Archives For Atonement Theories

DESIGN copy

When it comes to understanding the atonement, how Jesus saves us and makes us ‘at-one’ with God the Father, it all comes down to the conjunctions.

For example:

Does Jesus die for us?
As in, does Jesus die in our place? As a substitute for you and me?

Or does Jesus die because of us?
As in, is death on a cross the inevitable conclusion to the way he lived his life? Does Jesus die because our sinful lust for power, wealth and violence kills him? As though our world has no other reaction to a life God desires than to eliminate it?

Does Jesus die in order to destroy Death and Sin?
As in, does Jesus let the powers of Sin and Death do their worst so that, in triumphing over them, he shatters their power forever?

Does Jesus die with us?

As in, does Jesus suffer death as the completion of his incarnation? Is death the last experience left for God to be one of us, in the flesh?

Was it necessary for Jesus to die?

Or was his incarnation, his taking our nature and living it perfectly, redemptive in itself?

Did Jesus have to die on a cross?
If the conclusion to incarnation had been for Jesus to die as an old man of natural causes, would we still be saved?

How does the history of and covenant with Israel fit into the salvation worked by Christ?

And how does Easter relate to Good Friday?

The Christian tradition and scripture itself offers many more vantage points on the mystery of the cross than the standard, unexamined ‘Jesus died for you’ platitudes you hear so often in the pulpits.

Check out the ebook for Lent, Preaching a Better Atonement. In it, I take a look at some of the Church’s historic understandings of the atonement and offer a few examples of what it looks like to preach that particular angle on the Good News. All any proceeds will go towards the Guatemala Toilet Project.

 

 

5127ee0225791.preview-620Over the Memorial Day Weekend a few of us from my congregation joined between 1,000-1,500 pilgrims from around the world at for the Taize Gathering at Red Shirt on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.

Taize is an ecumenical monastery in Burgundy, France. Every week the brothers of Taize welcome thousands of pilgrims to participate in the rhythms of their communal life, and once a year some of the more than 100 brothers take their ‘community’ somewhere else in the world for a pilgrimage gathering.

This year the brothers were invited by the Lakota nation to welcome pilgrims to Red Shirt.

Just as pilgrims do at Taize, we spent our time at Pine Ridge in worship (sung chants, sung prayers and a whole lot of silence) 3 times a day. We shared simple meals of buffalo meat straight off the rez, and we shared our faith stories in small groups. We listened to each other; in fact, listening was the primary reason we’d gathered. We camped in tents in a horse pasture and went, uncomplaining, without running water.

For those few days at least, we did our best to approximate the simplicity and joy of what the New Testament refers to as the ‘oikos.’

The ‘economy’ or household of God.

Our ‘sanctuary’ was a hollow carved out by the wind in the middle of the badlands. We sat in the prairie grass under the sun and stars.

Sunday night’s worship concluded with Taize’s traditional Prayer around the Cross.

photoThe cross is an icon of the Crucified Christ with water rushing out from his pierced side. For the prayer around the cross, the icon is taken out of its stand and laid on top of 4 cinder blocks so that it’s about a foot off of the floor and perpendicular to it.

As the gathered sing, one by one, pilgrims approach the cross on their knees. Once they make their way to the cross, they place their forehead on the cross and pray.

The Prayer around the Cross is powerful to experience.

It’s just as powerful to watch so many approach the cross with devotion and seriousness.

But it’s even more powerful to notice the patience and hospitality everyone affords one another during the prayer, for it can take a good long while for that many people to crawl to the cross and then pray on it.

Before the Prayer around the Cross on Sunday night, Brother Alois, the prior of Taize, invited us to place our burdens upon the cross, the burdens we suffer both personally and collectively ‘because,’ Brother Alois said in his simple yet incisive way:

‘Christ didn’t just suffer in the past.

Christ still suffers today with us, with anyone who suffers in the world.’

His words hit me with converting clarity.

The prairie wind I felt blow across me could very well have been the Holy Spirit.

Because not one of us 1K pilgrims missed the clear, straight, connect-the-dots line he’d just drawn from the Crucified Christ to the all-but-crucified Lakota Indians on whose land we prayed.

When Brother Alois mentioned ‘collective suffering’ an accompanying illustration or further explanation wasn’t needed.

photo-1We prayed that night just a stone’s throw from Wounded Knee, the site of massacre where a mass grave of over 300 innocents slaughtered by the U.S. Army little more than a hundred years ago.

Afterwards the soldiers took gleeful pictures next to heaps of bodies of children and their mothers.

Wounded Knee remains a festering wound of memory for the Lakota.

Brother Alois spoke of the cross and collective suffering, we all knew what he meant.

And in one sense, nothing he said was revelatory or profound.

Yet here’s what hit me about what he said and from where he said it:

the ‘traditional’ evangelical understanding of the cross, what theologians call ‘penal substitution,’ not only has nothing to say to people like the Lakota, penal substitution speaks no good news to them because it simultaneously privileges people like me.

Penal substitution is an understanding of the atonement ideally suited for oppressors and people who benefit from oppressive systems.

On the pop level, penal substitution is the understanding of the cross that says ‘Jesus died for you.’

For your sin.

Jesus died in your place. Jesus died the death you deserve to die as punishment for your sin. Jesus is your substitute. He suffered (suddenly I realize how the past tense is key) the wrath God bears towards you.

On the purely theological level, I’ve always had a problem with penal substitution. Quickly: penal substitution seems to make God’s wrath more determinative an attribute than God’s loving mercy. It easily devolves into a hyper individualistic account of the faith (me and God). God the Father comes out, at best, seeming like a petulant prick who bears little to no resemblance to the Son, and, at worse, the Father seems captive to his own ‘laws’ of righteousness, honor, wrath and expiation.

Forgiveness, it’s always seemed to me, shouldn’t be so hard.

And shouldn’t require someone to die.

I’ve always had my theological gripes with that way of understanding the cross, but when I heard Brother Alois introduce the Prayer around the Cross the this-world, moral deficiencies of penal substitution hit me like a slap across the face.

Saying Jesus Christ died for you, for your sin, for your sin to be forgiven is good news to… sinners.

But what about the sinned against?

What we flipply call ‘Amazing Grace’ is good news for wretches like Isaac Newton. For slave-traders and slave-masters. Thanks to the cross, they’re good to go. Their collective guilt and systemic sin…wiped clean by the blood of the cross.

Hell, we might as well continue in those sinful systems because what matters to Christ isn’t our collective guilt but our individual hearts.

Yet what about those whom the ‘wretches’ made life an exponentially more wretched experience? What about the millions of others whom those wretches, who’ve been found by this amazing grace, treated like chattel?

At the Lord’s Supper we proclaim that Christ came to set the captives free, yet we persist in an understanding of the cross that bears zero continuity with that proclamation.  We spiritualize and interiorize gospel categories like ‘suffering’ and ‘oppression’ and ‘deliverance.’

Because it suits us.

Because we are ourselves are not oppressed, have no actual desire to be delivered from our ways in the world and suffer only the affliction of the comfortable.

Penal substitution, I realized upon hearing Brother Alois’ words, makes the mistake of acting as though Jesus of Nazareth is the only one to ever be strung up on a cross of shame and suffering.

Sure, every single, last Lakota gathered with us was, on an individual level, a ‘sinner.’ Just as surely to focus so singularly misses the larger issues, for the Indians praying with us at Red Shirt have been sinned against by us actively for centuries and they are now sinned against by our cynical indifference.

To suggest the primary meaning of the cross is that Christ died for their oppressors’ sins is to perpetuate, in a very real way, their suffering.

If Jesus wept over Jerusalem, I’ll be damned if he doesn’t weep over a place like Pine Ridge. And if he called the Pharisees ‘white-washed tombs’ for turning a blind eye to Rome’s oppressive systems, I wonder what he might call us?

On my knees in the hollow that was our sanctuary and hearing Brother Alois’ words as they struck the ears of Indians along with mine, I realized that Christ doesn’t die for us so much as Christ dies as one of us. With us.

In solidarity with those who’ve suffered like him at the hands of empire and indifference.

Location, location, location.

Real estate can make you hear the gospel with different ears- that’s what I realized at Pine Ridge.

The cross, I realized at Pine Ridge, is the opposite of good news unless it is today what it was for the first Christians: a symbol of protest, a demand for and a sign of an alternative to the world’s violence, a declaration that Christ not Caesar is Lord.

The primary message of the cross for someone like me, then, isn’t that God’s grace has saved a wretch like me though it can include that message.

No, the primary message of the cross is that it’s a summons to suffer, as Christ, for those whom the world makes life wretched.

Rather than Jesus being the answer, the solution to our selfishly construed problem, Pine Ridge has left me believing that the Cross is meant to afflict us with the right nightmares.

IMG_0593This weekend is Palm-Passion Sunday, the start of Holy Week and the day that begins with glad shouts of Hosanna and ends at Golgotha. This time of year the cross necessarily begs the questions:

‘Why does Jesus have to die?

What does Jesus accomplish on the Cross?’

It’s also a time of year that non-Christians scratch their heads at many of our conventional explanations for the Cross.

I remember going to an evangelical church with a friend when I was boy and singing the hymn ‘There is a Fountain Filled with Blood.’ I recall being completely confused and grossed out by the imagery not to mention the apparent glee everyone in the congregation felt over this bathtub filled with someone named Emmanuel’s blood.

Seriously, if you were to describe a cult, could you find a better illustration than people singing lustfully about buckets-of-blood?

Our historical atonement theories that calmly explain how Christ had to die on the Cross to satisfy the demands of God’s eternal justice and quell the Almighty’s wrath and anger over the sin of the finite, fallible creatures whom God made to be…ahem…finite and fallible don’t seem so self-evident if you’ve not already given your heart to Jesus.

Our tidy, transactional theories that unthinkingly assert that God can’t forgive humanity’s sin until someone pays the ultimate price for it seem just that to the average outsider- too tidy.

Affirming that God shows his ‘love’ for us by making his only begotten son die in his stead doesn’t appear to abide by most people’s notion of love.

Oh, we like to add, it’s okay because that only begotten Son is actually God incarnate. So, don’t worry, it’s not divine child abuse.

No, but then it’s divine masochism. God’s not a child abuser. God just has a pathology. Nice.

My point is that our usual, casual explanations for the central event of the Gospels:

A) don’t appear in the Gospels themselves and

B) only beget more questions, especially for unbelievers: 

 

What do you mean God can’t do something?

Is God a prisoner his own inner logic?

Is love just an attribute among many for God or is it who God fundamentally is in God’s nature?

I’m no saint but does Jesus deserve to be tortured to death because of my small-time narcissistic sins? The punishment doesn’t seem to fit the crime.

Why does God sound like someone with multiple personality disorder?

Tracking with this line of critique and skewering the gaping, sinkhole gaps in Penal Substitution Atonement is a great 2 minute film: Mr Deity and the Really Big Favor. In case satire is not your strong suit: The Jay Leno look alike (‘El as in Elohim) is God, the Young Guy (Jesse) is Jesus and Larry is, yes, the Holy Spirit.

 

IMG_0593The angel Gabriel in Matthew’s Gospel tells the sleeping Joseph to name ‘his’ boy ‘Jesus’ for that boy will ‘save’ his people from their sin. This is as explicit as the nativity story gets. How Jesus will save his people Gabriel doesn’t mention.

     How Jesus saves…how Jesus saves from Sin is a question the Gospels, the New Testament for that matter, never answers in a singular, definitive, clear, logical or rational way.

      The reticence of the New Testament to explain the mechanics of salvation leaves us with questions. Questions with which the Church has wrestled for centuries under the heading ‘atonement theories’:

     Does Jesus die for us? 

     As in, does Jesus die in our place? 

     As a substitute for you and me?

 

     Or does Jesus die because of us? 

     As in, is death on a cross the inevitable conclusion to the way he lived his life?

 

     Does Jesus die because our sinful lust for power, wealth and violence kills him? 

     As though our world has no other reaction to a life God desires than to eliminate it? 

 

     Does Jesus die in order to destroy Death and Sin? 

     As in, does Jesus let the powers of Sin and Death do their worst so that, in triumphing over them, he shatters their power forever?  

 

    Does Jesus die with us? 

    As in, does Jesus suffer death as the completion of his incarnation? 

 

    Is death the last experience left for God to be one of us, in the flesh? 

 

    Was it necessary for Jesus to die? 

    Or was his incarnation, his taking our nature and living it perfectly, redemptive in itself? 

 

    Did Jesus have to die on a cross? 

    If the conclusion to incarnation had been for Jesus to die as an old man of natural causes, would we still be saved?

 

     And how does the history of and covenant with Israel fit into the salvation worked by Christ?

      And how does Easter relate to Good Friday?

Such questions are possible, indeed they get asked all the time, because the New Testament never singles an answer to how Mary and Joseph’s son lives up to his name.

 

54Crucifixion    It’s Lent, in case you didn’t know. We’re beginning our journey to the Cross. As part of Lent, Tony Jones this morning issued another of his ProgGod Challenges. I’ve responded to them in the past so I’ve got to keep up.

This one is for bloggers to answer the question: ‘Why the Cross?’ What Tony is after, I suspect, is the need for Emergent Christians to articulate an understanding of the atonement that is as robust and scripturally thorough (and I would, preachable) as the ubiquitous penal substitutionary atonement theory.

Unless I missed it, Tony didn’t issue a maximum number of allowable entries. So, here is stab #1, a textually-based look that unintentionally has some affinity with Rene Girard.

If the cross has less power for us today, then I think maybe it’s because we’ve explained its power away. I think maybe it’s because we’ve turned the cross into a tidy transaction or a shallow symbol.

The theologians and church fathers have their ‘atonement theories.’ Theological explanations for why Jesus had to die and what Jesus accomplished on the cross. 

     Jesus dies to pay our debt of sin, some have explained. Jesus defeats the power of Death and Sin, others have answered. Jesus is the Second Adam. Jesus is our Passover. Jesus is our Ultimate Scapegoat, say the theologians.

      But what if instead of the predictable preferential option for our favorite theologian- and what if instead of trying to harmonize the kaleidoscopic array of imagery in the two testaments- we simply zero in on a specific text of scripture?

     What if we pretended we had only one scripture text to make sense of the cross? Would our ‘atonement theories’ still seem so self-evident? Or would the text suggest a different impression intended by the cross?

What if, for example, we just looked at our prototype Gospel, Mark?

Mark wasn’t a theologian. Mark wasn’t interested in theories or explanations. Mark didn’t care about answering all your questions or giving you happy endings. Mark didn’t bother tying off loose ends so that Jesus’ cross fits snugly into some cosmic plan that can comfort you instead of challenge you to your core. Mark wasn’t a theologian. Mark was an artist.

 

Mark’s story of Jesus’ trial and death is not theory or explanation; it’s art. And where the theologians give you answers and explanations, Mark gives you irony. In Mark, Jesus’ career ends in what appears to be total collapse: his ministry is in shambles; he’s sold out by one of his close friends, deserted by the rest except Peter who then quickly denies ever knowing him.

 

He’s arraigned before the religious authorities, tried and found guilty. His clothes, which once had the power to heal a desperate woman are torn from him. He’s brought before Pilate, where’s he tried, found guilty, mocked and stripped naked and executed by the political officials. His only words: ‘My God, my God why have you forsaken me?’ are misunderstood by the crowd and the centurion’s confession upon his death is laden with sarcasm: ‘Surely, this is God’s Son (not).’

For those with eyes to see, however, the story has another dimension. The long-awaited enthronement of Jesus the Messiah does occur. Yet it’s Jesus enemies who play the role of subjects. It’s the high priest who finally puts the titles together that Mark’s Gospel began with: ‘Are you the Christ? The Son of God?’ It’s Pilate who formulates the inscription: ‘The King of the Jews.’ Pilates’ soldiers, not realizing they actually speak the truth, salute Jesus as King, kneeling in mock homage. The correct words all get spoken. Testimony to the truth is offered. But the witnesses have no notion what they speak is true. The messiahship of Jesus is for them blasphemous or absurd or seditious. But they still speak the right words. And that is, of course, the irony.

Even the mockery of Jesus as a prophet highlights another of the many ironies. At the very moment that Jesus is being taunted with ‘prophesy,’ in the courtyard outside one of Jesus’ prophecies is coming true to the letter as Peter denies him three times before the cock crows twice.

     Even the mockery of Jesus as a prophet highlights another of the many ironies. At the very moment that Jesus is being taunted with ‘prophesy,’ in the courtyard outside one of Jesus’ prophecies is coming true to the letter as Peter denies him three times before the cock crows twice. 

Far from being in control, Jesus’ enemies seal their own fate by condemning him to death. Even their worst intentions serve only to fulfill what has been written of the Son of Man, just as Jesus says.

 

Where the theologians give you answers and explanation, Mark gives you irony.

And perhaps the most threatening irony of all in Mark’s Gospel is that those ‘worst’ intentions come not from the worst of society but the best. We conveniently forget- Judaism was a shining light in the ancient world, offering not only a visible testimony to God who made the heavens and the earth but a way of life that promised order and stability and well-being of the neighbor.  And in a world threatened by anarchy and barbarism, the Roman empire brought peace and unity to a frightening and chaotic world. The people who did away with Jesus- Pilate and his soldiers, the chief priests and the Passover pilgrims gathered in Jerusalem- they were all from the best of society not the worst.

And they were all doing what they were appointed to do. What they thought they had to do. What they thought was necessary for the public good. I mean….the chief priests’ reasoning: ‘It’s better for one man to die than for all to die…’ is correct. That’s a perfectly rational position.

The theologians give explanations: that Jesus had to die in order for God to be gracious, that Jesus had to die in order for God to forgive us of our sin, that Jesus had to die to pay a debt we owed but could not pay ourselves.

But what Mark gives us is different.

Mark gives us the bitter pill that Jesus had to die because that’s the only possible conclusion to God taking flesh and coming among us. The theologians give us answers, but Mark just leaves us wondering, simply, if the cross is the best we can do? Wondering if the only possible result of our encountering God is our choosing to kill him?

Mark doesn’t give us answers. Mark just gives us painful irony- that those who should’ve known best, those on whose expertise the world relies, those who presumed themselves to be God’s faithful people, those much like ourselves, they felt they had no other alternative but to do Jesus in.

     And I think that  is where all our theological explanations for the cross fail.

They make the cross seem almost reasonable.

Or, at least rationally necessary.

They make the cross a necessity for God to do away with sin. 

     Instead of a necessity for us to do away with God.

They make the cross seem inevitable because of who God is instead of confessing that the cross was inevitable because of who we are. That’s why, even after Easter, Mark and the other disciples still struggled with the cross. They struggled coming to terms with the fact that, given who we are, it couldn’t have been different. That, deep down, we prefer a God who watches from a safe, comfortable distance. And when God comes close then inevitably we have to defend ourselves. That Christmas could come again and again and every time we would choose the cross.

Mark doesn’t give us answers or explanations. Mark won’t allow us to think our way around the cross or theologize our way through it. Mark won’t let us off the hook tonight. There’s no good news here at the foot of Mark’s cross. There’s just the painful irony that all our hopes and aspirations and plans and talent and knowledge come to this: a confrontation with God. A God who wills only to be gracious. That ends with Jesus dead. Mark leaves us with the bitter irony that the only person who can make us whole is dead, forsaken and shut up in a tomb.

Our only hope is that God won’t leave him there.