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One Pc's Perspective Of Atonement

Guest billmc

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Guest billmc

When I was twelve years old, I was told that Jesus died for my sins. At the time, I was very thankful for this because Jesus dying for my sins was a remedy or an answer to a problem that had been presented to me. The problem, simply put, was this: God was holy and couldn't have anything to do with sinful humanity until the barrier of sin was removed. Jesus' death on the cross, his blood, could remove this barrier if I believed it could. Jesus, being my substitute, died in my place and paid for my sins; but the substitute, the death, and the payment didn't "take" or become effective for me until it was coupled with my faith in it. Being twelve, I was thrilled that Jesus solved my problem and found a way that I could be reconciled to God if, and only if, I believed in this whole package...which I did.


I'm much older now.


While I find much meaning in the self-sacrifice of Jesus on the cross and it moves me immensely to read how he asked his Father to forgive those that put him there, I have serious doubts about what is called "atonement theology" and how it is said to "work." For one thing, while I was appreciative of Jesus' sacrifice on the cross, I always felt guilty that it was my sins that put him there. How could I ever look into his eyes knowing that I was personally responsible for his death? What kid can bear that kind of guilt? And I was told that every time I sinned, I was crucifying Jesus all over again. There wasn't much joy in this kind of Christianity.


Other questions that I have had that have never been answered to my satisfaction: How is an innocent man suffering in the place of a guilty one just? What kind of God would accept that as just? How can one person actually "pay" for the wrongdoings of another? How can blood ontologically do anything at all for sin? Jesus' death happened 2000 years ago, how could it do anything for me today, even if I interpreted it this way? Why did God supposedly demand a human sacrifice; why didn't he simply forgive sins as a "forgiving, merciful God"? Does "atonement theology" address the sins of the OT? If so, how? Is it Jesus' death or our faith in Jesus' death that saves us?


These kinds of questions drove me nuts. And I've never met a Christian who holds to literal "atonement theology" who can answer them without resorting to non-answers such as: "You don't have to understand it, you just have to believe it" or "God's way are not our ways. Who are we to question?" or "We see through a glass darkly" or "God and his ways are a mystery; he requires simple faith." I reject these non-answers.


I also have serious doubts about the Christus Victor theory. Maybe it worked fine for Jesus - for him to conquer sin and death, powers and principalities, etc. But it didn't seem to change much in the world, did it? Sin continued. Death continued. Evil powers and principalities certainly don't appear to be conquered from my point of view.


So my theory of At-One-ment comes down to this: Jesus shows us, through his teachings, lifestyle, and death, how to live in such a way that we are "one" with others, putting others and their needs first, living self-sacrificing lives. As we do this, we are also At-One with what we call God, because God, IMO, seems to be a unifying influence in the universe, especially in human culture, calling us to compassion for one another. Going against typical Protestant theology, I don't believe "Jesus paid it all" and that there is nothing we can do to add to the At-One-ment or to live it out. Jesus calls me to also carry my own cross, to forsake my own selfish lifestyle. My understanding of At-One-ment goes beyond believing what Jesus is said to have done for me to asking: what do I need to do for others so that they can experience At-One-ment?




PS - The above falls under the very PC byline of "it seems to me." :)

Edited by billmc
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Bill, I agree with your atonement and can't add anything to it. Good post.


The sword of wisdom is not sharp to cut people down. It is sad that people use guilt to manipulate others to follow them and then they step in their waste. It is so nice that in our old age we are getting to know ourselves better.

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In the late 80s, I spent about four years taking courses at the Graduate Theological Union at Berkeley. More that what I learned in those courses, what I remember is that, though I know they were there, I don't recall ever talking to anyone, students or faculty who espoused "typical protestant theology," and particularly not atonement, substitutionary or otherwise, except as some sort of "At-One-ment" that brings us into closer communion with the divine. But then, I'm sure that, as I said above, there was probably plenty of orthodoxy around.


Other than that mini-rant, some thoughts do come to mind. I think that Jesus was crucified because he made the Roman authorities, and too, perhaps, some of the Sanhedrin and others, really, really annoyed. Maybe he even worried them some; maybe he worried them a lot. So was Jesus simply another martyr for calling into question what Walter Wink has called the "domination system"? Maybe, but what I see in what I think of as the history of the "real" church (the one that has had people in it who gave their lives or at least a substantial measure of them for causes like peace, social justice of all kinds, and even economic justice) is people who have bodied out for two milennia the life that Jesus led and the ideals he represented. I think that Jesus, or the risen Christ if you will, has been with them all, every step of the way. I don't know whether it was necessary for Jesus to die the way he did, but it sure has left an impression on a lot of folks--a lot of really good folks. And that impression has to have had a huge impact.


Very early on in the life of the church, things started going wrong theology-wise. Those folks were probably well-intentioned, but much of what they wrote and said lay the groundwork for a hierarchical, domination-oriented organization that stressed doctrine over doing--and that's a shame.


I think this is pretty much in line with Bill's last full paragraph. Actually he was more eloquent than I, but I felt I had to get this out.

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I liked that interpretation also. Just a tiny quibble about the term “atonement theology” -- it doesn’t have to mean vicarious or penal substitution, satisfaction doctrine, or ransom. It can just as easily be the view you expressed - which sounds like the moral influence theory, attributed to Peter Abelard, the 12th century French abbot. “Christ came to win men’s hearts by an example of reconciling love. When we see the greatness of Jesus’ love, it delivers us from fear and inspires us to relieve the suffering of others.”


Don wrote, “Very early on in the life of the church, things started going wrong theology-wise.” I think Robin Meyers gives a convincing explanation for the origin and persistence of substitution theology:


“The church created a sickness for which it alone had the cure. The closed loop of original sin and exclusive salvation through Jesus is a deadly false dichotomy. What we cannot save ourselves from, the church will save us from, and all we have to do is confess to believing in a set of post-biblical propositions that were not invented until the Middle Ages. Offering the only hope for the hopeless certainly solidified the power of the church.”


It’s good to know that progressive churches have figured out better ways to encourage attendance :-)

Edited by rivanna
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I admire the kind of courage it takes to ask, "What kind of God...?" I've walked away from organized religion, but haven't gotten past the don't-ask-questions mentality.


Crucifixion wasn't an unusual occurrence back then, as demonstrated by the other two who were crucified that day. But it demonstrates the kind of resolve Jesus must have had, to be crucified voluntarily rather than give in to the status quo.


From a conservative religious standpoint, this trivializes the situation by portraying Jesus as just another human martyr, but hey, no other martyr is such a hot topic 2000 years after his death. Whatever the purpose of his life and death may have been, the name Jesus gets people's attention. There are enough progressive Christians in the world to prove that you don't have to romanticize the story before it can mysteriously change lives.

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