If you listen to some schools of thought, atonement is pretty much the be all and end all of Christianity. Take Christian rock music, for instance. It’s about the blood. Here’s an actual line from a song;
“His blood poured out for us
The weight of every curse upon him”
But as I’ve said before, I can’t see any way that blood atonement makes sense, and unlike several other issues, this conviction is getting stronger and more clearly formulated the more I think about it.
I know that I might seem like someone who just looks for problems and issues to make a fuss about, but believe it or not I would like to just accept modern mainstream protestant doctrine and happily join the club. I’m absolutely not someone who likes to argue for the sake of it; blending in with a group of like minded people is a lovely idea (in fact the closest I’ve every come to this is probably when I was on the committee for the Tasmanian skeptics and we all pretty much thought all of society was delusional. Ah, good times…) But everyone seems to really love substitutional atonement right now, and it wasn’t until I began to become enmeshed in the faith that I realised that there were any other options.
It all comes back to whether Jesus really meant what he said, and if he did, what this means to our ordinary every day life. If what Jesus said in the Beatitudes is worthwhile and important and something that we should focus on, then there is a problem. So many of the words of Jesus are deeply contradictory to the idea of blood atonement. If God really needed to resort to violence to achieve his aims then what Jesus said about forfeiting violence is nonsensical. If even God can’t cope without resorting to violence, or chooses violence as the best option, then what hope is there for the rest of the world, and how it deals with its problems?
As Richard Rohr writes (always with the Rohr!), blood atonement basically means that Jesus was plan B; and was only necessary when we screwed up.
Come on. Jesus as plan B? I’ve only been a Christian for about 5 minutes but that disturbs me on some level. Seriously, Jesus isn’t plan B.
“Jesus did not come to change the mind of God about humanity. Jesus came to change the mind of humanity about God”*
The death of Jesus didn’t change the course of reality, and it wasn’t an ‘ultimate sacrifice’, necessary to gain God’s love. I think that anything that doesn’t directly point to Jesus’ teachings as a fundamental part of his time on earth is misleading; reducing it all down to a tearing of the veil and then a reverberation of guilt and duty that is supposed to stay with us and motivate us. That just trivialises it all.
Substitutional Atonement trivialises Jesus’ life. It sounds counter intuitive, but, to me, it does. It renders his life almost meaningless; he was useful for about three days. Why even bother with all the great speeches and empire-wrecking ideals? He could have done a few miracles the week before Passover and grabbed a donkey and have been done with it. His years long ministry was pointless, if all he was going to be was a blood sacrifice.
From this, though, it doesn’t follow that I have a purely materialistic understanding of the death of Jesus. I don’t believe that he was merely a great teacher. I’m far closer to evangelical when it comes to some things than you would expect.
If there’s an evangelical left, I’d quite like although not, of course, the blood bit. And I don’t pray out loud so that would disqualify me, I expect.
(As an aside, I was discussing churches with a friend of mine (who I like to call my ‘spiritual mentor’, although I don’t quite know how he feels about it, but he seems wise and is willing to talk to me so he got the job) , wondering if the church that I had found myself in was ultimately the right one for me. He pointed out that every denomination and every individual church will have different strengths, and given that I had deliberately chosen a church that was strong on social justice and inclusion, then that what was right for me at that time. I hadn’t really thought that different churches cater to different needs, but it does make sense.)
So, anyway, what I’m getting at here is the idea that even though the huge ‘blood of the lamb’ palaver seems very dramatic, it actually cheapens Jesus. It takes away from all the other things that he did, and said, and reduces him to what some call ‘The Ultimate Sacrifice’, but to my mind is ‘Just a Sacrifice’.
I expect others may not agree with this, of course, and there may be a fundamental element that I’m not understanding. That occasionally happens…
*Richard Rohr; “Scripture as Spirituality”