Rescuing Christianity from the Church

Column by Rev. Dr. Jeffrey Frantz on 27 June 2024 0 Comments

Whenever churches focus too much time and energy on church membership, attendance, budget, and endowment, over time, they lose their way.  Churches would be better off focusing on the realization of the church's mission statement, which has to do with their sense of identity and purpose as communities of faith.

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I know you'd probably never see my emails, so I'll just keep venting here because my world has turned on its head and is spinning. 

In your books, you speak of love, justice, and religious tolerance. But then, I have to ask, if there is no Eternal conscious torment (ECT) waiting for those who don't believe in Jesus, then why did Jesus have to die?

What was the point of Jesus death? Because for we Christians, we believe that His death and resurrection is what saves us because he died in our place and so all those that believe in Him and his sacrifice will be saved on the last day and all those who don't believe in this, for whatever reason would not be saved. 

If our salvation is more about an inner work that God does in our hearts that shows up every day as being loving and compassionate and upholding justice then why did Jesus have to die? Please, I need an answer from a Christian.


Dear Friend,

Thank you for writing. First, I want to say that I can empathize with the great emotional pain that you are in, and what I think you need most right now is a friend or counselor with whom you can share your pain in depth. Sadly, your friends at church probably won’t help you, as they will respond by trying to convince you of “the correct answer” rather than empathizing and supporting you in your pain. So you might need to reach out to someone from outside your church, or to a professional counselor who can give you that personal support. That is what you need most, I think.

But in support of that, I will try to offer a brief but substantive answer to your question by asking a question: when we think of God and humanity, who has the primary problem? In other words, was Jesus trying to solve a problem in God — because God is conflicted between love and vengeance, and can only love someone if God finds a place to vent infinite vengeance? That is what you were taught. So was I. I think this is a popular belief, a deep-seated belief, but ultimately, a mistaken and dangerous belief. (By the way, this belief is called Penal Substitutionary Atonement theory — or PSA, and it was never taught or believed in the church until the time of Anselm in the 11th Century.)

The other option was that Jesus was trying to address a problem in humanity. And there are two ways he might have been trying to solve it. I am not sure which is right, but I think either is a better alternative to the first response.

One possibility is that by teaching and exemplifying a way of love, Jesus was inviting people to change their way of thinking and seeing and living. But those who made their wealth and gained their power and comfort by greed, competition, consumption, violence, revenge, and domination didn’t like Jesus criticizing their system. They decided that Jesus was a threat to their power and privilege. So they killed him. Why did he die? Because that’s what violent people in violent systems do to anyone who challenges their violence and their position of power. They kill that person as a threat.

But that doesn’t answer the question of why Jesus had to die. That’s where the second possibility comes in. Jesus may have known from the start that in order to help those being oppressed by the violent human systems of greed and violence, he had to challenge those in power publicly. And he knew if he did, they would try to kill him eventually. And so he courageously confronted them, knowing from the start that they would kill him. He did so as part of a necessary strategy to expose those systems. If he could show the world by his death that those dominating systems were violent and vicious … the religious system, the political system, and the economic system … then his life and death would make clear for all the real choices we each have to make in life. Do we follow the way of violence and greed or love and peace?

If either of these possible explanations is right, then it makes the PSA view that you and I were taught even more tragic. Because the PSA view largely ignores the real message of Jesus' life and death and instead twists and distorts it so it serves the very systems of death, violence, and domination that Jesus came to expose and challenge. It does so by creating a God of violence, domination, and death who is incapable of love and forgiveness without inflicting violence. It gives permission to consider themselves godly when they are being vengeful and violent. Dear friend, you have permission to turn away from such an image of a violent god. You have permission to follow the nonviolent Jesus in his nonviolent path.

~ Brian McLaren




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