Theology Matters

by: Debbie Graham R.N.


Jesus has been getting a lot of press lately, thanks to Mel Gibson's movie, "The Passion of the Christ." That is one good thing that has come from this controversial movie. The secular press has woken up to the fact that America is a very religious nation. They are starting to pay attention to this reality of American life.

There have been shows on CNN, ABC and NBC on the historical Jesus. The cover story for Time Magazine on April 13th was "Why Did Jesus Have to Die?" The TV shows and news articles have done a good job of presenting the latest scholarship on Jesus and the differing interpretations of the data.

The Time article shows how the various theological answers developed over time as to why Jesus had to die. The New Testament itself is all over the map on this. History shows us the way you answer this question does make a difference.

Mel Gibson's movie has Jesus' suffering and death as payment for our sins. This is called the substitution theory of atonement. Jesus died to appease an angry Father.

There are real problems with this.

First, the angry God part. Many people grew up with the idea of God as angry judge. This keeps them from experiencing that God is Love or else it gives them a very distorted idea about love.

It has been used to convince women to accept the beatings of their husbands as Christ accepted the cross. It has been used as a weapon of power and control. Believe in Jesus the right way or God is going to send you to hell for your sins.

The religious people who oppose gays and lesbians buy into this substitution theology. This is why the LGBT community needs to be concerned about Mel's block buster movie and glad that mainline news media is showing there is more that one way to look at Jesus and his death.

Have you noticed that the arguments put forward against gay marriage are primarily religious? We need to be informed about the theology underlying these arguments and the far more hopeful and healing theologies that are out there now, espoused by mainline theologians and believers.

The Time article describes another theology on Jesus' death, called the theory of exemplary atonement, which has been around for centuries. Jesus came to show us what God is like: loving, merciful, forgiving, willing to be with us in all circumstances, good and bad, even to point of being tortured to death. We, having seen the depths of God's love for us, can accept God's love and forgiveness and open our hearts to be transformed into the same love and forgiveness. This theology would say that Jesus didn't come to die for our sins. He came to show us how to live.

Those religious people who support us tend have this theology of Jesus' life and death. It certainly is a lot more hopeful and life giving than the substitution theology. It is a theology that affirms life and the dignity and worth of all people. It also fits very well with the other signature event of Jesus' life, an event that only gets a few seconds in Gibson's film. This event is the only reason we even know about Jesus today. Thousands of people were horribly crucified during Roman rule but we only know the name of one of them - Jesus. This event is the Resurrection.

Here is God's response to humankind cruelly killing Jesus. God did not wipe out the human race for such a deed. God did not kill those who killed Jesus. God instead raised Jesus from the dead saying, "You can do the most horrible thing and I will raise up life nonetheless." This doesn't sound like an angry God to me, but a wise and loving God who desires life and love for all.

Theology matters. How you think of God affects what you think of people and how you treat them. Seek those theologies that affirm life and you will affirm life for yourself and all sentient beings.


Debbie Graham is a native Idahoan who lives with her beloved partner, Teresa, in Boise, Idaho. She writes a monthly spirituality column for Diversity, Idaho's Monthly LBGT news magazine. She is a Lay Eucharistic minister at St. Michael's Episcopal Cathedral in Boise, Idaho. She also leads a Centering Prayer Group and teaches classes on Centering Prayer and the Spiritual Journey.

Copyright © 2004 by the author
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