Homosexuality and the Bible: An Epic Conversation with my Anti-theist Brother

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My brother, Simon, is a year-and-a-half younger than me and, like me, had a happy Christian upbringing. Through his teens he was fully immersed in our church youth group, (which included being literally fully immersed when he was baptised at 16), played bass in the worship band, and went to Soul Survivor every year. In his gap year before university he went on a mission trip to Nigeria with the Christian charity, Tearfund.

We, along with our parents, have since been through a dramatic deconstruction of our faith. A decade on, I have reconstructed enough that I am still calling myself a Christian, although this has a very different meaning to me now. My brother now calls himself an “atheist verging on anti-theist” (meaning not only that he believes God doesn’t exist, but also that religion and belief in God actually have a harmful effect on the world).

This makes for some pretty mind-boggling family discussions, particularly as we usually somehow end up agreeing on most things.

The following conversation about homosexuality and the Bible took place a few months ago when Simon commented on my post, ‘I Think God Makes People Gay (Part 3): The Way Forward’.

I found it pretty interesting, I hope you do too. Feel free to chip in with your own comments.


Simon:

Hey Sis, apologies but I have just got around to reading your post and I have a bone to pick with all this.

Whilst I admire greatly your attempts to interpret the bible in such a way that conforms and supports your rightly liberal and inclusive beliefs, I just can’t help thinking whilst reading this that you are trying to carve and mould the bible round your own beliefs, rather than as you say, genuinely following the teaching that is within. It appears to me as an outsider, that you and others are desperately trying to modernise the bible to catch up with modern progressive thought, but I struggle to see it as being as malleable as you do.

From my point of view, the bible is a text which overtly condemns homosexuality in a number of places and there’s no way of getting round that! This is alongside the passages condoning slavery, mysogeny, violence and other less-than-humanistic activities.

History is unfortunately on my side: since the adoption of Christianity by the ageing Roman Empire in the 4th century, up until the 1960s (in the UK at least) being gay has been outlawed, punishable for most of that time, by death (burned alive in public being a favoured punishment by early Christian Roman leaders). Prior to the Christianisation of Europe, homosexuality was almost completely accepted and widespread, there are many examples of gay leaders (Alexander the Great being the most famous) and great artists across the Hellenistic world and Roman world.

In short, being gay only became a crime because of Christianity, was a sin punishable by death for over 1500 years, and only became legal because of the rise of modern, secular liberalism (the Catholics are still largely against equal rights for homosexuals, but luckily our secular leaders couldn’t give a crap what the Pope thinks).

So why did God let this happen? Surely if he thought that being gay was alright, why did he allow it to be written in his book, quite explicitly, that it wasn’t? If he genuinely cared for all his children, then why not interfere in some way, rather than let (probably millions of) people over 1500 years suffer, get repressed and sometimes get killed for it?

Sorry, but from my point of view it’s impossible to reconcile this, and Christianity takes most of the blame for anti-gay sentiment across the world today. I truly do admire your attempts to be inclusive, but since the bible isn’t ever going to change, these passages will never disappear, and people are always going to read them and interpret them.

If you want absolute equality, inclusivity and compassion, which you evidently do, I believe the only way forward is modern, secular, rationalism. The church has always been behind in progressive thought (Quakers notwithstanding) so I think it always will be (if you don’t believe me, ask the pope what he thinks of homosexuality, women’s rights to be in positions of power in the church, and contraceptives!).


Emma:

Hey bro! You’re so right, and yet I still don’t end up at the same conclusion as you.

You are approaching the Bible in the same problematic way as many Christians still do: that is to assume it is God’s word written directly to us, an instruction manual for life. I don’t think that’s what it was ever meant to be, and this is where I part ways with many evangelicals.

I see the Bible more as a family history, a library of stories, poetry, folklore, eyewitness accounts. It was written by people over a period of thousands of years, telling of their experiences of God. The writings all reflect the cultures they are from, so of course we now see much of it as backwards and even barbaric. But the overarching theme is God pulling people forwards into greater ways of being human, step by step becoming more loving, more inclusive, more equal, and with a more expansive worldview.

Am I throwing the Bible out? As a rule book from God’s lips to my life – yes. But as a story of God relating to humanity it is infinitely fascinating and useful. This is scary for Christians because it opens up the possibility for change, development beyond the words of the Bible. I think God is revealed in the Bible, and speaks to people today through it, but is not confined to the Bible. And I totally think the Bible gets it wrong sometimes – it was written by people after all.

I think the pattern of ever expanding love, peace and unity was meant to continue, evolving with culture. And I think the literal reading of the Bible is another example of people trying to put God in a cage.


Simon:

OK so we can both agree that we can dismiss the bible as fallible, partly fictional and in no way the direct voice of a divine being, that’s good!

Your explanation doesn’t really answer my fundamental problem with your assertion that god, if real, cares about people who are gay, or if he is, that he is capable of any intervention in human affairs. Simple question: if being gay is OK with god, why did he let all of Jesus’ followers, all following his teaching, oppress gay people for almost the entire history of Christianity? Why only now is he telling a select few that actually, it’s OK?

 To me this can only be resolved by one of three premises:

1) God does not exist and therefore things happen through natural means

2) God does exist and cares about what humans are doing, but is incapable, weak or impotent and is not able to intervene (thus begging the question – what is he for?), or

3) God does exist and can intervene, but is the unpleasant, vengeful, spiteful god of the old testament who doesn’t like gay people and wants them to be punished.

Regardless of the reliability of the bible, there’s no way I could ever respect a being that allows so much suffering in his name, yet does nothing.

Variations on this problem are the main reason why I am an atheist verging on anti-theist.


Emma:

I’d say this is exactly the right response to the claims of Christianity as we were both taught it. You are among many, many people (myself included) for whom the language, concepts and interpretations handed to us from the church simply don’t work anymore. We’ve both had this deconstruction experience; as a result you have embraced humanism and abandoned any sort of faith, and I clung to the few parts of Christianity that still made sense to me, dismantling many unhelpful constructs and worldviews and then reconstructing to the point where I now have a strong and vibrant faith which doesn’t crumble so easily when faced with tough questions.

So your first question: “If being gay is OK with god, why did he let all of Jesus’ followers, all following his teaching, oppress gay people for almost the entire history of Christianity? Why only now is he telling a select few that actually, it’s OK?”

Well, quite. An excellent question, and you can ask the same for all the other horrible things Christians have done and continue to do, using the Bible to justify their actions. To put it simply, I don’t think Christians own God. I think many people who call themselves Christians are not following Jesus, in fact they are often working against him. So equally I think you can be following the way of Jesus, being inspired and led by the spirit of God, whilst not calling yourself a Christian or in fact knowing anything about Jesus. So in the case of the oppression of gay people, I see God at work in the growing acceptance and love despite Christians working against it. The Bible has of course contributed massively to homophobia, but I’m not convinced that it wouldn’t have occurred anyway. God’s spirit has pulled us a long, long way since Biblical times, the problem has been with people clinging to a few culturally-soaked verses as timeless laws to be enforced, and in the process missing the larger point (and crushing people).

The second massive point is about how we see God. In Biblical times as you will know people saw the universe as three-tiered – heaven was literally above the Earth and that is where God lived, and the “underworld” was the place of death and darkness. So all throughout the Bible this is reflected in language – Jesus coming down from heaven, going down to the depths…etc. etc. Even though we now obviously know that is not how things are, we still very often have a view of God which comes from this “three-tiered” worldview. God is up there, we are down here, God sometimes pokes his finger down and intervenes. This understanding raises a ton of difficult questions, one of which you have raised here: if God is good, why doesn’t he intervene and stop bad things happening in his name?

Of course I don’t actually know the answer to this. But I don’t think of God that way anymore. I see God as the breath within us – the life force that creates, sustains, inspires. Language fails of course, but this language works better than a lot of the churchy language I grew up with. Many people have a sense that there must be something more to life – there is some deeper meaning and significance – I call that God. So I agree that things happen by natural means, but I think God is the energy behind it all.

So how do I know this ‘God’ is a conscious, personal being, let alone good? Well I don’t know, but personally when I choose to believe that reality is fundamentally good, that every human being contains a divine ‘spark’ and has infinite worth, and that we are part of a bigger, greater story, life just makes so much more sense. Things click into place and I feel a real sense of peace.

And if you read the Bible without trying to interpret it literally and thus losing the whole point of it, it becomes fascinating and really compelling. Historically the Jesus story is pretty hard to deny – based on the evidence it’s actually quite likely that he lived, died and was raised from the dead – it’s just that believing that has pretty massive implications.

What I’m trying to say is that it’s not a silly thing to believe. The major themes in the Bible (that we largely miss when treating it as a scientific textbook) are things like challenging domination and power structures which oppress people, working against injustice and inequality, non-violence, working towards peace and unity…the Bible is full of stories of God turning upside-down people’s understanding of how things are and showing them a better way. Which makes it massively relevant today.

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Dear Non-LGBT-affirming Christians, please search your hearts

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I’ve just seen a news article showing the faces of those killed in the Pulse Night Club on Saturday night.

Have you seen it?

Face after face; beautiful, young, LGBT+ people, their eyes full of light and life.

Lives so precious, unique, fragile, sacred.

Each one reflecting the image of their Creator.

Each one a beloved son or daughter. Their loss is a gaping wound, a searing pain, an everlasting ache.


LGBT+ people around the world are feeling the impact of the Orlando shooting deeply. They are mourning the deaths of these people as if they were family, connected somehow by invisible but unbreakable strands.

This is because they know. 

They know what it’s like to be despised for who they are.

They have felt the hatred in the cold glances and suspicious stares.

They know how it feels to have disapproval and disgust pushed down upon them like a suffocating pillow.

They have felt the fear of physical attack.


Non-LGBT-affirming Christian, I know you know this. 

I know you are outraged by this shooting. I know you feel the anguish and pain of the friends and families and are praying for them.

But when you say that you “love the sinner, hate the sin”, or offer condolences with the qualification that you “don’t agree with homosexuality”, do you realise what you are doing?

You are preventing people from being fully alive.

In trying to save people from their sin, you are oppressing them.

You are marring the image of God.

Sexuality or gender is not something we can separate ourselves from. As human beings, it is a vital, intentional, beautiful part of who we are. And it comes in many, many glorious colours.


Non-LGBT-affirming Christian, can you be absolutely sure that your views are not shaped by a watered-down, far less extreme version of the same prejudice that murdered those fifty people?

Because the Bible teaches far more clearly on divorce and remarriage than it does on homosexuality.

If you accept one, what is stopping you from accepting the other?

I will freely admit, I am still prejudiced. When I see two men kissing, it makes me uncomfortable. This is because it is something I am not used to – I am naturally prejudiced against those who are fundamentally different to me in some way.

I am aware of my prejudice. It is an unsightly smudge on my worldview that I am in the process of scrubbing off.

Just because something makes me feel uncomfortable, doesn’t make it wrong. It makes it different.

We human beings are such wonderfully complex creatures, displaying such an array of colours and intricate patterns as to reflect the glory of the divine.

We are made to love one another, forging relationships and journeying onwards together in peace and joy, reflecting the sacred communal dance of the divine.

We were not made to be forced into boxes.

We were never meant to all be the same.


Non-LGBT-affirming Christian, I know you genuinely believe that being non-affirming is the most loving thing.

But I ask you please to spend some time thinking about the effect your views may be having on people. Maybe even people you know and see regularly.

Maybe you could take time to read some stories of Christians who have attempted to change their sexuality, like Vicky Beeching, Kevin Garcia or Justin Lee, or many others Google will happily share with you. These are the survivors, the lucky ones whose stories didn’t end in suicide.


In the wake of this horrifying tragedy, let us search our hearts and seek to make a better world, for all people.

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On Today Of All Days: A letter to LGBT+ people in the wake of the Orlando shootings

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On today of all days, there are some things I need you to know.

You are a remarkable, endlessly fascinating and astonishingly beautiful creation.

Every breath you take, every moment of your life is infinitely precious and you are loved more than you will ever know.

And you are entitled to fall in love with, kiss, hold hands with, marry, have babies with and grow old with whoever you like.


On today of all days, I want the many faces of prejudice to be shamed and ridiculed.

From violent hatred to “love the sinner, hate the sin”, or “I’m sorry for the victims and their families but still don’t agree with homosexuality”… 

I want every hateful word and every thinly veiled prejudice to be exposed and despised.

I want to fast-forward to the day when our descendants will look back on our ignorance in disbelief and disgust.


On today of all days, I am so sorry.

I am sorry that I have been part of a system that may have led you to believe that there is something wrong with you.

I am sorry if you have been made to feel guilty for being who you are.

I am sorry if my ignorance and inaction have directly or indirectly led to your suffering.


On today of all days, I want you to have a voice.

I want you to shout from the rooftops that you have as much right to life, love and happiness as anyone else. In many cases you are probably more deserving of it.

I want you to be fiercely proud of who you are.

I want you to never stop fighting for your rights and your freedom.


On today of all days, I promise to fight for you.

I promise that I will do the best I can to work for real, lasting change in our world.

I will fight on behalf of those who have already been lost to violent hatred or suicide.

And I will fight for those who right now are trapped, lonely, afraid, in danger, depressed or suicidal, so that they may be free to live and love as they were created to.

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A Deeper Magic: Love Demands No Punishment

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Atonement theories like Penal Substitution and Christus Victor are not exactly the most straightforward concepts to grasp. Many of you are probably still wondering why I’m making such a fuss.

So instead of wrestling with more complex Biblical analyses or adding more points to my argument, grab your fur coat and join me on a magical adventure into Narnia.

I’ll tell a REALLY brief version of the story, explaining the Christian symbolism as we go, to set us up for the important bit at the end.

(Even after hearing the story countless times, this realisation blew my mind a little bit.)


The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, by C.S. Lewis – The Story and the Symbolism

Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy stumble across a wardrobe which takes them to the magical land of Narnia. They soon discover that Narnia is being ruled by an evil queen, the White Witch, who is keeping the land in a perpetual winter.

A bit like the idea that the world and everything in it is under the power of “sin” and needs rescuing.

It as been foretold that she will lose her power when four humans become kings and queens of Narnia, so as soon as she hears of the children’s presence in Narnia, she does all she can to capture them. The great lion Aslan, the rightful ruler of Narnia, has not been seen for many years but is now rumoured to be “on the move” again.

Aslan is the Jesus figure. (Stating the obvious I know, stay with me…)

Edmund meets the White Witch, who tempts him with enchanted Turkish Delight and tricks him into betraying his brother and sisters. But when he fails to bring them to her, she is furious and threatens to kill him. The other children go to find Aslan, who orders a rescue mission and brings Edmund back safely to his camp.

The White Witch comes to Aslan’s camp, claiming that according to “the deep magic from the dawn of time”, laws placed at the creation of Narnia by the “Emperor-beyond-the-Sea”,  a traitor in Narnia is her rightful kill.

The Emperor-beyond-the-Sea is the Creator, Father God figure. The “deep magic” is like the laws of divine justice and retribution that Christians talk about, when they say God has no choice but to punish sin – that He doesn’t want to but it’s just the way things are.

Aslan snarls, “Do not cite the Deep Magic to me, Witch. I was there when it was written.”

That has to be one of the coolest lines in any book ever.

Aslan secretly does a deal with the Witch where he offers his own life in Edmund’s place. That night Aslan sneaks off to the Stone Table where the Witch and her evil creatures humiliate, torture and kill him.

Aslan gives his life for Edmund, like Jesus giving his life for us on the cross…

The next day as Lucy and Susan are about to leave his dead body, the Stone Table cracks and Aslan miraculously comes back to life.

…and then rising from the dead on the third day.

And here’s the really interesting bit. 

When Lucy and Susan ask Aslan the meaning of what has happened, he explains:

“Though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backward.”

So here’s the thing.

If C.S. Lewis had believed in the Penal Substitution theory of the atonement, there would have been no “deeper magic”, and it would have been the ‘Emperor-over-the-Sea’ demanding the sacrifice, not the White Witch.

The Emperor, Aslan’s father and the Creator of Narnia, would have been bound by the laws of retribution and vengeance – an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth – so would have had no choice but to kill either Edmund or Aslan, even though he loved them both.

But in this story it is the White Witch, the embodiment of evil, demanding the kill. She gets her kill but is tricked…

“Though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know.”

So what is this deeper magic?

Love. Sacrificial, self-denying love. It is this that cracks the stone table and causes Death itself to start working backwards.

Love is more powerful than retribution.

Love demands no punishment.

Love is not bound by the law.

Love sets us free, no strings attached.

Love brings us life.

Love is the deepest and most powerful force in the universe.

Love is at the centre of Reality, and is the fundamental characteristic of the Divine.

And Penal Substitutionary Atonement, still the dominant interpretation of the meaning of Christianity, fiercely defended by many, would disagree.


This story fits with the ‘ransom’ theory of the atonement, and still contains the idea of God paying a price, substituting himself for us. The main difference between this and Penal Substitution is that it is not God who is being paid. This is a VERY significant distinction, not least because it repaints the character of God. This is closely related to the ‘Christus Victor’ theory – currently growing in popularity, which suggests that Jesus died to break the power of sin and death, and ultimately defeat it. They are still just theories attempting to explain an inexplicable mystery, but arguably far more healthy, reasonable and Biblically accurate theories than Penal Substitution, and much closer in meaning to what the first Christians would have understood.


Read my entire Atonement Series here.

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A Thoroughly Biblical Argument Against Penal Substitutionary Atonement

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A common criticism of people like me who openly oppose Penal Substitutionary Atonement theory is that we are picking and choosing the bits of the Bible we like, whilst ignoring some of the trickier bits.

I intend now to try and make it super clear that this is not what we are doing.


Invisible Goggles

The thing is, we all read things into the Bible that may or may not be there, based on our own understanding, cultural background and personal opinions.

It’s really, really difficult to read the Bible objectively (impossible, actually) – we all emphasise some bits over others, reject some bits as irrelevant and project our own frameworks of understanding onto the text to help us make sense of it. This is not a bad thing – it just helps to be aware that we’re doing it.

Most Christians who believe in Penal Substitutionary Atonement claim that the Bible clearly supports it, and that there is no other way of interpreting certain texts. What they don’t realise is that they are reading the Bible through invisible lenses. Let’s call them PSA goggles.

PSA goggles have been the height of fashion in the protestant, particularly evangelical church for a good many centuries now. Long enough that they’ve become so much a part of our identity, we don’t even realise we are wearing them. They provide a logical explanation of the core meaning of Christianity based on a handful of verses, through which we then view the rest of the Bible.

PSA goggles also seem to have the unfortunate effect of obscuring the wearer’s view, so that many parts of the Bible which don’t fit with PSA theory are overlooked or ignored.


Before we jump right into dealing with the specific passages that appear to support PSA, we need to look at six broader Biblical themes that will help to put them into context.


1. Sin and Salvation

In the Bible, sin is about more than just our own personal wrongdoings. It is the whole devastating human condition which separates us from our Source and will eventually lead to our destruction. The salvation that God offers is not just forgiveness from our transgressions, although that is a major part of it. It’s also not just just about an afterlife. Where salvation is mentioned in the Old Testament it refers to liberation from bondage (Exodus 14:30, 15:2, Psalm 106:21), return from exile (Isaiah 45:17) and rescue from danger (Psalms 27:1, 51:12, 65:5, 69:2). The Gospels are full of Jesus offering salvation from illness, death, blindness, fear, violence…if it is all about God forgiving our personal wrongdoings so that we can avoid hell, then life and teachings of Jesus don’t make a lot of sense.

(I wrote this article on this very topic a few months back.)


2. God’s Wrath

I think there has been some confusion here. I’m not saying that God is never angry and just lets everything slide. I think he is very angry at ‘sin’ – at that which separates his children from him and threatens to destroy them. I think the full extent of his fury will be unleashed upon the powers of darkness that oppress people and bring destruction to God’s good creation.

Penal substitution claims that God actively punishes his children for disobeying him; that in contrast to his holiness, every single human being is so filthy that we deserve not just to die, but to be tortured for all eternity. That although God loves us, he must balance out the cosmic weighing scales by unleashing his wrath and punishment on anyone who has not accepted Jesus as their Personal Saviour.

So a young boy is born into a war zone, experiences a life full of fear and pain, and drowns at three years old when the boat carrying him to safety sinks. Death for him doesn’t bring relief, but eternal conscious torment in a lake of fire. Or even “an eternity separate from God” (a phrase people like to use to make hell sound more palatable).

And we are supposed to love this God.

Seriously, WTF?

This twisted interpretation continues to repulse and offend me.

God is angry at sin because it threatens to destroy his beloved children. He unleashes his wrath at that which causes us harm, because he loves us more than we can know. (John 3:16)

Like a mother fiercely protecting her young, willing to sacrifice her own life to save her children. (Matthew 23:37).

Of course our own destructive habits are a major part of sin, but on the cross we were set free from the power of sin, so we are no longer slaves to it (Romans 6:6-7). We have been separated from sin, so it no longer has to control us and be part of our identity. But we still have to choose to turn away from our lives of sin.

Do you see what a difference this slight shift in understanding makes?

(Read more of my musings on hell here).


3. Transformation

The meaning of the cross is not a transaction – a legal deal where Jesus gets us off the hook by standing in front of us and taking our punishment. This widespread understanding implies that ultimately, what we do in this life doesn’t matter as long as we’ve completed the transaction and secured our insurance policy against hell.

The meaning of the cross is transformation. When we choose to follow Jesus, we metaphorically die with him and rise to a new life. We are changed from the inside out. Sin is still a part of our lives but we are no longer defined by it, but by grace and love (Romans 6). We become agents of God’s Kingdom, which starts now and one day will come in full (1 Corinthians 13:12).

Choosing to ‘believe in Jesus’ doesn’t mean simply intellectually asserting that certain historical events took place and have eternal implications.

‘Believing in Jesus’ means choosing to follow in the Way he showed us, choosing to love him, putting our trust in him as we would a close friend.


4. Justice

We usually think of justice today as meaning criminals getting the punishment they deserve. Punitive or retributive justice. So we read the Bible with this in mind, and deduce that the ‘justice of God’ is about God punishing wrongdoers.

A better understanding is distributive justice. God wants everyone to be treated fairly, to have enough food and equal rights to a full life. Throughout the Bible God favours those who are oppressed and challenges those who abuse power. This is a major theme – from God liberating the Israelites from slavery in Egypt right through to Jesus befriending prostitutes and challenging those religious leaders who sought to control people…

God always backs the underdog.

God is passionate about the poor, the weak, the outcasts from society, and he desires justice, equality, freedom and fair treatment for everyone.


5. Crucifixion

The fact that Jesus died on a Roman cross was hugely significant. Rome was the ultimate symbol of worldly power – they maintained their control by any means necessary, crushing anyone who stood in their way. Crucifixion was the slowest, most painful form of torture and execution, reserved for people who challenged authority. To the New Testament writers, this would have been central.

Penal substitution tends to completely ignore the political significance of how Jesus died. If God killed Jesus, then the Romans were simply pawns in God’s greater plan of violently punishing sin and venting his wrath.

No, men killed Jesus. “Father, forgive them…” (Luke 23:34). The powers of this world and the dark spiritual forces behind them did their absolute worst to him, and thought they had won.

The resurrection was God declaring once and for all that the dark and oppressive powers of this world, represented by Rome but echoing to the ends of the earth, will not have the last word.


6. Sacrifice

Sacrifice is everywhere in the Old Testament. People sacrificed animals (usually) as a means of communicating with the gods/God, to ask for something or to show gratitude. The sacrificed animal was ‘made sacred’, and it would then be eaten (often by a Priest – see Leviticus 2) to symbolise communion with God. The animal would not have been seen as a substitute, taking the punishment that humans deserved.

Where sacrifice is mentioned in reference to Jesus’ death, through our PSA goggles we have traditionally seen this as implying substitution – Jesus took the punishment we deserved.

But sacrifice doesn’t mean substitution. Think about it.

If someone sacrifices their life to save someone – a father dies in saving his child or a soldier takes a bullet to save a friend, their deaths are not in any way settling a debt owed by that person.

Equally someone can sacrifice their life for a cause – there is no implication that they were a substitute.


So, time to get down to the nitty gritty.


Here are the main Bible passages that are used to support Penal Substitutionary Atonement, and why I am convinced that is not what they mean.


Genesis 22: God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son

Abraham doesn’t bat an eyelid when God tells him to provide Isaac as a burnt offering. In the ancient world, that’s what the pagan gods did. People believed they had to do this to keep the gods happy and ensure the survival of their tribe.

So the point here is that this God doesn’t do that. They are entering a new understanding of their relationship with the divine, and learning that He doesn’t demand child sacrifice.

Thank goodness for that.


Exodus 12: The Passover, referenced in John 1:29, 1 Peter 1:19, Revelation 5 – ‘the Lamb of God’

It’s pretty clear that the New Testament writers saw a parallel between the story of the Passover, and Jesus’ death.

Passover is a Jewish celebration of the Israelites’ liberation from Egypt. The story goes that God told them to sacrifice a lamb and mark their door frames with its blood, so that when God came to strike down all the firstborn sons in Egypt, He would pass over the houses marked with blood and their sons would be spared.

The Passover lamb wasn’t in any way a substitute for sin. The blood wasn’t payment, it was a sign of faith, an indication of loyalty and identity. They were instructed to eat the lamb after it was slain – if it symbolically represented their sin, eating it would not make sense.

So when John the Baptist declares “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29), he is referencing the sacrificial lamb which brought the Israelites liberation from Egypt.

No sign of substitution.


Leviticus 4-7: Sin offerings

This is a detailed and pretty gory set of instructions regarding making animal sacrifices to atone for sin. These sacrifices were intended to be a peace offering, to restore the people’s broken relationship with God. There is no sense of the animal dying in place of the person, or of sin being placed upon the animal. It is a gift to make up for wrongdoing.


Leviticus 16:10: Scapegoat

But the goat chosen by lot as the scapegoat shall be presented alive before the Lord to be used for making atonement by sending it into the wilderness as a scapegoat.”

So the one time sins are symbolically placed onto an animal, that animal is not killed.

Interesting.


Isaiah 53:4-5 (NIV)

This is the most commonly quoted Old Testament passage used to defend Penal Substitution. I’ll write my little commentary in italics

Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering,
(the suffering that is the result of sin)

yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted.
(WE considered him – I suspect when Jesus hung on the cross it looked a lot like he was being punished by God. Doesn’t mean he literally was…)

But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.”
(Yes! He took the full force of sin upon himself and broke its power – sin punished him, not God!)


Matthew 27:46 (NIV)

“About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lemasabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”)”

I don’t even know how this has become a “proof text” for penal substitution.

God allowed Jesus to be killed? Yes. He sacrificed his Son to save us.
Jesus felt abandoned by his Father? Whilst suffering the most painful form of execution known to man? I reckon so. 

So God killed Jesus? NO! WHAT?? Why would you even say such a thing??


Mark 10:45 (NIV)

“For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Yes, a ransom paid to the powers of darkness and death…they demanded blood, not God!


Romans 3:23-26, 8:32 (The Voice translation)

You see, all have sinned, and all their futile attempts to reach God in His glory fail. Yet they are now saved and set right by His free gift of grace through the redemption available only in Jesus the Anointed. When God set Him up to be the sacrifice—the seat of mercy where sins are atoned through faith—His blood became the demonstration of God’s own restorative justice. All of this confirms His faithfulness to the promise, for over the course of human history God patiently held back as He dealt with the sins being committed. This expression of God’s restorative justice displays in the present that He is just and righteous and that He makes right those who trust and commit themselves to Jesus.”

“If He did not spare His own Son, but handed Him over on our account, then don’t you think that He will graciously give us all things with Him?”

Speaks for itself! Not even a flicker of God pouring out wrath on Jesus.

Gave him up as a sacrifice? Definitely.

Punished him in our place? What?? No!


2 Corinthians 5:21, Galatians 3:13 (NIV)

“God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole.””

So Jesus took the full force of sin upon himself, was cursed by sin… doesn’t mean God was punishing him.


1 Peter 3:18, 2:24 (NIV)

“For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.”

“He himself bore our sins” in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; “by his wounds you have been healed”.

Yes indeed. Still no mention of God punishing Jesus.


1 John 4:10 (NIV)

“This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.”

Yep. Atonement, at-one-ment, making things right between us.

Sacrifice – still doesn’t mean substitution.


I’ve probably missed some out but hopefully by now you get the picture.


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Is being a Christian just about being a good person?

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So I’ve had a good go at butchering Penal Substitutionary Atonement theory – the idea that Jesus died to take the punishment for our sins.


The logical questions that follow are:

  • If Jesus didn’t pay our debt so we could be forgiven and go to heaven, what was the point of the resurrection?
  • What’s the ‘good news’?
  • What’s the point in being a Christian if it’s not about getting to heaven?
  • Are you saying that being a Christian is basically just about being a good person?

Honestly? Yes, that’s pretty much the gist of it.

But hear me out – there is a lot more to it than that. 

I’m not in anyway belittling the radical, vital and life-giving transformation that takes place when we become followers of Jesus.

I am suggesting that it is more to do with transformation in this life and less to do with a transaction to secure our ticket to heaven in the next life.

Since I started seeing things this way, Christianity has become more outrageous, vibrant, true, life-giving and challenging to me than ever.


What is the ‘good news’ then?

Jesus lived and died to reconcile us to God. The death and resurrection of Jesus marked the ultimate defeat of darkness, death, violence, oppression, injustice, pain, suffering, hatred and inhumanity. However powerful and all-consuming they are now, they will not have the last word.

Every bit of light, goodness, hope and love we see in the world is real, not a cruel illusion, and is in some mysterious way a foresight of what is to come.

God created us in his image, and we all have infinite value and worth. Our lives matter to God, more than we can imagine.

With the wind of God’s Spirit in our sails we are called to participate in the transforming, liberating, healing, creative, restoring, life-giving work of God on this Earth.

With the breath of God’s Spirit in our lungs we are compelled to stand against evil, injustice, oppression, inhumanity and destruction in all its many forms.


But then what makes us different from anyone else?

We are followers of Jesus, guided by his Spirit in walking the Way he showed us. That is the Way of compassion, non-violence, forgiveness and sacrificial love. That is choosing not to be a slave to the powers of this world – greed, selfishness, fear, oppression… and instead choosing to live in the Way he showed us. With every loving step we take, every compassionate act, we let in a little more of the light of the Kingdom of God.


So what about good people who aren’t Christians? Are they going to heaven?

It’s not about going to heaven. That’s a massive misconception that we’ve cobbled together with bits from the Bible and bits from Greek philosophy (Plato has a lot to answer for).

It’s about heaven coming to Earth. Starting now, the heavenly dimension breaking through into this one. And we are promised that one day God’s Kingdom will come in full and everything will be made new.

So can people who aren’t Christians be working for the Kingdom of God?
Yeah, you bet they can.

If they’re living in the way of Jesus, they are working for his Kingdom.


So what does being a Christian even mean then?

Well, quite. This is something I ask myself a lot these days.

You see, Jesus spent his life breaking down social barriers, getting rid of labels, messing with people’s ideas of who was in, who was out. Who was good enough, who definitely wasn’t. Again and again, he would turn people’s assumptions on their heads, shaming those thought they were sorted, and raising up those who were cast out, downtrodden, unworthy.

So what is this whole ‘Christians and non-Christians’ thing about?

From the radically inclusive life and message of Jesus we have constructed yet another exclusive club. You get you’re ticket and you’re in. If not, let’s be honest – you burn.

In or out. Saved or damned. Christian or non-Christian.


Surely we have something different to offer. What about the Holy Spirit? What about our personal and life-giving relationship with Jesus himself?

Yes, absolutely we can have those things, and can bring them to people who are desperately in need of them.

But I don’t think the Spirit of Jesus is owned by Christians. I think the Spirit is stirring people up and moving them towards God…in all cultures, traditions, and yes – religions.

I don’t think the Bird of Heaven can be caged…even in the cage of Christianity.

How does that work? I have no idea. The mystery continues to grow…the more learn, the less I know. But I’m learning that I’m not God – I don’t need to understand everything.


What’s the point of the ‘Christian’ label then?

Good question. I still call myself a Christian but there are many followers of Jesus who no longer feel they can be a part of ‘Christianity’.

Put it this way – I know a lot of ‘non-Christians’ who follow the teachings of Jesus (knowingly or not) more closely than many ‘Christians’.

So for me the whole thing is pretty scrambled. But there is so much I love about Christianity and church, I’m staying put for now.


We are still so tribal. That instinct has never left us.

But I’m convinced that Jesus wanted people to move on from that way of seeing the world. To love the enemy, to embrace the other. 

What if we stopped always trying to be in, trying to prove that we’re right…

… but instead sought to follow Jesus and learn how to be truly good – trusting that we’re somehow part of a bigger story that is much wider, greater and all-encompassing than any of us will ever realise?

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Why Penal Substitutionary Atonement Theory makes me want to throw up a little bit in my mouth

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Sorry about the title – I had to get your attention somehow.

Seriously – if you go to church and you’re not sure what I’m talking about, listen up.

This is the ‘good news’ I suspect you were taught at church:

We are all sinners who deserve to be punished for eternity. God wants to forgive us and save us from hell, but as he is a holy and just God, he must punish sin. So in his great love, he sent his own Son to be punished in our place. He killed Jesus, pouring out his anger and wrath on him so that we wouldn’t have to be punished. Jesus died as payment for our sins. Our debt is paid, so we can go to heaven. Good news! Unless you don’t believe it in which case you still get punished for all eternity.

Wait, what?

This is very familiar, right? It is still today the most common understanding of what Christianity is all about.

And yet a rapidly growing number of evangelical Christians are rejecting this interpretation of the Gospel as a grotesque and dangerous misunderstanding.

(You’ll notice from my colourful use of inflammatory language this is something I feel pretty strongly about).


Having grown up accepting this version of Christianity without question, I now see it as a hideous and sickening misrepresentation of God and the meaning of Jesus.

The specific doctrine I (and many others) have rejected is known as Penal Substitutionary Atonement (penal=penalty, punishment). It is one theory of the meaning of the cross which is now largely held as the only correct interpretation, and a (if not the) core doctrine of the faith.

It is currently my absolute least favourite thing about church. It’s everywhere… lurking in well-meaning sermon illustrations, in ‘easy’ answers in house group discussions, and sneaking into even the most popular worship songs.


Let me be absolutely clear about this.

I believe that Jesus, who was God, sacrificed his life to save us from sin. I believe that sin separates us from God, and God longs to restore his relationship with us. I believe that Jesus’ death was an act of atonement (at-one-ment), making us at one with God again.

I do not believe that God killed Jesus to satisfy his anger at our sin.

That’s the bit that makes me want to throw up in my mouth.

Before you write me off as nuts, please let me explain why…


Some of the problems with Penal Substitutionary Atonement:

1. God is angry, vengeful and violent, and ultimately our biggest threat. 

I get that God is meant to have taken the punishment upon himself. Sacrificed himself so we could be free. I get that.

But ultimately it is still God demanding a blood sacrifice as payment for sin. God wanting, needing to kill (and then continuing to torture) us because of our sin, but being satisfied to kill Jesus instead.

Whatever you think about the great mysteries of the Trinity, Penal Substitutionary Atonement makes God out to be vengeful, petty, violent and very angry at humans.

It makes the message of Christianity first and foremost one of fear… God is out to get you, you’d better hide behind Jesus before the smiting begins.

2. God doesn’t actually forgive us.

If Jesus settled our debt for us and God received payment in full, then God didn’t forgive anything. He got his blood payment!

Jesus teaches that we should forgive each other, but God doesn’t play by those rules.

So basically we are expected to be more loving than God.

3. The Gospel is at its core a legal deal or a transaction.

Once we’ve cashed in on the deal and made sure we’re in, the rest is basically irrelevant.

The whole of Jesus’ life and teachings are optional extras…if God had killed Jesus while he was a child the result would have been the same.

He paid the price, we get our ticket outa here. Then we get busy perfecting our sales pitch to convince our friends to get their tickets so they can be outa here too.

*Bangs head repeatedly on table*

4. If God killed Jesus, then violence is clearly the best way to solve problems.

People have actually used this to justify wars.

On a smaller scale, what kind of parenting model is that?

The whole point of Jesus was that he was demonstrating the path of non-violence and ultimately defeating violence.

Do you see the tragic irony in that?


A short but very very important history of Penal Subsitutionary Atonement:

(please keep reading, I’ve not got to the good bit yet…)

For the first thousand years of Christianity, Penal Substitutionary Atonement theory did not exist. You’d have gotten some very funny looks if you’d walked into an early church meeting and started talking about God punishing Jesus to pay for our sins.

In the 11th Century, a fellow named Anselm of Canterbury came up with the Satisfaction Theory, which was developed into the Penal Substitution Theory by the 16th Century reformers.

In the last 500 years, Penal Substitutionary Atonement Theory has become so dominant that the vast majority of Christians don’t realise that’s all it is – a theory. A theory that the early Christians, indeed the people who wrote the Bible, didn’t know anything about.

In the last ten years or so people have started questioning this theory, and unsurprisingly those who have pushed for change have encountered strong resistance. This 500-year-old doctrine is so ingrained, moving away from it is no small task. Steve Chalke is the most public figure to have challenged Penal Substitutionary Atonement (calling it “cosmic child abuse”). It caused a bit of a hoo-ha to say the least, and the debate is still raging on.

It seems to me to be rather like trying to get an elderly parent to leave the house they have lived in since 1948. It’s the best thing for them, but they kick, scream and hurl abuse using words you never knew they knew.


“Well if not that, then what??”

So glad you asked.

God loves us and wants us to be whole, healed, brought home, free to reconnect with our Source. So God came to Earth as a man and endured the most humiliating and excruciating death possible at the hands of men in order to expose the ugliness of humanity at its worst, gripped by darkness and trapped in its own filth… and then to set us free.

The threat is not that God wants to punish us, it’s that our own destructive nature will tear us apart.

Jesus doesn’t save us from God. He saves us from darkness, disease, poverty, injustice, oppression, hunger, violence, our own destructive behaviour… everything that cuts us off from our Source and gets in the way of us being fully and gloriously human.

Which means God doesn’t begrudgingly accept us because we are ‘covered by the blood of Jesus’ and so he can’t actually see us… God actually quite likes us as us. So much so that he sacrificed his Son to save us from spiralling into destruction, setting us free to be fully ourselves.

I’ve just put into my own words a theory known as Christus Victor. It is believed to have been the dominant atonement theory for the first thousand years of church history. Again just a theory – humans trying to explain an inexplicable mystery – and there are other variations, but this fits most comfortably with the themes of the Bible and the concept of a loving God.


If this makes you feel like your faith is under attack, I’m sorry – please feel free to share your thoughts in a comment or email.

But let me first anticipate some common counter-arguments and give my response:

1. “You’re ignoring bits of the Bible to make the story sound nicer”

Nope, look… A Thoroughly Biblical Argument Against Penal Substitutionary Atonement

2. “I believe in Penal Substitution, but the picture of God you paint is a ridiculous caricature!”

Yes – I am exaggerating and using extreme examples to make a point. But if you logically follow through the arguments of Penal Substitution, can you really reconcile an all-loving God with one who demands blood payment as punishment for sin (and then still tortures people for eternity if they don’t believe the right things)? If a human parent acted that way what would we think??

3. “I believe in Penal Substitution, but I don’t think violence solves problems”

Neither did I when I believed in Penal Substitution – that’s because we are intelligent, reasonable human beings. So then God can use violence to solve problems, but we can’t? It’s starting to sound like we are more “good” than God…

4. It’s a central doctrine of Christianity – you can’t just throw it out.

Actually it’s not (as I explained above) – and yes, we can. We’ve thrown lots of other things out, it’s how we grow.

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I Think God Makes People Gay (Part 3): The Way Forward

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The Bible is part of an ongoing story of God moving towards his people, and human culture moving very, very gradually towards God in an ever-expanding consciousness. Since the very beginning God has been pulling us forward, showing us better and better ways to be human. We’ve come a long way and we’ve got an awfully long way to go, but each breakthrough in equality and justice is a step towards God.

Accepting gay people as equals is the next big step.

(See my previous posts I Think God Makes People Gay and I Think God Makes People Gay (Part 2) for why the Biblical argument against homosexuality doesn’t work.)


What are we so scared of?

I still sometimes doubt if I’m doing the right thing here. I suspect I’m not alone in that.

But what are we scared of? Do we really think that if we welcome, love and accept people in gay relationships, God will punish us? For what, being too inclusive, too loving?

If so, we need to seriously re-examine our view of God.

From what we know about Jesus, it seems to me that God is far more likely to be angry at those who exclude and alienate his beloved children because of their sexual orientation, than at those who find themselves experiencing same-sex attraction.


The standard is love

I know it can feel a bit like we’re lowering our standards. Like we’re letting go of our morals, changing the rules to make Christianity easier to swallow.

But it was never supposed to be about rules, that was the whole point.

We have the ultimate standard: love.

Real, life-changing, earth-shattering, hardcore, sacrificial, Jesus-love.

We stand against that which is harmful, damaging, unjust, unloving, inhumane – that which prevents people from living a full life in relationship with God and others. I can think of all sorts of things that fall into that category that are commonplace in churches. Homosexuality is not one of them.


A New Testament solution to the gay debate

It would be naive to expect everyone to come an agreement on this. If we try to force everyone to think the same, then we are missing the point (and we will fail).

In New Testament times, there were hugely controversial and divisive issues within the church that are perhaps comparable to the homosexuality debate today. There were an awful lot of Christians in the early church who argued that all believers should be circumcised, that they should avoid certain foods and that the Sabbath should be kept holy. Then there were other Christians (e.g. Paul) who strongly believed that Jesus had changed everything, and so these old laws no longer applied.

These issues were a HUGE deal at the time. The Jews had always done things this way (in Exodus 4, God nearly kills Moses for neglecting to circumcise his son!) so it is hardly surprising that people were not taking these new ideas lightly.

Paul’s response is very interesting. He doesn’t try to make everyone think the same as him, but instead suggests that everyone should be allowed to do whatever they feel is right before God:

Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters. One person’s faith allows them to eat anything, but another, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them. Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand.

One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord. Whoever eats meat does so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and whoever abstains does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God.

Romans 14:1-6 NIV (emphases added)

Is homosexuality a ‘disputable matter’ in the church today? Absolutely. So what should we do?

Stop judging people. It’s not our job. If someone genuinely believes that God is happy for them to be in a homosexual relationship, then leave them be. If someone believes God wants them to be celibate, then support them. It’s not our place to judge.

This means that by Paul’s logic, even if you believe that homosexuality is a sin, you should still allow people in gay relationships to engage fully in the life of the church, and to participate in the sacraments (Romans 15:7).

(Note: marriage is a sacrament.)

Clearly this cannot be applied to just anything – if someone is doing something that is harmful to them or others, then of course the right thing to do would be to challenge that behaviour. But homosexuality in the church today is most definitely a “disputable matter”: whether it is a “sin” or not is entirely a matter of opinion.


People on both sides of the debate, then, are called to stand down; to stop trying to enforce their opinions on others, and to strive instead for unity. The aim of the church is surely to be a loving community, bringing people into deeper relationship with God and with others. Everything else is of secondary importance.

The church has failed at this spectacularly. I have heard of very few gay people who have felt fully accepted and welcomed in church. The vast majority of the time they are judged, excluded, prevented from fully participating. In many, many cases this will have led to them feeling that if God exists at all, he doesn’t like them very much.


Seriously then…

After teaching his disciples to be like children and to welcome children in his name, Jesus says:

If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to stumble! Such things must come, but woe to the person through whom they come!    

Matthew 18:6 NIV

I have most often heard passages like this used to support anti-gay arguments. People are terrified that if they condone homosexual behaviour and it turns out to be a sin, they will be subject to divine wrath and punishment.

But Jesus was always welcoming people, loving people, encouraging them into relationship with God despite their many shortcomings. He always leaned towards acceptance, unity and love, and stood fiercely against those who insisted that people needed to meet standards of purity.

So what if we interpreted this passage more like this?

If anyone causes one of my children (gay or straight) – those who want to follow me – to fall away from me, woe to that person! If you exclude them or prevent them from fully entering into life with me, woe to you!

Sobering stuff. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to wait to see what is worse than having a large millstone hung around my neck and being drowned in the depths of the sea.


When it comes down to it…

For many people, the problem is that they just don’t like the idea of it. The thought of the “act” itself repulses them.

Well if that’s the case for you, you’re probably not gay.

If you don’t like it, don’t do it. Just don’t assume everyone should be like you.


Buckle up, we’re about to get serious.

If we are happy to allow people who are divorced and remarried to participate fully in the church, but exclude people in gay relationships, then our actions are based on prejudice. They have to be. Why else would we accept one and not the other? Whether we are aware of it or not, an underlying prejudice is colouring our interpretation of the Bible. Just as people genuinely believed that certain races were inferior and used the Bible to defend their position, if we prevent people in monogamous homosexual relationships from fully participating in church, we are using the Bible to prop up our own deep-seated prejudices. Prejudices that need to be seen for what they are and gouged out.

(I’m ashamed to say I am not completely over my prejudices, but I’m working on it. I can see now that’s what they are – ugly stains in my worldview that I’ve picked up along the way and that I am in the process of scrubbing off.)

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I Think God Makes People Gay (Part 2)

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A few months ago I organised my thoughts on Christianity and homosexuality in a post called I Think God Makes People Gay.

Since writing it I have had some more thoughts, so I thought I would write those down too.


I have Christian friends who believe that homosexuality is an abomination, detestable to God.

I also have Christian friends who actively affirm homosexuality, and believe that the act of discriminating against and excluding LGBTQIAP people is an abomination, detestable to God.

I have non-Christian friends who view Christians as judgemental and unloving because of their attitudes to homosexuality.

I think many, perhaps most of my Christian friends are currently stuck somewhere in the middle of these categories. They would love to fully encourage and affirm their gay friends, but they believe the Bible says homosexuality is wrong. Forcing LGBTQIAP people to live repressed and lonely lives seems harsh and unloving, un-Jesus-like even, and yet they can’t shake off the fear that affirming such relationships would be going against God’s will and leading people into sin.

I still sometimes fall into this category, doubting my interpretation of the Bible and worrying that I’m somehow leading people astray. But most days I’m in the radically affirming camp.


So following on from my previous post, here are some more thoughts on the “issue” of homosexuality and Christianity.

1. If I’m OK with people getting divorced and remarried, why not same sex relationships?

This is an obvious one, but important nonetheless. Everything comes down to how I read the Bible. If I choose to interpret the bits about homosexuality as directly applicable and culturally relevant today, I really ought to also be against divorce. More so actually because Jesus talked about divorce a lot, while never once mentioning homosexuality. I should also be against women in leadership, and I should probably be keeping slaves. What makes monogamous homosexual relationships any different?

2. The bible passages most commonly used to argue against homosexuality are probably about something entirely different.

In 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, the apostle Paul includes homosexuality in a list of immoral acts. This and Romans 1:26-27 are probably the most convincingly anti-gay passages in the Bible. But Paul is speaking into a culture where it was normal and socially acceptable for wealthy older men to act as patrons to young boys – educating and supporting them, and usually having sexual relations with them. Sexuality in that culture was in the context of unequal relationships that were often abusive and exploitative. Yet these are the writings we have used to condemn monogamous, equal, loving homosexual relationships in our own culture. Are they really comparable?

3. According to Paul, singleness was “God’s best”.

We hold Paul as the highest authority on many issues in the church. And yet if it was up to Paul, everyone would be single and no-one would have sex with anyone.

Now for the matters you wrote about: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” But since sexual immorality is occurring, each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman with her own husband. (1 Corinthians 7:1-2)

Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do. But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion. (1 Corinthians 7:8-9)

Paul seems to be saying that as far as he’s concerned, it is best to stay single. For him, marriage is less than “God’s best” (a phrase I hear a lot in reference to homosexuality), but he concedes that for some who lack the necessary self-control, it is better to marry.

Whether or not homosexuality is “God’s best”, is it possible that for some, being in a committed, monogamous homosexual relationship is for them the best and most healthy state in which to live, grow and draw closer to God?

None of us are perfect but in loving one another in healthy, committed, faithful relationships we grow closer to God, learning to mirror the love Jesus has for us. How can it be right to deny some people this opportunity?

4. Sexuality and gender are more complicated than we thought.

I listened to The Liturgists Podcast – Episode 20: LGBTQ twice through even though it’s over two hours long – I found it fascinating. If you’re interested in this discussion you should find time to have a listen.

One of the most interesting parts, I thought, was an explanation of what science has revealed about the nature of gender and sexuality. There are a surprisingly high number of people of do not fit the categories of male or female, let alone straight or gay. These people are forced to fit our cultural moulds or face being effectively cast out from society. People are still today being disowned by their families for not fitting the cultural norm.

For we who call ourselves Christians, how do we imagine Jesus would have treated such people? Is it not more Christ-like to show people radical love, inclusion, affirmation and acceptance than to judge and exclude them?

As with many things, sexuality and gender are simply not black and white. So what if we stopped worrying so much about squeezing people into boxes and concentrated on loving them instead?

5. Where do we draw the line? Are we taking the easy way out and making our faith fluffy and lukewarm in the process?

As Christians we have to hold firm to the central values of our faith. So what are they? Jesus said we should love God and love others. He was radically loving, and outrageously affirming of those whom society had cast out. The only people he condemned were the religious leaders who sought to control people and appear superior by taking it upon themselves to enforce purity laws.

By affirming homosexual relationships we are not saying “anything goes”. We do not affirm anything that is abusive, destructive, unjust, unhealthy or inhumane. Our goal is to love God, love others and help others to love God.

And we’re not talking about a fluffy, do-what-you-want-as-long-as-you-don’t-offend-anybody, nice sort of love. We’re talking about the sacrificial sort of love that Jesus demonstrated when he died on a cross.

There’s nothing lukewarm or easy about that sort of love. That’s what Christians are supposed to be known for.

6. What if I’m wrong?

Does God actually make people gay? I don’t know. No-one does.

All we have to go on are a few lines in some letters from thousands of years ago which may or may not be culturally applicable today. But they are part of a wider story which speaks overwhelmingly of a God who loves people, and longs to draw near to them.

The Bible is not clear on homosexuality, so ultimately we do what we feel is right.

And I find it hard to believe that anyone who arrives at the pearly gates will be condemned by God for being too loving.

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Next up: I Think God Makes People Gay (Part 3): The Way Forward

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Rethinking Christianity: Sin and Salvation (What James Cameron, The European Migrant Crisis And Harry Potter Have Taught Me About God And The Human Condition)

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‘Sin’ is one of those odd, stuffy-sounding Christian words that nowadays means very little outside of church. Even in church I often feel like it deserves to be tucked away, collecting dust on the shelf next to the 1950s hymn books and Bibles with missing front covers.

Despite my aversion to the word itself, the concept of ‘sin’ seems as real and relevant as ever.


To me, ‘sin’ describes the dark side of humanity. It is woven into the fabric of our very existence. It is the root of hatred, destruction, greed, anger, abuse, despair and hopelessness. It can consume us like a disease, imprison us, blind us, corrupt us, stain us, wound us. It is the desecration of God’s beloved creation; an inescapable and suffocating fog; a deadly virus that has infected the whole world.

The devastating effect of ‘sin’ is that we become cut off from God, our source, and disconnected from each other and from our world. In 2009 I had a profound spiritual experience whilst sitting in a cinema in Ealing, watching James Cameron’s ‘Avatar’ in 3D. I think that in an abstract, fairytale-type way, that film describes reality as it should be. The natives of the planet Pandora, the Na’vi, live in harmony with nature, their fellow creatures and Eywa, the mother goddess they worship. I don’t even remember much about the plot of the film, I just remember the vivid depiction of a world where everything is so intricately connected and interdependent; a delicate balance of beauty, energy and life. I think it’s a pretty good metaphor for how things should be, and I hope one day will be.

So we are faced with this problem of ‘sin’ in our world. We see it on the news every day, we sense it as we walk along the street or into our workplaces, and we feel it in our own hearts. Whether we call it ‘sin’ or not, we know that in a very real way, the world is seriously messed up.

Many people would end the story there. Yep – that’s the way things are, best get used to it. Keep your head up, get all you can out of life while you can because there’s nothing else.

But many of us have this conviction, this unshakeable sense that this is not all there is.


I have this wild belief that there is a God who created the world, and loves it enough to want to save it from its own self-destruction. I believe that each human being in some way reflects the image of God, and is therefore infinitely precious and valuable. I believe that God loved human beings enough to actually become one of us, to walk among us, suffer alongside us and ultimately let us kill him. And in doing so I believe that, in some mysterious way, He defeated this thing we call ‘sin’.

Just let that sink in for a minute.

That means that everything messed up in this world – sadness, fear, pain, war, hunger, disease, hatred … all of it … is in some way temporary. It means that however bad, desperate, dark or horrifying life becomes, there is always hope.

I often wonder if I’m making this up. What a bonkers thing to believe – it seems way to good to be true. But that’s what faith is about. I’m daring to believe that there is more to life than what we see; that we are part of a much bigger story, and that this story has a happy ending.


More than forgiveness for individual sins

Clearly, the problem of ‘sin’ has a lot to do with our own wrongdoings. We do and say things that are harmful to ourselves and others, and often find that we are heading in a downward spiral, or trapped between walls that we ourselves have built. These are symptoms of our ‘sinful’ nature – we are infected along with the rest of the world and can’t help getting things wrong, an awful lot of the time. Jesus saves us from our own wrongdoings and destructive habits by offering us forgiveness and a fresh start. Over and over and over and over again. This brings real freedom, hope, peace and reconciliation, and is a central part of what it means to be Christian. But I don’t think ‘sin’ and ‘salvation’ are just about individual wrongdoings and forgiveness, I think there is more to it than that.

I definitely no longer think that God needs to punish us for our ‘sins’ simply because they offend Him, and that being ‘saved’ is about being forgiven so that we can go to Heaven when we die. I think this is a warped version of the Christian message, a harmful distortion which leads more to fear than freedom. I think God offers forgiveness so that we can learn from our mistakes, move on and start afresh, reconciled to God, to ourselves and to those around us.


Three images of salvation

As I’m writing, three different images keep appearing in my head. The first is that heart wrenching photograph from a few months ago of a Syrian man on a migrant boat, clutching his two children and crying. The second is of a terrified, emaciated young woman sitting alone in a dimly lit room – she has been held captive and used as a slave by sex traffickers since she was kidnapped from her home, aged thirteen. The third is a three-year-old boy who has recently been diagnosed with leukaemia.

I believe Jesus wants to save these people. But will forgiving them of their individual wrongdoings help them in their real life situations? Will it bring comfort to the man desperate to bring his family to safety, the woman terrified of what her captors will do to her next, and the distraught parents of the three-year-old boy? Maybe a little, but not really. The Syrian man needs to find a safe place to call home, the woman needs to be freed from captivity and brought to safety, and the boy needs to be cured of his disease. These are the things that would bring them ‘salvation’.

In my experience, the church is very good at emphasising the need for the forgiveness of individual ‘sins’, suggesting this is all we need to be ‘saved’. I believe that a truly Biblical understanding of the word ‘salvation’ incorporates liberation from captivity, return from exile, healing from disease and rescue from danger as well as forgiveness for individual wrongdoings.* By only talking about individual ‘sins’ we are in danger of becoming like the Pharisees (the religious leaders that Jesus often got very angry at) who were obsessed with ‘purity’, and making sure people obeyed the rules. I think the ‘salvation’ Jesus offers is much bigger, better and more real than we often make it out to be.


I think the wrench that we felt in our hearts when we saw those pictures of Syrian children drowned on a Turkish beach was nothing compared to how God felt. I think it breaks God’s heart to see His beloved children suffering, trapped, lost, alone or afraid, and He longs to save us. And I believe He is saving us – the wind of His Spirit is blowing through the world, bringing healing, comfort, compassion and love, bringing people together, moving them to act against injustice. Moment by moment, calling us home.

I don’t know how, I don’t know when and I don’t know why, but I believe that one day we will make it home and every little thing will be OK.


I think this is why films like Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings are so popular. They tell the story of an epic battle with heroes and villains, where ultimately good triumphs over evil. Light defeats darkness. I think we love these stories because they reflect a deep truth about the nature of reality.


One last thought…

How often in our church services do we talk about corporate sin – the sin that is built in to our systems, structures and civilisations? How often do we repent of the sins of racism, sexism, materialism, rampant consumerism, violence, homophobia, Islamophobia, political corruption, economic inequality, the plundering of the world’s natural resources, our contribution to climate change…?

Not nearly often enough, I’d say. I think Jesus wants to save us from those sins too.

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*Marcus Borg goes into this in detail in his book ‘Speaking Christian’ – a very worthwhile read!

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