If Hell Doesn't Exist Then Why the Cross?
In my recent article, Is Believing in Hell Bad for Your Mental Health?, I explored the scientific evidence that belief in hell is a significant contributor to mental illness and can actually cause damage to the brain and heart. I also established that none of the four words translated as “hell” in English versions of the Bible actually mean a place of eternal conscious torment, and that the idea of hell as we have traditionally understood it didn't develop until much later on and has no basis in scripture. (If you haven't read the aforementioned article I recommend doing so, since this one builds upon the foundations of that previous discussion.) In the light of these revelations, what are the implications for the gospel? If you deconstruct hell as a place of eternal conscious torment, then the line of questioning that often ensues goes something like, “Why did Jesus have to die if not to rescue us from hell? I mean, if there's no hell and no fear of punishment, then what's the point of the cross? And furthermore, won't people just go round doing whatever they please without an appropriate deterrent?” I can't answer for anyone else, but for me personally it is not fear of punishment (eternal or otherwise) that directs my behaviour. I don't kill people because I don't want to kill people. I don't rape people because I'm not interested in raping people. I see an inherent dignity in others and such violations will always be abhorrent to me, regardless of any external law aimed at governing my behaviour. The gospel of the kingdom What this line of thinking shows me, however, is the paucity of such a narrow “punishment avoidance” interpretation of the gospel. Jesus preached a grand vision of the kingdom as a corporate and all inclusive entity that invades every aspect of our communal lives and is, in fact, already within us. In the past few centuries, however, it has been reduced to an individualistic personal fire insurance policy. Thus we see the magnificence of love personified in Jesus reinterpreted as a mere legal transaction in which his sacrifice appeased the wrath of an angry God. This theory of Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA) is what results when lawyers like John Calvin get hold of the gospel. We end up with the courtroom language of judgment and transaction rather than the inclusiveness, reconciliation and transformation that accompanies genuine love.
It appears to me that the notion of an angry deity is a misconception that goes all the way back to the garden. If God really was angry and is too holy to be in the presence of sin, as is often suggested, then why didn't he remove himself from Adam and Eve at the fall? Yet what we see is the exact opposite, with Adam and Eve hiding from God's presence while HE comes looking for THEM. This is a really important point to grasp. God is just like Jesus (and vice versa) and doesn't mind coming and looking for us in our mess and confusion. Our forebears incorrectly assumed that God was their enemy, but what we see instead is a loving parent who is looking for his lost kids and even providing garments for them once he finds them. As Paul so rightly says, we became God's enemies "in our own minds" (Colossians 1:21). Who is the angry one?
Now here's where I think the crux of the matter lies. It wasn't God who was angry, it was us. But the idea of our own violent anger was so distasteful to us and created such a cognitive dissonance that we compartmentalised it and projected it onto God. Thus started the cycle of self-justified holy violence in which we (and by "we" I mean humanity) started offering sacrifices to appease God's perceived anger (which was really our own). At first the sacrifices are relatively small, but a trajectory has been set in motion that will eventually involve the never ending blood sacrifice of animals and humans until, ultimately, we kill Jesus. This constantly escalating scapegoating mechanism had to eventually result in the scapegoating of God himself. How could it not? So the ultimate, logical conclusion to our projected sacrificial violence is that we kill God but reframe it as God killing God in order to appease God, which makes no sense at all. (This is addressed further in my article, Everybody Needs a Scapegoat).
If you think that sounds a little far fetched, consider the original messages preached by the fledgling church. In Acts 2:36, for example, Peter speaks to the crowd of "... this Jesus, whom YOU crucified …" (emphasis mine). And that is a constant theme throughout. People killed Jesus but God raised him from the dead. Furthermore, Jesus, on more than one occasion, echos the Old Testament prophets in stating that God "desires mercy and not sacrifice". Let that sink in for a moment. God. Does. Not. Want. Sacrifice. Yet Jesus enters into such complete identification with the plight of humanity that he willingly submits himself, not to the wrath of an angry god, but to the violence of an angry mob. He didn't just die FOR us. He died AS us, in complete identification WITH us. In an amazing piece of predictive prophecy about the crucifixion written hundreds of years before Jesus appeared on the scene, Isaiah says, "Yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted." (Isaiah 53:4). I find it interesting that it doesn't say that he actually was stricken, smitten and afflicted by God, only that that's how we viewed him. We (humanity) esteemed him so. That was our perception. He bore our sorrows and griefs out of love, he bore our anger and our hatred, he bore our violence and even submitted himself to the point of being murdered BY US, yet we scapegoated him and projected our violence onto him and said that he was afflicted by God in order to appease God's anger at "sin".
A glorious reconciliation
And what did this all accomplish? Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:19 that God was, in Christ, reconciling the world (cosmos ... the entire created order) to himself, not counting people's sins against them. We somehow thought we were separated from God and needed to appease his anger, but by his complete identification with us, Jesus is showing us that we had forgotten who we really were ... beloved children. Thus he has given us this message of reconciliation in which we remind ourselves and each other that God was never angry and that we always belonged.
Christ, then, died not to exact a price required by God for our naughtiness, but to remind us of who we really are. The word "sin" in the original Greek is "harmartia" and according to bible translator, Francois Du Toit, means "to be without your allotted portion or without form, pointing to a disorientated, distorted, bankrupt identity." He also points out that "sin is to live out of context with the blueprint of one's design; to behave out of tune with God's original harmony."
Bible translator, Francois Du Toit and his wife Lydia (photo via Facebook)
So in a very real sense, Jesus was not saving us from punishment, but into restored identity as our truest selves. Our “sin” wasn't about being naughty or rebellious, but rather forgetting our true identity as beloved children and living out of that fallen mindset. Thus Jesus lived, died, and rose again in order to remind us of who we really are, from where we have fallen, and to restore us to that right place of union that we lost when we incorrectly perceived that we were God's enemies. In solidarity with us, and out of his great love for us, he paid such a terrible price to deliver us from the illusion of separation and bring us back into the family that we were always a part of. Held by love Perhaps many of us are like bullied children in a school playground, swinging our fists wildly at anyone who comes near. We may even believe we deserve the abuse. Love approaches, but it seems too good to be true and besides, we're still in a state of fight or flight. So we don't immediately recognise Love, but rather give it names such as Anger, Punishment, Retribution. And we call it holy and say it's good. Meanwhile, in the heat of our own rage, our blows find their mark like arrows in the heart of Love until our anger is ultimately consumed. Spent at last, we tearfully melt into the strong arms of Love – our presumed assailant – all the while hearing the words, “It's okay. I'm not angry. I won't hurt you. I am Love.”
Mark has a background in psychology and applied neuroscience. He is currently exploring the high country of grace and finding many delightful places of rest for the soul. Mark enjoys surfing, bush walking, making music, good food and laughter in the company of friends. He resides on Queensland's Sunshine Coast and has two grown children.
See all previous articles by Mark Darling