In the past week I have had three conversations with fellow Brothers in Christ in regard to our ideas of atonement and its relationship to ministry and life. Chief among these concerns has been the reality that more and more folks, especially folks under 30 (I am 31 FTR) are abandoning organized religion and churches. It is my belief that such is not happening because the present generation is irreligious or lack faith. To the contrary, they are very motivated by faith and mystery, it’s just that they seem to be embracing newer philosophies of faith found elsewhere because the way Christianity has been taught, preached, etc, has seemed to them quite bankrupt. If I reflect on my own teenage years and youth group experience, many of the folks in my youth group are not interested in the faith and if they are, they are not very active. Most have left the fold of the church. Why? Well, I think a large factor is because the church is not speaking to them anymore, and what it has said in the past has been shallow, totalitarian and just an extended version of Aristotle’s Ethics. Their impression of the faith is kiddie pool theology, where everyone stays in the 3 Ft section because Christianity occupies no other section…and in this 3 ft section we swim continually, never venturing beyond the buoys that separate us from the scary “deep end.” This, coupled with our horrible ways of reading the Bible as a flat story that simply contains maxims for life and ethical advice…wedded with our biblical literalism at every turn of scripture, has given the impression that our faith is shallow, overly experiential, and has little to offer after we say a prayer of forgiveness. This is tragic and it saddens me.
As per my recent conversations, I have decided to post a practice in theology of thinking out loud (with you the reader as my company) on the subject of atonement. I have recently argued amongst friends that the atonement should speak to the existential lack that is inherent in our context…that the atonement is still powerful but not in a uni-dimensional kind of way. For us to speak to the generations of Christians that have left the church, and to those who will never come to our churches because of their impression of Christianity, we need to do as the church has historically practiced and ask how the atonement functions, what it does, and why that matters for people who don’t feel the weight of Luther’s guilt nor do they really desire God to wring the blood from Jesus beaten body over their head so they can be camouflaged when God peers their way.
So, I want to mention the most popular theories of atonement, or theories of how we understand what Jesus did by dying on Calvary, and how we might shift gears a bit to think the atonement differently. This essay is not meant to be extensive, and much finer minds have done a better job of descandalizing the cross as some of you might interpret this blog to be doing, but it is my attempt to do theology in an honest way and wrestle with the Cartesian mind that we all possess, if we would only be so honest and not hide behind the fear of where our inquiry might take us. To my brothers that have occassioned these words, I give thanks for your friendship and treasure your dialogue…and I pray others might find these musings more than useful.
Let’s get started. First, the substitutionary theory of the atonement has not been the king of the Christian block since the time of Christ. There are several theories of atonement, or ideas about the “why” of the passion, that have had prominence in our faith: Ransom, Moral/Love, Satisfaction, and Penal. Scripture testifies to ALL of these…and ALL of them are problematic, even scripturally, but most traditions accentuate one of these or combine them…but in the theology and faith of the church they were separate and did not emerge at once.
Ransom: Introduced by Origen 3rd century. This is the idea that Satan, the prince of the world (so Origen was a dualist, sue him and sue most Christians alive today who are equally dualistic), had to have a payment from God for control of creation. God decided to Kill Jesus as a ransom payment to Satan. BUT, the trick was resurrection. God let Satan receive payment and then took his payment back on Easter. God tricked the devil. This idea coalesces nicely with Christians who hold that creation is in a Struggle between God and Satan and that Satan is indeed the controller of earth…yet through this act God has no usurped Satan and defeated him again. So I’m not sure what Pentecostals are still getting excited about with this spiritual warfare stuff; the battle is over, so to speak. God paid the ransom in this theory because we did not have the “money” to make the transaction…and the rest is history.
Moral/Love: Abelard introduced this 12th century. Abelard contended that Jesus died to show how much he loved the world and died as a perfect sacrifice expressing what it means to fully love creation…offering a model for how we should love one another even to our own deaths if need be. The implication is also that as a supreme act of love God let Jesus suffer and die as an example of God’s ability to let evil happen to us so that we might be able to live into the resurrected reality of Jesus and be better people, hence the “moral” part. He argued that Christ’s Life and death were examples of God’s supreme love to us so that all humans will be able to respond in return by loving God and finding salvation through the intercession of Christ. Violence is allowed in the world because we are refined by fire and made holy in its furnaces, turning our hearts to God because of his example and being made holy as we live through the violence we all encounter. There is more to this idea in Abelard’s work, but he wrote this AFTER the next theory by Anselm.
Satisfaction: This is the idea that Jesus was killed to satisfy the honor of God. It really emerged from the way society was structured during the period of feudal Lords, etc, and was patterned after such societal norms of dishonor, honor and glorification. God’s honor had been violated in the fall of Adam and Eve (ent), and as such, his honor had to be restored. However, nothing is great enough to restore God’s honor but the sacrifice God’s self…ENTER Jesus the God-Man; So God’s wrath was satisfied through the human sacrifice of Jesus. This is also consistent with the practice of Jewish Temple in killing animals to satisfy God’s anger.
Penal Substitutionary: This emerged most thoroughly in the Reformation and was crystallized by Calvin. It is the idea that humans are utterly depraved and cannot be saved except that God would take a substitution for our sin; the old addage is “Jesus took my place” and many of us sing songs to this effect each Sunday in worship. We are deserving of death; the only way we can experience life is for Jesus to die for us and then IMPUTE his righteousness upon us…so that after the death of Jesus when God looks at the world….he no longer sees our horrid sinfulness, but he sees the blood of Jesus covering our transgressions.
These are the major theories, but there are others. I encourage you to read the theologians mentioned above for the finer workings of their atonement theology.
The testimony to multiple understandings of atonement mean thinking the death of Jesus is not nearly as clean and neat as most Christians think…but the other thing that makes atonement a sticky issue is that we are heavily influenced by the Western Church. Origen was part of the Alexandrian school, so too was Augustine (where one finds substitutionary ideas fit right at home)…Anselm was West also, so too was Thomas Aquinas (transubstantiation)…Abelard was Western but he was bucking the system during his time. He was often criticized by other theologians, but he attracted many students and was a “go to” theologian for philosophers during the Enlightenment period. However, in the East, substitution and penal theory did not reign the day…many of the Fathers from the Antiochene school placed a much heavier emphasis on incarnation and theosis because of resurrection, not because of a hyper penal idea of atonement. So as for Christianity, the witness is actually split and there are theological, and biblical, problems with espousing any one idea/theory. This is why I am inclined to be more existential in regard to the atonement and be open to multiple meanings that speak to our world, not dictate one method over another.
But the Gospels did just this; they interpreted the atonement within paradigms that made sense, and then translated that to their contexts from out of the story of Jesus they told. The Gospels are telling the story of Christ and making sense of the crucifixion of Jesus…narratively attempting to make an appeal to how one might understand atonement.
Allow me a brief Gospel of John Excurses.
NO Gospel works/refines an idea of atonement in great detail, yet John goes to greater lengths here than any Evangelist, but it makes sense for him to do so. John argues that Jesus IS the sacrificial lamb. The importation of a fairly developed atonement theology in the Gospel of John makes perfect historical sense considering the historical context of the Johannine community that had been expelled from Temple post-70AD and were trying to make sense of being a Jewish Christian without a Temple…what better Christological affirmation than that we don’t need a Temple, we have the lamb sacrificed at the same TIME ON PASSOVER as it would have been happening in the Temple in the 30’s whichever specific year you prefer…but the Synoptics have Christ crucified BEFORE Passover…not during…clearly John is making a theological point. So John is constructing an atonement theology, but it is within his context not outside of it.
Origen, Anselm, Abelard, the Reformers, they are all wrestling with how to understand how the work of Christ brings humanity into relationship with God; how does it restore brokenness to a sense of wholeness through the broken and bloody body of Jesus…and they did so in language and metaphor that was a.) biblical …but also b.) could speak to their listeners. They did not speak past their listeners, but they proclaimed why the death of Jesus matters and why it should matter to their hearers and in their context. The Spirit led them to do so. From an existential perspective, I call for doing nothing but the same: speaking Christ to the world in such a way that they hear, listen and have an “aha” moment about how the at-one-ment of Jesus brings them to at-one-ment in God. This doesn’t mean that classical understandings are mute. They are still important and still carry currency for many, but to preach the lifting up of Christ to a world that feels separated from itself and others…is not to proclaim that you need to take a shower in the blood of Jesus, but to preach that through the act of his death he has put an end to sin and violence…he has swallowed death into his body and thereby all those things that seek to wreck our lives and create disharmony. Yet the death, and massacre of Jesus, would not be complete without a resurrection to say that such violence and sin does not win; it is swallowed up in the grave thereby meaning so too has the sin (think hamartia here…missing the mark), death and utter lack that seeks to wreak havoc in our lives been laid to rest the with grave cloths of the paranormal Jesus who comes to all us Thomas’ who still think death is still an issue.
What I am arguing, albeit with an existential bent ( I am heavy on Kierkegaard and Heidegger here), is that while we may want to say that the work of Jesus is primarily this, or mostly that, and then tell people “no, this is your problem and here is your answer”…the better approach is to discover what it is that keeps folks up at night, what concerns them, where do they sense lack in their lives. If Christ matters than it matters to them and the world in which they live; we do not need to tell them they live in a false world and then attempt to renarrate their lives with a story and concepts that are utterly foreign, and therefore, would be devoid of meaning. We do this not to relativise the gospel but to be aware that people will seek for truth according to the questions that plague their being. And my argument is that the atonement of Jesus contains the answer, but the theological world that drives a person may be different from one individual to the next, and necessarily so too will be their questions, and so too must be the appropriation of the Christ event into their lives.
William P. Jones, in his book, Theological Worlds: Understanding the Rhythms of Alternative Christian Belief, talks about it as we all have different OBSESSIOS (problem, lack, brokenness in us) and therefore we all have different EPIPHANIA (an awakening to our angst and its solution) that show us our problem, what we need, and how to become whole through various answers that is offered by the Christ in his work. The theological worlds in which most folks live, according to the work of Dr. Jones, are the following…and my experience also seems to validate this:
Condemnation…Forgiveness (this model gets a disproportinate amount of attention in our Churches)
By extending our understanding of atonement past a purely penal or substitutionary model (and thereby by extending our willingness to see why Jesus STILL matters to the world), we are actually able to see how Christ connects people to God through his death…and we do so beyond the realm of pagan blood ritual, though biblically we may still find meaning here. It may be, in fact, that many folks are connected through the theological world of condemnation and forgiveness…but more and more people, in our context, are typified in the other 4 worlds. The solution is not to tell those folks they’re wrong, and therein tell them their concerns and questions about faith are wrong, but to say, “well, the work of Christ can heal that part of your life and here is how.” By appealing to the existential angst in an individual we are doing the same things as the Gospels, and the church Fathers: we are speaking into the lives of people and proclaiming why exactly the news of Jesus is good. It’s good because whatever their malady, whatever their internal struggle, the atonement of Jesus is more than satisfying a primordial God who got his feelings hurt; the atonement of Jesus restores creation through violence as God’s statement that creation is no longer to use violence and sin as a means of negotiating the world.
This reality is affirmed, not because we are part of the Western Church and affirm all the theological baggage therewith, but precisely because we believe in the Resurrection. The Resurrection makes these things true and it is what makes the Christ event relevant to folks in the now.
To conclude, I mention a brief Pauline excurses. It is telling that even Paul, the one who paved the Roman Road, placed much greater emphasis on Resurrection than Passion. He did address Passion elements, but did not hinge his entire theology thereon. His famous chapter in First Corinthians 15 is not a perpetual statement on Passion and a Mel Gibson esqe love affair with violence in his movie titled “The Passion.” (FTR, I really like the movie). It does not read “If Christ be not slaughtered than our faith is in vain…If God be not appeased than our faith is nothing…” (forgive me for too much liberty if you feel I have taken it there) but Paul over and over again says, “If Christ be not raised…” The Resurrection is the difference maker…not a particular view of the atonement; The atonement is utter meaninglessness if not for the peculiarly paranormal event of a Jesus not staying dead. The resurrection is what places us in right relationship with God because in order to overtake death and sin…God does not need a human sacrifice, God just needs to overcome death through the only means possible: the loss of life in a physical body and the raising of that very body to end death’s residence in human history, in time. Thus, if there is any doctrine or dogmatic stance one needs to take to be firmly Christian, it is the paranormality of resurrection, not a refined idea of atonement that has a diverse witness in text, tradition, reason and experience…a concept that while appearing to stand on the “solid rock of faith” is actually a bit more like nailing Jello to the wall.