Alienating Atonement and the Theater of Hell

Sinner, This Is Your Life

This is an image I have heard innumerable times: You have died. You are greeted by an angel, and told that you will be shown your life. You are seated in a movie theater, and are shown your entire life, from birth – every good and bad thing you ever did. Every secret thing, including every secret thought. Maybe the other people in your life are there too, in the movie theater, watching.

The idea is that you will be horrified, and humiliated, and embarrassed. You will feel intense shame and guilt for all you have ever done. You will understand how awful you truly are, in that moment – how unworthy and utterly in need of salvation you are, miserable worm.

Then you are judged based on what the movie showed. If you died without Jesus in your life, you are sentenced to Hell, and in this imaginary situation, it is well-deserved. You nod your head, tearful, understanding God’s transcendent justice in sentencing you to an eternity of torment.

Theologian, Here Is My Finger

The above is a horrifying view of the atonement. It is an expression of one of the worst threads of Christian theology – the idea that shaming and guilt-tripping, teaching people how awful and irredeemable they are, is the best way to bring them to God. As an inheritor of the Reformation, on the 500th anniversary of Luther’s 95 Theses, I realize that this criticism is squarely pointed at my own tradition, such as it is. Luther and Calvin and many who came after went to great lengths to describe what miserable worms we all are.

The basic message is that the at-one-ment with God is achieved because God pinches His Divine Nose and grudgingly accepts your miserable soul, solely because he was first able to contrive a situation where his own self could be tortured to death on a cross as compensation for the whole affair.

What if God Isn’t a Vindictive Jerk?

When I think about being in the audience in this humiliating theater, watching someone singled out and shamed by a bullying God, I feel deep sympathy. What a horrible situation to be in. Anyone who has ever been mocked, or bullied, or singled out for abuse, or humiliated can surely empathize with this situation.

I was recently listening to a sermon that described just this scene, the one referenced in the pages from a Chick tract above. I felt not only┬ásympathy for the person afflicted by this view of God, but anger at the God who would do this. This would be despicable behavior from a human being – from God it is categorically irredemptive.

Imagine, rather than the terror of being truly known by God and others that haunts some of us (maybe many of us?), there was a similar scene. You are loving invited to a theater where your life is shown on the screen – in all of it’s mess and beauty, loss and triumph. It is the great story told by your time in the world, with all the laughs and cheers and tears and even regret. And through it all, there is the loving presence of those who love you, of a God who loves you, who see you for who you are and love all of you. What you went through life fearing, and protecting yourself from, happens, and it is a time of joy and radical acceptance. You are where you are meant to be, and you are who you were meant to be all along.

One might even go so far as to call that atonement.