Are People Good or Bad? An Easter Crisis.

I’m having a bit of a parenting crisis. I had my kids come home from sunday school a few weeks ago and tell me they learned Jesus died on for their sins. Now this may not be as upsetting to some people as it has been to me this Easter week.

First, let me explain some of the theology that is leading to this…

At my core, I believe God is LOVE. With that and because of that, I believe the WE are good people but choose to do bad things… NOT that we are bad people who do good things. This goes against what a lot of churches teach. It goes against their total depravity doctrine where because of the Fall of Adam in the garden we are so enslaved by sin we can’t choose anything but evil. The Evangelical church, the church I grew up in and have the most experience with, teaches that Jesus came and paid the price for our depravity and countless sins making it possible for us to go to Heaven and be with Him.

In that teaching, who is Jesus paying that price too and why? Evangelicalism usually says that Jesus is standing in the middle between God’s punishment, or “justice” for our sin, and us. This model makes God out to be some horrific, blood-thirsty monster, in my opinion. All of humanity has angered Him so much by screwing up and not choosing Him in the garden, that He decided we all must die and forever be separated from our creator, our mother. He essentially has banished His children. I have a really hard time with this theology. I flat out believe it is damaging to all that I hold dear. God isn’t very loving in this model, which doesn’t add up to other teachings of the Church.

An argument I’ve heard to support this idea of “justice” from God, the justice that demands satisfaction for our sins, is that we don’t understand His justice or that I am misunderstanding things. I think that’s a bit of a cop out answer. In the Early Church justice was not about punishment as we, in our Western thinking, understand it now. Justice meant restoration. Judgement is a part of the depraved system we chose, not a characteristic of God. Remember, God is love.

I believe in an atonement theology called Christus Victor where Jesus is victorious over death. He enters in to the system of death, judgement and separation that we have chosen and conquers it for us, so that our relationship with God can be restored. It is an act of love. God is not subject to and did not create the system of death that demands judgement and satisfaction. We are the ones who chose it. God is still just, in a restorative understanding, but is not judgmental in a punishing sense. It is all about restoration. We chose the system of separation, judgement and sin, not God. The issue is not saving us from our sins, but saving us from death and separation from God. Sin is just a by product of that system. Jesus enters and beats death so that we can have our relationship restored with Him.

Jesus shows us that judgement perpetuates the depraved system. He puts an end to that judgement. St. Maximus says “the death of Christ on the cross is a judgement of judgment.” It is a pure act of love, in the absolute purest form, from Jesus and God. It is not a payment to an angry God.

I asked my husband for a modern, cultural example that might help this idea make more sense and he gave me Prison Break. I haven’t seen the show but my understanding of it is that one brother is sent to prison and put on death row while the other brother gets himself trapped in the same prison so that he can set them both free, from the inside out. In Evangelical theology, the second brother, or Jesus would have taken the consequences for us to satisfying the judge, or God, and sit in prison to be put to death. With Christus Victor theology the second brother enters in to the jail, or system that humanity has chosen, and sets us free, from within our own system.

Obviously, this is a simple explanation. This is a deep and complex idea. But I think it makes more sense. I think the penal substitution idea, that is currently preached from most Evangelical churches, is also deep and complex but people just tend to accept it with out worrying about the repercussions or how it fits in to the other parts of their own theology.

I’ve been going to an Evangelical church with my children for over a year now, after some years of not attending anywhere. I believe there is so much value in church, in a community of faith and in having a place to develop our spiritual selves. We live in a Christian culture and even without a faith I believe it is valuable to have a certain understanding and knowledge of the Bible stories and Christianity.

Here is where my struggle lies… Livi came home last week with a sunday school paper teaching about how Jesus paid the price for our sins. This Easter Sunday she was again told that we are sinners and Jesus died for our sins. This way of thinking leads us to believe we are bad people, incapable of good. Well, I don’t believe we are bad people. I can’t. I see so much good in people, in my children. If my kids are raised in a church where they are taught they are bad people from birth and at their core what is that going to do for their mental health?

I’ve asked a few people this week what they believed about themselves growing up in the church and each one answered that they believed they were terrible people. I grew up with a similar teaching and understanding, but it never really sat well with me. It wasn’t until my adult years that I was able to learn for myself, felt safe and confident enough to ask the hard questions and come to a better understanding.

Now, I’m left with wondering how do we deal with these issues for my children. I knew a crossroads like this would eventually come. I just didn’t think it would come this early. I thought I had another few years of happy Sunday school, Bible stories before theology started impacting their lives too much. I need to protect my girls from the damaging idea that God hates them for sinning and Jesus had to pay God off. We would never ask anyone to accept a relationship where one person wanted to punish them and a third party had to intervene and take that punishment for us, in order for us to be in relationship with the first person. That’s ludicrous!

Where does that leave us on the church front though? 

Do I continue taking them to church and hope to be able to counter all the damaging lessons that come out of it? Do I hope that more good comes from it that bad?


Do I stop taking them to church and hope Jon and I do a good enough job in helping them develop their own faith and biblical understandings with out that community?

I don’t know what the answer is. I don’t know if there is a church out there that has the community I’m looking for and teaches good, loving, accepting theology. I’m tired of searching. Why should we have to settle? Where do we go from here?