Have you ever stripped away the sanctified language of the basic story that was offered as central to your inherited faith? Then just told it as plainly as any other story would be told.

Here’s the one I learned. Possibly you did too.

Adam and Eve messed up and caused us all to get sideways with God — even before we were born. Yep, despite our squeaky fresh skin, we were stained by sin straight out of the birth canal.

This first couple’s chomping on the forbidden fruit threw God into a jam as well. One would assume that God — being omniscient — saw it coming.

Yet, those two once nakedly unashamed first beings just wreaked havoc for us and God.

Although creator of the universe who possesses all the omni-attributes, God was trapped with no way out except to sacrifice an offspring. And no second-gen savior would come on the scene for quite a while.

Eventually, however, God sent an only begotten son named Jesus to earth to pay off this long-lasting, fruit-induced debt.

An obedient child, Jesus hung around a few years to tell some stories and to provide the fodder for Christmas and other religious stories we could tell. Then, he was willingly executed so both we and God could get out of our messes.

As a bonus, however, Jesus dramatically came back from the dead. And as a result of that death-defying act, God will reward us with a heavenly place to live happily ever after — if we properly follow a later-constructed plan of salvation.

That’s the story. Tell me where I’m wrong.

Critical thinking skills applied to many aspects of life tend to be discouraged when it comes to religious matters. So rarely are they applied to this doctrinal drama that was presented as somehow “good news” to us.

It is an odd way of thinking. In this story, God’s love is offered as a motivating factor — but it is not an essential component.

Rather, this story calls for a required transaction in order to restore marred souls and distorted relationships. That is, a bloody sacrifice is the only accepted currency to “pay for our sins.”

My rethinking and retelling of that story is not a matter of mockery, but of honesty. We have to be careful with what stories we tell and embrace as truth.

That well-passed-along version is rooted in the theory of penal substitutionary atonement that presents God as an executor with no other available options for offering salvation.

It is neither the earliest nor only way for Christians to understand and embrace Jesus’ life, death and resurrection — and our salvation.

Two books from Nurturing Faith address atonement: Retired Georgia pastor Leroy Spinks’ Abba, Father: Viewing Atonement Through the Jesus Lens and a collection of writings, Taking on the Cross: Reimagining the Meaning of Jesus’ Life and Death, by the Alliance of Baptists.

God is love, not a transaction. So, what if we told the story as less transactional and more relationally rooted in love?

What if Jesus didn’t come primarily to die in order to get us and God out of major binds?

What if Jesus, out of God’s initiative of love, came to show us how to live and love?

What if his death reveals how prone humanity is to fear and hatred — seeking to eliminate anyone and anything that pushes love beyond societal comfort?

And what if that crucifixion shows us just how prone God is to keep loving us in spite of our repeated succumbing to evil?

What if we see ourselves not as pre-tainted by some distant apple eaters — but as created with the capacity and freedom to either drive fear-dipped nails into another’s hands or lovingly give of ourselves on behalf of others?

What if we are accepted by God simply and relationally rather than through some transactional requirements we put in place?

What if we are less concerned about a step-by-step method of acquiring eternal security and more concerned with being and doing what Jesus said and did during those brief years of revealing God to us?

When someone speaks of the gospel, it is always wise to ask, “Which gospel?”

Is it one in which a trapped God pushes a child toward execution to save humanity — or one in which God’s love for humanity is on broad display?

Is the crucifixion a divinely-staged death sentence — or a revelation of the degree to which God’s love extends?

Transactional gods are safe. They offer something we want in exchange for a minor something we give — like a “profession of faith.”

But an earthly expression of God who endures a cruel cross and says, “Follow me,” is more risky and often less appealing.

I wonder which God-send we’ll see when we look into the manger this year.

Editor’s note: This article is part of an ongoing series at Good Faith Media. If you would like to contribute to the series, please submit your column to submissions@goodfaithmedia.org.

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