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.


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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If Britain Was Syria: As Britain is ravaged by a devastating civil war, British people speak out about their experiences

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“I want everyone in the world to know what is happening in Britain. People are dying, children who have done nothing wrong are being killed. We need help, please don’t ignore us.”
Matthew, aged 8

The story of the conflict so far

The civil war in Britain has been raging for four years, as Britain’s President and his government fight to maintain control and prevent Westminster from falling into the hands of rebel forces. There has been widespread destruction; more than 200,000 British people have died in the conflict, and 12 million have been forced to flee their homes. An estimated 4 million are now refugees; most are in neighbouring France, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands. More than 600,000 British refugees have attempted to travel to the East this year, risking their lives in perilous and often fatal journeys.

In the years leading up to the civil war, life had been good for many British people. Big cities such as London, Birmingham, Leeds and Glasgow were thriving cultural centres boasting top class restaurants, hotels, bars and night clubs. Students travelled to study at its top universities, and tourists from all over the world were attracted by its beautiful countryside, and the rich and fascinating history that still echoed through its stunning architecture and ancient monuments.

The political system had the support of many British people who felt the President was leading the country forward, and keeping it safe and secure. If you supported the government, you were free to live a peaceful, happy life, earn a decent living and support your family. People ate well, went on holiday and had access to good healthcare. There was, however, a notable divide between the political elite and the majority of the British people. Many people felt that the best jobs were reserved for friends of the political elite, while the rest of Britain was being hit harder and harder with high prices, high taxes and low incomes. The gap between rich and poor was growing, and discontent was intensifying.

In March 2011, a group of teenagers in Leeds sprayed graffiti onto two walls with anti-government slogans. The group of 10-15 boys were arrested, interrogated and tortured. In response to this shocking government brutality in the face of peaceful protest, thousands of people took to the streets in cities across Britain to demand political reforms. At first the protests were peaceful, and security forces used tear gas and water canons to disperse the growing crowds. On 18th March, the first shots were fired at protesters at a rally in Leeds, which turned peaceful protest into armed rebellion.

The Free British Army (FBA) was founded in July 2011, and is formed of defected officers and soldiers from the British Armed Forces. It is the main military force of the political opposition.

Christian State, or CS, is a group of fundamentalist militant Christians from around Europe, Britain and the US who capitalised on the chaos in Britain and have taken control of large areas of the country. They believe that ultimately all people must become Christians, and they seek to convert people using force, and use violence and brutality against anyone who refuses to accept their beliefs. They have carried out ethnic cleansing on a massive scale in Europe. They are also targeting non-Christians all over the world, and have claimed responsibility in recent years for mass killings of innocent civilians in various Eastern countries. Political leaders around the world have condemned the actions of CS as terrorism and are waging war on the group. Many Christians have spoken out strongly against CS, claiming they have strayed widely from the teachings of Jesus and the Bible. Nevertheless, Christians in the East are increasingly finding themselves the subjects of prejudice and suspicion as fear of CS grows.

The British war and the resulting flood of refugees is a humanitarian crisis on an unprecedented scale. Many countries are struggling to cope with the numbers of people crossing their borders, and many British people are being forced to walk great distances with very little food, water or shelter. Many who have witnessed horrors, lost loved ones but managed to escape, are now dying tragically on their journey towards freedom.

Below are the testimonies from ten British people, including children caught in the conflict, refugees, a rebel fighter, a government supporter and a member of CS.

Mike Wilson, 37 – father of three from Swansea, now in refugee camp in Belgium

Last Christmas I was in prison. My wife and children used to call me and say “Daddy, come home”, but each time I would have to tell them “I can’t, the door is locked”. My children didn’t even get Christmas presents.

The rest of my family – my parents, brother, sister and their families, are still in Wales. My older brother, James, was killed last year. He was shot in the head. Very often I feel like I want to pack up and head back home to try and protect them or help them escape, but my family here needs me too. My youngest daughter is only eighteen months old and my wife is six months pregnant.

We are a long way from home and life is very difficult but at least we will be together this Christmas, away from the bombing and shooting.

Anna Spencer, 24, from Somerset

“My brother was snatched from his bed by security forces, accused of being a militant. We found his body on our doorstep the following morning.”

My husband and I are from Taunton in Somerset, and we moved to Bristol for work. He was a secondary school teacher, I worked as a secretary for an accountancy firm.

In March 2011 I joined in a few of the protests in Bristol to campaign for political reforms to make the system fairer for everyone. We never imagined the government would turn violent against the people they were supposed to protect. It was truly shocking.

Soon the security forces started storming houses looking for activists. I was arrested late one night, interrogated for eleven hours, beaten and thrown into a prison cell with other women of all ages, including young girls and elderly ladies. It was tiny and we were so tightly crammed in that we had to take turns lying down on the bare floor to sleep. The smell was dreadful, there was only one tiny window. I was there for three months. During that time some women were raped, tortured, and some never came back.

After I was released, a siege was imposed on our area of Bristol and we fled home to Taunton. (I heard from friends who stayed that some people were forced to eat their family pets to survive). We lived with my parents and my 19-year-old brother, Nathan. My older brother, Tom, lived 15 minutes’ drive away with his wife Sarah and their two young children.

In November 2013, Nathan was snatched from his bed by security forces, accused of being a militant. We found his body on our doorstep the following morning. Three months later my other brother, Tom, was taken. We still have no idea what has happened to him.

Earlier this year my husband and I managed to smuggle ourselves to Spain. We do not have legal residency so still feel fearful and unsettled.
My parents stayed in Taunton, helping Sarah to take care of the children. They still hope to hear about Tom.

John Cunningham, 34, from Barnsley – Free British Army Officer

“We were fighting for freedom for the British people, we never intended for our beautiful country to be destroyed.”

I served in the British Army for two years after graduating from Birmingham University. I joined in the protests in Leeds in March 2011 to campaign for political reforms. I felt sure they would offer at least some tax reductions or something – it wouldn’t have taken much to calm people’s anger. The way the government reacted to crush the protesters was completely shocking. I defected to the Free British Army in August 2011. We were fighting for freedom for the British people, we never intended for our beautiful country to be destroyed.

In 2012 I became an officer in a FBA brigade in North London. I fought for over a year with 3000 armed fighters, and in March 2013 we were only 2 miles away from Westminster. But then they started using air strikes and tank shelling in the centre of London and we were forced to flee to Croydon, South of the capital. We dug out trenches and hid, waiting for the shelling to stop. Often we would be hiding all day, and on until midnight. I saw many of my friends killed.

The British people used to love us, now they hate us for destroying their country. Many feel that life was much better before the revolution.

The FBA is still fighting the government forces, but we have lost many men to CS. They attract people with their religious talk and the offer of money – I think for some it’s a matter of earning a living.

Callum Jennings, 15, from East Kilbride – now in a refugee camp in France

“I ask all the world leaders to help us, to save children in Britain. All children should be allowed to laugh and play and be happy.”

The children in Britain need help because they are being tortured, shelled, shot at. They use children as human shields, the soldiers put children in front of them so people in the town won’t shoot at them. I’ve seen them do it and I’ve seen little children get shot.

Being in the refugee camp is better, there is no shooting or bombing. But we are not children anymore. I used to play video games, play football, go to the park with my friends. I was popular in my school, I used to have girlfriends and wind up the teachers. Now I never laugh, what could I laugh about? The children are all sad and terrified, even the youngest ones. They are crying all the time, they don’t understand what is happening.

I miss my old life, my school, my friends, going to football matches with my dad. I want to train to be a doctor, but now I am worried that I am missing so much of my education.

I ask all the world leaders to help us, to save children in Britain. All children should be allowed to laugh and play and be happy.

Edith Williams, 73, from Bicester, Oxfordshire

“I feel the world leaders are ignoring us in our suffering. We need them to help us, they are our only hope.”

This war has brought us great destruction and terrible suffering. The beautiful country I have loved is gone forever and its people are scattered and dying. We are helpless. How can this have happened to us?

I lived in the same house all my life, and would go for walks in the local woods with my husband, children and grandchildren. Now the houses are all destroyed and the woods are burnt down. How can we ever recover?

I feel the world leaders are ignoring us in our suffering. We need them to help us, they are our only hope.

Peter Brown, 52, from Kingston upon Thames – government supporter

My wife and I laughed when people started protesting. What were they complaining about? Britain was a good place to live. Safe, secure, a strong and proud country. The government knew what they were doing, the protesters had only their own selfish interests in mind.

I have two daughters, 19 and 21, both studying medicine at the University of London. They have always done well at school and they are still doing well.

The FBA had control of Kingston between February and November 2013. During this time I never removed the Union Jack from my roof, and they kept threatening to kidnap my daughters because of it. When the government forces came to liberate Kingston there was constant gunfire and shelling for almost a month – we survived by staying in our basement where we had food and supplies stored up.

Now our area is liberated we feel safer again, my daughters are able to go to university.

I am fiercely proud of my country, and I am devastated by all that has happened. So much has been lost. But Britain is strong, and we are already starting to rebuild homes, schools and roads. I believe in a few years the war will be history and we will become great once again.

Jodie Adams, 16, from Maidenhead

“We used to be normal children, we would go to the park, watch TV, laugh with our friends. Now children as young as three and four are being arrested and tortured and killed for absolutely no reason.”

We could hear when violence was coming – people shouting or gunshots. We would run and hide in a hole in the garden, my brothers and I, and my dad would cover it over with corrugated iron. We would hide in there for hours, sometimes all night, terrified of the men with guns and the planes and the shells. Every time I would wonder if I would see my parents again.

Children in Britain have seen things that no person should ever have to see. They shoot people randomly in the street. My mum was shot in the leg but she survived, her best friend died.

Once they came into our school in the middle of the day and chose fifty children at random and took them into the hall, and I could hear them beating them with rifles and kicking them. They took those children away and nobody knows what has happened to them, not even their families.

We used to be normal children, we would go to the park, watch TV, laugh with our friends. Now children as young as three and four are being arrested and tortured and killed for absolutely no reason. Every British person is shocked by what has happened.

Now I’ve seen these things I can never forget. I feel I will never be OK again.

If there were any decent people in the world, any compassion or humanity, this would not be happening to us.

Craig Smith, 27, from Manchester – joined Christian State ten months ago

“The prison was actually an old school, the prison cell was a classroom. I was kept there for eight months. I was tortured with electric shocks, many of my mates were tortured and killed.”

I grew up just outside of Manchester, and left school at 16. I had a few jobs but from the age of 23 I was unemployed and living with my parents as I couldn’t afford to rent anywhere. I felt angry with the government, most of my family and friends did. We felt they weren’t listening to us and were treating us unfairly.

When the protests started in Manchester I joined in. When they turned violent we all went and bought weapons, selling stuff to get the money if we had to. I was arrested in June 2011 and thrown into a prison cell with a load of other men, I knew a lot of them. The prison was actually an old school, the prison cell was a classroom. I was kept there for eight months. I was tortured with electric shocks, many of my mates were tortured and killed.

I was released from prison and discovered that my entire street had been levelled and my dad was dead. Mum had managed to leave the country. I joined CS about two months later.

I went on a six week training course where I learnt about the Bible and True Christianity. Instead of lying on the sofa playing video games, I spend my time fighting the enemies of the one true God, defending the Christian state by the power of His spirit. I used to go out clubbing and sleep around, I now see how sinful that lifestyle was. I am committed to living a life of purity as a blessed child of God. Victory is ours, praise and glory be to Jesus.

The people of Britain know that the East is not waging a war against CS, it is the Muslims and non-believers waging war against Christians.

Matthew Jones, 8, from Milton Keynes

“When I try and sleep it is very cold, and I always have nightmares and wake up crying.”

I used to run so fast when the shells were falling. I was so scared I was crying and kept tripping over.

When Milton Keynes was being bombed we couldn’t get any food or water. We used to eat just once a day to make our food last. My dad would go without for days so that we could eat.

One day some soldiers broke into our house, and took away all the food we had left. So we had no food, nothing at all.

Now we are in the refugee camp there we have food and there is no bombing. But when I try and sleep it is very cold, and I always have nightmares and wake up crying.

I want everyone in the world to know what is happening in Britain. People are dying, children who have done nothing wrong are being killed. We need help, please don’t ignore us.

Emily Baker, 26 – witnessed a massacre in her town, now living in a refugee camp in Sweden

“Everyone in Britain is shocked that this could happen. We used to believe Britain was a safe country.”

The situation in Britain is horrifying. I want everyone to know what is happening to innocent people there. Children are on the frontline in many ways, they use them as human shields, hold them in front of them to take the bullets. I’ve seen children strapped to tanks, so that the people in the town wouldn’t get in their way. They knew they wouldn’t kill their own children. After I saw this I cried so hard I thought I was losing my mind.

One day I heard shouting and walked out of my house and down the street. They had dropped a bomb that we would later find out had killed over 200 people, including over 100 children. People were everywhere, frantically searching for their loved ones, their children. Bodies were scattered all over. We carried bodies and injured people to the church, then the church was bombed. We realised it was too dangerous to bury everyone separately as they were still firing rockets and shooting. So we dug a mass grave for all of them in a field.

Everyone in Britain is shocked that this could happen. We used to believe Britain was a safe country.

I used to study, go out drinking with my friends, go on Facebook, watch movies. Now I’m in a tent in a refugee camp and I don’t know what will happen to me.

The events and experiences described here are based on real accounts from Syrian people. Does putting ourselves in their shoes have any influence on our attitudes towards them? Are we doing enough to help?

The real testimonies can be found here:

Save the Children – Untold Atrocities: The Stories of Syria’s Children

The Guardian – Syria: How My Life Has Changed

Amnesty International – Untold Stories of Syria’s Most Vulnerable Refugees

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5 Reflections on the Paris Attacks

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1. When atrocities like this happen so close to home, we sit up and pay attention.

The British media has, predictably, been all over the Paris story. I’m sure I’m not the only one to have been really shaken up by it. This is to be expected – France are our geographical neighbours, they are culturally very similar to us and we find it easy to empathise.

The horrendous truth is that things like this happen around the world on a fairly regular basis, but we largely ignore them. Somehow when 147 students are killed in Kenya, or mass executions are carried out in Syria or Iraq, we barely notice.

Why? Because those lives don’t mean as much? Because countries like that are used to it?

It is natural to be impacted by something more when it is close by. Many Brits have been to Paris, not many have been to Kenya or Syria. But with today’s technology, I don’t think we really have any excuse. We have the ability to know in great detail what goes on all over the world, we just often choose not to know. That highlights some pretty disgraceful aspects of our collective psyche that many of us would rather remain hidden.

That said, it’s got our attention now. Let’s turn our outrage into a driving force for good.

2. Events like this highlight what we already know about humanity’s enormous potential for evil. This is nothing new. 

It’s easy to feel like things are getting worse. That the world is becoming more messed up. In a sense that’s true – some things are getting worse, but other things are getting better all the time.

As long as people have been on this planet there has been conflict and violence. There’s something about human nature that means we naturally lean towards it.

To suggest that Islam is to blame for terrorism is just plain ignorant. Christians who assert this need to have a long hard look at their own religion and the atrocities it has been associated with over the centuries.

Many would argue therefore that religion itself is to blame and we’d be better off without it; I think people find reasons to kill each other whether or not they use religion to justify it. The problem is with human nature.

3.The ISIS fighters are victims of dehumanisation, just as much as those they dehumanise.

When faced with media images of ISIS fighters holding guns in the air and smiling, it’s easy to imagine that these people are pure evil. That they are a different breed of human, and that what we need to do is wipe them out, drive them to extinction.

The more difficult thing to imagine is that these are people who started out just like you and me. They have mothers. They grew up in a family, made friends, hurt people and were hurt, nurtured hopes and dreams, searched for meaning and purpose in life. Just like any one of us.

Something along the way led them to believe, at a particular moment in time, that joining that group, fighting that cause and seeing the world in that way was the right decision. I am not in any way justifying their actions, I just don’t think these things are ever as simple as we like to believe.

I have no idea what their lives have been like; whether they have suffered huge injustices as a result of global inequality, war or political corruption, or whether they had a privileged upbringing but felt that their lives lacked meaning and purpose. Probably all of the above and everything in between. Either way, I don’t think ISIS fighters are born evil, I think they are victims of something much bigger.

ISIS fighters dehumanise themselves when they are hateful and violent towards their fellow human beings. In doing so they dehumanise others, viewing people as unimportant and worthless in order to justify violence and murder. And we dehumanise them by assuming that they are intrinsically evil, a  breed of human entirely different to us.

4. Events like this bring out the absolute best in people as well as the absolute worst. 

Humanity has enormous potential for evil, but also an incredible capacity for good.

When terrible and tragic things happen, there are always people who demonstrate extreme bravery, compassion, strength, selflessness and unity.

This is the other side of human nature, the side we need to nurture and embrace.

5. We can respond to attacks like these by becoming fearful, suspicious, hateful, vengeful and violent. Or we can let them teach us to embrace life, work towards radical unity and peace and demonstrate extreme love.

There really is no point in being afraid. If we live in fear we lose our freedom. Let’s instead be reminded to embrace life, to appreciate everything and everyone we have, and to live every day to the full as best we can.

Let’s not exacerbate the situation by putting blame onto religious or ethnic groups, increasing segregation and hostility.

Let’s fight disunity by being radically unified, by offering unexpected love, respect and friendship to those who are different to us.

Let’s find imaginative ways to fight extreme hatred – not with even more extreme hatred, but with extreme love.

Let’s not allow darkness to extinguish the light.
Let’s get it burning brighter than ever.

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My Confession / Why I Am Still A Christian

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I have been a Christian all my life. As a youngster I went to Sunday school, and as a teenager my church youth group was pretty much the centre of my world. Christian youth camps were the highlight of my year and I helped run the Christian Unions in my school, sixth form college and eventually university. It all suited me just fine – for me the Christian Bubble was a very happy place to be, and to this day I have never not been part of some form of church.

The God I knew as a teenager was a loving Father, an awesome Creator and a best friend. I was in awe that a God so amazing would send his Son to die so that I could go to Heaven when I died. Me! God in His perfection was willing to overlook my many teenage failings and let me in to Heaven. My mind was blown every Sunday evening singing those worship songs.

Luckily my immediate family were also Christians, so they were OK. But for many of my friends and for most of the rest of the people in the world and throughout history, come to think of it, death would bring eternal, conscious torment in a very large and very hot lake of fire. We never said it like that, it sounds a bit harsh and it wouldn’t have made us very popular. We believed it though, and would try, in our own little way, to get people to believe in Jesus so they too could escape hell when they died. And God was pleased with our efforts – He really didn’t want anyone to have to go to hell.

We were right. How could we not be? We white, Western, middle-class, Protestant, evangelical Christians had the Truth. It was just a matter of convincing everyone else how right we were before it was too late.

Nothing about this arrangement bothered me. I sometimes wondered about my younger brother with Down’s Syndrome, but decided he’d be OK. God couldn’t be THAT mean, surely.

When I was eighteen I spent time with some Christians who encouraged me to really stop and think about what I believed. They gave me some books to read. And from then on my happy, white, Western, middle-class, Protestant, evangelical Christian world began to crumble beneath my feet. It was exhilarating and terrifying. I mourned the loss of the certainty and security I had felt when I had it all sorted. I found it difficult to pray – God seemed less close. But the result of my world crumbling was that the universe, reality, and God seemed to get much, much bigger.

In the last ten years I have struggled with, questioned and doubted pretty much every aspect of my Christian faith. Something stopped me from abandoning it altogether like many others I know. I clung on by my fingertips often feeling confused, lost, sad, sometimes desperate to regain the certainty of faith I once had. My prayer life was at best guilt-ridden and at worst non-existent; not because I was being particularly lazy about it, but because my understanding of the God I was talking to was morphing so dramatically it was hard to keep up. Church stopped being my family and became something to complain about.

About a year ago I finally began to feel happy and settled in my Christian faith again. I had a sense of clarity. Not because I had figured out answers to all my questions, but because I had made peace with the fact that I am not God, and will therefore never understand everything. And that’s OK. More than OK actually – I find living with that mystery immensely comforting.

Having said that, there are some things I do currently feel quite strongly about, some of which I summarised in my first post. As I said previously I do not claim to be an expert on anything and these are just my own thoughts based on what I have read and experienced, very much open to discussion. Here goes…

1. The church is in a time of transition, where many are feeling dissatisfied with the interpretation of the Gospel message that satisfied previous generations. Many feel that the church needs to drastically rethink its theology and mission, whilst others fear that in doing so we are ‘watering down’ Biblical truths and consequently condemning ourselves and our world. Either way, a dramatic shift is underway and I am absolutely not the only one to have questioned what it means to be a Christian.

2. How we read the Bible is key to how we understand our faith. If you take the Bible to be directly and literally applicable to our lives today, you have to either take the whole thing literally (which causes a LOT of problems), or pick and choose the bits you think are relevant (which then means you have interfered with God’s word and causes a lot more problems). Alternatively the Bible can be seen as a collection of historical documents – poetry, folklore, songs, stories, historical accounts – making up a rich and fascinating history of God relating to people. God-breathed, inspired and relevant but never intended to be an instruction manual for life. This is the point of disagreement at which many discussions simply grind to a halt.

3. Jesus kept talking about the Kingdom of God being at hand. Here, now, on Earth. His life was all about bringing down the powers of darkness, which for the Jews at the time was the Roman Empire. His message was deeply political as well as spiritual, and was about bringing real hope and freedom to people in THIS life as well as the next.

4. Becoming a Christian doesn’t mean saying a prayer to save yourself and then trying to get others to do the same. It means becoming a follower of Jesus, choosing to live the way he lived and working with him to bring about this thing called the Kingdom of God. It means feeding the poor, visiting the lonely, befriending those everyone hates, helping others to know their value and to experience the incredible mystery of a God who loves people like us.

5. Ultimately, it’s about believing that the goodness in this world is not an illusion, a fleeting distraction from the cruel and harsh reality of our pointless existence. It’s about believing that we are part of a bigger story, a story that starts with the Earth and everything in it being created and loved by God and ends with every little thing being alright.

That’s what I mean when I say I am a Christian, and that’s the background and starting point for any further musings I share with you here.

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