I got a rare opportunity to talk with an old childhood friend this afternoon. It always does my heart good to hear from old friends, especially those people whom have touched my life in some capacity. This friend has been through some unfortunate hell in her life and as such has many understandable questions about the role of God in her own and other people's lives.
As is usually the case when I get posed hard questions, I usually just stand there and look cute, so as to not arouse any suspicion that I might not know the answer. Since that doesn't tend to work over the telephone, though, I had to face the alternative reality that she had some pretty good points that I needed to think about.
From the time I was a little boy I've heard the expression "For God so loved the world, that he sent his son to die for us". I always accepted that at face value and simply thought, "wow, that must be a lot". Other scriptures (The words of Jesus himself) state that "greater love has no man than this: than to lay his life down for his friends". Wow... the tough part about that is that you can only really show your love to one person that way, as you can only die once! I never really gave the teaching much more thought than that. Jesus and God loved us so much than they collaborated in heaven for a murder/suicide mission to save mankind.
Hmmmm. Now that you say it like that, it does sound kinda sick, doesn't it? As a matter of fact, in the Old Testament Bible, God repeatedly condemns the foreign nations who "sacrifice their own children to the altars of their gods". Hmmmm again. Would our God be engaged in the very same practice that he condemned? I don't think so.
If one reads the message of Jesus carefully, he spends most of his time and effort telling us (in a variety of ways) to stop being self-centered. Just stop it. The golden rule is the most oft quoted example of this, but if you look to the core of most of his teachings, they center around realizing that there is more to life than satisfying one's own desires. One should humbly exist, not striving to find one's meaning or purpose in possessions, position, or popularity.
I was talking to someone a while back about how much a spouse had given up for the sake of her husband. She was a very bright and capable woman who had chosen to bypass her own dreams, desires, and opportunities so that she might make a new life with her husband. The words, without thought, popped into my head that she had "laid down her life for him". Suddenly, as if out of nowhere, the connection hit me. Greater love has no one than to lay their life down for their friends. Wow...it's not a message about death after all! It's a message about life! It's a message about living a life that's not selfish (perhaps even unto death, but I don't think that's the focus).
I think that many of us, in a rationalization for not living that "laid down" life will cite the shitty and unfair circumstances that we have endured. Many good people are forced to endure much undeserved hell on earth because of the actions of the ungodly. I think this is where Jesus' death comes in to the equation. Here's a guy that spent his lifetime healing people, teaching people, and living a sinless life and what happens to him? People plot to kill him, they falsely accuse him (smear his good name), they torture him and kill him. Moreso than a blood sacrifice, I think his death is a revelation to us of how selfish we really are. Let's face it, none of us enjoys enduring hardship. But if a guy who did nothing but good all his life can be treated this way, I'm not sure that I've got any legitimate gripes that should cause me to turn from his teachings. He essentially said, "I'm gonna do what's right by God even if you guys try to destroy my character and my body for doing it."
God didn't send his son to die for us, God sent his son to live for us. His life was the perfect example of what God intended humanity to look like - how he intended it to function. The fact that Jesus endured his living sacrifice unto death is even more telling of how we should live our own lives. And it makes a bit more sense than the other nonsense that I've been taught since I was a boy about a God that seemed to love others more than his own son. That teaching just doesn't line up with his character as it is described in the scriptures, and frankly it's just kinda sick.
God sent Jesus to earth to live. While he was here, Jesus voluntarily laid down his own aspirations for a life of luxury, unrequitted pleasure, family, stature, etc., for a life of complete abandonment to the spirit of God. It was this voluntary action that displayed his devotion to God. God didn't sacrifice Jesus, mankind sacrificed him for our own redemption. It was our depravity and debauchery, not God's, that caused Jesus' death.