Saturday, April 07, 2007

The Death of Jesus as Atonement for Sins

For many if not all conservative Christians the death of Jesus was all part of the plan of God that is explained in what is known as the substitutionary atonement. Jesus, the perfect son of God, died for the sins of the world. His death, his shed blood, was the ultimate sacrifice that broke the grip of human sin on the world and made possible a new relationship between God and humans based on salvation and grace. All that is now required for our forgiveness and salvation is to accept that Jesus died for our sins and that in his forgiveness we are saved.

Many people, even Christians who aren't comfortable with the idea that God would require a blood sacrifice to set things right, think this is the "official" understanding of Jesus' death. Here is Marcus Borg, in Jesus, on atonement theology:
In fully developed form, it first appears in a book written in 1097 by Anselm, archbishop of Canterbury. It gradually became central in medieval Christianity and then in much of the theology of the Protestant Reformation. There is was foundational for the notion of radical grace: through Jesus' death, God has abolished the system of requirements by taking care of whatever you think separates you from God. Ironically and over time, it became for many Protestants the primary requirement in a new system of requirements: we are made right with God by believing that Jesus dies as our substitute. Radical grace became conditional grace. And conditional grace is no longer grace.

But seeing Jesus' death primarily within the framework of substitutionary atonement goes far beyond what the New Testament says. Strikingly, Mark's story of Jesus' death says nothing about substitutionary sacrifice. In the other gospels, it is only if one reads them within the framework of substitution that one finds the notion there.

Of course, some New Testament authors, including Paul, use sacrificial imagery. But it is one of several mages they use to speak of the meaning of Jesus' death. The others include:
  • The cross as the domination system's "no" to Jesus (and Easter as God's "yes" to Jesus and "no" to the powers that killed him).
  • The cross as revelation of the path of transformation: we are transformed by dying and rising with Christ.
  • The cross as revelation of the depth of God's love for us. It is not the story of human sacrifice required by a judging God, but a parable of God's radical grace.
In all of these, the notion of substitution is absent. Moreover, it is important to realize that the language of sacrifice does not intrinsically mean substitution...

In the Bible, sacrifice is most commonly associated with a gift and a meal. The giving of a gift and the sharing of a meal are the classic means of bringing about reconciliation when rupture has occurred, whether with a person or God. The giving of a gift to Go makes it sacred, which is the root meaning of the word "sacrifice," to make sacred.
Borg goes on to say that the doctrine of substitutionary atonement is bad theology and bad history. It's bad theology because it suggests that God can only be appeased if an adequate payment is made; God demands a blood sacrifice for others to live. It also turns Christians into what the evangelical author Dallas Willard has called "vampire Christians," Christians who focus on the "blood" of Jesus instead of following him in the way of the cross - becoming disciples.

It's bad history because it ignores the real historical reasons that Jesus was put to death. And in so doing it ignores the politics of Jesus, as I mentioned yesterday.

Although I never grew up with heavy doses of substitutionary atonement, from an early age I found it repulsive to think that a) we are all sinners lost to hell and separated by nature from God; and b) that God had decided that the only way to rectify this situation was to send his son and allow him to be killed as a blood sacrifice to set things right; and c) that all we need to do is believe that God sent Jesus to die on the cross for us to be saved from hell.

Now that I know something about the historical context of the scriptures that talk about sacrifice as well as knowing something about how atonement theology came to be the dominant way of thinking about Jesus in medieval and early Protestant theology, I understand where it came from and the strength of its appeal. But it is not the only way to understand Jesus. And one does not have to believe in atonement theology to be a Christian.

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