This new idea isn’t a new idea at all but I’m excited anyway.

I very often think of things that are too basic and ridiculously naive to mention. I assume that everyone (in the whole wide world) probably understands it except for me and by verbalising my ignorance I’ll get labelled with the ‘Woman who has blogged about her faith for three years and still doesn’t understand the basic Sunday School type things. Let’s point and laugh at her’.

One of my issues comes from the belief that Jesus had to die on the cross for our sins in order for us to be saved. Because God said so. Because of the rules made up by God. This cartoon articulates my problem perfectly.



Jesus had to die purely because God, who let’s be honest here makes all the rules in the first place (something that people seem to believe even more fervently if they’re in the ‘Jesus died for out sins and we are awful filth and deserve nothing good’ camp) said so, in order to save us all from our awfulness.

I was excited to see a post from a New Favourite Blogger this morning* on just this topic; Is Penal a Dirty Word? . Turns out I’m not special and insightful OR stupid and naive for asking these questions. It’s an actual thing and the article helped with my understanding immensely. There are various schools of thought around this but I think that the Moral Influence of Atonement may make me very happy. Let’s see.

Thoughts? (Because I know that you have them)

*Shared in a facebook group called ‘Progressive Christians’ which is full of good stuff. And I’m back on FB

23 thoughts on “This new idea isn’t a new idea at all but I’m excited anyway.

  1. Do you think it is reasonable – not to mention moral – that a historical blood sacrifice is a necessary condition for atonement for an inherited trait originating from a metaphor?

    Really? You’re okay with line of reasoning? I don’t think it’s okay and I suspect with some clearer thinking you won’t, either.

    • If I’m looking at ‘why Jesus had to die on the cross’ then I much prefer the Moral Influence argument. I’m starting from the premise here that ‘Jesus had to die on the cross’. I’m not saying that that premise is correct at this stage, I’m just looking at arguments.

      • I understand. But the approach is a a posteriori rationalization, which means there will always be an ‘answer’ that is just as likely to be unrelated to the truth but sound equivalent.

        When you add the decidedly immoral framework (come on… a blood sacrifice… as if there were no other possible ‘divine’ way to achieve the same results?!), the a posteriori rationalization becomes obvious… and is just so much disingenuous apologetic fluff to try to obfuscate the immorality and excuse it.

    • Ah, the wonderful world of atonement theory! I’m with tildeb on this one (although I am ever so slightly disturbed by the Super~ costume). We need to be totally over the whole blood sacrifice thing. Quite frankly, the whole Abraham-Isaac story is one of the most disturbing chapters in the whole bible. If god requires this kind of behaviour then this is a god we can do without.

      Having said that, I recognise that this is 21st century thinking applied to a 500BCE story. From their perspective, growing up in a blood sacrifice culture, then blood sacrifice is the only lens through which relationship with god can be viewed. But that is neither my culture nor my understanding. Grace doesn’t require sacrifice.

      (And on a personal note, I’m doing my bit to make sure we never sing about the blood of the lamb again. Never, ever.)

  2. It’s quite interesting that many gospels, most famously the Gospel of Barnabas, suggests that Jesus wasn’t crucified at all. Early papyrus manuscripts show that scribes edited the ending of Mark (I think it was off the top of my memory?). Having studied both canonical and non-canonical scripture I’ve arrived at the conclusion that it’s impossible to defend the veracity of the New Testament, particularly given that it was authored, abridged and collated during such tumultuous times. Jesus, an inspirational master, was not God sacrificing himself for the Jews. But the story gave hope to a lot of people who were very down in the dumps. A useful propaganda tool that we still use today.

    • I’ve just read The Case for the Real Jesus by Lee Strobel. I don’t his style at all (I can refute his explanations of problems with the theory of evolution and I’ve only studied second year evolution and palaeoanthropology) but he does interview biblical scholars and the like about alternative gospels, etc. It’s a fascinating area.

  3. Eva:

    You are correct that the Atonement Theory of the Incarnation makes much less sense in the 21st Century than it did in the 1st century when ritualistic sacrifices were central to virtually all religions. I personally find it abhorrent (very much recognizing that I am a product of 21st Century Western Civilization). One of the unique aspects of Christianity is that it is based upon a historical person and a historical event that are central but the interpretations of the why have some flexibility.

    I am personally drawn to the theories of Teilhard de Chardin (which have been endorsed by Pope Benedict in this area) which states that the Incarnation and the Resurrection are part of the evolutionary work of God drawing humanity and the rest of creation closer to him. As Teilhard states in “Christianity and Evolution”:

    “I have always found it impossible to be sincerely moved to pity by a crucifix so long as this suffering was presented to me as the expiation of a transgression which God could have averted—either because he had no need of man, or because he could have made him in some other way.

    Seen, however, on the panoramic screen of an evolutive world which we have just erected, the whole picture undergoes a most impressive change. When the Cross is projected upon such a universe, in which struggle against evil is the sine qua non of existence, it takes on new importance and beauty—such, moreover, as are just the most capable of appealing to us. Christ, it is true, is still he who bears the sins of the world; moral evil is in some mysterious way paid for by suffering. But, even more essentially, Christ is he who structurally in himself, and for all of us, overcomes the resistance to unification offered by the multiple, resistance to the rise of spirit inherent in matter. Christ is he who bears the burden, constructionally inevitable, of every sort of creation. He is the symbol and the sign-in-action of progress. The complete and definitive meaning of redemption is no longer only to expiate: it is to surmount and conquer.

    The full mystery of baptism is no longer to cleanse but (as the Greek Fathers fully realized) to plunge into the fire of the purifying battle ‘for being’—no longer the shadow, but the sweat and toil, of the Cross.”

    Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre (2002-11-18). Christianity and Evolution (Harvest Book, Hb 276) (Kindle Locations 1075-1086). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.

  4. HI Eva, I’ve thought about this too. I can’t really agree with the thought that Jesus didn’t die. It is probably the part of the story most accepted as historical by scholars. And the difficulties with Mark’s ending have nothing (as far as I am aware) to do with Jesus’ death, but his resurrection.

    So he really died. And on the natural level, he died because the Romans crucified him. And they crucified him because he was causing them some trouble. So your question only becomes interesting if we believe he had some purpose.

    Some scholars, not christians (I am thinking principally of Maurice Casey and Michael Grant) argue that the evidence points to him believing that his death would somehow be redemptive, though not necessarily in exactly the same way as modern christians understand that term. And that’s when your questions kick in – why would Jesus think that? Why would anyone think that?

    If christianity is false, and Jesus was mistaken, then we can refer back to ancient sacrificial practices to explain why Jesus might think the way he did. But if christianity is true, then we are trying to fathom the mind of God, and we have to accept that we must by definition fall short in our understanding. Everything we say about God must be partial and sometimes analogical.

    For that reason, I have always thought that any explanation of the atonement, including the 3 or 4 you refer to, could only be partial and analogical. I therefore accept them all as providing some truth but incomplete and needing to be balanced by the others. For example, the idea that Jesus’ death shows us his love would be futile if his death wasn’t also necessary for some other reason. I think the Christus Victor explanation speaks most to me.

    CS Lewis said (in Mere Christianity I think) that christians are required to believe in the atonement, but not in any particular theory about how it works. I therefore think some of the arguments and statements in “Is penal a dirty word?” are too black and white and claiming too much certainty, and to some degree missing the point, while nevertheless being worth considering.

    That’s the way I see things. Sorry to be so long, but it’s a big topic.

    • No, long is fine; you’re concise as-well. Some (ahem) comment threads that I’m following right could not be described that way.
      Is it necessary to believe in the atonement to be ‘Christian’, do you think?

      • Love the new photo!!

        I think it depends on one’s definition of a christian. I would say someone who is following Jesus, and I think that would normally entail believing in him and in the things he said, but would probably be a broader definition than others would use. (In the end, it’s not my call – I’ll leave that sort of judgment to God!)

        I think the atonement is a key doctrine of christian faith because I think Jesus taught it (e.g. in the Last Supper, which I think most scholars accept as genuine history) and lived and died by it. But I don’t think we have to understand it, and I think we can be following Jesus without even accepting it and can still receive its benefits.

  5. Thanks! My father took the photo. If he knew I had this blog I’m sure he’d be delighted to see it here 😉
    I think I like the broader definition that you mention.

  6. Not that any of us would presume to know the Mind of God, but here’s a possibility:

    1. About 2,000 years ago God decides, “Humanity is ready. It’s time for The Demonstration.”

    1. God incarnates as Jesus (Holy Trinity and all that), then sacrifices Himself to take on the sins of the world, demonstrating His commitment to the salvation of mankind.

    2. God resurrects Christ’s body, demonstrating that He _can_ change the rules for those who accept Him.

    The point is to create an opportunity for human souls, not to force people to obey. We must _choose_ salvation; otherwise it’s like a guy giving a love potion to a date, whereupon the entire experience becomes inauthentic. God wants people to come to Him freely, not as zombies. Yes, He can change the rules; after that, the choice is yours.

    …By the way, you are manifestly a person with a good heart, and any God who would wish you to suffer for doubting Him would be a God too petty to respect. If God can’t handle your doubts, then He’s not worthy of YOU! Assuming God is eminently, infinitely worthy, doubts and questions must alway be welcomed. Otherwise he’s just a Goa’uld.

  7. Have you read the blog A Conversion Diary? I think you’ll find your journey fairly similar to Jennifer’s, although Jennifer was an outright atheist. I also want to say that 1) I am not nearly as educated in the theological sphere as many on your blog. I am very impressed with them, and YOU! 2) I found on my own journey of doubt that the only thing that truly cemented my “yes” to Christianity was realizing that the gospel seemed more credible to me than non-credible. When I said yes, I truly discovered what the gospel talks about: a “peace that transcends understanding.” Now, as others more intellectual than I might point out: How do I know this is “Jesus” and not just some power of the mind phenomenon that happens when one commits to something? I don’t. That’s the mystery of faith. But in my gut – that part of me that KNOWS what I know what I know… it rings true. This is my journey. It is not my spouse’s (an atheist) and it is not many of my friend’s. But for me, the power of the gospel in my LIFE and emotions, not just my mind, is what sealed the deal. Nice blog!

    • Hi there Andrea, and welcome 🙂 I love Conversion Diary and I just read her book recently. I find that she and I part company on quite a few issues but as a ‘big’ blogger who has replied to my comments by email several times I have a lot of respect for her and am happy to ‘fan-girl’ till the cows come home.

      I’m still working towards the ‘knowing’ bit but I agree that when you have that then you’re ‘home’. I find that I often need to be validated by other people (although less so these days) so the very personal nature of the journey has been challenging at times for me.

      Unrelated, I have a child with OCD which isn’t the same as Tourettes but I’m really enjoying your blog.

      • @Eva. Yes, Jennifer has written me back also! She is the real deal. I find people of faith who are not afraid to question their faith often are the ones who are the strongest in the end. You are not a sheep. Congratulations.

  8. I’ve been thinking a lot about religion as a distinct entity lately. A human entity. I think we sometimes get in the habit of equating God with religion. Or at least thinking of them simultaneously. But it’s not at all. Religion is out human container for God. It houses God for us in terms we can understand. It not that God couldn’t change the rules by himself, but we needed something more tangible (like we always do). I believe that religion is imperfect and flawed, but I also believe it still contains something beautiful and perfect and wholly untouched by those flaws. But our view is always restricted to an extent. Jesus changes things in that way. Gives us something much sturdier to grasp on to. I find that the more I step back to look at the big picture, the more the details start making sense.

    • And that opens the door for all religions to be valid and just a human way of expressing the reality of God. Jesus is kind of a God that we are able to come to terms with.

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