Reframing Christianity

What if we got it all wrong about Christianity?  What if the crucifixion and resurrection is not the cornerstone of the Christian narrative?  What if the meaning of Jesus’ life is not the sacrificial lamb that has been slain for the redemption of the world?  What if there was a different meaning, a different purpose, a different narrative that Jesus was trying to teach humanity?  What if we have been distracted from that message by trying to find meaning in his death?

What if his torturous death on the cross was an attempt to kill an idea, akin to Gandhi’s assassination, or Martin Luther King’s?  When Michael Servetus was burned at the stake in the late 1500’s, Sebastian Castellio wrote “To kill a man is not to defend a doctrine: It is to kill a man!”  It was true with Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. their ideas were sought to be killed with their death. What if the ideas that Jesus taught were diminished in significance by glorifying his death on the cross?

The message that Jesus taught during his life was that God is love. Love one another. Be holy / be loving as your God in heaven is loving.  Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Place first the realm of heaven/ love above all else and everything shall be added unto you.  Be generous in all things; if someone asks for your coat, give them your shirt as well.  If they ask you to walk a mile, walk two. Love your enemies.

Contrast this message with God sacrificing his son to break the power of sin, the evils of the world in humanity.  God putting his beloved son in whom he is well pleased through torture, barbaric grueling torture for the salvation of humanity that is weaker, feebler, unable to measure up, unable to even come close to the love that Jesus exemplifies.

What parent would seek to punish a beloved child, perhaps a stronger, well meaning child for the wrongs committed by a younger, weaker, perhaps even physically feeble child?  What parent would then be called loving by doing such an unjust act against their children?

Rob Bell in his controversial book, Love Wins writes:  “If there was an earthly father who was like that, we would call the authorities. If there was an actual human dad who was that volatile, we would contact child protection services immediately.”  My comment on this quote was: “We [would] do the same for a father who punishes his older, stronger, more able son for the shortcomings, the wrongs committed by the younger and feebler son.  This is what God is doing when Jesus is crucified on the cross for our sins, for our wrongs committed.”

Now to be fair, the quote is taken out of context from Rob Bell’s text.  He is not talking about Jesus being punished for the sins of humanity.  He is talking about millions of people who have been taught that if someone does not accept Jesus in the ‘right’ way and they were then killed that very day, then God would have no choice but to punish them eternally with hell fire. Bell writes, “God would, in essence, become a fundamentally different being to them in that moment of death, a different being to them forever.” Such a god who portrays as being loving that would then become vindictive at the moment of death is no loving god. I agree with Rob Bell on this point.

I remember in high school, one of my classmates dying in a horrible car accident. The story went around the school that moments before his car accident he was being witnessed to about Jesus; he became angry and stormed off and consequently died.  The moral of this story was exactly what Rob Bell is saying.  My classmate because he rejected Christ was now in hell.  See what happens? God will take us out too, if we reject his son. How in heaven is this good news?

But Rob Bell’s argument in my mind is the same.  No loving parent would punish a good child, an obedient child, a child that models the best qualities of virtue for the inabilities, the inherent flaws in the child that cannot live up to those standards. No loving parent would call that love, mercy, or grace.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16) The key is in how we define the word “gave.”  To be consistent with God being love, crucifixion on the cross does not fit the definition.  Jesus tells the parable of the vineyard that a king had leased out.  He sends a servant to collect his harvest and the servant is beaten.  The king sends another servant and he too is beaten. So the king sends his beloved son, and the workers at the vineyard conspire together and kill the son.  The king does not give the son to be killed; it is what the workers at the vineyard do. God did not give his son to be crucified; it is the action that the people chose to take. At best the crucifixion can be seen as humanities abusive tendencies with all of life’s gifts to us.

There is a flaw in the theology surrounding the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.  Now I understand how such a flawed theology could arise.  Humans are meaning makers.  We want everything to have a meaning, a purpose.  We want our lives to be meaningful and not just the drudgery of the day to day indifference.  We have incorporated this meaning making into our clichés and platitudes.  When someone dies, we hear things like “God’s ways are mysterious” or it was “God’s will”. When we go through tough times we hear that “God is working his purpose out” or “God only allows what we can endure.”   We want our lives to have purpose, to have meaning.  So here was this man who lived and taught extraordinary truths on the nature of love.  He is betrayed, he is tortured, and he is crucified on a cross.  We want this to have meaning. We need it to be filled with profound meaning.

What possible meaning could it have?  He lived in a culture that valued the notion of substitution of wrongs through sacrifice.  This is the culture of the scapegoat.  This is the culture that had stories of child sacrifices with Abraham offering up his son to God. This is the culture that believed that blood rituals could bring atonement for sins. It makes sense that this culture would seek meaning in this manner.

But this is meaning that contradicts the very teachings of Jesus.  This is meaning that makes salvation into a three minute sinner’s prayer with no more commitment than that to achieve life eternal.  Salvation becomes marketable and easy. This life is filled with grief and sorrow but there is pie in the sky with Jesus.  All the focus is on the here after and no concern on the here and now.

Rob Bell states in his book, “Often the people most concerned about others going to hell when they die seem less concerned with the hells on earth right now, while the people most concerned with the hells on earth right now seem the least concerned about hell after death.” 

But if the meaning of Jesus’ life is not the atonement of sins to enable our safe passage into heaven, then what is his good news?  How do we make sense of his death?

Jesus saw his life to “proclaim release to the captives and the recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  (Luke 4: 18-19) His life was to show the power of love, justice in the world.  His life was to offer a new way of being that was not caught up in greed, coercion, or power abuse; be it physical, emotional, psychological, or corporate abuse.

This is a harder message to absorb. It is not a quick fix salvation. It sometimes points the finger of justice directly at where we live and convicts us. But it does seek to embody love in a way that is liberating in the here and now. It proclaims that not even death can stop it from progressing forward. Love is more powerful than death.  Love will resurrect in the hearts and minds of those who seek after it. It proclaims that we can be a part of that message if we seek to love one another.

“Perhaps the story of the physical raising of a dead man to life is an allegory of something else like the hope and promise of resurrection in the living of our days.  In the days that followed the biblical story, there was a change in the people who had followed Jesus. We are told they were all in hiding, in fear of their lives when their teacher was killed.  Over the next few weeks, they began to come out of their own self imposed tombs to begin spreading a message they had learned from their teacher. They tapped into the message of Jesus’ ministry of love and justice for others and began to see new possibilities for their lives.  It was as if the words of this man began to live within their own hearts, and created a new perspective on how they viewed life.  The embodied resurrection was empowering them to create their lives anew with the message they had heard. “[From “The Silence of the Resurrection” © 2009 Rev. Fred L Hammond UUCTuscaloosa)

Our focus then should not be on the crucifixion of Jesus. It should not even be on the resurrection. These are just footnotes to the narrative that was Jesus’ teachings. Our focus in this narrative is on what Jesus taught.  How are we to live our day to day lives?  How do we help bring release to the captors and set the oppressed free?  How do we love one another? How do we embody the teachings of Jesus so that they too transform us and the world around us?  How do we love one another, especially the ones who have caused us pain?

These are the vital questions to be asking ourselves. These are the questions that will re-frame  and transform our lives in profound ways.    Blessings,

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8 Comments

  1. The doctrine that your classmate is in Hell because he rejected the witnessing is based on John 3:18 “He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.” That is the doctrine that works are meaningless- belief is the criterion for judgment.

    As far as saying that Jesus was not sent to die, he just sent, and the death was our decision, it seems to me that this would reject the omniscience of God. It seems to me that any rational person, let alone a God, could have foretold what was going to happen to Jesus. As he was being sent to a certain death, he was in fact sent to die; any other claim seems sheer sophistry to me.

    Yes, that is the doctrine that Rob Bell was referring to when he was describing what millions have been taught about God. A God who is willing to love you until that love is rejected and then vengefully torments you in hell forever. This is not a God that I believe in. That God is a cruel and capricious God not worthy of any worship or adulation.

    As to my claim that Jesus was not sent specifically to die as a sacrifice being sophistry. First, I have no problem rejecting the omniscience of God. I also reject the omnipotence of God. I see no evidence of either but do see evidence that they are not traits of God. Jesus knowing that he was going to die still does not mean he was sent to die. Martin Luther King, Jr. seemed to know that he was going to die too but that does not mean he was sent to die that kind of death. Nor does it mean that knowing he was going to die must therefore mean he was to be a sacrificial lamb. The decision to kill Jesus was still in the hands of men, unless you also reject the notion of free will.

    To state ” As he was being sent to a certain death, he was in fact sent to die…” has a circular logic to it that makes an assumption that you do not state. There is an assumption that our lives are predestined and fore ordained. This assumption cannot be proven, it is speculation and therefore is also fallacious. Your argument is an attempt to apply meaning where there may not be any.

    Everyone who is born is sent to die on this earth. That is the fate of all living creatures. It does not necessarily mean that Jesus’ death or anyone else’s death has specific meaning, except for the meaning that we seek to apply to it. Would Jesus’ core message have any less merit if he found a way to avoid capture and lived out his days and died an old man like the Buddha? No. Working out our salvation by finding ways to love one another would still be just as important to humanity regardless of how Jesus died.

  2. I was not assuming predestination, nor attempting to impose meaning where there is none. I am speaking only of knowing human nature and observing human behavior. If I send a child to play in traffic, eventually the child will be struck and killed. There is no meaning to it, but it will happen. And anyone who knew I sent that child out there would say I had sent it to die.

    Jesus’ message would have had MORE merit if he found a way to avoid capture and lived out his days and died an old man like the Buddha. That would have shown that it was possible, that there was a place for decency and mercy in the world. Had Jesus lived as an example to the world, the renaissance might have happened 1,500 years earlier, and much human misery might have been averted. As it was, the only lesson learned at the time was that blasphemy and questioning authority brings destruction.

    Interesting ideas.

  3. Beautifully said, Fred. Preach it Brother!

  4. That is what we have learned in our times: the assassination of good leaders (Jack Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr, Robert F Kennedy, and Yitzhak Rabin) brings on bad times. Assassins may or may not be able to kill an idea, but they can damage history greatly.

  5. The Lord of the Flies offers a great insight into the death of Jesus and those like him. The scene where Simon has his revelation while staring at the pigs head and then stumbles onto the beach in his enlightened state is one of the most powerful ever written. Also, drop over to youtube and watch (several times) Dr. Quantum’s animation of the Double Slit Experiment. You’ll never be the same. The implications are staggering. I love your blog and will follow you.

  6. As well articulated as this post is, I was stunned to find that it fails to address the fundamental principle upon which the Christian church was established. It would be hard to “Reframe Christianity” if you don’t first address it’s basic principle. Jesus was born an immaculate birth, lived a sinless life and died a gruesome death. But what differentiates Christ from the prophets that precede him and apostles that would follow, is that on the third day he rose with all power in heaven and in earth in his hands (Matthew 28:6). This is significant because without it he wouldn’t be able to save the world from sin and reconcile man back to God. It’s this principle that distinguishes Christianity from other religions because unlike Buddha and Mohamed, JESUS is still ALIVE. Furthermore after walking with and teaching the disciples for forty days after his resurrection (Act 1:3) Jesus ascended into heaven and sent back the holy-ghost which gives born-again believers the power to live according to the teachings He taught when He walked the earth (Acts chapter 2).

    To address some key points you touched on: Jesus did come to the world to die for our sins and it wasn’t man’s will and desires that killed him. It would have been man’s will to allow him to live a long life, but He understood that the purpose of his life was to reconcile man back to God and that he could only do that through his death. Jesus said in John 10:17-18 that no man takes his life but that He lay it down. He rebuked a disciple for cutting off the ear of one of the soldiers that came to arrest him in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:51-53) because he understood that he had to die to take away the sin of the world. The prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane was a prayer that acknowledged His purpose to come to the earth and die a painful death -Saying father if thou be willing remove this cup from me: nevertheless not my will by thine be done (Luke 22:42).

    I find if ironic that a little over 2000 years after Christ died to save the world and sent back the holy-spirit to dwell in us, you would find it necessary to “Reframe Christianity” as if Christianity in its original form won’t suffice. Instead, I would admonish you to seek greater revelation on this phenomenon we’ve come to know as “Christianity.” It’s an insult to seek out the opinions of others regarding a matter having never consulted with it’s originator, which in this case is Jesus Christ himself.

    Thank you for taking the time and energy to write all of this. However, most of what you write is doctrine that was developed after Jesus’ life and therefore is only one of many narratives of Christianity and not a fundamental principle. There were several narratives that arose in the first, second, and third centuries after the death of Jesus. Their ascendency to supremacy was sadly a result of political posturing and not a result of divine revelation. Christianity in its current form does not suffice. The largest faith on earth is reduced to a formulaic salvation creed which does nothing to transform people’s lives to be more loving, more compassionate, more peaceful beings in the world. It speaks only to securing a life in the here after rather than address the needs and hurts of people here and now. I am sorry if my words offend you but orthodox Christianity in the 21st century is the perpetrator of greed, war, and hatred against others who are different. This is not what Jesus taught.

    If Jesus is the pure, sinless person you suggest, then your closing paragraph betrays your lack of belief. Jesus as pure love would not be insulted by my attempts to live according his teachings and discarding the doctrines surrounding him as man-made. Jesus through out his life, confronted the prevailing doctrines of the day, and the Holy Spirit has spoken through many to call people back to living the greatest commandment which has nothing to do with a sinless person, a barbaric crucifixion, or even a resurrection.

    • Thank you for responding to my comment. In response to your last comment:
      A) The doctrine of the Jesus dates back to the Old Testament. Every prophet gave a glimpse of Jesus, his life and ministry and mostly his purpose to redeem the world from its sinful nature.
      B) Love is the basis for Christianity; For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son (John 3:16). In turn he requires all born again believers to extend that love to others (I Corinthians 13). A terrorist doesn’t represent all Muslims no more than an individual that doesn’t walk in love represent all Christians. (FYI -love doesn’t mean I don’t have feelings; you can love someone and they still insult you).
      C) Don’t undercut the significance of Jesus death, and resurrection because without it there would be no holy-spirit (which is Jesus living and indwelling in born again believers). It is through the power of the holy-spirit that one will be able to love and live a sinless life that brings glory and honor to God. The Bible is a faith book and he that comes to God must believe that he is and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him (Hebrews 11:6). The individual that doesn’t believe in him you will never be able to experience new life in him.
      D) Lastly, Jesus came that we might have life. He died for our sins so that we wouldn’t have to but it’s our choice. Deuteronomy 30:19 says, I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live. Meaning God did his part, but we have to decide. He’s not going to override our will as humans. If individuals have decided against the plan of salvation, it doesn’t make God any less just or loving because souls die an eternal death. That’s why Christ died and sent the apostles to preach the gospel to the world. The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9). God wants every human to have life, but every man has to make his own choice.

      Again, thank you for a lengthy response. While some doctrines you refer to come up out of the Jewish doctrines, most are Christian interpretations of those Hebrew writings which are not in sync with Jewish doctrines or Jewish interpretations of these old writings. The Jews for example believed in the unity of God. The Christians puzzled over Jesus’ relationship to God and over the Holy Spirit relationship to Jesus and God that they came up with the notion of the Trinity. A man made doctrine that was voted upon by the bishops in the early 4th century. A vote is how that doctrine came into being considered the truth. Really? A vote determines truth?

      The doctrine of Jesus being born sinless because he was born to a woman who never knew a man is based on a misinterpretation of the original language for virgin. The early church had to create another doctrine called the Immaculate Conception so that Mary her self was also born miraculously because otherwise sin would have been passed down from Mary to Jesus thereby, making Jesus to be born in sin. But these doctrines are not important for me or anyone else wanting to live life as Jesus taught. They are add-ons.

      It is dangerous stuff to pluck scriptures out of context and apply them to something entirely different. And that is what people are doing when they quote Hebrew scriptures and attempt to make them fit their Christian theology. We have seen multiple cults do this with disastrous results but it is dangerous for so called mainstream denominations to do the same. It has resulted in bitterly fought wars over what–a doctrine.

      I do not need to believe your way in order to live the abundant life that Jesus promised. My attempt to re-frame Christianity and focus on the teachings of Jesus was to highlight what I see as most important. I do not see much evidence of Christians living as Jesus taught. They are too hung up on superfluous doctrine that has nothing to do with the here and now. Jesus was very concerned with the here and now in his ministry. I will follow that example and let the rest take care of itself. Blessings…

  7. In response to your last comment (and this will be my last lengthy comment), assuming that the purpose of this blog was to find truth and pursue it, I was simply trying to share with you my experiences and revelation on who Jesus is, as a born again believer . You don’t have to believe what I believe in order to make it into the kingdom of God, because it’s not my kingdom. But if you want to make it into the kingdom of God you do have to follow the teachings of Jesus and believe what he taught. Jesus said except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God (John 3:5).
    I agree that man-made doctrine will not suffice, that is why I admonish you to stop focusing on man’s doctrine and live according to Jesus’ doctrine which he left with the Apostles (Apostolic doctrine). According to the Apostles doctrine, there is no Trinity. Ephesians 4:5-6 says, One Lord, one faith, one baptism, One God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all. Jesus is God in the flesh and the holy-spirit is the spirit of God that dwells in us as born again believers, therefore Jesus, God and the holy-spirit are ONE. If the truth is what you seek, Jesus is able to reveal himself to you. In John 14:6 Jesus says, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.
    In terms of interpretation of the Bible, at this point I am choosing not to address that because unfortunately the thing that you have accused some of doing (interpreting it to fit their own thoughts and ideas) is the very thing that I have seen on this blog. So to that I’ll say, the Bible, in its Holy form, will never contradict itself and will always prove itself. I admonish you not to be comfortable accepting parts and rejecting other parts. Be blessed, and I pray that if the truth is what you are looking for that you will have the courage to receive it and walk in it. Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled (Matthew 5:6).

    Again, thank you. The Hebrew and Christian scriptures are full of contradictions beginning with two conflicting creation stories in Genesis. Christianity and its many factions have wrestled with these conflicts since its founding, including many cults. A colleague of mine called this selective literalism. We are all prone to it, everyone. I did not deny my own version of this, only pointed out that it happens and that it can be dangerous stuff especially when it seeks to be coercive. This is why a cult like the Westboro Baptists or the Davidians or the Jones cult can exist and be so determined that they are right. Cults like these are extremely coercive in their message. And they can point to coercion in the Hebrew and Christian texts to support their stance.

    I find the current salvation message that is current in today’s society to be coercive, a do or die message. This seems to me to be incompatible with what I perceive to be the core of Jesus’ message. Nothing in the gospels portrays Jesus using coercion.

    In regard to the Trinity, the first word of my faith is Unitarian, which is the theology that God is one. So in this we are almost in accord. Unitarians did not believe that Jesus was God but rather was wholly human. The theology you allude to sounds like Oneness theology which declares that God is one and Jesus is his name.

    I appreciate your sharing of your perceptions of the teachings of Jesus. I am not convinced that all those beliefs are necessary to live as Jesus did. Blessings,


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