Death has problematized my view of life.
That’s how I start, “Death, Hope and the Laughter of God.” The line said it all for me at the time. Still does. It leaves me realizing that mostly, I am just left with questions. These questions, like scribbled notes, shoved deep into fissures, serve as kindling for a roaring fire in the foundation of who I am. You know, questions burn differently than answers. Answers, like high-octane fuel, burn bright but quick. About the time an answer is identified, it flames out in mocking dissipation. Answers are instant, and ephemeral, and often cheap. But, questions? They linger, and expand, and combust. They flame up in ways that answers simply cannot. Good questions are what makes the world go around. And good questions about injustice? Well, they’ll keep you busy for decades.
I took a deep-dive into question-asking after my daughter died on January 1, 2015. Lots of questions. You've been through loss too, so you can probably relate to the countless questions I asked. They were about fairness, about expectations, about why bad things happen to us, what’s the point, what did my daughter’s death mean, etc… Finally, what I realized is no matter how I asked the questions, all of them were attached to one central question: Why did Jesus have to die? If Jesus is God’s son, the death of Jesus is the most ludicrous act in mankind’s history. Why in the world did He have to die?
Before January 1, 2015, I had a variety of answers to the questions of why did Jesus die? Now I have one. I’ll supply it in a few paragraphs. (And that’s what you call a teaser.) Most of my old answers were dominated, in some shape or another, by a theory often referred to as the Penal Substitutionary Atonement Theory (PSA). PSA teaches us, more or less, that we’re all born irreparably marred by our sin(s). That our sins separated us from God. That the only way we could be in proper relationship with God again is to trust in His Son who died for us. That the sacrifice of Jesus satisfied the debt we owed God, and because of this sacrifice when God looks at us, He sees Jesus and therefore loves us. Without the death of Jesus God wouldn’t even be able to be around us, for (cue the long list of verses that are bent slightly out of context) “what fellowship does darkness have with light?” Or, as I have heard many times, how could the holiness of God be in a relationship with us in our sin? I was told it was impossible for us to experience the love of God without the death of Jesus. Though PSA is not the gospel, (it’s a theory) it was sold to me as the gospel, and it told me, that the requirement for God to forgive was the death of His son.
But, after 1/1/2015 I really started thinking about this whole thing differently. I pretty quickly began to reject any idea of God that started with frustration, anger, or God needing a sacrifice. I decided once and for all that God actually is love. I begin starting and ending all my thoughts about God with love. Furthermore, I recognized in Jesus, someone acquainted with suffering. And I was almost shocked to learn that, in spite of what I had been taught, God was, “in Christ reconciling the world to himself…” (Not the other way around. God wasn’t in the world reconciling himself…) In other words, God wasn’t distant when Jesus died. He wasn’t aloof. He didn’t’ turn His back. He wasn’t waiting for Jesus to get His attention. No, He was there with Jesus. The cross didn’t happen because Jesus needed to gain God’s attention. God was already there. This puts to death, literally, the idea that one needs to sacrifice for God. He’s already with us. Present.
Why was this such a great discovery for me? Because if God’s mercy is conditionally tied to the death of His own son, then certainly God’s mercy could be conditionally tied to the death of my daughter. And frankly, I’m not interested in serving a god who needs to kill anyone to be happy. We have enough gods like that. It’s just not that impressive. It doesn’t sound like a real God to me. What it sounds like is a petty, jealous, small-minded, bully. Anyone can be mean. Anyone can seek revenge. It’s not even creative. It’s a projection of what humans do. A real God could forgive. Like in Jesus’ story of The Prodigal Son? Remember what the father in that story did when his lost son returned? (Remember how he said, “Excuse me,” then ran and found some village boy to whip and kill to get himself in the proper frame of mind to forgive? Oh, no, wait’s that not how it goes.) The father in Jesus’ story simply forgives! Imagine that? A God who forgives without the need for sacrifice.
So, to answer the teaser I offered up earlier… I used to have a variety of answers to the question of why did Jesus have to die? Now I have one. It’s simple: Because we killed him. Which leads to the more interesting question of why he ever showed up in the first place? And the answer to that seems to be, well, he just couldn’t help himself... He loves us.
This whole thing is about love.
I referenced a line from 2Corinthians 5 earlier. Here’s another one from that same chapter, “From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view…” The human point of view is that acceptance only happens by way of sacrifice. It demands the other person conform to our standards, our thinking, and our way of life. More broadly, it demands the less-powerful conform to the more-powerful. You might even say that the human point of view is being used whenever we see, "the one" being forced to conform to, "the ninety-nine." But guess who Jesus goes after? "The one!" I'm convinced this is why the church has so easily missed it with slavery, with unhealthy patriarchy, the divorced, the LGTBQ+, and a thousand other people and things over the years. We kept (and keep) thinking this thing is about power, but no, we no longer view others from a human point of view. We view them from God’s view… love. Love isn’t about power. It's the giving up of power. It’s giving up the right to determine who goes to heaven and hell. It's giving up authority to say who's in and who's out. It’s giving up ALL rules, except one: the unruly rule of abundance.
It’s true that death has problematized my life. It’s turned everything upside down for me. But, upside down I found God. And I keep finding God. Present. With me. I was looking for solutions, but what I found was solidarity. Nothing can break God’s solidarity with us. Nothing can separate us from love. That’s an atonement theory.