The traditional view of the life and death of Jesus is expressed in a doctrine known in theology as the Atonement. It means that Jesus atoned, or suffered for humanity's sinfulness going back to the story of the Temptation in the Garden of Eden, and the failure of the first man and woman to follow God's command. In the act of eating the fruit of the tree that they were told to leave alone, they fell into sin, altered human nature and estranged the emerging human race from God.
To some theologians today this seems like a pretty flimsy argument for any religion. Taken at face value, it implies that God is petty and vengeful, punishing an entire race and their descendants for the failings of two people. And the understanding of this story of the first humans is complicated by the fact that there are many hints as well as other stories in mythology and Scripture that there was more to the beginning of the human race than God taking a human form and making mud dolls by the side of a river.
There is now a whole new group of scholars known as the Ancient Astronaut Theorists. They comb through ancient texts, archaeology and ruins to find new ideas about human history that make sense. I have been following them for years, ever since the original publication of Chariots of the Gods by Erich Von Daniken. That seminal work has been discussed ever since the day it was placed in bookstores; the controversy that it engendered has never died down.
The theory of ancient astronauts makes us think about an unusual idea, if you follow the computer-generated, interchangeable video-game movies that are released periodically in the name of entertainment. While today's film industry churns out action movies about aliens invading our planet today, what if those aliens invaded our planet before recorded history, tampered with the inhabitants (us), and left, to return possibly in the future or possibly not at all?
So that complicates the whole idea of the Garden of Eden, the creation of human beings and the whole tradition of offering sacrifices to atone for evil. Just what evil are we attempting to atone for? And this very practice of pacifying the gods with sacrifices engendered the first atheists, who noticed that the sacrifices didn't work. Their societies still went through the cycles of drought, poor crops, disease and war.
As the theory of sacrificing life and treasure to angry gods recedes--although it was in full swing during Jesus' time--theologians have looked for another meaning for Jesus' life. The criticism that has been aimed at Jesus since he was alive was that his ministry ended tragically. But although that is true, one would think, then, that he would disappear from history. But we know that just the opposite happened. Something that his followers learned from Jesus' death brought the early Church to life and did not see it sputter out in defeat. What was it?
The Christ-figure in J. R. R. Tolkien's work The Lord of the Rings is Frodo Baggins. His quest separates him from his companions, and as he struggles through the horrific landscape of Mordor, he has no guiding light other than his pledge to destroy the Ring of Power. Nothing else matters; everything must be sacrificed to that end. We see Frodo give up everything, and even fail ultimately at the end, though his objective is achieved. It is only after he is rescued, unconscious, and airlifted to safety that he discovers that he has saved everything.
So we are trying to conceive a theology that encompasses prehistoric human beings, Neanderthals, the Cro-Magnon people, the ancient civilizations and today's non-Christian world. What does Jesus' life and death signify to those people? I mean, it's a pretty diverse group, wouldn't you say?
Theologians nowadays look at the apparent failure of Jesus' ministry and identify his consciousness, not the associations that are hung about his neck by proof quotes from the Old Testament, as the defining element of his life. Jesus lost everything, but in the end his enactment of human life and death, especially in defeat, provide us with the definitive example of whose side God is on.
If the evangelical un-Christians want to create a persecuted group of Americans, the LGBT community, we can be certain that every act of persecution and discrimination against them is a sin against the Holy Spirit of unconditional love. You can see again the death of Jesus in every hate crime committed against LGBT persons, whether it is in America or in the African governments that mimic the hate that they adopt uncritically from evangelicals who interfere with their culture. Today's theologians do not look at the Crucifixion and see Christus Rex, the figure that used to be popular in sculpture. Jesus standing in triumph with the world as his footstool may be a nice image for today, but it was the helpless suffering of innocent victims that moved the early Church.
What are we supposed to do when everything goes wrong and we are overcome by the worst elements that we face? Jesus shows us what we do when we are overcome. Being overcome is not the end of the story. When St. Peter came to the realization of the full meaning of Jesus' life and death, he realized that there is no death. It was given to Peter, and then to others, to see through time and space to where wrongs are righted and love triumphs over all.
Those whose minds are occupied solely with physical life may sneer at this. But if it is true--if we live forever, as many hints and experiences lead us to believe--isn't that forever part pretty important?