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?

5 thoughts on “Are People Good or Bad? An Easter Crisis.

  1. emily says:

    Way to preach it Katie! I really enjoyed reading this. I agree that the typical interpretation is complicated too it just has been so quickly and easily accepted by so many.
    Anyways, as for church…. it is hard. I am glad our kids are learning from amazing sunday school teachers I trust but I too have worries from friends that they meet at school. You can only do so much and hopefully you and Jon will remain their biggest influencers in life… not their peer culture. But you know we would LOVE to have you back at nexus : )


  2. Leanne says:

    I agree with this and thank you for writing it all out in such a clear and lovely way. I too have struggled with the idea of sending my children to Sunday School and wonder who will be teaching and influencing them week to week. This is partly why I volunteer to teach each class at least once a month (I also love to teach Sunday School so this works out!) We've also been very intentional about having conversations after church. We are the greatest influence in our children's lives, there is no question about that. I have no qualms in disagreeing very matter of fact-ly with what someone has said in sunday school, or even with conclusions that my child has come to on his own. But I also like to ask, “What do you think about that?” or “Why do you think they might have said that?” or “Some people believe that ______. What do you think about this?” An open dialogue about other people's belief's is important! In school there are all kinds of faiths and beliefs. A skewed theology is only damaging if it's the only one that a child is exposed to. At least that's how I see it. Learning to be flexible and thoughtful is an important way to approach any idea. A Sunday school lesson is only one side of the story. I hope that I can teach my children that every idea is important and worth considering. And that every person presenting differing ideas is MORE so. In the end, what I believe is what they will likely go along with at first. How I approach and think and talk about differing ideas is probably going to be pretty important right now. Every day I think about this. And every day I pray that we will have wisdom.


  3. Leanne says:

    I forgot to add that I believe that a community of faith is important enough to us that we are willing to embrace differing opinions. I think that is partly WHY we are part of a community of faith. I also believe quite strongly that my voice is important. I am thankful that we are part of a community that I have the freedom to feel like that. I guess I would like to encourage you to use your voice in your community and hope that you feel valued for the intelligent, thoughtful and important things that you believe.


  4. Katie says:

    Emily – Nexus' time slot is TERRIBLE for us. Evie and Sofie go to bed before 7 each night and we are 20 minutes away from church. Plus, at least when we stopped going, Nexus sucked at community and I need that with little kids and being a stay at home mom 🙂 Maybe that is changed now and Jon and I did talk about coming more often if my mom was home to put Evie to bed 🙂 We'll see 🙂

    Leanne – I totally agree with you about us having the greatest influence with our kids and having conversations with them about what they learned at school and sunday school. We do all that and we did talk to her about why we believe Jesus died, which she now says is what she believes of course. Our aim is not to just give her our views but to teach them to be their own critical thinkers. I just don't see much room for that or for being okay with mystery in many evangelical churches and I don't want my kids to be hurt by that. And yes, I know I can't always protect them 🙂

    Everyone wants it in a neat box with all the answers. I do embrace different opinions and thoughts while I am very opinionated my self 🙂 I want to go to a church and highly value that community and place for spiritual growth but there has never seemed to be much openness to different ways of thinking in my experiences. I just don't want my kids to be hurt and turn away from their spiritual side because of it, like their parents have in the past. Not sure either side is really a win… unless there is some amazing church out there that preaches good theology and different ideas, has amazing open, accepting community and is at a good time of day 🙂


  5. LeAnna says:

    Most people seem to carry some sort of baggage from the religion/church/lack-thereof that they were raised with. I don't know if you'll escape that by training your kids outside of a faith community. As our souls thirst to comprehend the Infinite Divine it seems that we are compelled to question & search and that part of that is coming to terms with the imperfections of the faith expressions we were raised with.

    Evangelical Protestantism didn't work for me, and coming to terms with it not working was difficult because turning your back on what you were raised in causes a crisis. Yet to this day I am thankful for the experience of the church community that I grew up in, because I am always struck by the love & generosity I experience when I return home. It is a beautiful thing, a sign of the goodness of God's love.


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