For years, I was taught to believe that Jesus came to earth to die. I tried hard to believe this, as I had no other explanation for the either the story of Jesus or the manner and meaning of his death on the cross.
I was taught only that God was sick to his stomach over the sin of the world and had to punish something or someone for those sins. That His "righteousness" demanded it. Something or someone had to pay for their evils. So, after a number of Divine attempts -- but failed attempts -- to rescue humanity while punishing something innocent for their sins, the old sacrificial system, God failed. Nobody ever put it quite like this -- but that's essentially the most logical conclusion. God screwed up and, apparently, multiple times. You'd think, if God is so god, He'd have not made so many mistakes. That, if God loved humans but had to punish them or something for their sin, why did it take so many failed attempts before He got it right? He must not be as smart as everybody is telling me.
This is how my young mind worked -- reasoned. I'm still this way, today. I recently heard some psychic, for example, advertising her services on the radio. She said, "You have problems, I have answers. Call me ... One call, that's all!" But, of course, the call would cost you $0.99 a minute.
I thought to myself, "If you're as psychic as you claim to be, wouldn't YOU know who had a problem and call them?"
So, as the church's old story of redemption goes -- after multiple failed attempts (or, so the drama unfolded), God finally decided to show up himself. Instead of coming himself, however, he sent his son.
Instead of making the story easier to accept, that only made it worse for me. It was convoluted to say the least.
Even as a young theologian in seminary, I remember thinking to myself, "This is an even stranger twist to the old story. If God loved humans so much, why would He not show up Himself? Instead, He sends His son? What kind of father would kill his son and call it love for others?"
The only kind of father I can think might do that is the one I recently saw in a televised courtroom who was sentenced to prison for the rest of his life for killing his son, then burying him in the ground.
Perhaps you can understand, none of this made any sense to me. "Why can't God be more believable than this?" I asked myself. "More noble ... noble enough to do what Wu Feng did, instead of this unbelievable story religious people in church have created to explain what really is a phenomenal story of a transformative human being named Jesus?"
Mark Nebo describes the story of Wu Feng in "The Book of Awakening." Feng is a Manchurian diplomat who went to live with the aboriginal tribes of Taiwan in the 1700s. Soon after relocating, he became good friends with the tribal chief. Each year, however, Feng was deeply disturbed by their strange and evil practice of sacrificing one of their own by beheading them. So each year, just before the annual sacrifice, Feng would seek to persuade the tribal chief to give up the unthinkable practice. Never with success, however.
Finally, one year, Feng made his most dramatic plea to the chief to stop once-and-for-all the senseless act of killing. This time, however, when the chosen tribe member was called forth for execution, Wu Feng stood up to the chief and said, "If you insist on killing again, then this time you will kill me."
The sacrificial killing ended that day. Too great was the chief's love for his friend Wu Feng to allow him to be sacrificed.
Now, I don't know about you, but that kind of love I can believe in. Even as a child, I remember wondering, "If God loves me so much, why would He not come himself, instead of sacrificing his son? Am I so bad that He can't tolerate being around me? Or, is this God so twisted that He can sacrifice His own son and call it love for me?"
I realize questions like these cause many of my Christian friends great trouble, making them extremely uncomfortable even. They get quite defensive in fact, go on a scripture-quoting spree, or just plain write me off, as if by doing so they have "saved" the Christian story from someone whose faith has obviously gone haywire.
For one thing, if my faith has gone haywire, I hope it never gets fixed. It is infinitely more meaningful to me today, as well as believable, than at any other time in my life. It's also more honest than at any other time. For years, I tried not to think but, instead, to park my brain at the church door. I knew if I didn't, it would be hard to sing the blood-soaked hymns that were drenched with images of a divine despot whose dysfunction I was asked to "believe in."
Many Christians mistakenly think that, by calling their non-thinking "believing," they are living by faith. They'll say things like, "If the Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it," as if it actually does.
But, of course, the cliche' settles nothing. And it is not faith. It's a way of avoiding real faith. The ego in them desperately and defensively clings to a "belief" or "beliefs" they mistakenly take for faith. I know this because I tried for years to do the same. Today, however, I can assure you, if all you have is a duffle bag of beliefs, the first big crisis that comes along will most likely reveal just how empty the bag is in supplying you with what you really need -- genuine faith.
Mark Twain said, tongue-in-cheek, "Faith is believing what you know ain't so."
Well, I have come to know that for much of my life my "beliefs" were just "a cover-up for my own insecurity," to borrow another's words, my own unwillingness to use my mind and reason and common sense.
Today, I understand Jesus' life and death in vastly different ways than the story I was raised to believe in (for more on this, may I recommend "The Enoch Factor: The Sacred Art of Knowing God")? I no longer believe, for example, in a God who would sacrifice his son and call it love for others. I cannot in fact believe in such a god. For me that god is dead. That god, in fact, has never existed, except in the vengeance-hungry minds of ancient people.
No, when Jesus died on a Roman cross, he did so of his own accord. He "laid down his life," as He Himself once put it (John 10:15). He did the Fu Weng thing. Not because his suffering and death on a cross was a kind of cosmic killing spree orchestrated to appease a psychotic god whose anger at sin could not be avenged except by bloodshed. Society locks up psychos like this. Yet, people in church are expected to believe in such a god. No wonder thinking people are leaving the church in record numbers today.
That image of God has ended them for me, too, and was, in my own opinion, concocted at a time in history when violence, bloodshed and vengeance between people and nations was as common as your morning coffee.
The story of Jesus is vastly more beautiful without the baggage of killing and bloodshed. It is time for a new reading of the redemption story. It is time the church allow the old story of Jesus to die.
For me, it has died and, now that it has, I could not be more alive.