Retribution or Restoration

The misguided language of debt and atonement by means of a blood sacrifice has had a detrimental effect on Christianity for 2,000 years. It still holds countless people in its insidious grip. The “substitutionary atonement theory,” as theologians described it, promoted the crazy idea that God needed to sacrifice Jesus, in the most violent manner, before God could embrace us. What kind of warped logic would dictate that God would require the torture and death of God’s only begotten Son to appease the sinfulness of humankind?

For centuries we’ve been told and believed that Jesus had to die on the cross to take the steam out of God’s anger. How does that square with the idea that God is love? Does it make any sense that Jesus’ incarnation into our broken world was predicated on our sinfulness? That would mean that God’s self-emptying act of love in assuming human flesh was merely a reaction to our bad behavior instead of a freely given, unmerited act of pure love. Retributive justice is not in harmony with the infinite goodness God. The entire message of Jesus could be boiled down to: God is a God of love and mercy.

Because God is good, we don’t have to be good before God loves us. God loves us in our sinfulness. Thank God! God doesn’t wish to punish us for our sins; God simply wants us to stop sinning, not because our sins “hurt” God, but because they hurt us…which saddens God. Nothing we do, whether good or bad, can make God love us any more or any less.

Sadly, we seem to prefer punishment to mercy. We are eager to condemn people to the eternal fires of hell. We want retribution not restoration. In the crucified Christ, the unhelpful notion of atonement has been replaced by the uplifting reality of grace. We need not get caught up in the useless game of counting and weighing our sins, heaping layer upon layer of condemnation and guilt upon ourselves. We simply need to recognize our sins and, by God’s unmerited grace, turn away from sinning and begin to act in more loving and less self-centered way. Jesus turned the old religious model of a judgmental, vengeful God on its head. God has been, is, and will be forever in solidarity with all of creation, all suffering, and all joy. God’s is present in everything, everywhere, always. The resurrection miracle of Easter opens our eyes to seeing God in everyone and everything but sin.


2 Responses to “Retribution or Restoration”

  1. 1 aliceny March 23, 2015 at 1:22 pm

    This is perfect, Gerry. It is THE best explanation of ‘atonement’ (at-one-ment) that I have ever seen. I grew up in an era (Catholic school education, hell & brimstone sermons, etc.) where I heard more about a vengeful, stern, unforgiving, unapproachable God that permeated and set the tone for my Christian belief system until I was in my 30s. That’s a hell of a long time to carry that burden!

    And then — then I was graced and gifted to meet and to fall in love with the Incarnate God, Jesus the Christ, and my life changed forever. Since that time, I take every opportunity to introduce Him to relatives, acquaintances, and strangers.

    Thank you for this and bless you for all that you do so well in your various ministries.

  2. 2 krebsjoan March 24, 2015 at 3:42 am

    Gerry, you probably realize my appreciation for the content of this blog. It exasperates me no end that people still sometimes push the idea that Jesus’ purpose in coming on this earth was to die for our sins (mine particularly). This kind of spirituality doesn’t help at all.

    “God has been and will be forever in solidarity with all of creation, all suffering and all joy.” as you so well said above. I’d only add that it’s a Triune God who is in solidarity, etc. (the Spirit is often forgotten and yet Jesus stressed her importance by stating that he (Jesus) had to go in order for the Spirit to come. Our whole time is that of the Spirit….). Jesus didn’t come to die therefore; he came as precursor to Spirit-life. And that, for me, confirms your final sentence: ” The resurrection miracle of Easter opens our eyes to seeing God in everyone and everything but sin.” Thank you Gerry for these thoughts. I’ll carry them with me. They are enlivening for the Lenten end-game.

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