For its Bible study, my church is going through The Easter Experience: What If What Happened Then Changes Everything Now? Last night, we did Session 5, “I have the promise of eternal life.” The lesson focused on the thief on the cross, the one whom Jesus assured would be with him in paradise. The pastor on the DVD offered two speculative back-stories about the thief. One presented the thief as a good-hearted person who came from a broken home and committed his crimes to help others. The other depicted him in a far less flattering light. The pastor said that the thief reviled Jesus at first, yet something changed the thief’s mind and led him to defend Jesus when Jesus was forsaken even by his Heavenly Father, and to ask Jesus to remember him when Jesus entered into his kingdom. The pastor speculated about what could have changed the thief’s mind: Jesus’ kindness to his mother while on the cross, or Jesus asking God to forgive his persecutors. In the course of the lesson, we got into the evangelical message that all of us deserved to die for our own sins, like the thief, but Jesus died in our place.
I thought that the drama on the DVD was particularly powerful. Maybe
it was because I was wondering what exactly influenced the thief to
change his mind about Jesus. And I was also curious as to what exactly
the thief believed about Jesus. How could the thief look at Jesus on
the cross and conclude that Jesus was a king of any kingdom? It looks
like it’s the end for Jesus at that point, so how could the thief think
differently? Was he aware that Jesus would rise from the dead,
something that even Jesus’ own disciples had not yet grasped? My guess
is that the thief concluded that Jesus was who he said he was because he
was aware of Jesus’ miracles, but he also was impressed by Jesus’
composure, love, and relationship with God even in his final hours. The
thief saw a quality in Jesus that he did not believe was present in
himself. I doubt that he had any advanced knowledge of the Christian
doctrine of Jesus’ resurrection, but perhaps he believed that Jesus’
soul would be with the Father after the crucifixion, and Jesus would
later return to set up the Kingdom. Or maybe he envisioned Jesus being
resurrected in the last days, with the rest of the righteous, and Jesus
would then rule the earth as the Messiah.
I was impressed by the story on the DVD. Where I got tripped up was
when the booklet was trying to convince us that we are all sinners who
deserve to die. I have a hard time with that emotionally. I don’t
think it’s pride on my part, for, conversely, I don’t feel that I
deserve to go to get rewards in any good afterlife, either! I just have
difficulty believing that somehow I deserve to die. Evangelicals may
tell me that I should just suck it up and accept that concept, that the
substitutionary atonement is true regardless of how I feel, just like
the law of gravity is true regardless of my personal feelings! Maybe or
maybe not. The thing is, I doubt that a doctrine can bear fruit in my
life if I have emotional or intellectual problems with it.
I was wondering if there is another way to see the atonement than the
typical evangelical “Romans Road” path. To be honest, I think that the
Romans Road method of evangelism takes biblical passages out of
context. The end of Romans 6 says that the wages of sin is death, for
example, and many evangelicals say that we should point to this text to
convince a prospect for evangelism that she is a sinner and deserves to
die, but that Jesus died in her place. But I am doubtful that this was
Paul’s focus in Romans 6. In that chapter, his focus is on ceasing to
do the works of the flesh, which lead to death, and embracing a new life
of the Spirit and of righteousness. My carnal mindset and acts lead to
death, on so many levels. That makes a bit more sense to me than
saying that a person who steals a candybar deserves the exact same
penalty as a mass murderer, in God’s eyes. I am hesitant to dismiss the
idea that Paul believed that we all deserved to die, however, for Paul
does make the point that all have sinned and treasure up wrath, and that
the commandment brings death. How does the commandment bring death?
The only way I can see is that it condemns us for our sin.
I have also been disappointed with how evangelicals, and this
includes our booklet, use James 2:8-11. That passage says that anyone
who breaks one commandment is guilty of breaking them all, and
evangelicals like to point to that to argue that we are all sinners and
deserve God’s judgment. Maybe so, but I do not think that’s the focus
of James in James 2. James is encouraging his readers not to practice
favoritism, not showing them a way to escape punishment for their sins.
Plus, I don’t care for how Romans Road methods of evangelism treat
Christians like parrots who need to be trained in what to say. There’s
not much room for authenticity or individuality in that, in my opinion.
Rather, people are being trained to be mass-produced salespersons with a
There was something that resonated with me last night, though. The
pastor was reading to us from the teacher’s manual, and it said that the
law is summed up by loving God and others, and all of us, regardless of
what sin we committed, violate or fall short of this standard when we
sin. In that sense, the sins that I commit are bad in God’s eyes, just
like the sins that can land somebody into the electric chair. I would
still say that actually murdering somebody is far worse than bearing a
grudge, for the former actually has a direct and horrible effect on
somebody else. But both flow from the same stream: not loving God, and
not loving others. On the standard of love, we all fall short.
I also think that believing that I deserve the divinely-imposed death
penalty for my sin can lead to humility—-I am less likely to think that
I am better than somebody else. As someone in the group said, we are
all equal before the cross, for we are all condemned until we receive
I’ll stop here. I’ll keep on the comments, but I will not publish any comments that are even remotely snarky.