A Different Take on the Crucifixion
What if our understanding of the crucifixion — and the reason behind it — is incomplete? One pastor proposed an alternate purpose for Christ’s death.
I’ve been wanting to write this post about Christ’s crucifixion and death for a while. But I first needed to get a few posts ahead so I could carve out some additional time to write it.
A few months ago, I found a relatively new podcast called Unravel. I heard one show that featured a guest I’d heard of before: Stan Mitchell. Stan grew up in the Pentecostal church and served as lead pastor of Gracepointe Church in Nashville. He’s a progressive Christian and has lately been working with LGBTQ+ people and their families to provide some measure of support for reconciliation, something much needed in the Christian community.
The podcast episode I listened to, titled, “The Myth of Separation with Stan Mitchell,” covers a lot of territory. Stan talks about his background growing up Pentecostal. He also gives fascinating takes on Adam and Eve, Christ’s sacrifices, the concept of us being separated from God prior to salvation and the impact of our own shame.
I encourage you to listen to the full episode here.
I’m going to talk only about one portion of Stan’s interview: a different take on the crucifixion itself.
What if the crucifixion was about shame, not sin?
Mitchell provides compelling arguments about the power of shame in the Adam and Eve story as well as that of the Prodigal Son.
At issue here in the death of Jesus Christ on a cross is the concept of substitutionary penal atonement. In a nutshell, it means that because mankind — past, present and future — would rack up so much sin, a sacrifice would have to be given so that God could then justly forgive us. Jesus Christ became the sacrifice so that we could have an everlasting community with God.
Substitutionary penal atonement suggests that we aren’t capable of having a relationship with God until the sacrifice happens. At that point, we have our relationship with God restored and have eternal life with God through Christ.
But Mitchell’s argument puts an interesting spin on this basic idea. (Again, please listen to the podcast for the connection with Adam and Eve and the Prodigal Son.)
Mitchell proposes that we always had a relationship with God. We always had community and belonging with God. It’s our shame, not our sin, that separates us from God.
Christ’s death, then, was primarily to serve as a reminder to us that we have our eternal place with God. By taking away our shame for the sins we have committed (and eventually will), we are comfortable enough to approach God and accept the belonging to which we feel we were never fully entitled.
This is a potentially terrifying idea to traditionalists.
The reason it’s scary is simple: on the surface, it seems to eliminate the need to accept Christ as Savior to earn eternal salvation. As Mitchell points out early in the episode, the “product” of Christianity isn’t Christ Himself but salvation.
It’s salvation that’s the basic target of church’s “marketing” to the unchurched: accept Christ and you’ll have eternal life.
When we feel we’ve committed a sin, it’s easy to feel like we’re separated from God. The message is that we’re to repent of our sins by confessing them and asking for forgiveness. This takes the place of the animal sacrifice common in the Bible.
But if God separates from us because of sin — rather than our shame making us feel separated from God, as Mitchell proposes — then there’s a question I’ve always wondered.
If sin separates God from us until we repent, how can God hear our prayer of confession? If He’s separated from us because we’ve sinned, how would He know we’ve repented to begin with?
He has to be with us at all times to be able to know when we take the time to come to Him. The very act of praying to spend time with God implies, after all, that He’s there. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be spending time with Him, would we?
I’m not convinced by Mitchell’s interpretation of the crucifixion that it removes Christ as a necessary step in our salvation. I believe the acceptance of the gift on our part is still part of the picture.
I do, however, find it interesting that Christ might have died so horribly on a voluntary basis to help us remember that our shame of sin isn’t stronger than God’s love for us.
Mitchell refers to Christ’s plea from the cross, as told in Matthew and Mark:
My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?
Jesus is God. God is Jesus. They are the same being, though it’s certainly a difficult concept for us to understand.
Logically, if Jesus and God (and the Holy Spirit) are one, then technically, God can’t have “forsaken” Christ.
But in that moment of despair, suffering from the impact of the sins of the world, Christ feels the very separation shame makes us feel. He feels an isolation that can’t exist, but in that moment, it’s every bit as real as the isolation sin causes us to feel.
This interpretation does not in any way weaken the impact of Christ’s death on the cross for me. In fact, it provides a much more human angle to that crucifixion. Christ was experiencing exactly the shame sin makes us feel.
Yet his resurrection is the proof that God’s love for us — and our belonging in Him — is stronger than any level of shame we feel, no matter how terrible it may feel.
I truly hope I’ve done Mitchell’s proposal justice here, and I would ask again that you click the link above and give the full podcast a listen.
I know it has given me quite a different understanding of exactly how much God loves us, even though I don’t think any of us can truly fathom the depths of that love.
If I’ve done the concept justice, perhaps it has given you the same degree of pause.