**Note: the video referenced in this article can be found here: http://www.upworthy.com/best-explanation-of-religion-i-have-ever-heard-and-im-practically-an-atheist?g=2**
Last Sunday, both children and adults waved palms in church, an ancient tradition and commemoration of Jesus riding into Jerusalem. Together, as a church, we sang, in voices strong and shaky, Hosanna, hosanna, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. We stood, in our pleated dresses and pressed suits, fresh out of cars and equipped with coffee mugs, imagining what it would have felt like to stand in that sweaty, full crowd of people welcoming Jesus into Jerusalem; the coming Messiah, here at last to save his people. At last.
As I stood in the crowd, I wanted to forget that the story doesn’t end here. I wanted to forget about the stories I’ve heard of the rest of the week: the betrayal, the humiliation, the crucifixion, the resurrection. I want to worship the long awaited Messiah in the crowd and have that be that. No change, no sacrifice, no death necessary.
This holy week, again, I am brought back to the cross; back to stories of Jesus overturning the temple and sharing the last supper. Stories of Jesus washing the feet of the disciples and then shedding his blood for them. Stories of his judgement, of his trials, of betrayal from one of his own. This week, I am brought back also to my questions, the questions the Sunday School answers don’t seem to suffice. Why did Jesus have to die? Why is there a hell? Why is believing in him the only way to heaven? Why are Christians so narrow minded?
I don’t think I am unique in asking these things. I think that these questions have caused the very foundation of the faith of many to seal or crumble. These aren’t easy questions, and for people who doubt, it can be disheartening and discouraging to hear their questions swept under the rug with a broad, shallow answer:
Heaven is for good people and hell is for bad people.
Jesus is your ticket out of hell.
Jesus died to save us from our sins.
You just have to have more faith.
There is a trend in religious circles, one that I’ve noticed only recently, but perhaps one that has been around for centuries. This trend may have been started by people who have had the same questions I’ve had. Because they haven’t received satisfactory answers, they’ve made them up. There’s a notion going around, starting to become accepted, even among Christians, that there is no hell. That Jesus came, not so our sins could be forgiven, but so that we could embrace our humanity. These people are happy to stand in the crowd, to worship the Messiah with a palm branch and a prayer, but unable to follow him to the cross and the grave because they think it too narrow minded.
I recently watched a video on Upworthy featuring Episcopalian Biship John Shelby Spong. In the video, he makes some bold statements about heaven, hell, and the reason Jesus came. “I don’t believe that hell exists,” Spong says. “I believe in life after death, but I don’t think it’s got a thing to do with reward and punishment.”
Spong also argues that “the function of the Christ is not to rescue sinners, but to empower you and call you to be more fully and deeply human.” He claims that salvation is more about “enhancing your humanity rather than rescuing you from it.” He describes the idea that there is only one way to heaven—through Christ— as “almost beyond imagination for me.”
Spong’s ideas are not biblical, but they are comforting. The thought that there is no hell, no punishment, no need for a Savior is appealing and alluring. His beliefs echo the hearts of people around the word, and they are taking root in both Christian and secular places. Why did Jesus have to die? The sceptic inside us asks. Couldn’t he have done it another way? Why do we have to be saved from our sins?
If Christianity is truly a religion of freedom and authenticity, I think that we should never be afraid to ask questions. If the Bible is true and real, it will be able to withstand all our questions and all the skepticism that stirs in our trivial hearts. In fact, I think the reason these ideas are gaining such popularity is because not enough Christians are asking the questions. We ourselves don’t understand why Jesus had to die, and we content ourselves with a shallow, halfway kind of answer that shows us almost nothing of the depth of his love. Just have faith, we say, without really understanding what we are asking of the other: faith to believe an idea that sounds preposterous, faith to place all our bets on Christianity without any sufficient answer as to why.
And so, why? Why did Jesus have to die? What are we being saved from? Why does it matter?
As I pour through books, through commentaries, and sermons, the common answer seeps through, as common as the verse I memorized in my very first Sunday school class: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, so that whoever believes in him will not perish but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16)
Because he loves us.
I sit, letting this truth seep into my skin. Jesus loves me this I know, has been a refrain of mine since I sang it at the age of three in the bathtub. But as I think about it now, in light of his betrayal, crucifixion, and narrow entry to heaven, it takes on a new light.
Because he loves us.
The words stand truer and more beautiful than any proclamation of no heaven or hell, any accusation that Christianity is narrow minded. He loves us.
Jesus died not as a begrudging God, nor to give us a salvation he would hold over our heads and use to invoke in us fear. Jesus did not die to give us a “free ticket to heaven” or to give us a leveraging tool to convince others to repent.
Jesus died because he loves us. Because we are a people so deeply immersed in sin that we are unaware of the depth of our selfishness, our self absorption, our own prejudice, our own need of rescue. Jesus died for our reconciliation, our redemption, or cleansing, and our fulfillment. Jesus died because he knew that there was no quality or understanding of life with any sort of meaning that could be obtained outside of himself. And so, himself he gave, joyfully.
Spong argues that religion “is in the control business.” It is used to coerce people into acting a certain way, out of fear of retribution. But if Jesus really died because he loves us, then our religion should not control us but set us free. And so Christ’s death is not meant to inspire guilt but relief, because we have been set free from the sin we cannot otherwise escape through a blood sacrifice, which has been required for propitiation throughout history. And, if we have been set free, we also take on the covering of Christ, so that when God looks at us, he looks not at our good works or our bad works but at Christ’s single and overpowering act of love, a covering for our sins.
So then, heaven, and religion has about as much to to with our merit as it does with our own mistaken, biblically unfounded, weak ideas about how we’d like salvation to go.
Jesus also died to free us from the need to please him out of our own works. Knowing that was impossible, he died to cover us, to give us his glory. In The Weight of Glory, C.S. Lewis addresses what it may be like when we get to heaven and realize that, aside from all our own doing, we have pleased God:
“…And that is enough to raise our thoughts to what may happen when the redeemed soul, beyond all hope and nearly beyond belief, learns at last that she has pleased Him whom she was created to please. There will be no room for vanity then. She will be free from the miserable illusion that is her doing. With no taint of what we should now call self-approval she will most innocently rejoice in the thing that God has made her to be.” (Weight of Glory, 9)
Jesus died for us so that we will have glory. He died so that, one day, when, with weary legs we cross the river into the land of Canaan, God will look at us and see Jesus’ blood and atonement, that has crept into and permeated every aspect of our being. He will look at us and smile and say well done, good and faithful servant.
All this, because he loves us.