What if you believed, as I do, that Jesus did not die to save us from our wretched sins? What if God sent Jesus to show us an incalculable, immeasurable love without regard to our sinfulness, knowing it would be that very sinfulness that would be the cause of his beloved Son’s death? Would that make a difference in your life?
Imagine my excitement when I recently read the following meditation by Richard Rohr. Finally, one of my heart’s deepest beliefs is put into words I could not express more powerfully:
Love, Not Atonement
The common Christian reading of the Bible is that Jesus “died for our sins”–either to pay a debt to the devil (common in the first millennium) or to pay a debt to God the Father (proposed by Anselm of Canterbury, 1033-1109). Anselm’s infamous Cur Deus Homo has been called “the most unfortunately successful piece of theology ever written.” My hero, Franciscan philosopher and theologian John Duns Scotus (1266-1308), agreed with neither of these understandings. Scotus was not guided by the Temple language of debt, atonement, or blood sacrifice (understandably used in the Gospels and by Paul).
After Anselm, Christians have paid a huge price for what theologians called “substitutionary atonement theory”–the strange idea that before God could love us God needed and demanded Jesus to be a blood sacrifice to atone for our sin-drenched humanity. With that view, salvation depends upon a problem instead of a divine proclamation about the core nature of reality. As if God could need payment, and even a very violent transaction, to be able to love and accept “his” own children….
For Scotus, the incarnation of God and the redemption of the world could never be a mere mop-up exercise in response to human sinfulness, but the proactive work of God from the very beginning. We were “chosen in Christ before the world was made,” as the hymn in Ephesians puts it (1:4). Our sin could not possibly be the motive for the divine incarnation, but only perfect love and divine self-revelation! For Scotus, God never merely reacts, but always supremely and freely acts, and always acts totally out of love. Scotus was very Trinitarian.
The best way I can summarize how Scotus tried to change the old notion of retributive justice is this: Jesus did not come to change the mind of God about humanity (it did not need changing)! Jesus came to change the mind of humanity about God.
That changes everything. Or at least it should.
John 3:16 tells us, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.” Where does it say, “God was so fed up with us that he sent His only Son to straighten us out and then die to erase our sins”? Because, hello, his death didn’t erase our sins! Think about it. Was everyone suddenly perfect after that? NO! The horrors we have committed against each other through the ages would defy logic if that were true.
So, believing that Jesus died to atone for our sins doesn’t make sense. Does it? At least, it doesn’t to me. I mean, come on, can you see Jesus returning to His Father as they contemplate his thirty-two-year experiment gone bad? “Okay Son let’s try something different. Can’t do the whole wipe the slate clean thing again (Genesis 6:5-10:32), I promised I wouldn’t.”
Now, you could counter with the possibility that the whole “Love” thing didn’t work either. After all, we are still sinning and hating and killing each other. BUT…many of us (I hope that includes me), in spite of ourselves, are really trying to change each day; trying to find our hope in the love and mercy of God; trying to love our neighbor as ourselves. Just like Paul, we often fail, but we know God’s love will prevail in the end.
How often do we read stories of people, from biblical times to the present who have given their lives for others without regard for themselves? All Jesus’ disciples, except for John, died martyrs for their faith. Would they have done that for someone who came to tell them how wretched they were?
If Jesus had come to teach us a lesson I’m imagining him bemoaning his fate for the likes of us. His own disciples were a bunch of misfits. Why didn’t he just shake his head in disgust and walk away? “They’re hopeless losers. I’m outta here”! And yet, we seem to find it easier to believe the Atonement theory. Why? Perhaps it makes God a cruel judge who doles out conditional love which brings Him down to our level and justifies a lukewarm religion we can easily become comfortable with. That kind of God you want to keep at arm’s length because you never know what will set Him off!
If you can’t wrap your head around the inexhaustible love God has for you, perhaps it’s time to quit comparing Him to earthly fathers, even if yours regularly received the “Father of the Year” award. He still has his faults.
My father was not abusive like my mother, but he was an absentee father. He never showed us affection: no hugs, no sense of “gosh, I’m really glad you’re here, glad you’re my daughter.” No expression of love. My great aunt once told me she never remembered either of my parents even holding us. It took me a long time to realize and accept that he couldn’t express love, he just didn’t know how because no one in his life ever did, a reality of his humanness and his parents humanness, and on and on.
The reality of our humanness is why, I believe, God came to earth incarnate – to show us His love in the flesh. This is what it looks like people.”
“Even though we were still sinners” (Romans 5:8).
May we witness anew God’s magnificent LOVE for each and every one of us. My prayer is that we will live fully in the light of that LOVE that has no bounds, knows no limits, and believes in our intrinsic worth – even when we don’t.
Here’s a question to ponder at the foot of the Cross: Could you be so courageous as to give up your life for a friend – or more importantly – the jerk down the street that never liked you and would likely never change after your funeral?
May you know the amazing and unconditional love of God, the peace of Christ, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit like never before!