Not My Story Anymore by Esther Nelson

The meaning we derive from stories—especially religious stories we’ve heard and become familiar with since infancy—shape how we perceive and understand the world.  Our beliefs are an amalgam of “my story” (my individual life experience in a specific context) shaped by another story.  Who I am is heavily informed by particular narratives and their (often) codified interpretation.

I was raised on the doctrine of substitutionary atonement.  Doctrine is an interpretation of story, the substance of which is thought of as “truth” by believers.  The story informing substitutionary atonement is a familiar one, especially to those in Christian circles.  Jesus of Nazareth, a Jew living during the Roman occupation of much of the Mediterranean region, was crucified circa 30 C.E.  Jesus was a teacher who attracted many followers and often spoke (according to the writers of the gospels) of a coming Kingdom of God.  This threatened Roman rule so the Romans killed him.

Is the story factually true?  Perhaps.  As with so many narratives that are passed down through generations, there are many versions.  We find meaning (or not) in the story we have at hand.  On one level, Jesus’ crucifixion demonstrates the lengths governments will go to in order to keep themselves in power, showing the oppression, fear, and suffering people endure under despotic rulers.  On another level, substitutionary atonement (Jesus died to pay for humanity’s sins) is an interpretation of that story.  So often the stories we carry with us, along with a specific interpretation (doctrine), become conflated.  Rarely do we stop and unravel the story from the meaning we’ve been given and sometimes appropriated.

In a nutshell, the doctrine of substitutionary atonement asserts that Jesus’ death effectively paid humanity’s debt of sin.  Sin—often defined as “missing the mark”—plagues every person, alienating them from a holy and righteous God.  Because of their sin, they deserve death—eternal separation from God.  A holy God demands such.  Salvation is possible only when one acknowledges the sinful nature they are born with, their sinful behavior, and then repents—turns away from sin—accepting Jesus’ death as payment for their sin.  They then become righteous before God— justified—“just as if I’d never sinned.”  Justification guarantees eternal life—being in the presence of God forever.

Interpreting the narrative of Jesus’ crucifixion is varied and complex.  Since leaving Christianity, I’ve met people who identify as Christian, but don’t see the story of Jesus’ crucifixion as central or even essential to the gospel message.  However, many Christians do.  The story of Jesus’ crucifixion as payment for sin is no longer my story.  That is, my own story is no longer shaped by this story and its familiar interpretation.

Within the Abrahamic faiths, Jews (up until the Temple destruction, 70 C.E.) practiced ritual animal sacrifice as an offering to God for their sins.  Early Christians (emerging from their Jewish roots and identity) “spun” the crucifixion story and Jesus became the Lamb of God whose death takes away the sins of the world.  Islam puts blame on the first humans who sinned—disobeyed God— but offers no “perfect” substitute for their sin.  Instead, a forgiving and merciful God promises to provide guidance to humanity through revelation.  There seems to be evolutionary movement—away from substitutionary atonement—within the Abrahamic faiths.

Stories are symbols.  We humans infuse them with meaning—something that gives them the ability to speak to us on many levels and in a variety of ways.  Some people are moved by what they perceive to be God’s love in sending his son to die for their sins.  Others see, first and foremost, a cruel deity “giving” his son over to death.

One of my Facebook friends (I’ll call her Laura) is an evangelical Christian, raised with the story of Jesus’ substitutionary death.  Every March, she posts an account of her sister’s murder in 2004.  Laura’s telling of this event is a bit confusing, but there seems to have been no doubt that her sister’s husband (I’ll call him John) was the killer.  John received a life sentence.  At the end of the court trial, Laura was granted permission to speak publicly to him.

Laura wrote:  “I spoke directly to [John].  I had never robbed a bank, planned a murder but…my sin nailed JESUS to the cross as much as what he [John] had done….I told my sister’s murderer who had shot her…and had repented, asking God to forgive him after doing it, that I would write, encourage, visit him, see him in heaven someday, and I FORGAVE HIM FOR MURDERING MY SISTER!”

Laura’s testimony—the ability to forgive her sister’s murderer by appropriating a particular interpretation of a story—is built upon the violent narrative of a father abandoning and then allowing the killing of his son.  Can people forgive without plugging into Laura’s symbolism?  Yes, of course.

We (humans) embrace stories of bloodshed, death, and destruction and tell ourselves that violence is necessary in order to accomplish peace.  Look at the plethora of war stories we consume and how often they are spun to show the “need” for bloodshed, death, and destruction, carried out by “heroic” warriors who kill others, sometimes sacrificing themselves, in order to bring about freedom and peace.  The theme of substitutionary atonement has deep roots in our collective psyche.

Words, with their histories and landscapes of embedded meaning, are the vehicle carrying those stories we embrace.  Why do so many people find refuge in a story of a violent and vengeful deity, and then interpret that violence and revenge as loving?  As a result, it should come as no surprise that so many of us cannot experience love without an accompanying violence.  It makes me wonder if Laura’s sister felt loved and cherished by her murderous husband.

Stories and their interpretations create and shape us.  It’s vital to unpack them, throwing away what ultimately harms us.  No better place to begin than by ditching the violence.


Esther Nelson is an adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Va. She has taught courses on Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Christian-Muslim Relations, and Religions of the World, but focuses on her favorite course, Women in Islam. She is the co-author (with Nasr Abu Zaid) of Voice of an Exile: Reflections on Islam and the co-author (with Kristen Swenson) of What is Religious Studies? : A Journey of Inquiry.

Categories: Christianity, Christology, Feminist Awakenings, Theology, Violence

Tags: , ,

20 replies

  1. It is amazing how you can wake up one day and realize that a story that once shaped you simply does not move you any more. To me it is interesting to think that I could ever have believed in the death and resurrection of Jesus or in any of the versions of why. The story simply does not make any sense to me any more. I do admit that I was never one to have been that interested in Jesus. I was more interested in God and when I was most involved in the Easter celebrations I recognized that the death and resurrection of nature underlay them. But the story doesn’t say much positive about a Father who gave his Only Begotten Son to be sacrificed either.

    I also agree with you that I don’t want to celebrate violence because it probably always leads to more violence in the name of …or for revenge or to find a scapegoat or to not take the burden on oneself.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Carol I have the same reaction – the Christian story is so meaningless to me that I wonder how I once could have believed it. It makes no sense at all in any of its interpretations. How did that happen?

      Liked by 1 person

    • Appreciate your commenting, Carol. One of those “wake-up” moments I had was when I, still officially involved in my religious tradition, wondered why was it all so fired important (a tenet of the faith, no less) to hold that Jesus was born of a virgin. Nobody could give me a satisfactory answer. As I began reading and studying more about religious traditions, I discovered this “virgin birth” scenario to be a fairly common one–a story showing that this person born of a virgin is way, way important. So often a literal-ism comes into play and the “miracle” of the Virgin Birth becomes a “truth” in and of itself. I think all stories are symbols that attempt to convey something important. We often get stuck on the vehicle that transports a message and don’t apprehend the message and that message can vary, depending on who we are.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. we “tell ourselves that violence is necessary in order to accomplish peace.” This narrative allows us to express the violence in every psyche, to vindicate it, to make it real in the world. Since violence is the opposite of peace we have a real split here in the wold of people and psyche.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Sara, for your comment. So, this “split here in the world of people and psyche” is not a positive thing, right? How do we deal with violence and its destruction–something that seems inevitable in the world we inhabit?


      • In this culture we are socialized into violence as a kind of normal behavior…. my answer to this is that we must shift our cultural paradigm – and we do this by becoming accountable for our feelings and dealing with rage etc without acting out destructively. It is possible. I feel rage (or despair) all the time these days but don’t go around shooting people. Others could too if they chose… and if these destructive behaviors weren’t acceptable. It’s a both and thing.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Amen, Amen, Amen. I was greatly taken by Elizabeth Cummingham’s Maeve Chronicles where her main character has many mothers and this character, Maeve notes that truth is created by those who tell the best story (I hope I got that right Elizabeth – it made a huge impact on me). I’ve thought a lot about that and how important story-telling is. It shapes our whole societal and cultural narrative. And it is hard to break away to find our own individual stories not colored by those sometimes invisible foundations.

    Excellent timing as well for this piece, I notice that just yesterday our AG (I can’t even write his name) in response to recent DOJ moves said with a smirk that he is not worried about how he will be viewed in history because “history is written by the winners.” I think it is so important that we all stand witness to this modern story as it develops so our vision of it does not get lost.

    Thank you so much for this poignant and painful peek behind the veil. I feel for Laura and her family and how much pain they must be in to buy into this violent narrative.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Thanks, Janet, for your multi-faceted response. As you note: “It [story-telling] shapes our whole societal and cultural narrative.” This is so all-fired important to understand. A story’s impact is huge. As Muriel Rukeyser (1913-1980) wrote: “The Universe is made of stories, not of atoms.” It’s equally important to question, question, and question some more every story that comes down the pike. There are countless twists and turns….Appreciate your insights..

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you, Esther, for this thoughtful post. And thank you Janet your mentioning The Maeve Chronicles. As a PK I took in that story, the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly, before I could read. In the Maeve Chronicles I essentially re-wrote the new testament and then some for myself–and others.

        My earliest dated memory is theological. I had a plan (at age 3) to kill God and Jesus by rolling a boulder onto them ala road runner. Wasn’t too sure what to do about the holy ghost who in my mind resembled Caspar. Yes,cartoons were also formative.

        I can recall as a child pondering the doctrine of substitutionary atonement, though I didn’t know it by that name. It made no sense to me then or now. My reasoning as a child (and as an adult) was that sin had not been overcome in the least. People are still rather horrible. I don’t believe the secular story of human progress either. The sacrifice of the son also does gave me a bad impression of “God the Father.” I remember as a child (and an adult) being appalled by Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac. God’s last minute reprieve cut no ice with me, especially since it was at the expense of a ram.

        I left the church a long time ago for the earth where I have always worshiped. My other earliest memory is of singing to the sea. I have made friends with Jesus, whom I find to be pithy, humorous, direct, and compassionate. My own understanding of the crucifixion as a child (and as an adult) was that Jesus knew what it was to suffer and to feel that he had failed. I never bought that he knew he was going to rise again “in accordance with the scriptures.” For me his meaning is in his humanness, his feet touching this earth.

        Liked by 4 people

        • Oh, Elizabeth, what an interesting and moving account you tell about growing up with stories similar to the ones that shaped me. Unlike you, (at 3-years-old!), it took me a while longer to reject what I’d been given and tried to make work. As I look back on things, my way of pushing back against the (un)holy narratives I was told were “gospel truths” was to act out. I could not understand why I was behaving in the ways I did. Today, the best label I have to put on that behavior is “cognitive dissonance.” You seem to have made a certain peace with Jesus, though, creating a narrative and an interpretation of the Jesus’ story in a way that works for you. The Universe is made up of stories. I’m wending my way….. Thank you so much for commenting.

          Liked by 1 person

  4. At one time, I thought the substitution atonement theory was the only theory about Jesus death on the cross. Thankfully, there are others and I knew in my heart that there had to be. And thankfully there are many authors writing about this including Cynthia Bourgeault, Richard Rohr, Ilia Delio, etc. Thanks for bringing this damaging concept out in the open again!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Very interesting and very clear and well-written post. Many thanks. Jesus isn’t my story, either, hasn’t been for maybe 40 years when the Goddess summoned me to Her. I cannot understand why people seem to worship an image of a tortured man. Yes, I know the crucifix is a symbol, but why can’t they have a more positive symbol?

    I know a woman whose email name is hiddeninjesus. We’ve had serious talks. She is determined to remain clueless about the Goddess and to keep herself immersed in her substitutionary atonement. Well,we all have our own paths, right? But do we need the violence of the symbol? You’re right–it’s time to ditch it. Like, that’s gonna happen. Sigh.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Thanks, Barbara. A colleague of mine often will say when I despair regarding oh! so many things: “We need to take the long view of history.” I suppose he means something like MLK’s statement about the “arc of the moral universe” being long, nonetheless, it “bends toward justice.” I dunno…. I suppose that’s why we have stories when all is said and done–to give us hope.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Thanks, Esther, for this well-written critique of substitutionary atonement. I’m sure some of you have read _Proverbs of Ashes_ by Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker. For me it’s the best deconstruction of the story of Jesus dying for our sins. Parker depicts this story as one of “cosmic child abuse” that’s internalized as control and violence. Using her own story of being abused as a child, Parker demonstrates how she overcame that story in her life.


  8. I couldn’t agree more, Esther! My awakening came when I was walking in the woods behind my house. I was saying my prayers as I went and thanking God for sending Jesus to die for my sins, something I’d prayed on my walks for years, when suddenly it dawned on me that a loving God, a loving parent, would never do something so horrible! That ended my belief in atonement theology. I now view Jesus as a teacher and healer, a compassionate person who was concerned about the poor and oppressed, but I don’t believe he was the “son” of God, or rather, I believe that we are all children of the Divine, whom I now think of as Goddess.


    • Thanks, lindacostelloe, for commenting. It’s interesting how moments of epiphany happen to us periodically throughout our lives. I also think that all too often when we “see” differently, we push the vision away for various reasons, attempting to keep the status quo in our lives. Am glad you went forward and found a more balanced theology.


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