It’s “good news” that you will be damned for eternity unless God decides you’re special. This isn’t a gospel of Christ. It’s a gospel of hell.

Rob Bell is absolutely right: what evangelicals believe about heaven and hell shows what they believe about who and what God is. It exposes the lies and contradictions at the heart of their gospel. God is to be loved, but God is to be feared. God desires that no one should be lost to hell, yet hell will be full and only a few will be saved. The gospel is good news to sinners, yet most sinners have no hope of ever attaining salvation. God is infinite love, but will torment “his” own creations without mercy, and without remorse.

Evangelical theologians don’t want to deal with the real implications of a God who doles out salvation based on membership in an exclusive secret society. Nor are they honest about the incoherence of basing an absolutist theology of hell on biblical references to the Greek Hades and Hebrew Sheol, neither of which are anything like the modern Christian concept of hell. They insist with mindboggling arrogance that the Bible only supports one position on the afterlife, and that anyone who doesn’t agree with that position will be punished forever by God. Unsurprisingly, even on this point they are inconsistent and hypocritical, simultaneously condemning Rob Bell and praising C.S. Lewis, who certainly did not believe that only Christians can be saved (cf The Last Battle and The Problem of Pain, for example).

It’s all so patently ridiculous, so breathtakingly and absurdly arrogant. I wonder now how for so long I couldn’t see this doctrine for the utter mockery of truth and human dignity it is.

Partial transcript of Bell’s comments in the video below the jump. Read the rest of this entry »

Substitutionary atonement is not forgiveness

Unreasonable Faith has a good post by Sola Ratione on how little sense it makes to claim Jesus’s crucifixion is some kind of “forgiveness” for sins. It reminded me of this video by NonStampCollector:

It also reminded me of a realization I had the Easter before I finally accepted that I was agnostic. I still felt a bit of an obligation to observe it in some way. I think I was also still holding out hope that I could be a Christmas and Easter Christian, if nothing else. So I tried to come up with reasons to attend Easter services, tried to dredge up some tiny remnant of personal meaning or positive feeling for what used to be my favorite season in the church calendar. I tried to find some meaning in the Resurrection. Something about hope or renewal? But you can’t have the Resurrection without the crucifixion, which, I soon realized, was a big problem for me.

I couldn’t find anything to celebrate about Easter because I found the event at the heart of it senseless and barbaric. If God wanted to forgive everyone, why not just do it? Why require  violence, death, and a blood sacrifice for forgiveness? How could deliberately slaughtering an innocent human being (divine or not) ever be a good thing for God to do, much less a necessary one? I couldn’t stomach the thought of standing in church and singing hymns thanking God for killing someone “for” me.

There are a lot of theologies of the cross out there. One that makes some sort of sense to me (as someone who, to be clear, does not at all believe Jesus is/was God) is that the crucifixion is God identifying with the poor and outcast and suffering, and being in solidarity with them. Which, you know, still seems a strange and futile gesture to me, but at least it’s not one that claims that the violent death of another human being was (part of) God’s gift to me or anyone else.

Substitutionary atonement – the doctrine that Jesus literally took the sins of every human dead, living, or not yet in existence on himself, and that he literally took on the infinite punishment that every human being deserves for their sins – is not forgiveness. True forgiveness is freely given, it doesn’t come with strings attached. It doesn’t demand retribution, not on the person who did wrong, and certainly not on someone who had nothing to do with the wrong. Substitutionary atonement is both an irrational and abusive theology. A couple comments at Unreasonable Faith encapsulate why that is.

Kodle [after pointing out that it would make no sense for a regular person to withhold forgiveness until someone other than the offender is punished for the offense]:

And notice the unequal relationship. God never asks forgiveness for abandoning you in times of need, or killing your mom with cancer, or taking up all the parking spots so you have to drive to the far end of the lot, or making your presentation at work a disaster so you don’t win the account, or your child getting bullied at school, or your boyfriend moving out. He had a very good and secret reason for doing all this and the only way you can move on, rather than forgiveness, is excuses for god’s very good and secret reasons for making terrible things happen.

Michael, responding to that comment:

This point you are making about the unequal relationship is exactly what pissed off Job. In the end of the book, God came down to answer him–not to apologize, but to be a jackass and ask pompous rhetorical questions. On a larger scale, this relationship is what the entire OT is about, or perhaps the entire Bible. It establishes God as a patriarch who is above question and even above his own law.

Substitutionary atonement requires us to accept that it’s alright for God to behave in ways that would be considered cruel and capricious from anyone else. It requires that we claim God is “good” in a way that doesn’t resemble what we would call “good” in any other context. It preaches a patriarchal God who brooks no defiance and demands perfection from others that “he” doesn’t live up to, and doesn’t have to live up to. In so doing it provides a script and model for authoritarian, hierarchical, abusive relationships between human beings that mirror the authoritarian, hierarchical, abusive relationship between God and humans.

Let’s be real. This is a god who simultaneously expects absolutely perfection from humans (and “graciously” provides it in the form of Jesus) and rationalization of his considerable flaws. He takes his anger out on undeserving people, becomes angry at the drop of a hat, requires that everything be done just so, demands constant praise and attention, thinks the entire world has has wronged him and holds eternal grudges, and thinks everyone should be grateful just to be around him, grateful for whatever they get from him, no matter how meager. In any other context, we’d call that narcissistic, and we’d certainly call it abusive.