A slightly ranty atonement post.

This post is one of those ones where I’m basically clarifying my stance on certain issues for my own elucidation. For me it’s important that I can clearly articulate my own take on certain key issues. I know that many people are fine with things just being all mysterious but I need to get things relatively clear in my own head from time to time.

It’s no secret that the whole idea of substitutionary atonement makes me very cranky and I find it completely incompatible with every thing I know to be true about a loving God.

When I was an atheist, the idea of Jesus dying on the cross for our sins was a prime example of the delusional thinking of Christians. As an almost- Christian the idea of substitutionary atonement was still a huge issue for me. But gradually I came to realise that substitutionary atonement wasn’t an absolute belief within the faith. There was also the moral influence theory of atonement- the belief that positive moral change is the ultimate goal of Christianity.

In fact, this theory is one of the oldest views of atonement and was the dominant one during the second and third centuriesThis is a pretty important point, hey? If the people who lived closest to the actual time of Jesus had firm beliefs regarding what his life was about, then it certainly bears a closer examination.

Jesus’ life was so fundamentally about social justice, yet his whole death was ultimately about our sins and a blood sacrifice to a vengeful god? (insert scornful swearword here). What a way to devalue everything that he stood for and everything that he tried to achieve. The Gospels are chock full of directives to us about how to live a righteous life, yet when it comes down to it we don’t have to actually do any of those things at all? He died just to absolve us of sins and that’s the message we should take away from his life?


Although I shouldn’t dismiss the whole sin thing quite so off handedly. Absolutely we need saving, but it’s more about saving us from our acceptance of oppressive systems, from our complacency and from the fact that we seldom do nearly as much as we could to bring about real change, confronting injustice and taking on the responsibility of bringing about God’s Kingdom here and now. If we do sin, then we sin by ignoring the clear teachings of Jesus.

Look, God didn’t need his wrath assuaged to be replaced by mercy after Jesus’ execution on the cross. What kind of a vengeful prick does that make God? You don’t punish your other children by killing one of them to make yourself feel better.

Jesus advocated moral change. He spoke of the world that is to come; the world that we could bring about if people took his message seriously. His teachings and examples push us onward to try and live out his message. People, and then societies, can move towards this, with the help of the Holy Spirit.

For acting in the greater good, dismissing his own safety, and preaching a radical message of societal transformation, Jesus was killed by the Roman Empire (well, it was actually sedition) in an appalling and shameful way. The resurrection shows us that even death cannot separate us from God’s love.  That whatever you face and however you are challenged while striving for justice in the world is insignificant when it all comes down to it. Even if the worst happens to us, God will still be there to love us and lift us up.

One of God’s chief commandments is not to kill. While God didn’t ‘need’ Jesus to die, it served to demonstrate what was supposed to be the last example of religiously condoned violence. The end of the sacrificial system; the end of redemptive violence. Jesus’s death is part of a much wider picture and frame work than the penal substitution theory would have it. Jesus isn’t reduced to to sacrificed lamb. That darn Sermon on the Mount actually meant something after all.

While I’m not going to proof text and play Bible passage tennis to support my argument, there is absolutely a firm biblical foundation for this view. Many New Testament passages allude to a final judgement that concerns moral conduct. The Gospels are essentially chock full of how to be a moral person. Much of what Jesus said concerns this. Yes, Paul did talk about the fact that salvation is by faith and the fact that ‘works of the law’ are not what we would be striving for but if it’s a preach-off between Jesus and Paul, then I know which side I’ll be on. (As a side-note, Hebrews, the book in which much of the blood sacrifice talk can be seen, may not have been written by Paul at all which detracts from it’s importance if it is true).

Next up, universal salvation! It’s just party time here at the moment, isn’t it?

29 thoughts on “A slightly ranty atonement post.

  1. Before I exited Christianity in my early twenties this was the atonement theory I had arrived at. And as you point out, it has a respectable history in the church. The substitution theory seemed repugnant to me. Were i to ever find my way back, the moral influence theory would make the most sense to me and jibe with my inner light concerning God.

    Eva, I’m really enjoying your posts as you are working your way back and find myself eagerly looking forward to the the next one.

    • I place a lot of importance on intuition and the fact that the PS theory seems repugnant to so many people I think is an important point. I’m honoured that you’re enjoying my posts 🙂

  2. Your way of thinking is liberating…. Love it! I could not agree with you more…. Jesus represented justice for those who were treated unjustly. He was about serving the”least of these.” The idea of Gods wrath came from the Jewish tradition . Can I use this post to present to another blogger? Thanks .

    • The fact that there have been many different theories about atonement, salvation, and original sin are things that many people aren’t familiar with, and they either just accept what they’ve been taught or reject Christianity outright because the ideas that they have been taught seem unloving. One of the benefits of being brought up without faith is I get to see all of these things with fresh eyes 🙂

  3. … and Jesus’ focus on social justice and the strangeness of the atonement for sins idea is part of what leads me to believe that Jesus could possibly have been a humanist illusionist. His crucifixion and resurrection was orchestrated to an extent (though quite the risky endeavour) in order to connect with the religious masses of the time to help them latch on to such humanitarian ideas.

    • Yes. I’ve read a bit about this idea. it’s certainly intriguing, although I think that I’ve come to a place where I’m comfortable with the divinity of Jesus. But this theory is certainly a possibility.

      • Jesus’s divinity has been an issue for me as well lately. Bekng raised on the Catholism and then Pentecostal church, it was definitely a given that Jesus and God were synonyms . But now I see Jesus as a humanitarian revolutionist , and a great one too. But going further , if we define God as the manifestation of unconditional love, grave, and mercy… Then Jesus fully represents God …. or is God.

  4. Great thoughts – I have come to many of the same conclusions while journeying from conservative evangelicalism to a more flexible and meaningful faith. I like the moral influence theory, but what I am thinking these days is more about the saving value of the incarnation itself, rather than the crucifixion and resurrection (which are the culmination, but certainly not the be-all and end-all of the incarnation). I think now more in terms of reconciliation/relationship than atonement: the purpose of the incarnation was to allow us to know the character of God (that is, a who would live and die to be in relationship with us). You can’t have a relationship or be reconciled to an unknown quantity.

    • That’s true. And I like the fact that you mentioned that the crucifixion and resurrection aren’t the be all and end all- I think that’s another thing that is misunderstood, especially by myself in the past.

  5. I miss the ’60s – which makes me very old! But there were some good bands back then (most of them are now geriatrics and still touring Australia, but they were good back then! 🙂 )

    I agree with your comment that there have been a number of different atonement theories over the years. My view is that it is always going to be a struggle for us to understand how God was incarnated as a person and our understanding must in some ways be analogical – in the way that a 2-D photo is an analogy (if you like) of the real 3-D world. So none of the theories can fully express the reality.

    So I feel comfortable with all the theories, even the one you don’t like, because I believe they all give us some insight, probably coming from some ancient saint who knew God better than I ever will, into God’s character, but none of them give the full picture.

    • I miss the ’70s and ’80s too. I fact I miss yesterday as soon as I wake up. I’m crushingly nostalgic. I agree with you about an imperfect understanding. I’m sure that my ideas will change as I progress and evolve.

  6. Eva, you’ve taken a challenging and polarizing topic and dealt with it head on. Not an easy thing to do. I like this approach more than others I’ve seen because it focuses more on our actions toward others rather than dogmatic beliefs. Looking forward to your post on universalism.

    • Thanks. I think that consideration of our actions and how they work in conjunction with our thoughts is always important- even if I’m not always good at actually taking that action 🙂

  7. Hi Eva,

    Thanks for a good post.

    Substitutionary atonement isn’t in the Bible. Not once anywhere in the entire Bible does it say that Jesus paid the penalty, or price, for our sins. It just isn’t there. And it makes God look like a complete you-know-what. As I understand it, God is love.

    And Paul did not say we are saved by faith without works. He said we are saved by faith without the works of the Law. Big difference! The works of the Law are the laws of circumcision, sacrifice, ritual cleanliness, and so on specified in the Torah, or Law, of the Old Testament. Paul was arguing that Christians do not have to follow Jewish ritual law. This was a big bone of contention between the Jerusalem Christians and Paul (and other apostles) who were evangelizing in pagan lands, where people didn’t necessarily want to be circumcised and stop eating rabbit, pork, etc, in order to accept Jesus Christ.

    There, that’s my slightly ranty atonement rant agreeing with your slightly ranty rant. 😉

    P.S. The Bible also does not say that we are saved by faith alone. In fact, it denies it.

  8. I’m keen on reading your thoughts on universal salvation! I worry sometimes that I’m morphing into some heretic so it’s always comforting to know that there are other people operating on a similar wavelength. It’s a relief to me to know that in church history the current popular stance on core theological ideas isn’t necessarily the only option.

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