Category: Hard Questions

10. How can we understand the Trinity?

Belief in the Trinity has often been a stumbling block in interfaith dialogue between those in the Abrahamic faith traditions (Jews, Muslims and Christians).  Many Muslims and Jews either misunderstand what the Trinity is trying to affirm or are confused by it.  Some Christians compound this situation by saying that all three Abrahamic faiths do not worship the same God because they don’t all see the divinity of Christ.

This is a huge issue, one that has confounded better thinkers than me!  Traditional ways of explaining the Trinity (three-leaf clover, the three forms of water: liquid, solid, mist) have ceased to be all that compelling to me at this stage in my Christian journey.  I feel like one commentator that said he was not very interested in the Trinity because he was more of a biblical person.  He said that tongue-in-cheek, but his point is important.  “Trinity” is not a biblical word.  It is a word Christian theologians have used to describe what Christians mean by God being three in one.

Some say the Trinity is how they experience this great mystery we call God.  God can be experienced as transcendent, as being totally other than creation.  “God the Father” is the traditional way of expressing this experience of God. 

The Church has said we encounter God in a human being named Jesus.  Jesus is the human face of God as some have put it.  They are not saying God is a human being.  They are saying Jesus was so transparent to the God within that being in his presence was like being in God’s presence.  “God the Son” is the traditional way of expressing this experience of God. 

Finally, many experience God as that Spirit in which we live and move and have our being, as the Apostle Paul put it.  This is a very intimate experience of “God the Holy Spirit.”  Some prefer to talk about God not using gender language.  They refer to the Trinity as “God the Creator, the Redeemer, and the Sustainer.”

I find these experiential ways of talking about the Trinity very helpful.  God is one, but our experience of God is so complex we need a  way of talking about the Holy One that captures that complexity.  Thus, the Trinity is a useful  concept. When we speak as if we know exactly what God is like in a literal way, we risk being presumptuous or arrogant.  Humbly sharing our own experience of God leads to engaging interfaith dialogue.

On another note, I have also heard some say  God is a relational being.   At the center of the Godhead is the relationship between the three persons of the Trinity. This is important because, as the Bible says, we are made in the image of God.  That means we find our true humanity  when we are in relationships. We are not fully human alone.  While talking about God as a relational being between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit has its problems if taken literally, it does help us see ourselves as relational beings made in God’s image.

This does not fully answer how we can understand the Trinity.  I suspect there are many progressive Christians who are more Unitarian than Trinitarian in their understanding of God.  The important thing for me to affirm as a Christian is that I have given my heart to God, the God beyond my human mind to grasp and the God revealed in Jesus.  My experience of God is something I feel deeply in the depths of my being because the Spirit of God  is that all encompassing reality in which I live and move.  If you want to call that understanding Trinitarian, I can live with that!

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9. Is it unfaithful or unbelieving to want a way to end life when the quality of life is gone, ie: alzheimers, etc.?

I hesitate to respond to this question given how sensitive any response must be to avoid misunderstanding.  Certainly this question must be responded to on a case by case basis.  It would be irresponsible to say it is always appropriate, or never appropriate, to seek an end to life when the quality is gone.

First, we don’t all define “quality of life” in the same way. For some having a debillitating stroke means there is no quality of life.  For others it might be someone in a vegetative state that best describes one with no quality of life.  What criteria should we use to determine what constitutes quality?  Is quality related to the ability to communicate with others in a meaningful fashion?  Does excessive pain mean that one’s quality of life has gone?

As you can see, this question raises all kinds of issues that need to be clarified. People will work through those issues in very different ways depending on the person’s perspective, expectations, and religious scruples.

There are some things I want to affirm about life before I attempt to make a response.  The first is that we have worth in this life, not because of what we can do or accomplish, but simply because we are a child of God.  Just because we can’t do what we formerly could, due to aging or health issues, does not mean our lives are worthless or have no meaning.  Any who have had a relationship with someone with mental challenges (what we used to call “mentally handicapped”) knows we have worth regardless of our level of mental prowess.

I also know how someone suffering from dementia can so deteriorate that continuing on in that diminished state where there is little to no meaningful connection to others, can feel absurd and cruel.  The same can be said for those experiencing severe pain toward the end of one’s battle with a disease like cancer.  Is there any reason why that person needs to suffer for days, weeks, or months?  Is it any better to be put into a comatose state through pain medication until they die?

Certainly we are not God.  We don’t know the future absolutely.  There have been cases where people seem to “miraculously” recover from a vegetative state after the best medical advice said that was not possible.  Given all that,  I do believe there are instances when physician assisted suicide can be a reasonable, and even faithful response.

This should not be something one chooses in order to save one’s family money.  It should not be something that one is talked into pursuing.  It should be done in conjunction with loved ones and follow the careful restrictions those states that allow physician assisted suicide have set for those who choose that option.

I am reminded of a situation in my first church where there was a lady who had suffered from diabetes for years.  She was in her late 70’s or early 80’s (which doesn’t seem all that old now that I am in my 60’s!).  She was almost totally blind.  She was going to need to have her leg amputated.  She had fought this disease for years.  She was tired and done.  She asked me and the other pastor serving that church if stopping dialysis was sinful.  We both affirmed it was not.  She did stop and died in about a week.  That situation, and others since then, have convinced me there are some cases when choosing to end one’s life, either by not doing some treatment or by taking drugs that bring on death, can be done in good conscience by committed  people of faith.

That is where I stand on this issue at this time in my life.  I would be honored to help anyone in this church should they be facing such a difficult decision.  There are no absolute “answers” to this complicated question.  Whatever we choose to do should be done humbly, trusting God’s grace.


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8. Will I see my loved ones in heaven? How will we look?

 It is natural for those who have lost a loved one to wonder about the afterlife or heaven.  Do we truly go to a place called heaven?  Where is it?  Does one have to believe the right things to get in?  How will we find those we love if heaven is full of so many people?  If we die at an old age do we spend eternity the same age as we were at death?  Is cremation wrong because it destroys our bodies for the afterlife?

I could go on and on with questions of that nature.  These are not idle questions.  Behind them is often deep grief at the loss of someone dear to us.  There is a natural longing to see again those who have died.  At the same time some may not want to see someone who had been abusive to them in this life.  Some who have been married several times due to death or divorce might find it awkward seeing all their former spouses.

All of this helps us see how trying to be specific about heaven and what it is like ends in unanswerable questions and even absurdity.  It is impossible to imagine a literal place that would contain all those who have died throughout all time.  If heaven is not a literal place, then what is it?  Can we find comfort in a nonliteral heaven?

These are not theoretical questions for me.  I have pondered my beliefs about heaven these past few months in more profound ways since my wife died than ever before.  Personal experience can make a mess of theoretical beliefs!  I do understand the desire for there to be a place of glad reunions in the next life.  I sypathize with the desire to seek forgiveness from our loved ones for ways we were not as loving as we could have been, but only now see clearly.

Given all that, my response to this question is still quite unformed in me.  I must admit I am hesitant to make any claims about heaven.  I tend to distrust visions of the afterlife that paint vivid pictures.  I would never, however, want to make fun of those pictures or say they are false if they are comforting to others.  They just don’t speak to me these days.

What does speak to me is a deep trust that whatever happens after we die, we are in the “hands” of God.  I don’t believe we die to nothingness.  I do believe in some mysterious way the essence of whom we are lives on beyond this life we all share. Certainly many of us who have lost a family member have felt their spirit live on in us as we remember them and try to live into their loving expectations of us.  I hope it is more than that, but I can’t say for sure what that might be.  Jesus certainly felt we have a place in the presence of God after we die.  Jesus’ opinions are pretty persuasive to me.

 Paul, in his letter to the Church at Corinth, says our spiritual bodies are not like our earthly bodies.  I see that as saying it is fruitless to speculate on what we will look like in heaven.  If we trust those we love to God’s spirit while they live on earth, we can reasonably trust them to that same loving spirit after they die.  I realize this response does not “answer” most of the questions raised above.  I hope it does give all those who grieve a place to stand in the midst of their grief.  Trusting God can feel naïve.  It is certainly not something we can convince others to believe.  I can just confess it is the most solid rock I know in this tumultuous world where tragedy can strike any of us.  Trust is a great foundation to build upon as we begin to construct a new life after a death has shattered our previous one.

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7. What is grace? What is sin?

I find it easier to respond to specific theological questions like the ones in previous articles.  When it comes to defining specific theological words I end up turning to people like Frederick Buechner, an ordained Presbyterian pastor, writer, and one of my mentors.  In his book Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC, he defines both grace and sin.  I could hardly do better.  Let me quote a bit from each of his definitions and encourage you to find his book and enjoy the complete definitions of those two words and many more.

“Grace is something you can never get but only be given. . .The grace of God means something like: Here is your life.  You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you.  Here is the world.  Beautiful and terrible things will happen.  Don’t be afraid.  I am with you.  Nothing can ever separate us.  It’s for you I created the universe.  I love you.”

He goes on to say grace and graceful are related.  When we live by grace we become graceful.  I think we all have known people who are graceful in far more than the physical sense of that word.  They radiate a sense of peace and gratitude that makes us better for just being in their presence.

Protestants have said we are saved by grace and not by works.  When we realize we can’t earn grace, that assertion becomes incredibly freeing.  When we say that grace saves us, we define saved as being made whole.  This is very different from seeing being saved as being given a free pass to heaven!  Grace, then, affects our lives while we live on this earth.

Sin is often talked about in terms of specific sins, often related to sex, but also to breaking one of the Ten Commandments.   Buechner, on the other hand, says at the heart of sin is our tendency to make ourselves the center of the universe.  When we do that we tend to use other people as objects and not as beloved children of God.  Buechner says that even religion can be sinful to the degree it widens “the gap between you and the people who don’t share your views. ”

Sadly the Church has far too often focused on individual sexual “sins” and neglected the larger sins of greed, prejudice and violence.  When we make sin only relate to personal issues, we ignore the much more devastating aspects of sin that destroy community and cause devastating injustices.

We can live lives of grace when we stop trying to measure up to the demands of a judgmental God and start trusting the love of God that forgives us when we make poor decisions and comforts us when we go through hard times. Such love opens our lives to grace and graceful living.

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6. How do we know and live out God’s will?

On one level there is an easy response to this question.  We can live out God’s will by following the way of Jesus.  Jesus showed us what a life of compassion looked like.  He showed us that caring for human beings was more important than trying to perfectly obey religious laws.  He loved the poor and outcastes.  He challenged those who abused their power for their own wealth and comfort.  He practiced a creative non-violence that was far from being passive.  He confronted injustice in an assertive, rather than an aggressive way.  If we follow that way we will be doing the will of God. 

 That is the easy response to that question.  I think, however,  the question was intended to ask more than that.  Some think that God’s will is connected with God’s plan for each of our lives.  They say when we have to make big decisions concerning marriage, vocation, as well as difficult medical or end of life decisions, we need to discern God’s will in each of those situations.  There is a right decision and a wrong one.

I don’t think God has a specific plan for each of our lives.  I believe we are given choices as we move through our lives.  Each time we make a specific choice there are natural consequences that follow.  Those consequences are not the same as God rewarding or punishing us for the decisions we made.  Some choices affirm life and make the world a better place.   Other choices end up being destructive to ourselves or others.

 I see God’s Spirit “nudging” us to make choices that lead to life and wholeness.  I have sensed God’s voice nudging me in a certain direction through the voices of those I love: my family and closest friends.  I have heard God’s voice in the community of faith we call the Church.  I have heard God’s voice in scripture and other books I read for spiritual nurture.  And I have heard God’s voice deep inside in what some would call a “gut feeling.”

Can I be sure each of those mentioned above are truly God’s voice?  No.  We don’t have the luxury of being 100% certain of that.  If we did, we would be God.  The best we can do is to be very careful whom we trust, and then take a leap of faith.  If it turns out we made a poor decision, we can always move in another direction.

Some have said the spiritual journey is more like riding a bus than riding a train.  When one rides a train, there is only one way to go-on the tracks.  A mistake (derailment) can be a disaster.  But when one rides a bus, if a wrong road is taken, you can just turn around and try another one.  Sometimes going down the wrong road leads to interesting discoveries we would never make if we always chose the right road.  I know I have learned quite a bit from some of the poor choices I have made in my life.

Finally, I believe we can hear God’s voice helping us make good choices when we spend time nurturing our spiritual sensitivies, our “spiritual ears”, so to speak.  I know I make better decisions when I am centered, when I am acting out of trust and not fear, when I listen to my own heart and the advice of those I respect.  It takes time and commitment to nurture our ability to detect God’s leading in the people and events of our lives.  When we do that kind of spiritual work we live a God-centered life. I find “God-centered” a more helpful expression than “God’s will.”

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5. If God is not an “interventionist God” how do I pray?

Many “Progressive Christians” are finding it more and more difficult to believe in a God that intervenes in the world and human affairs.  By intervening I mean a God who chooses to act to change circumstances, manipulating events for a particular outcome, or cures someone near death.  This notion of an interventionist God seems to make God a larger than life being who is similar to human beings only smarter. 

When those who believe in such a God pray, they hope that God will choose to intervene in their life or the situation that has led to their prayers for help.  Some even think that if they truly believe in God’s power and goodness, their prayers have a better chance of being answered.  And when those who believe this way begin to have doubts, guilt and shame are not far behind.

Some who hold to an interventionist God try to make sense of “unanswered” prayers. They console themselves by saying God knows better, or God has a plan and the wished for result was not part of that plan.  They say we just need to trust that God is wise and knows better than we do what we need.

Such an understanding of God leaves me with some troubling questions.  Why would God let a child be abused if God could intervene?  Why would God save one person in a snow storm but let others freeze to death?  Why does God allow someone to fall into the pit of dementia, sometimes for years and years, when a quiet death would be more humane? Why would God sit by when Hitler or other despots inflict such terrible suffering?

If God truly is an interventionist God but does not intervene in some of the above situations then it feels so capricious.  I find it difficult to trust such a God.  Even if I say God knows best and it is beyond my ability to understand how God acts, such an interventionist God causes more problems than does believing in a God that does not intervene, at least not in the literal way some suggest.

I say this with a bit of fear and trembling.  I certainly don’t want to imply that if I don’t understand something, then it can’t be true.  God remains a huge mystery to me on so many levels.  I can only begin to understand this great mystery by looking at the life of Jesus, the human face of God.  The God revealed in the life and teachings of Jesus is a God I can trust.

So, if God is not an interventionist God, why pray?  If prayer does not cause God to cure or save, what is the point?  Are we just praying to ourselves?  Why does some research suggest that those who are prayed for do better than those who are not?

I do believe prayer is important on several levels.  Prayer reminds us that we are not alone.  We are surrounded by a loving reality we name God.  This presence or power is luring creation to wholeness.   The simple act of remembering that God is present helps us become more open to letting God’s love play a part in our lives.  When we pray for others we, in some mysterious way I can’t fully explain, connect our loving energies to theirs.  Scientists and others are recognizing we are all interconnected in this world.  There are ripple effects to all our actions, including prayers.  Our prayers are an important factor in any situation.  If we pray for someone to be cured of their illness and that does not happen, they might still be healed on many other levels.  Healing and curing are not the same thing.  That is a topic for another article!

This response does not fully answer the question raised by the person who submitted it.  It does not fully answer all my questions either.  It is a stab at getting the dialogue started on this important subject.  I can live with this partial answer only because I trust my life to God, the God revealed in Jesus and in the community of faith that incarnates God’s love, however imperfectly.

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Will non-believers be saved? Should we pray to bring them into the fold?

This question raises some important issues about what it means to be a Christian.  If we are Christians because we want to get into heaven and think those who are not Christian cannot get into heaven unless they confess that Jesus is Lord, then we would want to pray that others, especially those we care deeply about, would come into the fold.  We may even think manipulating someone into being a Christian, or frightening them into believing would be the most loving thing to do if the other option is eternal damnation. 

Such thinking gives a very peculiar image of God.  Does God really care more for Christians than for devout people of other faiths?  Is there really only one spiritual path to God? Isn’t it convenient, as some have said, that the only right path is our path?  Isn’t that an arrogant position to take?

I am coming to think more and more what we believe is less important than how we treat others.  People like Marcus Borg, Robin Myers, and Philip Gulley think following Jesus is far more important than worshipping the Christ.  Christianity is not about believing all the right things so we can get into heaven.  It is more about following the way of Jesus that consists of compassion, generosity, humility, nonviolence and a deep passion for justice.  It is about nurturing a relationship with God, with the Ground of Being, with the Holy Mystery in which we live and move, however you want to name that reality.  Certainly people of other enduring religions do that as well as Christians from their own perspective.

If being saved means becoming right with God or being saved from our sins, then that is possible in other religions outside Christianity.  The emphasis for me is on God’s grace and love, and not on right belief. God’s love “saves” me from despair, self-condemnation, and meaninglessness.  Right belief is impotent in comparison.

I am certainly not saying that all religions are the same.  Each brings a different perspective to the spiritual journey many of us walk.  While I might disagree with some of the tenets of other faith traditions, we do have far more in common with Jews, Muslims, and others than we may realize.  We can also learn from the different ways each religion understands God and what it means to be a faithful follower of those traditions.  This has drawn me to study the tenets of other faith traditions and to spend time meeting with others and even visiting their worship centers.  Interfaith dialogue and respect can only help create a more peaceful world.

Finally, it is not up to us who will be saved.  That is a matter for God.  While we hope that others will find a relationship with God that makes their life meaningful, it is not very helpful to choose for them how they will nurture their relationship with the Holy.  I am not ashamed of the path I have chosen.  I am more than willing to discuss it with others.  I share not to make others choose my path, but more to learn from others or to help those who are searching for their own way.

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When does financial comfort become unchristian?

This is an excellent question, especially in these days of the Occupy movements around the country.  We hear the complaint that 1% of the population has more than their fair share of the country’s wealth and the rest of the population, the 99%, are getting further and further behind.  Such an unequal distribution of wealth is a serious problem for the stability of any democratic country.  But, how does this relate to Christianity?  Is it unchristian to be too comfortable, to accumulate so much more money and “toys” than the average person in a given society?

The Bible is clear that the love of money is the root of all evil.  It does not say money, but the love of money.  So money, in and of itself, may not be a problem.  This seems to let the super-rich off the hook.  Unfortunately just having a lot of money can easily lead to loving money and the power such money provides.  Money can be very seductive.  It is easy to enjoy the benefits of being rich to the point of then defending one’s wealth at all costs.  This leads to justifying killing others to protect one’s possessions, valuing things over people, and spending far more time on accumulating wealth and taking care of one’s possessions than other more important parts of life, like “growing a soul,” as someone once put it.

If we truly believe all people are children of God, that we are all brothers and sisters in God’s commonwealth, then it becomes problematic for some on this earth to live in luxury, no matter how relative that luxury might be, and for others not to even have enough to survive.  I would hope I would be embarrassed justifying my comfort when so many others are starving or homeless.

Of course we cannot solve the world’s hunger by giving everything away. Nor does it help to feel guilty about being born into a rich country, or having the good fortune of being raised in a place where ambition and hard work can pay off (although it doesn’t always). We can be a little more humble enjoying what we have and not thinking we deserve it or we have earned it all on our own.  No one is rich solely because of their own efforts.  No one is poor solely because they did not work hard enough.

We can also make it a practice of giving some of our wealth away to the church and other causes that work to make the world a better place.  The biblical standard is giving 10% away.  That is not a stopping point, but a first step.  Sometimes it takes many little steps to reach that first big step.

We can also vote to elect representatives that share our Christian values of helping the poor, not resorting to war as a first response to protect our wealth or our freedom, and who want to establish laws that prevent unfair advantages for some at the expense of the majority.  Certainly our financial institutions need reform in these days of “too big to fail.”

So, financial comfort becomes unchristian when it leads to arrogantly thinking we deserve all that we have, when it neglects to reach out to the unfortunate, and when it requires our best energies leaving little time or focus for more important realities like caring for our relationships and spiritual growth.

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What part of the Bible is literal and what part is story-telling?

What part of the Bible is literal and what part is story-telling (virgin birth, heaven, etc.)?

This question gets at the nature of truth. Is truth all about facts, about literal history, or is truth bigger than facts? Can truth really be captured in a literal retelling of history? Can an historian even do that without his or her own prejudices creeping in?

When we read the Bible it is not always helpful to ask if what is written literally happened. A more productive question tries to get at what the author is trying to tell us about ourselves and our relationship with God in Christ. What is the truth these words are trying to reveal? Sometimes the truth is so big it can only be grasped in story or myth. Remember myth is not lies or make believe. Myths are stories that open up a world of truth simple facts can’t capture.

For example, some believe in a literal virgin birth. Others find that preposterous and dismiss Christianity as unscientific and naïve. Sadly they end up throwing out the baby with the bath water. A careful reading of the scriptures would see that the Gospel writers understood Jesus through some of the Old Testament prophecies that talked about a young woman or virgin who would give birth to Emmanuel. In the Hebrew the word to describe this mother could be either young woman or virgin. In the Greek one has to choose. The Gospel writers chose virgin. They did this for several reasons. First, many of the Roman emperors were said to be the child of a virgin and one of their gods. Caesar was even called a Son of God. Christians countered that assertion by saying Jesus was the true Son of God. He, too, was also born of a virgin and God. This was dangerous language for the early church to use. They were making a political claim as much as a religious one.

In addition, to say that Jesus was the child of a woman and the Spirit of God was to say that Jesus was fully human yet he uniquely revealed God to us. Jesus was the human face of God as some have said. You can see that the virgin birth is about so much more than biology. One does not have to believe in a literal virgin birth to be powerfully impacted by the truth that story is trying to tell.

Am I dismissing literal history as unimportant? Absolutely not. There is an historical basis for Christianity and Jesus. It is not all just stories or myths. But, we may never know exactly what literally happened. What we do have is the Gospel writers and their accounts of Jesus. Unfortunately they don’t always agree on what happened or in what order. The gospels are not biographies with an agreed upon chronology of events. They are more sermons trying to capture the essence and truth of Jesus from the perspective of the author’s community. Do we trust their witness or not? Do we hear the Word of God in their human words? Those are better questions to ask of the text. Historically the Church has answered those questions with a “yes.”

All of this is to say the Bible does not have to be believed literally in every instance to be respected and taken seriously. In fact, to say the Bible is literally God’s Word as if God were dictating it to human scribes is to make it synonymous with God. We call that Bibliolatry, a form of idolatry.

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If God is all forgiving why did Christ have to die for our sin?

If God is all forgiving why did Christ have to die for our sin?

This question gets at the meaning of the cross and how it relates to forgiveness. One of the more traditional approaches interpreting the cross is called “substitutionary atonement.” This approach says that we have all sinned and failed to live up to God’s standards for Christian behavior. God’s justice demands a consequence for our sinful behavior. The just consequence is death. But, because God is also gracious, God provided a substitute to take the punishment for us. This substitute was Jesus. He paid the price God’s justice demanded. He died for our sins.

The older I get, the less persuasive this understanding of the cross is for me. I agree with those who say Jesus died because of human sin, not for human sin. He came preaching God’s radical, inclusive love for all people. He stood up to the religious authorities who were abusing their power for their own benefit. They did not want to lose their power, so they killed him. Their hateful behavior was sinful. Jesus died because of that sin. This does not mean that the rest of humanity is innocent. We have all played our part in sin’s destructive ways. We have all done or said things that were far from loving. That still does not mean Jesus had to die in our place to satisfy God’s justice.

The crucifixion of Jesus does play a role in our understanding our salvation. In spite of the horror of the cross, God’s love was revealed in Jesus as he suffered. Jesus loved God’s people enough to keep preaching and acting knowing it was probably not going to end well for him. In Jesus’ love for the people, God’s love was made manifest. It is that love, not Jesus’ substitutionary death that forgives us and “saves” us.

I don’t believe the purpose of Jesus’ life was to die for our sins. I don’t believe God needed a death to satisfy God’s justice enabling God to forgive us. I do believe that there always seems to be a price to pay when someone speaks courageously against those who are abusing their power. The depth of God’s love for us was revealed in a powerful way in Jesus death on the cross. If Jesus had lived a full life and died a natural death we would still know God’s love revealed in his life and words, but perhaps not as powerfully as in his crucifixion. But, to say God could not forgive us unless Jesus was tortured and killed on a cross is a very troublesome notion of God. It presents us with a picture of God that does not fit the God revealed in Jesus’ life and words.

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