An earnest young man stopped me outside a café. With eyes burning bright he told me that Easter was about God sending his son Jesus to die for my sins. I told him that I didn't want anyone to die for me. He went on: God loved me he said; God wanted me to be saved. I tried to tell him that I already felt loved and didn't want to be saved. He kept on going, telling me about God's plan of salvation and quoting verses of the Bible. Eventually I politely walked away.
I don't think ill of the young man. Indeed probably 40 years ago I wasn't too different. The young man had had an experience of the numinous, the sacred Other. It had touched and changed his life. But the only language he had to express that experience was interpretations of words penned nearly 2,000 years ago.
As the years go by I find some of the doctrines I accepted as a young teenager increasingly irrelevant. At Easter one can recite Scripture verses as if they are self-evident facts, rather than stories trying to comprehend the incomprehensible. Sometimes I feel a little like the child criticizing the Emperor's wardrobe. What do these old words really mean for us today? What is the substance of them? Do they make sense? Or are they just as relevant to modern life as Homer’s Iliad?
It seems for some Christians [maybe most?] that Easter is predicated upon the idea that God made humans, located them in a paradise, and was in harmony with them. Then due to the snake, the woman, the man… this unity was shattered. God and humans tried all sorts of ways to restore the harmony, with ultimately all of them being unsuccessful.
Then, so this story goes, God sent his son Jesus. Jesus was in harmony with God and was allegedly unsoiled by human sinfulness. At the end of his short life the Romans executed him. Some of his followers then interpreted his death by means of a sacrificial metaphor. Jesus was the unblemished lamb who voluntarily became the scapegoat for humanity. By the shedding of his blood human sinfulness was overlooked by the God who couldn’t be in harmony with humanity due our sinfulness. Humans, by trusting in the saving actions of Jesus, could now have fellowship with God.
Although liberal Christians, particularly in the twentieth century, interpreted this salvation schema in ways to make it more palatable to the modern mind, its foundations remain highly questionable. It seems to believe that God is pure and humanity impure. It seems to say God is up, we are down, and Jesus is sent down in order to make us able to go up. It seems to believe that the Bible is factual, and is the definitive record of God’s dealings with humanity. It seems to believe that dying can be efficacious. Most fundamentally it seems to believe that hope is engendered when individuals trust in the saving virtues of Jesus’ death, trust that God can now love them, and feel ‘saved’. Like the horrific tale of Noah’s Ark the true believers in this salvation schema can be saved while the rest of humanity drowns in disbelief and sin.
Maybe the young man outside the café thought I was drowning. Maybe he thought an apocalyptic tsunami was coming and I needed to get into the religious ark. Maybe he had never met someone like me who would prefer to drown with the vast majority than be saved by a God who only chooses a few.
I don't believe God is an omnipotent being – indeed not a ‘being’ at all. I don’t believe that God made people from dust, put them in an original paradise, and then cast them out when they wouldn’t keep to ‘His’ rules. I don't believe there was a literal Garden of Eden. I think we have always had the propensity for both good and evil, and we evolved that way. The first few chapters of Genesis are an interesting tale of origins, but are as real as the god Maui fishing up the North Island of New Zealand.
I don’t believe in a male God who has favourite races, cultures, genders, or individuals. There are holy men and women in every race, culture, and religion. I don’t believe in a God who does or allows violent acts in order to get people to agree with ‘Him’. I don’t think God caused Noah’s flood, drowned Pharaoh’s army, or destroyed the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. I think such depictions of God are the result of violent leaders and their followers projecting onto and shaping the Divine in their own image.
I don’t believe in a God who sent ‘His’ only son to die, is appeased by innocent blood, and will only relate to us if we trust in that sacrifice. The God known most fully as love can’t be satiated by death - violent, voluntary, or otherwise - without ceasing to be love. I don’t think God sends saviours. Occasionally extraordinary people do extraordinary things with extraordinary love. In these people we can see something of God, something blessed and unique, and something of salvation.
I don't believe Jesus' death had a good purpose. I don’t think the deaths of innocents ever have a good purpose. I think the very early Church struggled to understand Jesus’ death, and the idea of his death being a blood sacrifice was a minority view among Christians. I think he died because he lived and preached uncompromisingly a message of radical inclusive egalitarianism. The authorities had good reason to kill him.
I believe that God is the power of transformative love. God is not omnipotent in the sense that God has the power to make changes and determine results like some autocratic king. Auschwitz and similar terrors makes such an omnipotent God into a monster.
God was not created in the image of humans. I don't think God schemes, has favourites, predetermines outcomes, has children, talks, has a plan, blesses chosen leaders, or causes people to die. Rather I think God is like an animating spirit that works through people when transformative love is the conviction, means, and motivation.
This spirit of love has a power, but it’s not the power of armies, wealth, and empire. It is not the power of control. It is instead the power of a changed heart, the power of a forgiving spirit, and the power of a fearless hospitality. This is the spirit and power of Easter.
Such a power is creative, redemptive, and sustaining. As a Christian I believe that when I feel this power, and walk with it, I am in tune with the ongoing 'life' of Jesus. This is why I can say I have a personal relationship with Jesus.
I don't believe in a literal supernatural resurrection. I don’t believe a dead man came back to life, appeared to some of his followers, and then 40 days later rose up into the clouds. Rather the resurrection is a religious way of talking about the power of Jesus' life and spirit continuing to influence his followers after his death. It’s a way of talking about individual and corporate transformation. As people today commit to Jesus’ vision and allow the love called God to flow through their lives they experience resurrection, and they join an insurrection.
I think the hardest thing for that young man at the café to understand was that I didn’t want to be saved. I am not interested in a personal assurance of salvation and peace with God. I don’t care if I roast in hell. What I do want though, and do care about, is to be confronted and gripped by a vision broad and radical enough to challenge the greed, selfishness, misery, hatred, and violence prevalent in our world. I want to commit and recommit to a vision bigger than me and bigger than my needs. This is the vision I believe that Jesus held out to us, and still holds out to us today.