It’s Holy Week, so that means I’m going to hear a number of pastors use their blog space to talk about how they don’t buy atonement. They don’t believe that Jesus died for our sins, they don’t like using the cross which is considered a symbol of violence, they don’t like the focus on blood, and the list goes on.
For someone like myself, this abandonment of the concept of antonement by some progressive Christians is somewhat un-nerving to me. I grew up with the concept of what is called substitutional atonement. In the African American churches I grew up in, I remember hearing songs about Christ’s blood. There was one particular song that I heard during communion:
I know it was the blood,
I know it was the blood,
I know it was the blood for me.
One day when I was lost, he died upon a cross.
I know it was the blood for me.
I sang songs about how Jesus came to die for my sins and I never really questioned that I was a sinner.
Now, none of this means that my views on Jesus death haven’t changed, but the basic foundations are still there. But among some of the writers I read it is Christ’s death has been deatched from its Biblical foundations; focused on the material world instead of the spiritual one. Theologian Bruce Epperly notes that the “orthodox” view of Good Friday seems anachronistic in our modern world:
Like many progressive Christians, I grew up hearing the mantras “Jesus died for our sins,” “Jesus died so that we might have eternal life and escape God’s wrath,” “Jesus paid the price for our salvation,” and “sin deserves death and Jesus stood in our place.” Recently, I saw a billboard with the stable and manger and three crosses in the background, with the description “born to die.” Without reflecting, many 21st century Christians, who regularly use iPods, ponder photos from the Hubble telescope, go to Sikh and Hindu doctors, and believe that humankind emerged from a multi-billion year process of evolution, assume the following:
- Human sin brought death into the world.
- We are born steeped in this original sin.
- Human sin deserves divine punishment.
- Jesus came to break our bondage to sin.
- Jesus’ death was foreordained and Jesus lived his adult life knowing he was going to die on the Cross.
- Jesus’ death is God’s way of securing our salvation.
- Only a divine sacrifice can free us from sin and insure eternal life, rather than eternal damnation.
- The only pathway to salvation is a personal relationship with Jesus, demonstrated by an explicit affirmation of our sin and the sole salvation of Jesus Christ.
Although these “orthodoxies” may have provided assurance for us once upon a time, to many of us they no longer make sense, nor do we believe in a God who requires the death of “his” son to secure our salvation. We also see divine grace operating in other religious traditions and in the experience of faithful agnostics. Still, many of us attend Good Friday services; some of us even preach at such services, despite our theological and liturgical reservations. Can we as progressives “redeem” Good Friday in a way that affirms the interplay of divine love, human creativity, and human brokenness, while avoiding dubious theologies that assume salvation requires violence, including the predestined death of God’s only Child?
The point for Epperly is that it doesn’t make sense in the 21st century to believe in such things as divine punishment or original sin.
For Christian Piatt, the atonement was one of those things that led him away from the church. When he returned, he didn’t change his dislike of blood atonement:
Can God really create humanity in such a way that there is something in their nature even God cannot tolerate?
If sin was such a big problem that even God could not bear to be in its presence, why give humanity free will in the first place, assuming you believe we have free will at all? And if you believe that life has no real meaning without free will, why create humanity to begin with if we were destined to fail?
What is it about the shedding of innocent blood that makes anything better? This seems to go against everything the Bible points toward, such as mercy, love, compassion and peace. Was it really more a matter of “just this once and never again?” Is God so weak or inherently flawed that God actually needed this in order to offer forgiveness to humanity?
I have to admit some of the criticism against the atonement don’t make sense to me. But the questions behind them are questions that need to be answered or at least responded to. Epperly’s question about holding on to such beliefs in a modern age isn’t out of line. In an age where we interact with people from differing faiths, what does this concept mean, if anything? How can it be reconciled to our modern times?
Piatt’s questions are even more basic: why did God create us with free will? What difference does blood make?
Richard Floyd does a great job explaining the need for the atonement and if you have some time, I’d encourage you to read the post. I don’t think he will persuade those who don’t like atonement theology, but it does present in layman’s terms why the atonement matters. I don’t have the theological chops that Floyd has, so to explain the atonement in my own terms….I’m gonna use zombies.
Back in January, I shared that I had finished reading the zombie apocalypse novel Warm Bodies. I shared that this was a novel about hope and resurrection. A few weeks back, I finally went to see the movie. The movie has some of the same themes, but it did something different that basically wrapped Good Friday and Easter into one event. The two main characters, a zombie male named R and a human girl named Julie have struck up an odd relationship. Over time, R starts changing, becoming more alive. His change affects the other zombies as well as slowly but surely they regain their humanity. At the climatic zenith of the movie, a number of “bonies” zombies that totally lose their humanity and become monsters are ganging up on R and Julie. It looks like the end for our odd couple. R notices an open door that leads outside. He persuades his Julie to hold on to him as they go through the door and into nothing. They fall into pond, with R breaking Julie’s fall. At some point R wakes up and Julie realizes he fully human. As they kiss, her father, leader of the human settlement shoots R in the shoulder. As Julie pleads for R’s life, she notices that he’s bleeding. Normally that should be a cause of concern, but for R and Julie it was a moment of joy. As the blood spilled into the water, we realize that R is human again, the blood was a sign of life.
I know that won’t stack up to Barth, but I think this story explains the crucifixion in a very graphic way. Just as R protected Julie from the impact of a fall, Jesus stood in our place and took the punishment. Second Corinthians 5:11-21 talks about how Christ reconciled God to creation and allowed us to live for others:
11 So we try to persuade people, since we know what it means to fear the Lord. We are well known by God, and I hope that in your heart we are well known by you as well. 12 We aren’t trying to commend ourselves to you again. Instead, we are giving you an opportunity to be proud of us so that you could answer those who take pride in superficial appearance, and not in what is in the heart.
13 If we are crazy, it’s for God’s sake. If we are rational, it’s for your sake. 14 The love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: one died for the sake of all; therefore, all died. 15 He died for the sake of all so that those who are alive should live not for themselves but for the one who died for them and was raised.
16 So then, from this point on we won’t recognize people by human standards. Even though we used to know Christ by human standards, that isn’t how we know him now. 17 So then, if anyone is in Christ, that person is part of the new creation. The old things have gone away, and look, new things have arrived!
18 All of these new things are from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and who gave us the ministry of reconciliation. 19 In other words, God was reconciling the world to himself through Christ, by not counting people’s sins against them. He has trusted us with this message of reconciliation.
20 So we are ambassadors who represent Christ. God is negotiating with you through us. We beg you as Christ’s representatives, “Be reconciled to God!” 21 God caused the one who didn’t know sin to be sin for our sake so that through him we could become the righteousness of God.
Paul and other early Christians saw the similarities between the ritual sacrifice of an animal and the sacrifice of Jesus. They knew this death meant something more than the death of another failed revolutionary. They had read the stories from what we call the Old Testament and saw how God was working through the Jews and from that particular people came a particular person who brought salvation for us all.
Like I said, I’m this isn’t heavy duty theology. All that I can say is that the death of Jesus was more than just unfortunate. It wasn’t about appeasing an angry god as much as it was God becoming flesh and living and dying for us. If we strike the atonement, we don’t really have much of a faith, or at least a faith that is Christian.