The Dogma Files – Part 2: Atonement

Atonement-of-Jesus-Christ-featureThis is probably the biggest sticking point for Christians.  In my last post, I talked about salvation, but we are left with the question of the methodology of salvation and the resulting effect.  There are many theories of atonement and most Christians subscribe to one theory or another.  So strict are folks on their insistence on a particular theory, in fact, that one’s atonement theory is usually considered “the gospel.”  John 3:16 says that “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son and whosever believes in him shall not perish, but have everlasting life.”  Yeah, ok, I knew you knew that already.

I won’t get too much into “gospel” because that will be for another day, but many hang their hats on this verse seeing it as a proof text for God giving the world Jesus as a sacrifice.  This leads us to the meaning of atonement.  We will discuss sin more in depth later, but the general idea is that we are all sinners (whether a habitual type of learning or something that is original from birth – more on this later) and are in need of reconciliation with God.  To say that we are in need of atonement generally assumes that God cannot stand us otherwise.  In conservative evangelicalism, there are many cliched coin phrases and one of the most prevalent is: “God is perfect and therefore cannot stand to look upon sin.  This is why God needed a sacrifice to make good for our sins so that he could forgive us and reconcile us to him.”  Ever heard that before?  Thought so.

The earliest theory of atonement stated that a ransom had to be paid (Ransom Theory) in order for sinful humankind to be reconciled to God.  Thus, it was necessary for Jesus to die on the cross so that our sins could be paid for.  This begs the question of whom this debt is to be paid to.  It was assumed that Satan was the eternal punisher once humans were turned over by God post-judgment and so the debt was paid to Satan.  This is rather troublesome to me as it was for many in the early church, but is still one of the prevalent theories today.  How one could assume that God has to pay Satan (assuming the existence of Satan or that Satan is what we have redefined it to be – again, more on this in a later post) and that there is no other way.

Next, is the Recapitulation Theory.  This originated in the second century with Irenaeus and said simply that where Adam had failed, Jesus had succeeded.  That is, based on Paul’s description of Jesus in Romans as “the new Adam,” Adam was disobedient and caused the Fall of Humankind, but Jesus was obedient all the way to the cross, thus reversing the effects of Adam’s sin.  Again, this doesn’t sit well because it assumes that something cosmic had to be done to reverse the effects of sin and this “something” was killing someone on a cross.

Then, we have the Satisfaction Theory.  This one has Jesus heading up Golgotha to the cross singing “I can’t get no . . . satisfaction . . . .”  Ok, not really, but kind of.  This theory was developed by Anselm in the 11th century and was a response to the crusades.  Anselm was deeply disturbed that so many young men were going off to die in the name of God when there was no “good” atonement theory to insure that their deaths were not meaningless.  He therefore developed a theory that said that Jesus offered himself up as a debt payment to God on behalf of sinful humankind.  This was the beginning of the “by faith alone” theology that would develop in post-Reformation Protestantism.  Having faith that Jesus “died for our sins” was sufficient to reap the benefits and obtain eternal life and forgiveness.  An important factor in this theory is that Jesus had to be a God-man in order for the sacrifice to fulfill the debt.

11th century theologian Peter Abelard disagreed with Anselm’s position and came up with his own theory.  He did not like the idea that somebody needed to die to appease God’s wrath, so he came up with the Moral-Example theory.  He opined that Jesus was a moral example for humankind that, by allowing himself to be tortured by the Roman authorities because of his subversive acts of love and compassion, he softened the hearts of people and led them to changing their lives and minds (repentance).  Thus, Jesus did not die to affect God’s judgment or mood, but rather to change the hearts of humans.  If I had to subscribe to any of these theories, it would be this one.  I still, however, think there are other options beyond these.

All of these theories are problematic for me because they are all violent.  They all assume that Jesus had to die and some assume that he had to be God in order to do so.  So many areas of theology lead to a cop-out that says “God works in mysterious ways” or “Who can understand God?”  I agree that God is mysterious and we can NEVER fully comprehend the Divine, but this definitely does not mean that we should not continue our pursuit of the Divine presence and some semblance of understanding.  If we wonder how God could kill God-self (which is necessary if God needs appeasing, but the sacrifice also has to be God) then we should engage this and consider other options.  (This led to the development of the Trinity which we will discuss in a later post) God did not decree one option.  We have to keep in mind that ALL atonement theories are just that – theories that were developed over time by human beings to ease their discomfort over existing theories.

I would propose another way to consider atonement.  Some have called atonement an “at-one-ment” with God.  I like this idea.  I believe atonement has nothing to do with killing anybody, not even Jesus.  Jesus dying on a cross was the natural result of opposing the Roman authorities.  Too often we think of Jesus (and maybe the two thieves with him) as being the only one who was ever killed on a cross.  The cross was the device of the times for the death penalty.  It was no different from a gallows, an electric chair, a guillotine, or being burned at the stake.  It was the method of capital punishment employed by the Romans.  Instead of appeasing a wrathful child-abuser in the sky who can find no other way to calm down than to kill his own kid, how about we see atonement as BOTH God and us moving closer together?  God is seeking us just as we are seeking God.  By shedding our illusions, distractions, and attachments, we can be more aware of the presence of God.  By “listening” to the Divine within us and becoming one with it, we experience an at-one-ment.  In this, we can experience full reconciliation with God and in co-creation and relationship with God work to redeem the world and the systems of violence and oppression that have subverted it.

3 Responses to “The Dogma Files – Part 2: Atonement”

  1. John Lovestrand Says:

    Very well proposed. If not too irreverent, I will see your Stones’ “Satisfaction” reference, and raise it with Patti Smith’s hauntingly provocative opening lyric in “Gloria”.

    As a layperson, and irregular church attendee, it never resonated with me that Jesus died for MY sins.

    It does make sense that he was executed in the historical context of his times, by Crucifixion, as pointed out above.

    I have often thought that Jesus’ reportedly having exclaimed “My God, why have you forsaken me?!” as his death penalty fate drew near reflected how even he sought Divine intervention at the very last.

    I cannot conceive of a monotheistic deity who would create a flawed human order at the outset (Adam), only to then deem it necessary to redeem those same humans and rectify that human failing by thousands of (human) years later sending his “only begotten Son” to atone for our sins by and through his pre-determined execution.

    I think we humans must attempt to atone for our own sins (and by sins I think in terms of being unfaithful, or untrustworthy, or disloyal, etc.) by and through our actions, by trying to right our wrongs.

    And because I am not Christ-like I regrettably still feel that some sins are unforgivable — e.g., murder, rape, etc. — and therefore exceedingly difficult (if not impossible) to atone for, in this human way.

    But at that communal level, I appreciate the at-one-ment notion, and feel that I can strive toward that less distracted place… .

  2. jon shimabukuro Says:

    Rev B,
    Topics like this are, can and have generated great debates and I hope that we can have debates and know that we are brothers who worship the same God with His loving spirit. In your blog installment on salvation and atonement I appreciate your conviction of your beliefs. They made me think about what I believe and dig a little for the crux of my beliefs. I love your thoughts that salvation should be a means to end oppression and injustice in our world. I agree wholeheartedly that salvation can and should be communal and that it was and is a way of life and redemption in relationship with one another right here on this earth. I think we may disagree that salvation is not an individual thing. I believe it starts with an individual decision to take up and follow God. In your last paragraph of your composition on Atonement you said “atonement has nothing to do with killing anybody, not even Jesus. Jesus dying on a cross was the natural result of opposing the Roman authorities.” Do you think that Jesus dying on the cross was purely a natural result of opposing the Romans or could it be that it was a chosen journey and intentional path that Jesus knew by living and sharing as he did would lead to his death? Do you think that He intended his death to have significant meaning? I believe atonement as both God and us moving closer together but I believe it does take more than listening to the Divine to experience that full reconciliation. I think that Jesus knew that He was coming to seek and save us from our separation from Him. Luke 19:10. You’re right when you make the point of saying God can be looked at as a wrathful child-abuser in the sky who can find no other way to calm down than to kill his own kid and in essence using this vehicle to save us. Put that way it is very very hard to take and believe. Yet wasn’t sacrifice from the time of the Old Testament the way people made atonement with God? So how deep how wide how infinite is God’s love for us that He allowed his son to be the ultimate sacrifice? God in trying to reach out to the world I believe it was in His plan to bring Jesus into this world to save us. I have to say I do hold verses like John 3:16,12:47-49, I john 4:14. I believe it to be an all-encompassing love extended to all as in Acts 15:7-9.
    I do appreciate not being afraid to touch on some “hot spots” of Christianity and your intelligent and eloquent way you put it on paper. Dang makes me jealous and love to read it. But I think that you need to be sensitive to those who may have a different conviction or belief. I guess I’m saying to be sensitive of people like me  and those who might hold similar beliefs and cannot verbalize or pen them very well. I know that your passion to serve the Lord and to do all you can to unite people to make this world a better place is a big part of who you are. That is why I love and respect you so much. Keep on keeping on. I am asking myself how community handles these differences of beliefs or convictions. I think it is like you said last week. Moving forward with that transforming spirit that God has indwelled in us the best that we can.
    Peace good brother,


    • Hey brother, very well said! I appreciate and love your comments as I love you. You are 100% correct. It is a fine and delicate line that we walk when it comes to theological convictions and espousing them can certainly lead to hurt feelings and I hope that I have not hurt yours. At the beginning of the series I put in a caveat that these are my own thoughts and not assumed to be the “right beliefs.” In other words, these are all merely my own opinions which leaves a very good chance that I could be 100% wrong or just part-way right. I think much more importantly than who is right or wrong is the fact that folks like you and I can engage in heartfelt dialogue on the subject and still hold love and goodwill toward one another.

      Having said that, I do agree with you theologically on your comment (and it was very eloquently written, by the way, so don’t shortchange yourself). We may not agree on the semantics, but I do agree that, despite crucifixion being a natural byproduct of insurrection, Jesus did make the choice to go to the cross and that it was the ultimate act of love. So, rather than to criticize other peoples’ theology or to discount it, I am trying to challenge folks to consider the full picture – if that makes sense. I believe that there is a definite individual aspect to salvation because we have to accept it for ourselves and make the conscious decision to live it out and make the kin-dom of God a present reality here on earth. I also think that the communal aspect of salvation is often overlooked resulting in an overly individualistic soteriology that seems to say “to heck with everyone else, my rear end is saved.” Now, I know that isn’t your view by any means, but I just want to challenge folks to see the bigger picture when it comes to tenets of our faith and realize that much of Christian theology is a both-and vision.

      I hope that’s helpful and thank you for being you!!


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