Up until a couple years ago, I would have presented the message of Christianity (the “Gospel”) this way:
All humans have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. He’s perfectly just, so he has to punish sin. He punishes sin with death. You are a sinner and God must punish you forever in hell. Jesus stepped in and took your place, absorbing the punishment from God. You are now in the clear and heading to heaven… If you believe that Jesus did this.
Sure, most teachers or doctrinal statements would not convey it quite this bluntly. But, this is what is heard. I would guess that is how most of us would communicate the “gospel.”
It never sat quite right. It didn’t seem consistent with the character of Yahweh God that I read about. It also didn’t make logical sense.
The word “gospel” in Greek is euangelio — essentially meaning “good message” or “good news.” However, the message that I thought and taught until a couple years ago did not seem like “good news” to me or the people I shared it with. This is news of a God who has to punish people because he cannot be around them unless they’re perfect. This is news that contorts the animal sacrifices in the Old Testament into some sort of appeasement for a blood-thirsty God — much resembling the pagan gods of the nations that surrounded ancient Israel. (To better understand why God had Israel sacrifice animals, watch this awesome video. Also, Greg Boyd is really clear.)
What has been refreshing for me is learning that the caricature “gospel” that I told above is a rather “new” idea — gaining its full form in the 1500s with the reformers (most notably Luther and Calvin.¹) It’s called the Penal Substitution view of atonement and it has become the dominant view in western Christianity.
As Mako Nagasawa points out, this caricature gospel creates a God who’s default mode is retribution, not restoration. God needs or wants to take out his wrath on someone (animals in the Old Testament, and people ever since) but Jesus (who is God) steps in the way and absorbs the blow for us. How nice of him. But, it sounds a lot more like God saving himself from himself by using himself (Jesus.) It makes no sense to me.
In comparison, ancient orthodox Christian’s believed that we humans had screwed up our primary, God-given vocation. They believed that there were natural consequences created by placing created things above the Creator — not a divine punishment that had to be doled out on someone.
Tom Wright describes the natural implications of our behavior like this:
The reason “sin” leads to death is not at all that “death” is an arbitrary and somewhat draconian punishment for miscellanous moral shortcomings. The link is deeper than that. It’s like the difference between the ticket you will get if you are caught driving too fast and the crash that will happen if you drive too fast around a sharp bend on a wet road. The crash is intrinsic, the direct consequence of the behavior.
Some of this mix up comes from misunderstanding Genesis 1 and 2 to be a scientific portrayal of how the earth was made.² Rather, Genesis 1 and 2 are describing a great vocational calling for all humans. What is this vocation? It’s to be “a genuine human being, with genuinely human tasks to perform as part of the Creator’s purpose for his world. The main task of this vocation is ‘image-bearing,’ reflecting the Creator’s wise stewardship into the world and reflecting the praises of all creation back to its maker.”³
We were given jobs of ruling creation, of bringing about creations full potential. Of taking care of life, fellow humans, animals, and plants. Of creating communities, schools, agriculture, and villages. We were giving the responsibility to have power and use it for good. This is our true calling and it’s an act of worship to the Creator.
What’s wrong with us humans is then much more than breaking God’s moral law and ticking off the Creator. That’s just a symptom of the real problem: We were called to have responsibility and authority over creation, but we flipped that vocation upside down. We worshiped and gave allegiance to powers and forces within creation — this is idolatry. These forces (some seen like power, money, and sex, and some not seen) have usurped our power and taken over. The natural result of that is death, spoiling human lives, destroying the beautiful creation, and turning God’s world into a hell.
The human problem is idolatry and the corruption of our true vocation, not just “sin.”
I believe a better, more ancient view of what was achieved through Jesus’s death has to do with the restoration of human vocation, of Israel’s vocation, and of the larger divine purpose for the world.
I’m going to explore these topics in coming posts.
1. There were many good things about the Reformation. However, the reformers were mainly focused on fixing purgatory and indulgences. The reformers mostly ratified the penal substitution view of atonement.
2. Genesis 1 and 2 is often, sadly, defended as a scientific textbook for how the world came into existence, instead of the beginning Israel’s story. Check out John Walton’s talk on Human Origins.
3. The Day the Revolution Began by Tom Wright
4. Saved from Sacrifice by Mark S. Heim
5. I See Satan Fall Like Lightning by René Girard