She was 85 and nearing the end of her life. I’d never met her before. You might call her a “lapsed Christian,” or maybe she was one of the “nones.” She hadn’t been to church in decades. She called for a visit because she had anxiety about death. But what broke my heart was her anxiety about God.
“Hi,” I gently greeted her.
“Hello pastor,” she replied. She began telling me about her Catholic parents, her “fall” from Catholicism, and that she'd never felt “at home” in a Protestant church. She stated that she hadn’t stepped into a church in thirty years, and her relationship with God had suffered for it. And now, on her death bed, she felt the weight of guilt and anxiety of abandoning God.
“I’m not in a state of grace,” she said with spiritual and emotional pain.
That’s when my heart broke. She felt guilty because she believed she had abandoned God and so God had abandoned her. I began to think of all the damage many religious people have caused throughout the centuries by imposing guilt upon people. A religion that piles on the guilt isn’t worth following. A god who inflicts guilt upon us isn’t a god worthy of belief.
There is a pernicious theological claim that states God responds mimetically to us. That God imitates us. So, when we turn away from God, God turns away from us. When we abandon God, God abandons us.
That’s a lie. Don’t believe it.
Sure, the Bible can be interpreted in that way. People often point to the Adam and Eve story as evidence. Adam and Eve turned their back on God by eating the forbidden fruit, so God turned God’s back on them. Many claim that God has been angry at Adam, Eve, and their children (that’s everyone!) ever since. Strangely, these people continue, God had no other way of dealing with his pent up anger than to inflict violence upon God's own son.
You’ve heard that story before. It’s called penal substitutionary atonement. Again, don’t believe. It’s a lie.
The whole premise of penal substitutionary atonement is a lie. God didn’t respond to Adam and Eve by mimicking them. God didn’t turn from them. In fact, God went in search for them. “Where are you?” God asked Adam and Eve.
That’s the truth of the Adam and Eve story, it’s the truth of the biblical story, and it’s our truth. When we abandon God, God doesn’t abandon us. God doesn’t respond with wrathful anger. Rather, God responds with grace and compassion that seeks to be in relationship with us.
As the great 20th century Rabbi Abraham Heschel explained, the primary point is not our search for God, but rather God’s search for us.
“All of human history as described in the Bible,” wrote Heschel, “may be summarized in one phrase: God is in search of [humans].”
For Christians, Jesus is the ultimate revelation of God’s search for humanity. In this particular human being we see that atonement has nothing to do with God’s pent up wrath or violence, but everything to do with the truth of God’s grace and forgiveness. The Gospel of John tells us, “The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth … From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace.”
In each Gospel we discover that God didn’t need the cross in order to forgive. The truth of God’s “grace upon grace” is that God forgives sinners, tax collectors, and cowardly disciples, in other words, everyone, before Jesus even went to the cross.
God has never atoned for sins through wrathful violence. God doesn’t respond to us mimetically. When we abandon God, God doesn’t abandon us. Jesus is the particular revelation of what the Bible generally reveals — God makes atonement, God became at-one with us, not through wrathful violence, but through nonviolent love and forgiveness. It was human wrath that hung Jesus on a cross, not God’s. How does God respond to our wrath? As John wrote, with “grace upon grace.” Jesus revealed that grace as he hung on the cross and prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
That’s the truth about God. But the truth about Adam and Eve is also our truth. We often find ourselves abandoning God. And when we do, we don’t need to feel guilty because we know that God will never abandon us. God doesn’t respond to human sin with wrathful anger, but rather God searches for us, responding with the divine truth of grace upon grace and love upon love.
But from experience I can tell you this — imposing God’s gracious and nonviolent love upon others doesn’t work. It only increases their anxieties and makes them defensive. So, how did I respond to the elderly woman suffering from anxiety? Not by saying, “No! You are wrong about God! And you are always in a state of grace!” and then lecturing her about God’s nonviolent love. Rather, I tried to channel God’s nonviolent and nonjudgmental love to her. I listened to her story and invited her to talk about her anxieties about death and God. A strange thing happened as she expressed her anxieties — her body, voice, and emotional state became calm.
That might seem strange, but as we channel the nonjudgmental and nonviolent love of God in the face of fear and anxiety, we give and we receive God’s grace upon grace.
And that’s what God’s nonviolent atonement is all about.
Adam Ericksen blogs at the Raven Foundation, where he uses mimetic theory to provide social commentary on religion, politics, and pop culture. Follow Adam on Twitter @adamericksen.