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Graphic of heaven and hell / By Jeroným Pelikovský from Pixabay

The Concept of Godly Punishment Never Made Sense to Me, and Now I See Why

The Concept of Godly Punishment Never Made Sense to Me, and Now I See Why

By Paul Graves

Even as a child, I was mildly confused by how God could be loving and yet punish people with hell. As I near 80, that confusion about God is gone. God lands on the side of love. Maybe it’s us who are confused about why the Christian tradition has settled for controlling its followers with the threat of punishment both here and in eternity.

I can’t “turn the tide” theologically. But I can offer you another valid way to look at God’s relationship. There’s always more than we settle for. That “more” doesn’t involve feeling captive to a doctrinal tradition that stymies your own spiritual journey.

I know advocating an alternative way to look at Jesus’ death and life-mission will be welcomed by some of my readers. It will distress others.

Put simply: I can no longer even mouth the words “Jesus died for our sins.” It hasn’t made sense to me for decades, and here is why.

Some fact-based thoughts give me increased clarity on a tradition that countless Christians, and many non-Christians, either embrace or reject. I can’t believe a Gospel-God chooses to deny Jesus’ primary, incarnational mission of showing humans how to love and be loved by God.

Yet what we hear so often is we are helpless sinners who need Jesus to die in our place so God will love us. That is so contrary to what Jesus taught about and lived out through his own unconditional love and grace.   

This deeply-ingrained belief that Jesus was a substitute sacrifice isn’t even in the Bible. Marcus Borg’s book, “Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and Power-And How They Can Be Restored,” reminded me how this belief was begun by the 11th century theologian, Anselm of Canterbury.

In 1097 BCE, Anselm created a skillful but theologically faulty logic that God became a human in Jesus in order to pay the price for our human sinfulness. That nod to human depravity caught on. And continues.

But Anselm’s logic causes serious problems:

  1. It distorts and dilutes the historical event of Jesus’ cross-death by Roman and Jewish authorities because they were afraid of him.
  2. Substitutionary sacrifice (a theological term for “Jesus died for our sins”) implies God is basically punitive and blood thirsty.
  3. It focuses primarily on Christians as sinners. So even when we proclaim God loves us so much he let Jesus be killed, we’re spiritually stuck on the “sinful” part and forget we are made in God’s loving image.

Additionally, when we become disciples of Anselm – rather than of Jesus – we’re obsessively focused on an afterlife as “our reward.” Jesus-as-our-ticket-to-heaven takes our eyes and hearts away from Jesus’ constant message that here and now is where God’s Kingdom exists.

Here and now is where everyone’s personal and social transformations must take place. Or what I’ve heard for years about preachers comes true: We’re so heavenly-minded that we’re no earthly good. That’s undoubtedly true for many preachers and non-preachers.

But what’s also true is that Jesus’ presence in the Gospel stories is a constant reminder that he lived out God’s love for all persons. As can we.

That love commands a practical spirituality that says personal transformation in each person can’t stop with only individual healing (salvation). It also intends to result in some kind of social transformation that takes small, forward steps toward restorative justice and a social wholeness (peace). Both are always sorely needed in our families, communities, nation and world.

God doesn’t punish us.

I can’t help but imagine she is deeply grieved when we do such an effectively negative job of keeping each other “in line,” spiritually speaking.

God loves us too much for that!

About Paul Graves

Paul Graves is a retired and re-focused United Methodist pastor and a long-time resident of Sandpoint, Idaho, where he formerly served on city council and mayor. His second career is in geriatric social work, and since 2005 he's been the Lead Geezer-in-Training of Elder Advocates, a consulting and teaching ministry on aging issues. Since 1992, Graves has been a volunteer chaplain for Bonner Community Hospice. His columns regularly appear in the Spokesman-Review's Faith and Values section and he also writes the Dear Geezer column for the Bonner County Daily Bee and is the host of the bi-weekly Geezer Forum on aging issues in Sandpoint.

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