One of the most important things that churches still offer the world is a story about human nature and destiny that challenges both reason and moral sensibility to the core.
The story goes like this:
Chapter One. The creator of the universe brought humankind into existence through two finite beings who bore His own image and likeness. In spite of their resemblance to their creator, they dishonored Him by refusing to do what He asked of them. Their predilection to disobedience has been transmitted to all generations, putting the human race at risk for everlasting punishment.
Chapter Two. Instead of giving us what we all deserve, however, God laid our obligations to Him on the shoulders of a single, wholly innocent and sinless man, whose suffering He then deemed a sufficient sacrifice for the sins of the whole world.
Chapter Three. All who believe unquestioningly that Jesus was uniquely chosen by God to atone on a cross for humanity’s perfidy are forgiven their sins and will receive everlasting life. All who do not believe that in Jesus alone the world’s sins are forgiven will remain estranged from God forever.
Epilogue. For further details, consult only the Bible, not the Tanach and never the Qu’ran.
By all rational and moral standards, this is a story about transactions that are anything but worthy of the designation “divine.”
It denies God’s power to set us right with Himself without anyone else having to mediate on our behalf;
It obscures God’s goodness by attributing to him the infliction of unnecessary and unjust suffering upon a man said to be utterly innocent of sins like ours;
It trivializes God’s graciousness by making salvation dependent upon believing an impossible story rather than by trusting an all-surpassing love;
It deforms Jesus’ message about a loving God into an aggrandizing of Jesus himself; and
It reduces Jesus’ personhood to that of a man abandoned by the very God whom he loved with all his mind, heart, souls, and strength.
There has to be a way of understanding the significance of Jesus in world history that does not depend on a story like this, or upon doctrines of the Atonement that are drawn from it.
The best one begins with Jesus’ message about the ultimate source of being, power, value, and meaning as a Love which never fails and never ends.