A theological diatribe

I love Advent and Christmas. They are deeply meaningful times for me. As a theologian, I revel in the theology of the incarnation. God-in-flesh! God directly entering into the joys and mess and triumph and tragedy of human existence. However, as a theological concept, it was hardly invented by those who witnessed the life of Jesus. It was well worn and old long before Christianity existed. In the times of slavery in Egypt, Egypt had a theology of incarnation. Pharaoh was God incarnate. The human manifestation of the divine. In the time of Jesus, Roman theology was also incarnational theology. Caesar was God’s presence on earth.

The radical theological innovation of Christianity - that challenged Rome and resulted in the Crucifixion of Jesus was the assertion that the ideology of government leaders being ordained by God was in fact wrong. The radical monotheism of Jesus’ teaching directly confronted the incarnational theology of Rome.

But I have no intention of “preaching” my Advent theology in today’s blog post.

While the theology of incarnation is not new to Christianity, there is another theological concept that is radically new with the rise of our faith - so much so that it is rejected by some even today. Deeply immeshed in our Jewish roots is a theology of substitutional atonement. It may have begun with our grandfather Abraham. At the near sacrifice of his son Isaac, a ram is offered at the last minute that saves the life of the boy. The idea is that God demands a sacrifice. Whether or not God actually made that demand or it was the product of Abraham’s guilt we may never know. To put it simplistically, substitutional atonement asserts that humans sin so grievously that God is angered and demands a sacrifice. Then a substitute is offered and the punishment meant for human sinfulness is absorbed by a substitute. This theology has been preached from many a pulpit. “Jesus died for our sins,” the preachers declare, imagining a god so angry that he is willing to kill his own sun for the punishment of the sins of humanity.

When you think of being washed in the blood of the lamb as substitutional, it is a concept that is alarming and frightening and projects an image of a god so angry that the anger becomes vile.

This theology is not the theology of the Christian Scriptures, however.

Allow me to be perfectly clear. God did not kill Jesus. The Jewish authorities did not kill Jesus. Jews who did not convert to Christianity did not kill Jesus. Jesus was killed by the Roman authorities, who saw his challenge to their particular brand of incarnational theology.

We preach not the theology of substitution, but rather the theology of participation. We preach Christ crucified and resurrected. The choice of the word crucified is not accidental. Check its meaning: intentionally executed by governmental authorities.

Atonement with God comes not from substitution, but rather from participation. When the apostle Paul asserts, “We preach Christ crucified,” he asserts that Jesus’ death is at the core of the understanding of the Christian life. Christianity does not offer some kind of “get out of suffering free” card. Rather is embodies the promise that we are not alone in the depths of suffering. God in Christ is right there with us in the times of trial and pain.

In a theology of participatory atonement no one gets to resurrection except by going through death. We declare in the liturgy for the funeral: “When we were baptized into Christ Jesus, we were baptized into Christ’s death. By our baptism, then, we were buried with Christ and shared Christ’s death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from death by the glorious power of God, so too we might live a new life.(Romans 6:3-4) For if we have been united with Christ in a death like Christ’s we will certainly be united with Christ in a resurrection like Christ’s.”

Suffering is not a sign of God’s disfavor. It is not a punishment for sin or bad behavior. It is often the product of human decisions. Too frequently we participate in causing another’s suffering not through our intentions, but through our insensitivity and unawareness of how our actions affect those of others. The question that prompted Jesus to tell the parable of the good Samaritan rings in our ears today: “Who is my neighbor?” It is accompanied by Jesus instruction to “Go and do likewise.”

This is critical because the promise that the main focus of life after death is punishment or reward does not find its origins in the teaching of Jesus or in the letters of Paul. Expressing faith in Jesus does not help a faithful person escape pain and suffering and sorrow and sadness. Churches that promise such are in no position to deliver on their promises.

I suspect that I am preaching to the choir with this little essay on theology. I don’t have many readers and those I do have tend to b folks who agree with my point of view. What I do hope is that I can impress on those who read this my passion about the subject. While I am in no position to judge the faithfulness of other Christian preachers, it does sadden me to hear and see them leading people away from a biblical faith instead of leading their hearers into a deeper relationship with - a deeper participation in - the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. I grieve that some have formed an image of an angry and punitive God in their minds. Theirs is not the God of grace and glory whose power of forgiveness we proclaim.

As we walk through the end of this year in the Christian calendar and look forward to the season of Advent once again, may we have the courage to look honestly at the Biblical narrative and preach Christ crucified and risen who participates in human life and invites us to participate in his death and resurrection, not some mumbo-jumbo fake promise that you can avoid pain by saying the right sentence at the right time.

Copyright (c) 2016 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!