[This post is part of a series of reflections on Disbelieving Church. If you have not already done so, please check out the Introduction for a little background and a few disclaimers.]
Attending church was a regular feature of my existence from infanthood until I reached the age of 34 years, 4 months and 2 weeks. Since that time I have attended two church-related events, neither of which was a Sunday morning service, and both of which caused me to experience symptoms of anxiety.
From my earliest memories I have been conscious of a presence that I have always called God. As a young child I was taught that the proper response to this presence was make Jesus “the boss of my life” and be baptised. This I did at the age of 7. Over the years I had many subsequent encounters with the presence called God, and each time I interpreted them through the lenses of the conservative Christian world in which I was living.
All of this means that I was well versed in principles of penal substitution before I had any idea that is what it was called. I was taught the Romans Road and given instructions on how to make and use a “witness bracelet” – the red bead is Jesus’ blood, the black is the sinful human heart, the green is new life in Christ, etc. All of these things were as much a feature of my mental landscape as the principles of mathematics and grammar or the history of the United States.
As a teenager I remember a girl in the youth group recommitting her life to Jesus after describing her first profession of faith as “fire insurance.” I remember being somewhat surprised by this statement, my faith was never about avoiding hell or going to heaven. Even then it was just, simply, about following Jesus and persevering in relationship with the Presence that had always been at the core of my being.
It was not until I began to study theology in my early twenties that I learned there are other ways of understanding salvation – theories of soteriology, if you will. In soteriological studies penal substitution takes its place alongside other theories of salvation such as theosis (roughly translated as divinisation), Christus Victor (Jesus triumphant), satisfaction (an honour focused version of substitution), and scapegoating (also known as mimetic theory).
One of the most life-changing courses in theology I ever took was entitled “What is Salvation?” I will always be grateful to Dr. Tarmo Toom for opening my eyes and my thoughts to the many, many ways in which the concept of salvation has been worked out and understood over the long history of the church. “Jesus died for my sins” is, historically, a very recent understanding of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
Fast forward a few years and I met a man who was fascinated by the concepts of scapegoating and mimetic desire as a way to understand the work of God in Jesus. It took me a while to understand this rather opposite way of looking at the cross, but once I got it, it wouldn’t let go of me. A God who would kill his own son in punishment for (anyone’s) sin, is a terrifying prospect. A God in the form of a man who drew violence to himself by refusing to participate in the violent and oppressive systems of his day; that God, I can get excited about.
So, over the last 10 or 15 years my understanding of the concept of “salvation” has altered so much, that I find traditional (Free/Protestant) church language to be, basically, offensive.
I don’t know what happens when people die – if the soul survives in another form or another place. Perhaps we cease to be. Perhaps we are drawn into the heart of God – love and peace. I do know that I don’t believe in the traditional understanding of heaven as a place we are reunited with our dead loved ones – harps, clouds, angels, or even some glorified version of life on earth without dirt or bad things. I don’t believe in it, not because I wish to deny its existence, but simply because its existence is irrelevant to me. Following Jesus provides me with plenty to do on this earth, to make the world a better place right now rather than betting on an “eternal” (which has nothing to do with duration of time, by the way, so “10,000 years” is categorically false) life after death that I have no reason to expect apart from particular readings of a few passages of scripture and highly questionable reports of near-death experiences.
It follows logically that I do not believe in hell (as a place of eternal torment/damnation for not believing the right things) either. I have slowly, but irrevocably, come to the realisation that I wouldn’t follow a God who would condemn divinely created people, the objects of divine love, to such a place, for any reason.
There are plenty of ways to understand and interpret the relevant scripture passages without a necessary belief in either heaven or hell, and, as I have no firsthand knowledge of “life after death,” I prefer to remain an agnostic on the subject.
It follows then, that the reasons for belief in and following of Jesus have nothing to do with where we go when we die and everything to do with how we live while we are here. In fact, you could almost say that I don’t believe “salvation” is necessary, at least not in any traditional sense.
So, I’ve come to realise that I don’t believe that Jesus died for my sins, but I do believe he died because of our sins.
I don’t believe he died for me. He died for us.
Jesus died because we (humanity) wouldn’t listen and we don’t see, because no lesser sacrifice would have made his point. In the end, he died because human beings killed him rather than face the truth, or even the possibility, of a God who lives among and serves the weak, the outcast, the hated, and the unclean. It was humanity’s lust for power that killed Jesus. Not an abstract, Platonic concept of sin operating within a sacrificial, divine justice system.
The church culture of which I have been a part has been dominated by the perpetuation and propagation of just such a divine justice system, desperate to warn people of their ultimate destiny after death and bring them into the fold of right belief and right relationship in order to save them from “the wrath of God.” For those to whom this belief is dear, there is nothing more loving than attempting to save people from eternal torment.
When I took my first steps on the road towards ministry, I thought I could coexist with such people in the (I thought) wide family of the Baptist church which so values “freedom of conscience.” I learned, however, that I could only coexist within that context by keeping silence and allowing my silence to be taken as consent. In time it became impossible for me to maintain my silence because doing so had become living a lie – allowing other people to believe I agreed with them when, simply put, I did not. My desire to live honestly, with no real or perceived pressure to suppress my true beliefs, has driven me out of church.
Eternal life is now. Heaven is here. Salvation is wellbeing and life and hope in this life, for all. The job of Jesus’ followers is to follow in his footsteps, seeking to bring that wellbeing and life and hope to those for whom such things are far from reality. The death of Jesus is a tragic reminder that standing for such principles is costly, dangerous, and potentially deadly, and all who seek to follow him should count that cost.