Reconsidering atonement theology

When this time of year rolls around (from Good Friday through Holy Saturday to Easter Sunday), conversations about atonement theology inevitably emerge. While I rejected atonement theology long ago (at least the idea that God killed Jesus in my place in order to not have to send me to an everlasting hell), I know that lots of people are in the process of trying to figure out if it’s something they still believe. Lots of folks are uncomfortable with the idea that violence is required for salvation, but they’ve been taught this idea for so long that they aren’t sure there are other ways of thinking about the meaning of Jesus’s death.

Lots of these conversations take place on social media, and sometimes it’s hard to summarize them there, so I’m including an extended excerpt from Marcus Borg’s book, Speaking Christian, that speaks to this in case it’s helpful for anyone trying to think through these ideas:

The most widespread Christian understanding today is that Jesus paid the price for our sins by dying in our place. In theological language, this is called substitutionary sacrifice, substitutionary atonement, or sometimes the satisfaction understanding of Jesus’s death. Jesus is the substitute who satisfied God’s wrath by undergoing the punishment that we all deserve. I absorbed this understanding as I grew up. “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” asks a hymn. At the end of childhood, my answer would have been, “Yes—I was there; my (and our) sins put Jesus on the cross.” So also in the great twelfth-century hymn “O Sacred Head Now Wounded,” which I still cannot sing without choking up, “Mine, mine was the transgression, but thine the deadly pain.” The seventeen-century Protestant hymn “Ah Holy Jesus, How Hast Thou Offended?” asks, “Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee?” Its answer is, “I crucified thee.” 

So widespread is this understanding that many see it as orthodox and traditional Christianity—both those who accept and defend it and those who criticize or reject it. Thus it is important to realize that it is not ancient, it is not in the Bible, and was not present during the first thousand years of Christianity.

Though language referring to Jesus’s death as “for us” and as a “sacrifice” goes back to the New Testament, the substitutionary understanding of this language was first articulated in 1097 by Anselm of Canterbury. His book Cur Deus Homo? addressed the question: Why did God became human, incarnate in Jesus? His answer was that God’s retributive justice requires that the penalty for our sins must be paid from the human side. But we are all sinners and thus cannot adequately make the payment. Only a perfect human can. But a human can’t be perfect unless also divine. So God became human in Jesus in order to pay the price for our sins. That this understanding of Jesus’s death is not ancient does not in itself condemn it. Theological developments since the Bible can be illuminating and important. Revelation did not stop at the end of the biblical period. The Spirit of God continues to speak. But this understanding has very serious problems, often unnoticed by Christians.

First, by implying that Jesus had to die because of our sins and that this was part of God’s plan to “save” us, it completely obscures and obliterates the historical meaning of his death. Historically, Jesus didn’t just die—he was killed. And killed not by a criminal or assassin, but executed by established authority—a combination of imperial and collaborationist religious authority. Moreover, he was not just executed, but crucified—a form of Roman execution used for a specific class of offenders, those who systematically defied Roman authority, whether chronically rebellious slaves or leaders (and sometimes members) of resistance movements, violent or nonviolent. That means that the authorities didn’t like what they had heard about Jesus. They saw him as challenging their established authority, and they knew he was beginning to attract a following. So they killed him—in a very public way. If they had simply wanted to get rid of him, they could have killed him in a back alley or a cell. But they crucified him—a very public and prolonged form of execution deliberately designed to be seen and be a deterrent. It’s message was clear: “This is what happens when you challenge us.” But when Jesus’s death is seen as part of God’s plan so that our sins can be forgiven, all of this historical meaning disappears. Jesus’s death is domesticated by obscuring the fact that he was killed by the powers that ruled his world. They killed him, but they didn’t do it so that he could die for our sins.

Second, substitutionary sacrifice impugns the character of God. It portrays God as primarily punitive. Think of what this says about God. God is a lawgiver whose laws we have violated, and God must enforce the law by punishing us unless an adequate sacrifice is made. Thus also the death of Jesus was part of God’s plan; it was God’s will that this immeasurably great and good person be executed. Sometimes this is “spun” in such a way to make God loving as well; namely, God loves us so such that he (and the masculine pronoun usually goes with this understanding) was willing to give up his only son to death on a cross. But even with that “spin,” the punitive character of God dominates—somebody must pay the penalty. God requires blood—ours or the blood of Jesus.

Third, it distorts what Christianity is about. The substitutionary understanding of Jesus’s death reinforces the widespread notion that Christianity is mostly about sin, forgiveness, believing that Jesus died for us, and a blessed afterlife. This understanding of Jesus’s death is the foundation of the heaven-and-hell framework described in Chapter 1. But what if this isn’t what Christianity is most importantly about? What if Christianity and salvation are really about transformation—the transformation of ourselves and of the world? Substitutionary understandings of Jesus’s death obscure this. They make Christianity all about being forgiven by believing in Jesus so that we can go to heaven.

THE MEANINGS OF JESUS’S DEATH 

The Gospels and the rest of the New Testament ascribe several meanings to the death of Jesus. All of these are post-Easter. We have no reason to think that Jesus or his followers sought to find meaning in his death before it happened. To crystallize these meanings concisely: 

“He was crucified.” In Paul’s letters and the Gospels, this is a major emphasis. When Paul summarizes the gospel in a few words in 1 Corinthians, he reminds the community in Corinth that when he was with them, he proclaimed “Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (2:1–2; see also 1:23). A magnificent passage in Philippians also specifies the form of Jesus’s death, “even death on a cross” (2:5–11). To emphasize in the world of the first century that Jesus was crucified signaled at once that this gospel was an anti-imperial gospel. So also in Mark, Matthew, and Luke when Jesus speaks three times of his upcoming death in Jerusalem (e.g., Mark 8:31–33; 9:30–32; 10:32–34), those predictions are never about his dying for our sins, but always about the fact that the authorities will kill him.

“Death and resurrection are dying and rising with Christ.” 

Within this understanding, the death and resurrection of Jesus became a metaphor for the personal and ultimately communal transformation at the center of the Christian life. We hear this in Paul’s autobiographical comment: “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:19–20). The old Paul has died; a new Paul has been born. In Romans, Paul speaks of dying and rising with Christ as the meaning of baptism (6:1–4). In Mark, Matthew, and Luke, Jesus, as he journeys to Jerusalem, invites, implores, commands that those who would follow him take up their cross, that is, embark on this path that leads to death and resurrection (e.g., Matt. 16:24). In the Gospel of John, a different image is used to make the same point, to be born again or to be born of the Spirit (3:3), which is to die to an old identity and way of being and to be born into a new identity and way of being. The death and resurrection of Jesus embody the path of personal transformation. This is also one of the core meanings of the season of Lent: to journey with Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem, the place of death and resurrection—of transformation.

“Jesus’s death is the revelation of the love of God.” 

This understanding has an important premise without which it doesn’t make sense; namely, that Paul and other early Christians saw Jesus as the decisive revelation of God. In Jesus—in what he was like—we see what God is like. Thus, in Jesus’s passion for the kingdom of God and his challenge to the powers at the risk of his own life, we see the depth of God’s love for us. Note that in this understanding, it is not a punitive God who sends Jesus to die for our sins, but a God who is passionate about the transformation of the world.

SACRIFICE 

We return to the theme of sacrifice. Substitution seriously misunderstands the purpose and meaning of sacrifices in the Bible. They were never about substitution—as if those offering the sacrifice deserved to die, but God was willing to accept an animal as a substitute. Most basically, sacrifice means to make something sacred by offering it up to God, as the Latin roots of the English word indicate: sacrum (“sacred”) and facere (“to make”). An animal is offered up to God and becomes sacred in the process. Often within Judaism, the animal was cooked and then eaten by those offering the sacrifice, symbolically creating a meal with God, communion with God. God and the people consumed the same food. Gift and meal often go together in sacrifice. Sacrifice in biblical times had many meanings, none of them about substitution. There were daily sacrifices offered by priests in the Temple; these were about “feeding” God, who dwelt there. There were sacrifices of thanksgiving; these were about gratitude—nothing was asked for. There were sacrifices of petition; here something was asked for, because people were in need—they were experiencing drought, famine, plague, war, personal misfortune, and so forth. There were sacrifices of purification; these removed what was thought to be impurity. For example, after the birth of a child, a woman was considered impure for a period of time, and the impurity was removed by offering a sacrifice. But this was not about a sacrifice for sin—giving birth was not sinful. These sacrifices were about removing impurity, not about sinfulness. There were also sacrifices that dealt with the issue of sin or wrongdoing; one offered a sacrifice, a gift to God, to make amends, to heal the broken relationship. But even here the notion of substitution was not present. Sometimes Christians think the “scapegoat,” the second goat mentioned in connection with the ritual for the Jewish Day of Atonement, provides a model for Jesus’s death as a sacrifice for sin. But in Judaism, the scapegoat was not sacrificed. Rather, the sins of the people were symbolically placed upon the goat, which was then driven into the wilderness (Lev. 16:20–22). The goat was a “sin-bearer”—but it was not killed, not sacrificed. Indeed, to have offered up a scapegoat laden with sin as a gift to God would have been a sacrilege.

Was Jesus’s death a sacrifice in any of the particular ways suggested above? Not really, except for the theme of gift and meal, to which we turn later. But was it a sacrifice in the broader ancient meaning of the word, a meaning that continues into the modern world even in secular language? Yes. Think of how we use the word. We say a person sacrifices his or her life for a cause or for another person. We commonly speak of soldiers sacrificing their lives for the sake of their country. If firefighters are killed in the process of rescuing people from a fire, we speak of their sacrifice. Even when a death is not involved, we sometimes speak of people sacrificing their lives for the sake of caring for others—in their family or in the larger world. Sacrifice and love often go together. People who sacrifice their lives most often do so because of a greater love.

Three twentieth-century Christian martyrs are exemplars of this combination of sacrifice and dying for others. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a gifted and brilliant German Lutheran pastor and theologian, was executed for his involvement in the July 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler. His life was a sacrifice even before his death. And he died because of his love for the German people and those whom they were victimizing. Martin Luther King, Jr., sacrificed his life, because of his love for his people and his passion for the American dream. Oscar Romero, archbishop of San Salvador, was killed in 1980 by an assassin, because of his criticism of those in power who were oppressing the Salvadoran people. Did he sacrifice his life because of love for others? Yes. Were any of these deaths substitutions? Of course not. So also we can speak of Jesus sacrificing his life, being willing to die because of his love for others, without in any way implying that God required his death as a sacrifice so that we can be forgiven. It would be ludicrous to suggest that God required the deaths of Bonhoeffer, King, and Romero. No, they were killed because of their passion for a different and better kind of world. So also, Jesus sacrificed his life. He offered it up as a gift to God—not because God required it, but because he was filled with God’s passion for the kingdom of God—a different kind of world.

Marcus Borg

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