I watched God’s Not Dead last week (you can find my thoughts on it here). One thing that struck me about the movie was how thoroughly evangelical their presentation of atonement was. It didn’t matter what else was happening, what the world looked like – it just mattered that you believed in a few specific things. Those things being that you are a sinner, that God would punish you if it weren’t for Jesus’ death on the cross, and that by accepting Jesus’ death as substitution for your sins, you get a free ride to heaven. This seems to be true even if you pray to God seconds before death or have spent your life hurting people.
This is the narrative of atonement most people are familiar with. But it’s not the only one.
When it comes to queer theology, not a lot of people have a good starting point when it comes to explaining important theologies like atonement. Especially in American evangelicalism, orthodoxy is impressed upon us as having one meaning and one interpretation. The “plain reading” of scripture becomes the mask for extremely complex and historical theologies that have been developed over centuries. We’re at the top of a mountain of knowledge, and we’ve convinced ourselves that our 21st century “plain readings” somehow magically create orthodoxy.
But there are actually numerous theories of atonement and numerous ideas of what Jesus’ death actually means for the Christian church. Many evangelicals believe in a substitutionary atonement – that Jesus came and died and took on our punishment in order to satisfy God’s wrath. Evangelicalism, in many ways, is dependent upon the wrath of hell in order to justify a faith.
But queer theologies and liberation theologies tack a different tack. In a theology that doesn’t require the presence of hell, queer theology looks at Jesus as a queer figure – as a symbol of the marginalized, as the deepest love that a person can have for another. He came not to satisfy God’s wrath but to understand marginalization, to defeat the forces of the oppressor. His death is still largely symbolic, but the symbol is interpreted in different ways. Jesus queers – in the broadest interpretation of the verb queer – the standards ideas of hierarchy and honor and love.
Such openness to the concept of radical love – a love that erases chains and destroys boundaries to community – is not a devaluation of the Gospel but an embracing of Gospel as grace, love, and mercy. It is not an atonement that requires hell, but is a gracious, beautiful love that focuses on heaven. It is a love that refocuses us on justice – a love that cannot exist without justice – and a love that focuses on accepting the communities and people that God has created. Rather than trying to figure out the “right” way to live, the umbrella of radical love that queer theology creates allows room for our differences and indeed embraces them.
It is not mere tolerance that the queer community desires. It is acceptance, an embrace of who we are as people – a deep, abiding, radical love that celebrates individuals as beings God created. There is no “love the sinner and hate the sin” in queer theology – there is no necessity for the wrath of God here. Our sin is not that individual thing which separates us from God, but our gracelessness which separates us from each other as created, human[e] beings.
This, therefore, changes how we view atonement. Atonement is not for the individual sins, but for the failures to love fully, graciously, and mercifully. Instead of asking for "forgiveness," we ask for love - we ask that radical love and radical justice become part and parcel of our daily lives. God is our model for that - God is that love which destroys our sinful inability to seek justice and love righteously. "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me." I can love all people and seek justice for them even if they are my enemy. This is grace; this is a heavenward movement.