What Is Atonement Theology Anyway?
The basic idea of Atonement Theology posits that Jesus’ death was necessary in some tangible, cosmic way, as a “sacrifice” for the sins of humanity. Further, it suggests that this sacrifice, and this sacrifice alone, is the “salvific” work of Jesus; the moment that Jesus’ earthly ministry is complete. (The moment that “salvation” happens…) In its more radical forms, it suggests that without it, there is no point to Jesus’ earthly ministry, or to belief in him (and by extension, belief in God…).
The idea of “blood sacrifice,” of course, is deep in the tradition of the Hebrew Scriptures. The idea that animals should be sacrificed as some kind of “substitution” for human sin goes way, way back.
Skipping to the punchline, I am not a fan of atonement theology. Frankly, almost all of it. Here are some reasons why, and some things I believe instead…
God Has Always Been “Anti” Human Sacrifice
One of the things that set the Hebrew people a part from ancient tribes around them is that they and their God rejected human sacrifice.
In fact, the Hebrew Scriptures themselves give us one of the most compelling stories against human sacrifice ever told: the story of Abraham and Isaac.
One of the most chilling and mysterious stories in all of the Bible, God calls Abraham to travel to Mount Moriah and sacrifice his beloved son, Isaac. In confusing silence, he and his son walk for three days to the chosen location.
Now, as I noted, this story is chilling and troubling on so many levels. You could spend a lot of time unpacking it, and questioning why in the world God would ask a parent to do this, and why in the world Abraham seems willing.
For an interesting take on this story, try Robert Krulwich. (That’s right, the crazy science reporter from ABC News and my favorite podcast, “RadioLab.”) Krulwich recently posted a podcast that offers his take on this story. If you’re interested in hearing it, knock yourself out.
But, whatever the reasons, the chief “take aways” of this story have always been the following:
— Ultimately, our God does not believe in human sacrifice of any kind. Human sacrifice is not required.
— Animal sacrifice, it might be concluded, would still be practiced for eons.
— But, ultimately, God is not a God who requires parents to sacrificially kill their children.
If It Was Good Enough for Abraham…
If this is so, then how in God’s name did we get to a point where God would require a sacrifice of God’s own child?!
Given the witness of scripture, it makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. Are we to believe that God is “kinder and gentler” to us than God is to God’s own child?
And if Jesus is to be affirmed as the “Son of God” –or from a Trinitarian point of view, a part of God– then how are we to understand this?
I mean, if Jesus is both God and human –if we really affirm the Orthodox view– and if we really believe that the atoning sacrifice was somehow cosmically necessary, then isn’t the logical conclusion that God wanted not only to kill God’s own child, but even more horrifyingly, to kill God’s self?!!
Jurgen Moltmann once wrote a book called “The Crucified God,” which is a pretty decent defense of Atonement Theology. But assuming the Trinitarian view, isn’t it more chillingly, “The Suicidal God?!!”
This clearly makes no sense.
Well-meaning Christians step up to this horror, wince a little, shrug their shoulders, and declare, “Well, it’s just one of those ‘mysteries’ of faith too deep for us to understand.”
But, no. No it isn’t. In my view, it simply cannot be what God intended. It’s not to say that Jesus does not “save,” or that Jesus was not God’s son.
But it is to say that it’s not what God required of Jesus. It’s not a cosmically necessary, or required of God (or Jesus) in order to effectively “save” human beings or the world. I tend to actually believe in the Trinity, and therefore say unquivocally, “God is neither patricidal or suicidal.”
So, How Does God Save?
In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus himself answered the question in his first public appearance at his hometown. It wasn’t a very popular answer that day, but he was pretty clear about it. Here’s Jesus’ own words about why he came into the world:
“He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.””
Salvation wasn’t happening at some future time…it was happening right then. Jesus reads from Isaiah in his hometown synagogue. He basically puts forth a “mission statement” for his ministry. A few minutes later, though, the crowd goes from adoring to angry when he suggests that this mission will be to all people, not just the hometown crowd. They get so angry that they want to kill him!
But, miraculously, he slips away.
Again, like Abraham and Isaac’s story, the story is instructive.
From the very beginning, Jesus is clear that his mission is to bring Good News to people, and that it was happening right then. From the very beginning, it is clear this message might well get him killed. Salvation was present throughout Jesus’ ministry. He wasn’t killed for some “cosmically necessary” reason, but because it was a threat to many other human beings who didn’t like this very message.
“Gave” Means Gave. Period.
The Gospel of John repeats this powerful truth in a verse that everybody who watches sports knows by heart: John 3: 16
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
God gave God’s son. Gave to the world. Gave as messenger of this incredible Good News (the same Good News of Luke Chapter 4). Gave to walk among us, “full of grace and truth.”
Gave to minister..to heal…to teach….to preach…to “reconcile” the world to God.
But, please note what this verse does not say. It does not say:
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, to be crucified and die, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
I obviously added the underlined part. But I added it because a lot of well-meaning Christians also add it. When they say this verse, they are thinking the line I’ve added in.
I call it “John 3: 16b.” Except, it’s not there. It’s not a part of that verse. But many of us act like it is.
God gave Jesus to live for our sins, not die for them.
God gave Jesus to “reconcile and make new” the covenant between God and Jesus.
So What About All Those Scriptures That Point to a Sacrificial Death?
When someone dies –and especially when someone dies unexpectedly or tragically– we search for meaning. We search for an indicator that there was a “reason” for their death….that their death will not be in “vain” or simply because of chance, human evil, or meaningless error.
I personally believe that following the events the original Holy Week, Jesus’ followers added on verses that seem to indicate Jesus’ foreknowledge of his eventual death. I believe they did so in order to make sense of a “scandalous” death that was a “stumbling block” to Jews and Greeks alike.
“How could ‘God,’ die?” they asked themselves.
“Well, it must have been necessary,” they concluded. “It must have been a part of the plan.”
It certainly might have felt that way, in 20/20 hindsight.
Was is likely that at some point Jesus got a pretty good idea he might be killed?
Yes, very likely.
Could he have known it was possible, even as he entered Jerusalem for the events of Holy Week?
Given that folks sought to kill him the very first time he opened his mouth, yes quite probably.
But does this mean it was a necessary death, or that it is all that is necessary for salvation?
Now, I know that these last statements of belief on my part will be controversial. Especially to those who hold to a “literal” interpretation of scripture, or for whom Atonement Theology is a “stand or fall” component of our faith.
Some of this is a debate for another time, of course. Some will call it heretical, I am sure.
But if it is, then riddle me this final question:
If Atonement is All that is “Necessary,” Then Why Do We Have Gospels?
Have you ever asked yourself that?
If the Holy Week story is all that’s “necessary” for “salvation,” then why bother with the rest of the story?
Why did anyone ever collect and publish the parables of Jesus?
Why do we have any stories about his healing work?
Why tell stories about his travels and ministry for three years?
Why study the parable of the Prodigal Son, or tell the story of the “Great Commandment?
Let me tell you, it would sure would make it a lot easier for us preachers to not have to fool with all that stuff!!!
But we do have them. And I believe we have them because they too are important. They are important not just as “prologue” to the “real” story, but as stories about God’s salvific acts already in progress through Jesus.
As Marcus Borg notes in the book “The Last Week,”
“…Jesus’s passion for the kingdom of God led to what is often called his passion, namely, his suffering and death. But to restrict Jesus’ passion to his suffering and death is to ignore the passion that brought him to Jerusalem. To think of Jesus’s passion as simpy what happend on Good Friday is to separate his death from the passion that animated his life.”
Jesus’ ministry was important. Jesus’ life was important.
All those who encountered Jesus during his three-year ministry had the potential of experiencing a life-altering encounter with God’s grace and power. It was not prologue. It was a part of the “already-happening” story of God’s working in the world, “saving” the world.
So, If Not Atonement, Then What? (“The Rejection of Our Rejection”)
In his essay, “God Does Not Demand Blood,” Daniel Bell unpacks this beautifully:
“…Christ’s faithfulness even to the point of death on the cross marks not a divine demand for retribution, but a divine refusal to hold our rebellion against us. God offers us life and we reject it. God continues to offer it, in the form of love incarnate, and we crucify him. Yet even now, God will not lash out against us but instead raises Jesus up and sends him back with the same offer of life. Christ is God bearing offense, even the offense of the cross, without holding it against us, without giving up on us, without exacting compensation or inflicting retribution, instead continuing to extend the offer of communion. Christ’s work of atonement, including the cross, is nothing less than God refusing our refusal; Christ is God rejecting our rejection and instead continuing to offer us the gift of life and love. Even after we crucified him.”
God was able to turn what human beings intended for evil into something Good. God turned that death into the ultimate symbol of God’s triumph over human evil.
I personally believe that God and Jesus had something very different in mind for Jesus’ earthly ministry. I believe it is wrapped up in the Palm Sunday story. God and Jesus intended that to be a grand entrance of Jesus into the seat of power…bringing that Good News into the very heart of political and religious authority.
But this was a threat to the “Powers That Be.”
So, they had Jesus killed.
As Jon Dominic Crossan says in much of his writings, Jesus was crucified, not stoned. He pushed some sort of limit that made him a threat to Roman political power. Crucifixion was something only the Romans did.
This could have been the end of the story. But it was not. God’s powerful message of Resurrection is that no matter what evil the world can dish out, God will respond in love.
Again, hear the Bell describe the beauty and the power of God’s Good News:
“…God will not lash out against us but instead raises Jesus up and send him back with the same offer of life…”
“Christ’s work of atonement, including the cross, is nothing less than God refusing our refusal; Christ is God rejecting our rejection…”
Atonement is about the act of being reconciled to God, not the act of blood sacrifice.
In his blog, “Ponderings on a Faith Journey,” Bob Cornwall notes this:
“The definition of this word in the Westminster Dictionary of Theology (Westminster Press, 1983) begins:
The English word “atonement” originally signified the condition of being “at-one” after two parties had been estranged from one another. Soon a secondary meaning emerged: “atonement” denoted the means, an act or a payment, through which harmony was restored.” (p. 50).
That is God’s power at work…God’s salvific power.”
Note that the goal is being “at one” with God. It is only secondarily that the idea of an “act” or “payment” emerges, related to the word.
God seeks our “at-one-ment” with God. That is why Jesus came into the world. It was Jesus’ consistent message throughout the Gospels, and from the very beginning of his ministry. The message of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday do not stand in opposition to this, but in complete and total consistency with all that has come before.
God so loved the world that God sent Jesus into the world with a message of Good News, not so that Jesus would die, but so that all who believed would find life, wholeness, and love.
The events of Holy Week simply mean that God cannot be defeated by human evil.
Nothing, not even death, can stop God from saving the world.