The Unfundamental Conversion
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Prodigal Son Retold

December 20th, 2013 | Posted by Lana Hope in Fundamental/Evangelical

I would like to tell you some stories. Once Upon a Time . . .

A father has two sons. One son disowns his father, cashes in his inheritance, spends all his money, parties, and what not. Finally, in the pit of despair, he returns home, and begs his father for mercy.

But instead the father says, sorry, boy, but justice must be served. I would love nothing more but to welcome you. But your debt has not been paid. So you must work all day, and at night I will beat you with a slash because you dishonored my name. Now, I still want you, and I always wanted you “to be saved.” But sorry, until your enormous debt is paid, you cannot be in my presence.

—–

A father has two sons. One son disowns his father, cashes in his inheritance, spends all his money, parties, and what not. Finally, in the pit of despair, he returns home, and begs his father for mercy.

But the father says, Justice must be served. I would love nothing more but to welcome you. But your debt has not been paid. However, your eldest brother has offered take your place. So each day he will work hard with his hands, and at night I will dump my wrath out upon him by giving him beatings.

—–

A father has two sons. One son disowns his father, cashes in his inheritance, spends all his money, parties, and what not. Finally, in the pit of despair, he returns home, and begs his father for mercy.

The father says, I love you so much.  But justice has not been served. So this is what I will do. I will beat myself every night and take the wrath upon myself.

——

A father has two sons. One son disowns his father, cashes in his inheritance, spends all his money, parties, and what not. Finally, in the pit of despair, he returns home, and begs his father for mercy.

The father says, I love you so much.  But justice has not been served. So this is what I will do. I will beat myself every night and take the wrath upon myself. And also, your brother isn’t good enough even though he did not blow his inheritance or party, so I’ll kick him out of my house but leave you in my house since you repented.

——

Folks, none of these versions of the Prodigal Son are told IN THE BIBLE.

The Bible says a man had two son, one went nuts, came back, and the father not only welcomed him, but also had a feast. In fact, it made the other son angry not because the eldest brother was kicked out, but because the father was so easy on Mr. Prodigal.

Now, granted, it’s a parable, and parables are not “real.” However, I can’t retell the story as if it matched the “gospel” and take myself half seriously.

The biggest problem with the doctrine of hell is that it assumes that the function of hell is punishment or perhaps even vengeance and that somehow an atnement satisfies this. In fact, as I was taught in church, God’s character demands that God dump his wrath out on everyone who does not believe on earth.

God’s character limits his mercy, in other words.

This is really odd:

God our Savior . . . wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. (1 Timothy 2: 3-4)

And this:

God: Sorry, Lazarus, I know you want in heaven, but I cannot let you in. Because: WAGES OF SIN.

So what is the wages of sin?

Well, apparently as long as God crucified God on a cross, that blood counts as the “wages of sin.”

Unless, of course, someone does not believe during earth. Then God’s blood isn’t applied to his or her account.

Look, this atonement thing just does not make sense to me. Why would God’s wrath upon Jesus make up for all the crap I do on earth? If this is truly a punishment for my sin, only I could take that punishment.

Otherwise, it’s the crappiest form of punishment I’ve ever seen.

I don’t have answers. But it seems to me that God just loves me. Period. And he saved me, not because Jesus died, but because he loves me. And Jesus died, not because his blood mattered, but because we put him there.

And all the so-called “good” people, and all the so-called “bad” people, all are loved, not because they initially believe or because blood was shed on their account or because they kept the whole law, but because a maximally loving and maximally great God loves the best of us and the worst of us.

He forgives us not because a death makes up for our sin (how in the heck would blood possibly make up for how we sin against God?), but because he has mercy.

Maybe I’m wrong here, and I’m not swearing on this. But I can’t make sense of an atonement.

This in of itself does not prove that all individuals will end up in heaven. However, it does spin the whole concept on its head.

Sadly, if I don’t believe Jesus’ blod covers my sin, I’ll end up in this in hell with all the Catholics.

I’m greatly interested in your thoughts.

P.S. Whoever originally retold this story, I HAVE NO CLUE. I heard it retold by an old prof who did not cite his source.

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  • As one of those Catholics who are going to end up in hell I will give you my $0.02 :-). I approach it from the Catholic perspective but I am not entirely comfortable with the official formulation of the Catholic Church.

    While Catholics believe a form of atonement theology it is very different from some traditions that believe that Jesus had to die to appease an angry God. As you indicate in your post, that view is abhorrent. I could not worship a God who demanded a blood sacrifice of his son.

    An alternative view starts with the presupposition that each person is intended to be in communion with God and each other person. Due to sin, humanity in general (due to Original Sin, however it is defined) and each person in particular has contributed to a breach in those Unity with God and others. By our human nature, we were not able to repair this breach on our own so God had to become human to repair this breach. This act of becoming human in the form of Jesus and surrendering himself on the cross is a consummate act of love to reconcile the breach between God and humanity.

    The concepts of heaven and hell are related to this theory in that heaven is the state of being in eternal communion with God and others. Hell is the eternal state of self-exile from God and others (note self-exile; God offers Unity to all, but it is possible that not everyone will elect it).

    These concepts are overly simplistic and there is a great variation of emphasis and themes but it may provide a broad outline of a potential morally acceptable view of atonement (although I strongly dislike that term because of all of its baggage; I prefer reconciliation or repair of relationship). It probably does not matter anyway as I am going to hell with all the other Catholics :-).

    Peace,
    W. Ockham

    • William of Ockham, I agree with your point about self-exile.

      I believe if there are any who ultimately refuse the gift of eternal life with God it will be their own decision to refuse. The exile is not punishment, but self-chosen.

    • Lana Hope

      yes, love this!

  • I have also discarded the idea of substitutionary atonement (which was pretty terrifying for a long time since I was very scared that I’d end up in hell for it.) This is the point at which I ceased calling myself a Christian since, without believing in the blood of Christ or the divinity of Jesus, there didn’t seem to be much point.

    My argument was sorta like this:
    God is Just, but God is also merciful. These two must be simultaneously true.
    Justice is fair punishment for one’s crimes. Mercy is forgiveness for crimes.
    Placing the punishment of one person’s crime on another is not Just.
    Placing the punishment of one person’s crime on another ls ALSO not merciful, because the crime was not, in fact, forgiven but rather taken out on a different person.
    Therefore, God is neither Just nor Merciful.

    If God were truly Just, how could he allow someone else (even himself) be punished for anothers’ crimes? And if he were merciful (this was a big one for me) why did he still have to HURT someone in order to forgive (which is the opposite of mercy)? Why couldn’t he just… forgive? I like the idea that there is forgiveness, but this doctrine just feels toxic to me. Like an abusive (and mentally ill) parent who cuts themselves or otherwise self-harms whenever a child accidentally makes a mistake and says “look how much you’re hurting me!!” and then demands the child get on their knees and beg for forgiveness for hurting the parent. It’s sort of horrifying.

    The thing is, if this were true, I would not WANT Jesus to take my place. I mean, it was a great sacrifice on his part and surely a sign of love, but I would have begged him not to. Because my OWN sense of justice and mercy says “no, that is wrong! I did those things; I and I only should be the one to pay for them!” I would be heartbroken to have someone injured like that on my account. And then I’m supposed to look at the God who planned it all out as a “perfect plan” from the beginning and say “oh, how awesome. What a good plan you made, to have someone else suffer and DIE for something he didn’t do.” No way, I would try to tear his face off, cursing and screaming “why would you do that? How can you be so cruel?”

    And no, the fact that Jesus volunteered for all of this or that he rose from the dead does not matter. God still set him up in a position where he had no choice, because God, being neither merciful nor just, insisted on punishing sins on the wrong person.

    I think it’s interesting that God’s form of “justice and mercy” is so far removed from human justice and mercy. For example, if someone is sinned against and takes the perpetrator to court, they can get justice by having the person prosecuted to the full extent of the law. HOWEVER if they choose to be merciful instead, they can plead for a lighter sentence, or even choose not to press charges at all. They can NOT prosecute to the full extent of the law and then commute the sentence onto someone else, even themselves, because that is injustice and also unmerciful to whomever has received the sentence. WE KNOW THIS. Yet we still accept this doctrine. I personally cannot find any possible way to make it make sense, so I have abandoned it. If that sends me to hell… at least I’ll have stood by my own conscience in the matter.

    • Explorer, I really appreciate the sensitivity you display in your comment. I think your conclusions are solid.

      One of the words I liked a lot was ‘IF’, and I would like to use it here. You said: “This is the point at which I ceased calling myself a Christian since, without believing in the blood of Christ or the divinity of Jesus, there didn’t seem to be much point.”

      I think this is reasonable IF it is true that ‘without believing in the blood of Christ or the divinity of Jesus, there didn’t seem to be much point.’

      In my opinion, it is not necessary to hold this (faulty) view of the atonement in order to be a Christian. I consider myself a Christian, and I do not hold this view.

      • Yes, you are correct, and I have found many people who identify as Christian and choose to reject these dogmatic points. I really don’t have a problem with that, and I hope my comment didn’t seem disrespectful. However, I personally choose not to identify as Christian any longer since I feel I have diverged far enough in my beliefs that I prefer to consider myself unaffiliated. That’s my personal preference, for now anyway. We’ll see where I go next!

        • Lana Hope

          I don’t see anything wrong with that!

          • Yes. It is very freeing for me, now that I have left fundamentalism, to no longer feel that my identity NOW must be my identity FOREVAH. I can change and grow as I have new experiences and learn new things. That ability to grow never really applied to my faith back in my fundie days, so it feels wonderful to just say “I don’t know what I am right now, and I don’t know what I’ll be in the future, and it’s okay.” It feels great.

        • Explorer, I don’t think your comment was disrespectful or unreasonable, nor do I think there is any problem with your no longer identifying as a Christian. I don’t dismiss people based on how they identify.

          • Nor do I. =) I do love the space on Lana’s blog. It’s always so friendly!

          • Lana Hope

            I like it too. We are big enough to have conversations, but not so big that I have a bullies larking around.

  • Lana, I think this is impressive! I have never heard the parable of the prodigal used like this. Good job (even if it was borrowed).

    I believe in atonement, but not like fundamentalists and most evangelicals do. I think Jesus came to reconcile people with the Father–to remove the feelings of alienation that we feel on our side of the relationship; I don’t think the Father ever felt alienated from us.

    One way to describe reconciliation is atonement: at-one-ment; we are now at one. This is not just a play on words; this was the original meaning of the English word atonement and was used in English Bibles to translate the word for reconciliation. However, I think it was use to translate other words as well.

    I hope to do a search at some point to clarify it usage, but I still see the mission of Jesus to be one of reconciliation rather than taking God’s wrath in our place.

    • Lana Hope

      I understand what you are saying, and I can accept that! Obviously there has been reconciliation going on, but tha’ts different than the father’s wrath. I also think Jesus’ death was a sacrifice. One way or the other, he did sacrifice fr us. Well, I heard it retold one way, but I added to it.

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