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 centuries. This 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?