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The Nature Of The Atonement (And Related Issues)


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I have been watching a series of videos called "Living the Questions." I had heard of the idea that Jesus did not die for our sins and that a God who demands violence to create good is unworthy of our praise. A chaplain from Columbia University even said in the video that we ought not to thank God for the good things we have. She called it "dangerous", as it - inescapably - implicates God in evil.


I understand that Anselm, one who lived around 1000 CE in a feudal society, is the source of much of the substitutionary atonement doctrine in the Christian tradition. Yet even if we discount Anselm, though, there is language in scripture which seemingly points to a payment of Christ for our sins and in our place, no? Like passages in Isaiah and such? And in Paul?


Also, what does Christ's death mean for us if he did not save us from our wrong actions.


In addition, should we even practice baptism? What meaning would it have if it did not symbolize (if not more) the washing away of sins? What to do with the baptized and baptizing Jesus in the Gospels?


Hope my questions make sense...and that this wasn't a repeat of past discussions.

Edited by dirkello165
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I was taught that baptism was a sign of belonging to a community. I believe in infant baptism following the example of the baptism of Lydia's household.


For me, all Christian colonization (seeing pointers to Jesus) of the Hebrew Bible is suspect. Isaiah and others certainly speak to the mindset of some Hebrews but , I don't think they are predictions of Jesus as Christ.


Jesus' death on the cross shows me how vulnerable I have to be, how unbound of self-centered motives, to experience this present moment, this here and now, as a moment to serve and witness to love. And Jesus' life reveals how far I am from living here and now in the Apocalyptic moment when heaven can come to earth.




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Hi dirkello,


I understand that Anselm, one who lived around 1000 CE in a feudal society, is the source of much of the substitutionary atonement doctrine in the Christian tradition. Yet even if we discount Anselm, though, there is language in scripture which seemingly points to a payment of Christ for our sins and in our place, no? Like passages in Isaiah and such? And in Paul?


I'm not actually of aware of any language in the New Testament that articulates a theory of penal substitution. However, it is easy to read it into the texts, if that is what one presupposes the atonement to mean. While the NT says that Jesus died for us, nowhere does it say he died instead of us as a payment to God for our sins. For Paul and others, Christ was sent in order to reconcile us to God, not God to us. This is inexplicable under the substitution theory. Christ is the one in whom reconciliation takes place; a mercy-seat by which to approach God. Christ's sacrifice was a demonstration of love and God's kingdom, not a business transaction. If that were so, there would be no such thing as God's forgiveness, for nothing was actually forgiven.


What then is the atonement? I think the language of the NT is that of participation, not substitution. The atonement is participatory, it is a joining together with God and Christ in living union, not a payment transaction.


Note too that the atonement is never taken independently of the resurrection. It is the life, death, and resurrection of Christ as a whole that the New Testament writers struggled to find theological meaning in. There is much more language tying salvation to the resurrection of Christ than to his death alone. This doesn't make a whole lot of sense under penal substitution, for Christ could just as easily have stayed dead as long as the payment was indeed made. But the resurrection is essential because it is all a matter of participation: we must follow Christ toward resurrection-life. Had Jesus only died, there would have been no saving power in that. It's because he authored a path toward God who is eternal Life that this atonement has power.


If all this seems rather arbitrary in its interpretation and application, I think it's because the NT authors were at this time working out a theology by which to understand God-as-revealed in the life, death and resurrection of the one whom they believed to be the Christ at the close of the age.




Edited by Mike
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Most recently, I've been reading that the Good News that Jesus taught was our interconnectedmess to one another and God, and that salvation occurs when we change our own wrong thinking about ourselves and God. Furthermore, baptism is a sign of conversion and repentence - insofar as each of us repents of, and turns away from, the thoughts and actions that keep us from the being fully aware of the interconnectedness (and enbodying God to one another.)


I personally have a real problem with a salvation model that teaches that an entire race is so rotten and evil that it needs saving. That an "elsewhere" God demanded blood retribution that could only by paid by having his own flesh and blood (so to speak) "come down" from somewhere else and die a horrible death in order to save us.


I have not yet formed a (to me) reasonable personal theology on the resurrection or on Jesus' divinity.

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I think the Crucifixion represents an incredibly courageous person who was willing to endure a painful and slow death for principle.




George and Dutch,


Your points are similar to the following:


Philippians 2-13 NSRV


2 make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. 5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, 7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, 8 he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. 9 Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. 12 Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; 13 for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.


There are several nuances here. In verse 2 there is the notion of "completion" which is related to "fullness" or "fulfillment" which, in turn, is the "condition of satisfaction" for desires. Thus in verse 12 I would equate "salvation" with "completion" or wholeness. In verse 13, the key word, for me at least, is "enabling". I like the idea of a G-d that makes things possible but leaves me the "wiggle room" to work things out.



Edited by minsocal
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As has been pointed out, there are a number of meanings and views to things we read in the Bible. Christians have typically found many layers of and different interpretations to events and teachings in the Bible. Here are just a few for the cross:


1. Jesus' death defeated all evil at the cross - Christus Victor

2. Jesus' death was the perfect penitant, he showed us how to trust God and forgive our enemies, despite how bad things got

3. Jesus' death was a ransom for all of humanity, perhaps from sin or the devil

4. Jesus "died for us" in that he let himself be crucified as the leader of a revolution rather than allowing the Romans to kill all of his followers

5. Jesus' death was, as Mike said, participatory in that it symbolized his and our dying to self.

6. Jesus' death assuaged the wrath of God (the main model for penal substitution)

7. Jesus' death embodied how God actually suffered at the hands of humans instead of vice versa.


Baptism also has a number of meanings and layers. Here's just a couple:


1. Baptism is reminiscient of the Jewish new life of crossing the Red Sea, from enslavement to freedom

2. Baptism is a symbol of joining a new community (not only with water but with the Spirit)

3. Baptism is symbolic of repentance and the washing away of sins (the main model for most of contemporary Christians)

4. Baptism is a symbol of faith in following a new Way


I find all of these meanings and layers interesting. Of course, with our modern focus on money (payment) and business transactions (demonstrated by wearing our business suits to church), it is easy to see how penal substitution has become, if not the only, at least the dominant interpretation of the death of Jesus for modern Christianity. But at the heart of it, as you have noted, is the idea that God cannot forgive sins, that sins have to be "paid for." And it carries with it the notion that the only way that God can deal with sin of humanity is to commit violence against it (even if embodied in one human - Jesus).


I also find it interesting that the apostle Paul, seemingly going against what we call the Great Comission, was not a very good Baptist. He hardly baptized anyone. I don't think he was against it, but he says that God didn't call him to baptize, which doesn't seem to line up with what Jesus told his disciples during the Great Comission.


So maybe, contrary to the popular notion that the Bible has one central truth, there are all of these "side-line" truths that people have found helpful in their journeys of faith along the way. I think we would be richer as Christians if we knew more of these other layers and interpretations, instead of claiming that there is only "one" gospel (as Paul did). After all, our Bibles give us at least four and we are finding more of them occasionally. :)

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So maybe, contrary to the popular notion that the Bible has one central truth, there are all of these "side-line" truths that people have found helpful in their journeys of faith along the way. I think we would be richer as Christians if we knew more of these other layers and interpretations, instead of claiming that there is only "one" gospel (as Paul did). After all, our Bibles give us at least four and we are finding more of them occasionally. :)


There is an irony in how many different groups think the Bible is inerrant and their interpretation of it is the natural and obvious meaning, while everyone else is deluded. I hurt my brain a few months back looking at arguments between conservative Calvinists, Arminians (Methodists), and Dispensationalists (the Left Behind people). From our POV, we'd often lump them together as the religious right, but wow.... they can get some rancor on.


I prefer the thinking of the Bible is a human artifact that can serve as a good an anchor of sorts for Christian thought, but makes a lousy rulebook in the same way a dictionary or an encyclopedia is a lousy novel. Or to use a phrase from Hans Frei, the value of the Gospels is it reveals the identity of Jesus through its stories. Perfect factual accuracy isn't really the point; there's a difference between "good news" and a "chronicle", and whatever the Gospels are, they are not a dry marking of time.


Regarding atonement, I think the law court metaphor that Paul and Calvin and others use for penal substitution is useful to the degree it points out human limitation: we are not perfect, and will not be perfect. I think there are some moralistic problems with that metaphor, however, so it should be treated as just a metaphor.


I think there is a fine but important line between the blood of Christ paying our debt on the one hand, and the life & death of Jesus embodying God's grace, a unilateral reconciliation. What would such an act look like other than the life of Jesus: a liminal figure who doesn't rejects the law but tweaks it in ways that make human authorities freak out, someone who actively continues his ministry until the authorities come for him, and someone whose movement could not be killed with him?

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I have come to think of "atonement" in the sense of "at one-ment". As in overcoming the sense of separation from God and others and creation, to comprehend the connectedness, unity. As in the metaphor of the veil in the Temple rent when Jesus died in the flesh, so as the rending of the veil of our flesh, our lower human nature and mind, that is the veil that conceals our awareness, our comprehending, of the presence of God.


The veil in the Temple was hung between the high altar, in the "holy place", where the high Priest made sacrifice after having undergone ritals of purification in preparation, to come before the Mercy Seat of God. The Temple was constructed with 'layers' of spaces progressively closer to the High Altar, and ultimately the Ark, symbolic presence of God. Outside the Temple walls were the Gentiles, worshippers entered in through a set of brass pillars, into the 'porch', from which those selected worthy entered the "holy place", before encountering the veil that concealed the "most holy place" or "holy of holies".


The High Priest was allowed access only one day a year, the "Day of Atonement" for the people's sins.


In my perception of this metaphor, I see the progressive stages in one's spiritual growth, or as in Jung's model, the process of "individuation", or as in St Teresa's metaphor, our passing through the room of the Interior Castle, drawing nearer to the central place, that Holy Place, the Veil, and ultimately into the presence of the Mercy Seat in the Most Holy Place.


In Jung's model, the crucial accomplishment of the individuation process is the emergence of the "Self-Ego Axis", which opens a path of communication between the conscious Ego and the unconscious Self. This event IS a sort of "ego-death", not in the sense of the Ego being actually destroyed, but Ego's perception of itself AS who/what we really are, the death of the Ego's perception of itself AS central to our identity, our very existence. In that event, as the "veil" that has separated Ego's awareness of Self, as a unit of the cosmos, the greater intellegence, is rent, It is an event that is both shattering and renewing of the person's sense of identity, which I percieve much as the death of Jesus's physical body as a neccesary step in the process of His ressurection as a new and glorified and divine being...and as "the first-born of many", the model for the process that is potential in all of us. In this metaphor, Christ IS that emergent Ego-Self Axis in the individuation process. As "first-born of many", Jesus represents the emergence of that Ego-Self Axis not only as a model for any one's personal individuation, but as the emergence of the Ego-Self Axis for all of humananity and human kind.


Just as I've exampled the metaphors within Jung's theories and St Teresa's Interior Castle as consistent with this I present relative to the Temple and Jewish-Christian traditions, , I suspect they can be laid quite closely to those of other faith and spiritual tradtions, such as Buddhism. For it is one universal phenomemon being described, in many different language and cultural contexts.



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Thanks for all the responses! Trust that I'm reading and trying to comprehend them so I can comprehend the atonement; but that, of course, presupposes that I comprehend what comprehension is. (yes, that was my attempt to be funny and deep).




I'll try to comment on your specifics soon!

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I think Nick has a great point. Despite all Christian conjecture about the theology behind the cross, an important question is: Why was he executed (from a human standpoint)?


Any theology of the cross implies an answer to that question. You get a radically different theology if one emphasizes the Romans, the Pharisees, or think he never died at all.


For me, the cross is centrally ironic and political, as the "powers of the world" did exactly what they do, and it didn't work. A human institution is like a castle built on sand, and it cannot and will not be able to impose a perfect order on society. The entire Gospel narrative is a challenge of that.


I watched the Republican debate last Saturday. It was the "Thanksgiving Family Forum," organized by Focus on the Family and moderated by Frank Lutz. My opinions about what I watched are rather extensive, but it was as fascinating as it was grueling to watch. Two points, however, are relevant to the idea of the cross necessitating ironic and critical politics. First, "We know what is just and we shall impose that" was a constant theme in the discussion. American religious conservative have a nasty habit of not identifying churches, denominations, and the government run their their candidates as human institutions.


Second and just as troubling was the complete lack of a conceptual framework for discussing what forms of inequality are problematic, why, and how to help. "In Markets We Trust" is not a policy statement, and I'd argue it isn't particularly Christian either. This point isn't particularly Progressive, BTW, as the Archbishop of Canterbury has accused financial markets of being idols that demand "uncritical service".

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Nick....."in markets we trust" is not a policy....lol, you must have gotten onto the same David Frum essay I did yesterday! If not, then amazing synchronicity at work here....I'll post the link for any interested, its really good.





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Yes, Nick, I think it really does. This is so consistent with my personal observation people around me, people in my own life, from most casual aquaintances to closest friends and loved ones, I find myself caught in a frustrating and confusing place....people that I've known all or much of my life, thought I knew pretty well, that in past have tended toward conservative and Republican positions, but relatively modoerately so, seemed at least reasonably well balanced, many being Christian also, seemed to have at least some consideration of Christ principles of compassion, fairness, that seem to have been swept up in and aling with this horrible tide of selfishness and hard-heartedness and greed, this insanity, that has over-taken tradtional conservative and Republican community...saying things, expressing ideas, acting in ways, that seem totally incongruent with them as the people I once knew....I have to keep trying to justify, even find excuse, for what I'm seeing happen to them, as if perhaps they really don't realize that there has been a switch con played on them-- as someone posted about labels here recently, kids that dug into granny's jars labeled applesauce only to find canned squash---that the content of meaning in such terms as conservative, Republican, even liberal have been switched out for something else, and they just haven't realized it yet. I keep thinking, if they can only be made to SEE what has happened, what they've been caught up in, surely, surely, they CAN'T really KNOW what it is they have fallen into following, going along with.


For a truth, most people are simply not as intellectually oriented, as socially/politically aware, as the relatively few such as most of us here tend to be. I've always known, had awareness, of the superficiality of most peoples' thinking, but I hadn't percieved it so dramatic as seems now...and it is not only, or even primarily, in their awareness and beliefs about politics, or social justice issues, it is changes in even their personalities, it seems, and how they live their lives. As if they are under a spell, an enchantment that has "stupified" them...and I used that term in its orginal meaning, as "in a stupor"....that has them caught up in a superficial but frantic hedonistic, selfish, even anti-social thinking and acting mode, that is ultiimately self-destructive. I have mentioned here before, my increasing sense of discomfort, dis-ease, at the overhwelming obsession with superfciality,life in a fantasy world view of trivial interests such as celebrity news and gossip,, so-called reality tv, sports news, accompanied by obsession with excessive consumerism, total absorption it seems in excessive conspicuous consumption and spending, responding like lemming to the barrage of media hype that makes them feel they have to have every new gadget, the lastest and most powerful smart phones, toys and games, for themselves and their children.


Self destructive, not only in the sense of their character and morals, but even any good common sense, such as spending to live such lifestyles as if there will be no tommorrow. Or that there can be no disruption of the income they have come to expect. While many do have relatively good incomes, that with some common sense would let them both live a comfortable lifestyle and be preparing for retirement or life emergencies with savings, and yet, are not doing so, or doing so only in a token manner.


I ran across a blog the other day that presents an interesting view on this, that I'll post link to...






But another factor I think is involved is much wrapped up in the popular ideas on the conservative right we see expressed, in their "outrage" at the poor, their perception that there is this absurb "welfare state", in which those "too lazy to work" can just decide to quit their jobs and continue living as well or better off "welfare" benefits and "government entitlements", so why should they worry about saving or prepariing for economic hardship? There seems a prevailing fantasy about how much public assistance there is really available and how easy it is for anyone to get it. A fantasy of so what if they lose their jobs, have no savings, they can always just go on welfare and live just as well as ever, like they percieve others are doing, and at their expense, at that. That last part 'justifies' their own being able to simply fall back on welfare to continue life as usual, because after all, they've already "paid for it with our tax dollars" and therefore "deserve"it. It is as if they are seeing this whole idea, paying for all this welfare for those people too lazy to work with their tax dollars now, as if some super-sized extended Social Security scheme, called "welfare", that is there as their safety net, their "tax dollars we pay in" being as the SS payroll tax they've paid in toward the expected return when they reach qualifying age, or disability, to expect SS benefits.



Edited by JenellYB
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