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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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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Photo by (C)2007 Derek Ramsey (Ram-Man) (Own work (Own Picture)) [GFDL 1.2 (http://www.gnu.org/licenses/old-licenses/fdl-1.2.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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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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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Rethinking Christianity: The Message of Jesus

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What if the message of Jesus that is widely understood by Christians is a distorted version of his original message?

What if our understanding of Jesus’ message is actually a concoction of selected quotes from Jesus and Paul, Greek philosophy, and a post-enlightenment desire to reduce everything down into a neat, scientific formula?

What if in reading the Bible as a scientific text book or instruction manual we have ended up paying more attention to the writings of Paul than to the life and teachings of Jesus?

What if Jesus never intended to start a new religion with requirements of “belief”?

What if many who call themselves Christians have acted less like Jesus, and more like the religious leaders Jesus fiercely opposed?

Could it be that there are ‘non-Christians’ who follow Jesus more closely than some Christians?

Is it possible that the Good News is better than we thought?


In ‘Heaven-and-Hell’ Christianity*, the version of Christianity I grew up with, the message of Jesus was clear: I am sinful and bound for Hell, but God in His love chose to punish His own Son instead of me, so that I can go to Heaven when I die. All I have to do is believe this Good News, and accept Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Saviour.

In my gratitude to God for saving me from my sins and eternal punishment, it was my duty and my joy to show others the same love that God had shown me. Now I was ‘saved’ I was called to follow Jesus and to try and be like him. But this was always of secondary importance to holding the right beliefs – that is how I was assured of my eternal destiny in Heaven, which was the real hope that Christianity gave me.

As a Christian it was my duty to share the Good News with those around me who weren’t Christians, and were therefore bound for Hell. I was called to show them the love of Jesus, in the hope that they would come to accept him as their personal Lord and Saviour and be saved from eternal punishment for their sins.

The sad reality was that there were many ‘good’ people in the world who were going to Hell because they weren’t Christians.


After many years of questioning, deconstructing and rethinking, my understanding of Jesus’ message is now very different. It is not a neat formula, and I don’t have all the answers. But reality isn’t black and white, and I am not God, so I think that’s OK.

I think the message of Jesus was something more like this:

“The Kingdom of God is at hand, repent and believe the Good News”.

In ‘Heaven-and-Hell’ Christianity, this is interpreted as something like: “You can go to Heaven after you die! Stop living your life of sin and believe in me so that I can save you from Hell!”

But if we take Jesus’ words and actions in the religious, historical, social and political context in which he said and did them, a very different story emerges.


The Kingdom of God was the ultimate hope for God’s people (the Jews) – a time and a place where God was in charge, and everything was made right. They already had that hope. But Jesus insisted that it was here, the time had come now, God’s Kingdom was breaking through to Earth.

Jesus claimed that he was fulfilling this prophecy from Isaiah:

‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’
(Luke 4:18-19)

I don’t think he was talking in metaphors. I think he meant exactly what he said.

He wasn’t talking about getting people off this Earth into a better place far away in the sky.

He was talking about God’s rule coming to this Earth. The Heavenly realms breaking through into our world, our lives, here and now.

He definitely spoke of an afterlife, a hope of eternal life with God, but this eternal life starts now.

He didn’t want people to believe facts about him or join a religion to earn their ticket to Heaven. He wanted people to love him, to love God, to live in the new Way he was demonstrating, to follow a new path of freedom, love and life in all its fullness.


Jesus demonstrated through his life, death and resurrection that light and life will ultimately defeat darkness and death.

The Jews were expecting their Messiah to announce victory for Israel and defeat their Roman rulers by using violence to overthrow them. This would in turn have led to more inhumanity, injustice and oppression. Instead, Jesus disappointed many of them by claiming that the only way to truly defeat the powers of darkness was through the new Way he showed them – the way of love, non-violence and humility.  It was an upside-down, counter-cultural, radical new way of living and being. And it wasn’t just about the Jews anymore, it was about everything and everyone.

Jesus’ death was the ultimate symbol of this non-violent rebellion, and was the means by which God defeated death and darkness. When Jesus was executed many Jews must have written him off as yet another false messiah. But the resurrection showed that Jesus really was the Messiah they had been waiting for, that God’s Kingdom had won, and that darkness would not have the final word.


As a Christian, I am no longer in the business of Hell-avoidance. I don’t think that was ever the point. While my faith in the old belief system has crumbled, my faith in Jesus is stronger than ever. This is what it now means to me:

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

– Darkness, death, violence, oppression, injustice, pain, suffering, hatred and inhumanity, however powerful and all-consuming, will not have the last word.

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

– I believe that Jesus lived and died to reconcile us to God.

– With the wind of God’s Spirit in my sails I am 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 my lungs I am compelled to stand against evil, injustice, oppression, inhumanity and destruction in all its many forms.


I fear that far too often, we who call ourselves Christians have missed the point entirely, and have even worked against Jesus’ restorative mission on Earth.

In preaching an individualistic, formulaic Gospel that focuses primarily on correct doctrinal beliefs and the afterlife, I fear that we have often ignored (and even contributed to) the powers of sin, darkness and destruction we should be fiercely opposing.

I feel an increasing sense of urgency that the world desperately needs more of us to look again at the message of Jesus, and that the future of our planet may quite literally depend upon it.

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*Phrase borrowed from Marcus Borg

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Rethinking Christianity: Hell (How My Faith Evolved From A Story Of Fear To A Story Of Hope)

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Growing up in church I knew the Christian message back to front. It was my reality, my Truth, my reason for living.

It went like this:

God created me in my mother’s womb, and loved me so much that he wanted me to have eternal life with Him in Heaven. Tragically, all of humanity had fallen and was deeply sinful and bad, and God hated sin so much He couldn’t stand to look at me. In His amazing love He sent His only Son to take my punishment by dying on a cross, so that I wouldn’t have to be punished and could spend eternity in paradise. I was saved by grace – there was nothing I could do to earn my salvation, it was a gift from an awesome God who loved me. All I had to do was believe this Good News and accept the free gift of salvation.

This was the way it had to be – God was perfectly good, and nothing evil could enter His presence. Therefore I in my fallen nature needed to be washed clean, forgiven of my sins, and covered by the atoning blood of Jesus. It all made perfect logical sense, and it really was a beautiful story – one of love, hope and sacrifice. I was so humbled and grateful that God had chosen to save me; I was secure in the knowledge that I was going to Heaven, and my mission in life was to see others saved in the same way.

We didn’t talk about Hell much, it wasn’t a nice thing to think about. But it was definitely a real threat and a future reality for anyone who wasn’t a Christian. I understood Hell to be a place without God, where there was no hope, no love, no light, nothing good at all. Some described it as a literal lake of fire, I thought that was a bit farfetched. But I had no doubt that it was a place of suffering and torment, that would last forever, and that was the ultimate eternal destiny for all of humanity – or at least that’s what we all deserved.

That was the Bad News that came before the Good News.

As much as we dressed it up with nice words, friendly smiles and good music, the message of our Christian faith was ultimately based on fear. Unless we got it right, we had good reason to be very, very afraid.


The Unravelling

I was completely convinced. It was only when I encountered some Christians who challenged this understanding of the Gospel that it all started to unravel. When encouraged to step outside of my Christian bubble and dig deeper into my beliefs, I began to see my faith from other angles and some troubling and unsettling thoughts started to emerge.

The way to escape Hell was to believe that Jesus, a man from Nazareth who lived 2000 years ago, was the Son of God, and died to save us from being punished for our sins. Logically speaking, therefore, anyone who died without believing this message would be tortured beyond their worst nightmares for all of eternity. If people had heard the message and chose to reject it, well, then that’s clearly what they deserved for failing to believe the Truth. But what about those who had never heard of Jesus? What about babies who died before they were old enough to understand? What about my mentally handicapped brother? What about people who grew up in cultures where Christianity was not the main religion, or was not known about at all?

As I understand it, this is why traditionally children were baptised as infants – it was a way for the poor, concerned parents to appease God in the hope that He would let their beloved children into Heaven if they died in infancy. Christian missionaries have travelled all over the world preaching the Gospel in the hope of converting people to Christianity and saving souls from Hell. Some truly remarkable people have sacrificed their whole lives to this mission, out of genuine love and compassion for those who were destined for Hell. It is not them I started to have a problem with, it was the God who was responsible for it all in the first place.

If God was Creator of all things, all-knowing and all-powerful, then He knew full well when He created people that they would fall short of His standards. God was just and fair, so needed to punish sin – fair enough. But how just and fair was it that some people like me were born into evangelical Christian families where becoming “saved” was easy, while others never even heard Jesus’ name? Does God prefer white Western people? (Not too long ago the answer to this would have been a resounding “yes”, despite the fact that Jesus was of Middle-Eastern origin). And how just and fair was it that Christians could spend their entire lives abusing people with their greed and selfishness and still go to Heaven, whilst a Hindu man named Ghandi who spent his life working for peace, freedom and justice for oppressed people was right now being tortured in Hell?

If this God was good, I wondered, what was the definition of good exactly?

The Bible says that we are made in God’s image, and that we are like children and God is like our Father. It is therefore reasonable to imagine that the way we love our children is comparable to the way God loves us; and as God is God and we are sinful humans, we would expect God to display the perfect example of parental love. If we heard of a parent who threatened to horrifically torture their child forever if they failed to solve a riddle or recite a poem they might never actually hear, we would lock that parent up and despise them as pure evil. Yet that was effectively the picture of God painted by Christianity as I understood it. God’s love was not free and available for all, it came with very, very specific terms and conditions.

It is at this point in the deconstruction process that many good, sincere and thoughtful people have given up on Christianity altogether. If that is the Christian God, then they want nothing to do with Him. And I was in wholehearted agreement – I wanted absolutely nothing to do with that God.


I now believe with my whole heart that the message of Christianity that I was taught is not what Jesus meant.

I think we got it really, really wrong.


Jesus talked about an afterlife, and he warned clearly that there would be serious consequences for our actions. But He didn’t say that only a select group of Chosen Ones would avoid punishment. His message was about love for all, salvation for all, hope for all.

I think the bit about having to “believe” in Jesus, as children “believe” in the Tooth Fairy, and having to say the “Sinner’s Prayer” in order to gain your ticket to Heaven is a man-made idea based on a serious misinterpretation.

I think the idea of innocent people being tortured for all eternity was man’s invention, not God’s.

No time here for a detailed analysis of Biblical references to Hell. But here are a couple of examples of interesting things I didn’t used to know:

Gehenna (Greek word often translated as ‘Hell’) was a valley outside Jerusalem used as a dump, where bodies and rubbish were burnt. Not a place where unbelievers suffer eternal conscious torment after they die.

Sheol and Hades (Greek words usually understood to mean ‘Hell’) are best translated as ‘the grave’. Also not a place where unbelievers suffer eternal conscious torment after they die.


I think that in focusing on Hell-avoidance strategies, we have missed the point.

I think the message of Jesus, spoken through his words and his actions, was that God loves the whole world and wants to restore it, heal it, renew it, fill it with His presence and His love.

Jesus called this idea the Kingdom of God, and he said it was “at hand” – not for believers after they die, but available for all, here, now. It was a new way of being human; a revolutionary, counter-cultural, radically inclusive new way of living. Jesus spent his life making friends with the outcasts of society, healing the sick, feeding the poor and demonstrating radical ways of fighting political, economic and social injustice. He was killed for being a political revolutionary. The second line of the prayer he taught his followers was “Your Kingdom come, Your will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven”. What sense does all this make if Jesus’ mission was to give us a ticket out of Hell? In that case, this life doesn’t matter much anyway once we’re “saved” so why bother with all the other stuff?

I think we constructed the belief system of ‘original sin’ and Hell-avoidance by taking particular verses out of context and failing to see the bigger picture, the overarching story. Jesus brought a revolutionary message of love, freedom, radical inclusion and hope. He was most fiercely opposed not to unbelievers, but to the religious leaders of the time who used fear to control people, enforcing petty laws and creating hierarchies based on “purity” (which Jesus routinely turned upside-down).

How tragically ironic that in His name we created a religion based on fear and control, which allows for people to be dehumanised and the planet to be destroyed as long as people believe the right doctrines about the afterlife. Instead of fighting injustice as Jesus did we have contributed to it. Instead of radically loving and including people, we have judged and excluded them.

All this because we wanted to see things as black and white, Heaven or Hell, in or out, Christian or non-Christian, saved or damned.


I don’t think the Good News is that we can escape Hell by believing in Jesus. I think it’s much, much better than that.

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Rethinking Christianity: Deconstruction

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Over the last ten years my Christian faith has undergone a dramatic transformation. The beliefs that were once absolutely fundamental to my understanding of the universe and my own existence have been gradually deconstructed. It has been a confusing, unsettling and sometimes painful process, but I now feel I have in some way emerged from that confusion, and am feeling a sense of clarity, hope and excitement about my faith that I have never felt before.


In the early stages of deconstruction it felt as if the ground beneath my feet was crumbling. The “unshakeable” truths I had been taught to build my life upon were being dismantled one by one – it was exhilarating but terrifying.

I know far less now than I did ten years ago. I have far more questions than answers, and God seems more mysterious and unfathomable than ever.

I used to have everything sorted, organised into boxes and neatly stacked. Now the boxes are torn open and their contents strewn everywhere, but I am learning to live comfortably in the mess. Free from the constraints of my boxes, God seems bigger and more loving than ever, and the life and message of Jesus seems more real, relevant and fundamentally good.


The core message, or ‘Good News’ of Christianity that I learnt growing up went as follows:

God made people, people ‘sinned’ and went against God. God, being perfect and just, cannot stand sin and therefore must punish it with death and eternal torment. However, God loves us so much that he sent his only Son to die and take the punishment for our sin so that we can go to heaven and be with God after we die. All we need to do to be saved is become a Christian, which means admitting that we are sinners bound for hell, believing that Jesus died for us and accepting him as our personal Lord and Saviour. Anyone who fails to do this will go to hell and be punished forever.

This message, or something like it, has been central to Christian teaching (at least western evangelicalism) for a large chunk of history, and it has only started to be seriously challenged in the last few decades. It is a message based on the threat of eternal punishment, and I would argue that it has survived in this form for so long largely because it is based on and fuelled by fear. Questioning and doubting the core Christian beliefs has long been seen as a weakness, as “sinful”, so most people until fairly recently have followed along faithfully, interpreting any doubts as personal problems to be overcome or ignored.

As questioning religious beliefs has become more socially and culturally acceptable, many people have found their faith has been deconstructed to the point where they would no longer call themselves Christians, and have sought other ways to find meaning in life. Through all my own struggles with Christianity and church I have never been able to shake off the sense that there really must be more to life than what we see and experience – science alone cannot explain everything. The life and message of Jesus has continued to captivate me, and the more I have read and thought about it the more I have seen how much his message has been distorted, hijacked and misrepresented over the centuries, often with tragic consequences.


Well known Christian thinkers, speakers and writers who have moved into this new understanding of Christianity have come up against harsh criticism from other Christians. This is to be expected and I really can understand the desire to be conservative, to protect the strong framework of belief that has stood firm for so long. When your whole life and work has been built upon a particular belief system, it is a very unsettling, scary and unpleasant thing to see that system dismantled.

Biblical Interpretation

Those who have pioneered this rethinking process are often accused of not taking the Bible seriously. This thinking comes from people who read the Bible as if it were a scientific text book or an instruction manual for life – directly spoken from God to us, and therefore flawless and to be interpreted literally. With this mindset, taking the Bible seriously means taking individual passages, often entirely out of context, and applying them to our lives now. Theological discussions with people whose faith is based on this understanding of the Bible don’t get very far as the answer is always “because the Bible says so”. However, I am yet to meet anyone who takes the whole Bible seriously in this way – it is is just not possible to interpret everything literally. So whether they admit it or not, even the most conservative Christians have projected their own views and opinions onto the Bible, and are being selective about which parts to take seriously.

I have come to see the Bible as a family history – a rich and varied collection of texts spanning over a thousand years, telling the story of how God has interacted with people. It is written by many different people and includes eyewitness accounts, letters, poetry, songs and folklore, all inspired by people’s experiences of God. In understanding our family history we gain a sense of who we are and who God is, and in that sense the Bible is sacred, useful and relevant today. With this understanding, taking individual verses and passages out of context and applying them to our lives makes no sense whatsoever. We need to understand the cultural background, the intention of the writer and what it would have meant to people at the time. When this is done seriously, it can often change the meanings entirely.

By taking bits of the Bible out of context and interpreting them literally, Christians have justified a whole range of atrocities and injustices that most of us would now consider to be completely wrong. The Crusades, slavery and the oppression of women are just a few examples. The overarching story of the Bible is one of love, hope and reconciliation, but by taking bits out of context we have managed to construct belief systems based on fear, guilt and oppression.

Having grown up interpreting the Bible in this literal manner, I now see it as at best narrowminded and misguided, and at worst downright dangerous. In my mind, viewing the Bible in this way is not taking it seriously enough.


The result of the deconstruction of my belief framework is that I am more passionate than ever about my Christian faith. For a while I felt like I was ‘throwing the baby out with the bathwater’ – in weeding out the bad bits I was also losing all the good, reassuring, comforting and inspiring aspects of my faith that had once been so central to my life. For a number of years I was confused and angry, and church was a place of frustration and bitterness. I was mourning the loss of the security I had in my neat and tidy belief framework, whilst feeling frustrated that others weren’t thinking the same as me.

I now feel like I am “the other side of angry”, as a friend recently put it; I have regained the hope and security I once felt but the whole thing seems so much bigger and better, and makes so much more sense. The ‘Good News’ seems far, far better than it did before.

I feel that the Christian message as I was taught it massively and devastatingly missed the point, and I feel an increasing sense of urgency that the world desperately needs more of us to realise this.

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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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