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.