An Easter Service That Missed the Mark

So, Easter 2019 has come and gone, and it couldn’t have been more awkward or spiritually depressing. I was too disturbed emotionally to post an uplifting Easter message on my blog, so I shared one from another blog: Letters to the Next Generation which I had found inspiring. My wife and I take my 94 year old mother to her Assemblies of God church, the denomination I had been raised in, every Sunday. As I have “deconstructed” my belief system over the past half dozen years I have come to realize that my faith has become at odds with that tribe’s belief system and have been looking for a “graceful” way to transition to a more open, affirming church, but in the meantime…we are kind of stuck with things the way they are.

As usual, the worship portion of the service was vibrant and uplifting, as is befitting a Pentecostal service. Unfortunately, the sermon was anything but. The pastor is a good man and means well. He has all the pieces of the puzzle, as do many evangelicals, but doesn’t seem to realize how the pieces are supposed to fit. He follows the same tired pattern of fitting the pieces together that Bible School has taught him, ignoring the solutions that don’t fit the evangelical dispensational narrative and forcing pieces together that don’t quite fit.

He started with some humorous antidotes and pictures from his recent trip to the Holy Land, a sort of Mecca for evangelicals. He remarked on the serine beauty and foliage surrounding the purported tomb of Jesus and pointed out the emptiness of the tomb and the promise of life rather than death it and the surroundings denoted. So far so good… Then the sermon took a turn: he started comparing other religions to Christianity. He tried to spin things so that it appeared he was taking, not about Christianity as a religion, but a relationship, but in evangelicalism “relationship with Jesus” ALWAYS means “religion,” belief in certain orthodox doctrines. So his attempts at painting other religions as man’s attempts to reach God, and Christianity as true “relationship,” sounded hollow.

Then he expounded on a frequent hot button issue recently, and a big factor in the Religious Rights war on society: inclusivity. In describing salvation he likened other religions and those outside traditional Christianity to Little League players who receive “participation trophies.” In his mind’s eye there should only be winners and losers. Participation trophies are for losers. As in all evangelical churches I’ve come across, evangelicals are the winning team of course, while all else earn a place in hell, no matter how good their intentions or how sincere the effort. This obsession with declaring who the losers are permeates much of evangelical teaching and in my opinion weakens the atonement and declares the Cross a failure.

In building his argument he used the usual scripture: “no man comes to the Father but by me,” John 14:6, to be interpreted as exclusive rather than a declaration of what God has done through Christ for ALL. Oddly, he quoted Jesus’ words from the Cross: “Father forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing,” Luke 23:34, as showing what great love God has for us, yet didn’t see the correlation between the two different verses. This is what I mean by evangelicals have all the pieces to the puzzle, but don’t know how to fit them together. How can Jesus’ request to the Father be sincere if God’s love is conditional? Did God then say, “sorry Son, I know you mean well, but only a few will be forgiven?” The request becomes entirely rhetorical and utterly meaningless in evangelical teaching. And, of course, it puts Jesus at odds with the Father, another problem altogether.

Without getting into the early church teaching on Universal Reconciliation, which was the default for almost 500 years, I will say that Jesus IS the means by which all will be saved, and it is ONLY through Him that the Father has accomplished that, and that ALL will eventually declare Him Lord, and every knee shall bow Philippians 2:10-11. This is not a forced obeisance, a powerful overlord demanding worship from the vanquished, as some evangelicals believe, but the accomplishment of the fruition of the Coming Age, when YHWH is declared Lord of all. The evangelical God is too petty, too vindictive and to tribal to be Lord of All.

So in conclusion, a missed opportunity, a service that did not provide hope and was more bad news than Good News. A sermon that predictably followed the usual confirmation biases and settled for “alternate facts,” having the pieces but not following the picture on the box cover. So close, yet so far.

Ps. I don’t think I have stressed strongly enough the implications the pastor was suggesting in his attack or critique of “inclusivity.” In the “culture war” that the Religious Right has been waging, a war that has its roots in the antebellum South, the resistance to inclusivity has strong racial and sexual overtones. Although the sermon weaponized the Bible against people who fell outside evangelical conventions, historically evangelical exclusivity has been used to exclude, not just those of other religions, but women, minorities, entire races (other than Whites), and people of non-binary sexual inclinations. It is a White, patriarchal dog-whistle that divides, rather than unites people.

While I am sure that the good pastor was not intentionally implying those exclusions: most White evangelicals are oblivious to their subconscious biases, it was there, nonetheless. The problem with the whole winner-loser approach of evangelicalism is that it totally misses the point of Jesus’ interactions with women, Samaritans, sinners, outsiders and the Romans themselves. Jesus was very inclusive…it disturbed the leadership of Second Temple Judaism deeply, and like the frustrations of evangelicals with inclusivity today, brought Jesus into direct conflict with the religious leadership of Jesus’ day.

A point I hear raised repeatedly by evangelicals I interact with online, is the belief that Jesus was religiously conservative. I firmly believe, had he been so, he would have fit in nicely with the Pharisees and Sadducees of his day. He would have sided with one on some topics and the other on other topics. He would have simply been just another rabbi arguing the finer points of the Law of Moses. But he was not. His teaching was a shot across the bow of Second Temple Judaism, a call for religious conservatives to repent. I wish evangelicals could see the Pharisee within their ranks.

Thinking Out Loud: Atonement Part 2

The “penal substitutionary atonement theory,” PSA, is the default standard amongst evangelicals for explaining Jesus’ atonement on the Cross. The theory goes back about 500 years in the church, championed by John Calvin, who had a legal background, hence the legalistic slant. While Anselm 1033-1109, saw the atonement largely as a compensation paid back to God for the debt we owed, Calvin and the other Protestant Reformers saw Christ’s death not so much as payment or satisfaction of a debt owed, but taking on a punishment that we deserved. Thus basing the atonement on satisfaction of God’s wrathful punishment.

The basic critique of the Reformers new view came from Faustus Socinus, 1539-1604, who brought up some strong criticisms of the PSA view. First off, taking satisfaction negates giving pardon, they are incompatible. Justice is not served by killing an innocent in the place of the guilty, which is scapegoating, nor can a temporary death of one cover the eternal death of many. Basically he set the stage for a debate that continues today.

Gregory Boyd has some interesting objections I will share.

1 “Does God really need to appease his wrath with a blood sacrifice in order to forgive us? If so, does this mean that the law of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” is the ultimate description of God’s character? And if this is true, what are we to make of Jesus’ teaching that this law is surpassed by the law of love? Not only this, but what are we to make of all the instances in the Bible where God forgives people without demanding a sacrifice (e.g. the prodigal son)?”

2 “If God’s holiness requires that a sacrifice be made before he can fellowship with sinners, how did Jesus manage to hang out with sinners without a sacrifice, since he is as fully divine and as holy as God the Father?”

3 “If Jesus’ death allows God the Father to accept us, wouldn’t it be more accurate to say that Jesus reconciles God to us than it is to say Jesus reconciles us to God? Yet the New Testament claims the latter and never the former (e.g. 2 Cor. 5:18-20). In fact, if God loves sinners and yet can’t accept sinners without a sacrifice, wouldn’t it be even more accurate to say that God reconciles God to himself than to say he reconciles us to God? But this is clearly an odd and unbiblical way of speaking.”

4 “How are we to understand one member of the Trinity (the Father) being wrathful towards another member of the Trinity (the Son), when they are, along with the Holy Spirit, one and the same God? Can God be truly angry with God? Can God actually punish God?”

5 “If God the father needs someone to “pay the price” for sin, does the Father ever really forgive anyone? Think about it. If you owe me a hundred dollars and I hold you to it unless someone pays me the owed sum, did I really forgive your debt? It seems not, especially since the very concept of forgiveness is about releasing a debt — not collecting it from someone else.”

6 “Are sin and guilt the sorts of things that can be literally transferred from one party to another? Related to this, how are we to conceive of the Father being angry towards Jesus and justly punishing him when he of course knew Jesus never did anything wrong?”

7 “If the just punishment for sin is eternal hell (as most Christians have traditionally believed), how does Jesus’ several hours of suffering and his short time in the grave pay for it?”

8 “If the main thing Jesus came to do was to appease the Father’s wrath by being slain by him for our sin, couldn’t this have been accomplished just as easily when (say) Jesus was a one-year-old boy as when he was a thirty-three year old man? Were Jesus’ life, teachings, healing and deliverance ministry merely a prelude to the one really important thing he did – namely, die? It doesn’t seem to me that the Gospels divide up and prioritize the various aspects of Jesus’ life in this way. (I maintain that everything Jesus did was about one thing – overcoming evil with love. Hence, every aspect of Jesus was centered on atonement — that is, reconciling us to God and freeing us from the devil’s oppression.)”

9 “To raise a more controversial question, if it’s true that God’s wrath must be appeased by sacrificing his own Son, then don’t we have to conclude that pagans who have throughout history sacrificed their children to appease the gods’ wrath had the right intuition, even if they expressed it in the wrong way?”

10 “What is the intrinsic connection between what Jesus did on the cross and how we actually live? The Penal Substitution view makes it seem like the real issue in need of resolution is a legal matter in the heavenly realms between God’s holy wrath and our sin. Christ’s death changes how God sees us, but this theory says nothing about how Christ’s death changes us. This is particularly concerning to me because every study done on the subject has demonstrated that for the majority of Americans who believe in Jesus, their belief makes little or no impact on their life. I wonder if the dominance of this legal-transaction view of the atonement might be partly responsible for this tragic state of affairs.”

Boyd

http://reknew.org/2015/12/10-problems-with-the-penal-substitution-view-of-the-atonement/

The legalistic position of PSA adherents, that it satisfies justice, as I have pointed out before, really is not a just system, as Jesus was unjustly murdered. It presents us with an unjust Heavenly Father. Hyper-Calvinists like John Piper usually revert to “mystery,” that is, God’s purposes are unknowable, beyond our understanding. (I am constantly amused that those who can build elaborate intellectual rationales for God’s behavior, then fall back on mystery when flaws are revealed). 

As Piper has stated “It’s right for God to slaughter women and children anytime he pleases. God gives life and he takes life. Everybody who dies, dies because God wills that they die. God is taking life every day. He will take 50,000 lives today. Life is in God’s hand. God decides when your last heartbeat will be, and whether it ends through cancer or a bullet wound. God governs.”

Piper YouTube

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=taYhbRm6pnU

Piper’s basic rational, and an underlying principal of PSA, is that “God is not beholden to us at all. He doesn’t owe us anything.

Now add to that the fact we’re all sinners and deserve to die and go to hell yesterday, and the reality that we’re even breathing today is sheer common grace from God.” (Ibid.)

It is rather difficult, as one might imagine, to understand A. How is God loving? B. Is this a good “Father image?” C. How can rape, genocide and the murder of children be attributed to the loving God Jesus presents us with.

Was PSA the dominant view held in the early church? No, it was Christus Victor for the first millennium. In this view, Christ is seen as victorious over sin, death and the grave. Mankind was viewed as captive to the powers of evil, Christ rescued us. Sometimes attached, is the view that a “ransom” payment was made to the devil, as is presented in “The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe,” a trap of sorts sprung on Satan, but this is not intrinsic to the Christus Victor theory of atonement, nor particularly convincing.

One of the awkward aspects of PSA that CV overcomes is the disjuncture of the Godhead necessitated in PSA. Christus Victor “reverses this view by uniting Jesus and His Father during the Crucifixion in a subversive condemnation of the unjust powers of darkness. This is followed by the natural emphasis of Christus Victor: the Father’s vindication of Jesus in His victorious and bodily Resurrection.” 

“While largely held only by Orthodox Christians for much of the last one thousand years, the Christus Victor theory is becoming increasingly popular with both paleo-orthodox evangelicals because of its connection to the early Church fathers, and with liberal Christians and peace churches such as the Anabaptist Mennonites because of its subversive nature, seeing the death of Jesus as an exposure of the cruelty and evil present in the worldly powers that rejected and killed him, and the resurrection as a triumph over these powers.”

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christus_Victor

I think it not inconsequential, and a bit ironic, that historically the church has been divided on these two views of the atonement. There is more at play here, then mere theological hair-splitting. The PSA teaching arose out of a church world view in which the Catholic Church (and later, the Protestant Church) sought to control all of society through dominance and violence. In Christus Victor, it is those very evil tendencies that Jesus fights and overcomes. Gods who are violent produce violent followers. This has been proven time and time again historically, and is true of all religions. What we see happening in western Christianity is a concerted effort to disavow its past violence and any connection to its conception of a violent God. To repaint its past, if you will.

Unfortunately, orthodox evangelicalism begins with a violent God in the OT, continues with God’s need for a violent atonement, and ends with Jesus returning to slay most of mankind. God is straightjacketed into this human mindset of violence as the ultimate solution. It is a betrayal of the Jesus, who, on the cross, employed his Heavenly Father to “forgive them,” the very ones murdering him. The church needs a better solution to mankind’s problems then one that starts and ends with violence.

Thinking Out Loud: Atonement

I am only just beginning Greg Boyd’s massive 2 volume work, “Crucifixion of the Warrior God,” so I cannot speak exhaustibly to his argument, but I think the core issue raised by my fellow progressives is whether or not the OT sacrificial legal system of propitiation in itself is a human misunderstanding of the God-human relationship. When one examines the tribal God concept presented in the OT, then contrast that with the explicit universalism of the Gospel message, there is a definite disconnect.
To question the validity of the propitiatory nature of the OT view of atonement is difficult for most evangelicals due to certain presuppositions about the very nature of scripture itself. But the question we need to ask is, how much, if any, of the Jewish (OT) understanding of propitiation is carried over into the work of Christ on the Cross? That God is presented as wrathful in the OT, sometimes his anger is directed at the Israelites themselves, sometimes at Israel’s enemies, is clear. Does Jesus command for enemy love reflect a change in God’s attitude towards mankind, or does it reflect Jesus’ recognition that the Jews had got some things wrong?
Bearing in mind that much of the cultus surrounding the Hebrew sacrificial system was corporate, i.e., concerned with maintaining election as God’s chosen people, as opposed to the surrounding heathen nations, the prophet’s complaint that God desires “mercy not sacrifice,” is particularly telling. Is this not, a precursor to a growing understanding that God’s primary attitude towards mankind is not wrath at our sins, but love and mercy in spite of them? That God’s love extends to all mankind, not just Israel?
If God’s desire is inclined towards mercy rather than a legal transaction (justice and mercy are opposites), then the cross becomes, not a legal transaction where justice is served (killing an innocent is hardly justice), but becomes an indictment of the entire sacrificial system. The murder of the Son of God, by the very people who believe they are honoring God by doing so, becomes the ultimate religious absurdity, and underscores the failure of the entire system.
If this understanding is correct, then Jesus’ death is not a culmination of the Law, but a repudiation of the Law. The nails in Jesus’ hands and feet become the nails in the coffin lid of the Law. This, I believe, fits more easily into the drastic contrast that Paul makes between Law and Grace in his writings and explains Jesus’ sometimes cavalier attitude towards it. It is God’s no to sacrifice and scapegoating, and yes to mercy. It is why we live, not under the Law, but under Grace. Why, because the Law fails to bring about a change of heart. As we saw with the scribes and Pharisees, it only “washes the outside of the cup.”
Salvation is a love affair, not a legal transaction. PSA takes the romance out of the equation and makes God captive to his own holiness. His hands are tied. Someone has to die.