In Christ we discover no judgement, only paradise: so why is condemnation such a feature of Christianity? A potted history. (Listen.)
It is a mystery to me why so many Christians spend their lives condemning people. It is a mystery to me why so many Christians spend their lives feeling guilty and condemned. And it is a mystery to me why I spend so much time condemning myself.
It is a great darkness over our faith, a darkness which seems largely impervious to the teachings of Jesus himself. In John chapter 3, Jesus is speaking with another person in darkness, a man named Nicodemus. To him Jesus says, “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but that, through him, the world might be healed and made whole.”
Somehow, many of us don’t really hear Jesus when he says that he hasn’t come to judge. Instead, we hear his next words, “Those who believe are not condemned, but those who do not believe are condemned already”; and we conclude that he and God are in the business of judgement. Then we make ourselves in that image: the image of a judgemental God.
And it makes some sort of sense, because it’s the image of God that many of us have been exposed to. No wonder Christians can be fearful and judgemental; no wonder we can be so toxic. We are all formed in the image of the God that we worship: and if the image is judgemental, then so are we.
But this image of God and the theology which surrounds it are not faithful to the god made known in Jesus Christ. Instead, they are products of a time in history marked by imperial violence. So it’s time for a brief history lesson, in the hope that the truth will clear up the mysteries, and will set us all free.
For many centuries, Christianity’s focus was on Paradise. Jesus Christ had conquered sin once and for all; and so, Christians believed, we had entered a new Eden. Earth and heaven were reconciled, and art and theology described a gentle shepherd who walked the earth’s fertile hills. Here, all people were made in the image of God; here, the curse of Genesis 3—the patriarchy—was lifted. The work of a Christian, then, was to savour life in Paradise, and to ensure others could, too, through justice and gender equality, interdependence and mutual care, and care for the earth.
Then came the rise of Europe’s emperors and popes, powerful men who sought to expand their territories. But for that, they needed great armies. And so, after nearly a thousand years, a new theology was developed. This theology turned away from Paradise, and towards Christ’s suffering. For the first time, the crucifix, that is, images of Christ on the cross, began to appear in church art, and it soon dominated the theological landscape. People were introduced to a wrathful God; they were encouraged to dwell on Christ’s sufferings, taken in our stead; and they were told that they must be sufficiently grateful for this sacrifice, or suffer for all eternity. Naturally, the best way to show their gratitude was to become a soldier and to die for Christ.
At the same time, the centuries-old ban on Christians killing people was first reinterpreted, then ritually compensated for, and finally lifted. Now free to slaughter with impunity, off these good Christian soldiers went, in wave upon wave of crusaders then colonizers. They brutally killed and were killed in turn, in the so-called name of Christ.
In other words, this new theology was developed to manipulate people. It encouraged peasants to sign up as soldiers and to colonize new regions; and between warfare, starvation and disease, millions died as a result. It had little to do with the god made known in Jesus Christ, yet this pernicious theology still lingers, poisoning our churches, our interpretations, our public politics, and our souls.
It’s well past time that we exorcised it. So let us lay down our arms, and open our hearts, to what Jesus is really saying; and let’s hear him again: “Those who believe in the Son of God are not condemned, but those who do not believe are condemned already …”
Notice what he’s not saying. He is not saying that people are condemned for not believing; all he is saying is that they’re condemned. Nor is he saying that he, or God, is in the condemnation business. He had just said very clearly, “I came into the world not to condemn, but to save,” and, in case we don’t get it, later in the same gospel he says this: “I do not judge anyone who hears my words and does not keep them, for I came not to judge the world, but to save the world.” (12:47). Even if we hear his words and do not keep them, Jesus still refuses to judge.
So that begs the question: What is this condemnation? And who, then, is the judge?
The answer, I believe, is that each of us is the judge. We judge other people; we judge ourselves; and any condemnation is the natural consequence of our choices. It’s the result of our response to God’s gift of love, of life, of light: that is, the Son given in love to the world, for how we respond to this gift dictates how our life unfolds.
Do we place our faith in a God of love? Do we trust that light penetrates darkness, and that life will prevail? Do we let ourselves grow into Christ’s image, full of life and light and love ourselves? Then we will indeed know fullness of life in this age, and in the age to come; we will be radiant; we will be loving; the darkness will not overcome us.
Alternatively, do we turn our back on this God? Do we reject life and light and love as weak, ineffectual? Do we consider them nice as an ideal, but naïve, unrealistic?
Worse, do we prefer to grovel under a wrathful judge, who mostly loathes us, who demands total capitulation, and who asks that we do violence to fulfil his morbid desires? Then we will become soldiers, abusers, haters, patriots, and worms; we will be easily controlled and accepting of violence, both in the giving and in the receiving; and our lives will shrivel up.
We have a choice in who and what we trust; what we choose dictates the outcome.
In Deuteronomy, God sets before the people the ways of life and death. One path leads to blessings and shalom; the other, to adversity and curses. God carefully describes the consequences of each choice, but in graciousness God gives people the freedom to choose. But, “Choose life,” urges God, “so that you and your descendants may thrive.”
Each day, each moment, we do choose. We can choose to live expansively, leaning into love and mercy, relying on generosity and grace. Or we can choose to shrivel up, spewing and accepting judgement, cowering under fear of punishment, or even spreading violence ourselves.
So let us be conscious of our choices, step by step, day by day. Let us learn to recognize and reject the colonizer’s God and the destruction that he brings. Let us not seek to die for Christ, as the colonizer’s god demands, but let us live for Christ, and thrive in him. For in infinite gentleness and grace, our tender shepherd refuses to judge. Instead, he offers love and life without limit, and invites us to savour Paradise. Ω
This triggered some great conversation, and some good questions:
- Do we truly believe in resurrection, or does our faith in the living Jesus stop at the cross?
- If it’s not to become shallow, our faith needs room for suffering: so how does resurrection faith acknowledge suffering? (Possible answer: The Risen Christ is wounded; any christology which ignores this is lacking.)
- Is there anything good about focussing on Christ’s sufferings on the cross, for example, for victim-survivors? (Possible answer: Identifying with the suffering Christ can be powerful and important, but movement towards empowerment, agency and healing takes resurrection hope and a new community of love to witness, hold, and support.)
- To ponder: What does it look like to live in Paradise today? How does it change how we see the world? What work must we do to ensure Paradise is available to all people?
For further reading, I highly recommend Rita Nakashima Brock & Rebecca Ann Parker. Saving Paradise. How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire (Boston: Beacon, 2008). A reflection on John 3:14-21 by Alison Sampson for Sanctuary, 14 March 2021 (Lent 4B) © Sanctuary 2021. Image credit: Christian Lue on Unsplash.
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