How to Trivialise Jesus

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”

26 thoughts on “How to Trivialise Jesus

  1. I agree with you completely on this issue and as usual you explain yourself clearly. This doctrine is “spiritual materialism” at its worst and leads us away from the spirit Jesus was trying to illustrate to and for us.

  2. There once was a great Buddha who swore an oath that he would never enter Nirvana until all sentient beings could do so merely by uttering his name. It is said that this great Buddha now dwells in Nirvana. Thus his simple offer works for anyone.

    Jesus made it easy for us. It is we who make it difficult.

  3. I like your thoughts here. I probably need to re-read this post a few more times to process but for now I’ll ask a couple of questions to begin my processing 🙂 At what point does the Old Testament, the Old Covenant come into play with the New Testament and the New Covenant, specifically for the work of atonement?

    More so my thoughts are pertaining to the role of the high priest with the blood offerings for sin. In the OT the high priest made the once a year bloody sacrifice, and was the only one that could enter into the Holies of Holies in the temple to offer a sacrifice for the sins of others. (Hebrews 9:10) In the OT it talks about how the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood their is no forgiveness. (Hebrews 9:22).

    But now having Jesus as the “ultimate” high priest His bloody sacrifice covers the sins of those that believe and live in Him. (Hebrews 7:27/ 25) His work on the cross was the ultimate sacrifice and He suffered for many a violent act but I’m wondering if Jesus viewed His sacrifice as violent or as a great love offering? Hebrews 12:2 talks about the joy that was set before Jesus as He was enduring the cross.

    Christ was coming to do the will of God. He came to fulfill what the old covenant could not do. Hebrews 10:19-22 sums up the importance of his atonement. Without Jesus atonement there is no washing and cleansing away of sins. We now have an eternal inheritance because of His work on the cross.

    P.S. I hope you don’t think I am trying to disagree with you, just trying to pick your brain and get a better understanding of your view of the atonement and this post.

    You also mentioned the beatitudes. How do you make this connection with atonement? You mentioned that the beatitudes is contradicting in lieu of the atonement. I view the beatitudes as Jesus teaching the crowd about how the Father desires for people to live.

    • You’re questions are fine, and I don’t mind disagreement. As I said, I know that I don’t have a full understanding of issues and could be wrong. I’m always open to the wisdom of others, Substitutional Atonement is accepted by hundreds of thousands of people as acceptable so that might be a warning sign for me 😉 I struggle with a lot of the OT; from not understanding great swathes of it, to not actually liking quite a lot of it. But I would like to think about your questions a bit more before I answer properly, if that’s ok.

        • If people start with the need for atonement then we will always end up with atonement. On the other hand, if we start with the joy and celebration of creation and incarnation then atonement loses its necessity. Where we begin determines where we’re going to end up.

          Eva, I think you beautifully articulate the problems with substitution. For me, your line about the futility of God needing to resort to violence clinches the deal.*

          The relationship between the Old Testament and the New is convoluted at best and unhelpful at worst. Failing to separate cultural practices and understandings from what might be something of spiritual value is going to muddy the waters. There’s nothing in the Jewish practice of sacrifice which particularly sets them apart from all the other Semitic people who slaughtered animals to appease their gods; for that matter, it pretty much makes the “chosen people” indistinguishable from people all over the world who have practiced sacrifice.

          If we insist on reading the Old Testament as an instruction manual then naturally we’re going to finish up with Jesus as “the ‘ultimate’ high priest”. Where we start determines where we’re going to finish up.

          * I suspect a whole load of other things hang from this as well: if it’s necessary for God to be violent, then it’s okay for the good guys to be violent; which then leads to punitive prison systems, the death penalty, lots of guns, and the idiocy of “just” wars.

    • First, I don’t think that the Bible is infallible. Stories, written long after their retelling, thousands of years ago. It’s not always ‘right’ (so there may be a discrepancy between your views and mine straight away; I’m not sure).
      We are the ones who came up with the idea of blood sacrifices. There are some verses that speak the reverse of it; Hosea 6:6 “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.”

      Proverbs 21:3 “To do what is right and just is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice.”

      Isaiah 1:11 “The multitude of your sacrifices–what are they to me? says the Lord. I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats.”

      Micah 6:8 “He has shown you, oh mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

      But we can always find verses to back up our own views, of course 🙂

      We continued to act in a barbaric way, and our desire for punitive justice continued. Finally God sent us Jesus to make us understand, because clearly we were just not. getting. it. But we killed him too. But Jesus dealt with it by continually loving and forgiving us.
      So the least that we can do now, is understand what God wanted in the first place.

  4. It all comes back to whether (a single and literal historical) Jesus really meant what he (supposedly) said

    Does that honesty help at all?

    It always comes back to believing the premises are true in the absence of compelling evidence for them. Your ‘conclusion’ therefore will always be just another believed claim, and in this matter you have free rein (or should that be reign?).

    Without original sin, we have no need for atonement. Without atonement, we have no need for a blood sacrifice. Without a blood sacrifice, we have no need of a Jesus savior. Without a savior, we have no need for a crucifixion. Without a crucifixion, we have no need for a resurrection. Without a resurrection, we have no ‘evidence’ for an afterlife. Without an afterlife, people are afraid that this life in the here and now is important for its own sake to each of us and so we recognize and grow scared of our individual autonomy. If we are autonomous, we are unlikely to be sheep and won’t congregate into god-approved flocks. With no flocks to gather weekly, we we can’t have a weekly income for the priestly caste. And so with indoctrination into a state of fear-about-the-finality-of-death-if-we-don’t-believe, along with threats and cajoling from authority figures and surrounded by social pressure to be a member of the flock, we allow ourselves to figure out a way to go along with and rationalize this belief… if not in some geographically specific god to direct our lives for us to earn this supposed afterlife ticket, then in the ‘virtue’ of believing-in-some-god itself.

    • ‘Your ‘conclusion’ therefore will always be just another believed claim’

      That is true, it is. It’s a belief that I have come to.

      • A belief not adduced from compelling evidence extracted from reality but ‘arrived at’ only by imposing it on reality and then ‘discovering’ your own creation.

  5. Jesus’ blood sacrifice was important in steering people in a better direction because of how people felt they needed to buy animals to sacrifice in order to atone for sins. Jesus’ intention was to do away with this practice due to how corrupt it had become (see the story of Jesus visiting the money changers in the Temple – in all four Gospels, a rare occurrence of Jesus losing his cool).

    If it weren’t for the silly practice of animal sacrifice which became a profitable business (come on God, didn’t you see that one coming?), Jesus on the cross would likely have not held much meaning or been such a memorable event.

  6. This must be the theme for this week, because I’ve not only noticed a number of blogs I follow discussing this version of the Gospel, I’ve been reading NT (Tom) Wright’s “Simply Good News” and it discussed this type of theology, too. If you haven’t come across it you might like it, and there are also a number of videos on YouTube of him discussing these themes. PS I agree, there’s a Richard Rohr quote for just about everything! 🙂

    • I have that book so I’ll have a look. My New Year’s resolution was to buy no new books, as I have about 80 I haven’t read yet. Kindle is ok, though 😉

  7. thanks for this post. I enjoyed reading it and the discussion that followed.
    I think along with trivialising the role of Jesus, comes an obsession with our trivial sins.
    We were just talking last night in study group about how people think Christians behave – ie no smoking, no drinking, no swearing, no fun. And yet this is quite untrue. Except that the theology that supports penal substitution also tends to focus on sin as personal, moral failings – and fails to examine the much more significant collective sins we are caught up in – such as consumerism, materialism, supporting structures that perpetuate injustice and extreme inequality – and of course our systematic destruction of creation.
    So we end up with a trivialised Jesus who is obsessed with correcting our minor faults – rather than a powerful message of hope that the world could be different if we focused on the right things.

    • So true. It’s so strange that smoking or drinking or sex would be considered sinful; unless they are damaging to you or others. I am certainly not one to reject the idea of ‘sin’, and I do think that it has a place in discourse, as we are continually failing to act in a loving manner both to each other and to God’s creation. Your last sentence absolutely hits the nail on the head. Thanks 🙂

  8. Having read a couple of your posts, you definitely don’t sound like the typical Christian we have here in the U.S., which is a good thing. 🙂 But then part of you is very similar from every Christian which is to take the parts of the bible that you like, and put aside the parts that you don’t. Personally I don’t have a problem with anybody choosing values that they think are good and lead to better personal fulfillment, growth, and reduce harm in society. Whatever holy text, book, or person you look to to adopt, discuss or develop such values is great. It’s very much what I did, but I didn’t feel like I was being true to the religion, and that maybe the dogma was the problem and what I should really be doing is to simply follow inspiration, wherever it may lie. Never stop learning and remember there are many places to search for answers, not just one book written over a millennium ago in a dead language. I don’t say this to be critical, but rather as you go on this journey don’t fall into the trap of needing to fall under a certain label. No holy text has it all figured out and while some values may be timeless, others are not.

    In regards to your post I have always found myself drawn to the story of Jesus as a man over any supernatural stuff. As humans I don’t think we can ever really connect to the divine with any sort of empathetic link, because we, ourselves, are simply not divine. We can imagine the divine perhaps, but it’s much like trying to really connect with someone who has experienced something you haven’t. You can say I’m sorry you went through a certain experience, but unless you’ve been through the experience yourself it’s hard to really connect. So when it comes to Jesus I am quite fond of this passage from the movie Chocolat which I thought sums up my feelings pretty well:

    “I’m not sure what the theme of my homily today ought to be. Do I want to speak of the miracle of Our Lord’s divine transformation? Not really, no. I don’t want to talk about His divinity. I’d rather talk about His humanity. I mean, you know, how He lived His life, here on Earth. His *kindness*, His *tolerance*… Listen, here’s what I think. I think that we can’t go around… measuring our goodness by what we don’t do. By what we deny ourselves, what we resist, and who we exclude. I think… we’ve got to measure goodness by what we *embrace*, what we create… and who we include.”

    • What a wonderful quote. I have seen that movie, although when it first came out.
      I know that my beliefs would make me ‘not a christian’ to all fundamentalists and maybe some other christians too. But that’s not so bad. I would rather be a kind atheist than a fundamentalist anyway 😊

  9. 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?

    If Paul or WLC are to be believed, then even those speeches don’t matter. It is written somewhere in the bible if Jesus is not risen, then faith is in vain. So I think this question is really at the core of the message. Was the death necessary, allowing for a minute that he lived

  10. Eva,
    You said
    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’.

    Perhaps you’d be willing to consider that your dilemma regarding Jesus’ life/teachings and His death/blood are not opposing concepts at all? Rather, we must accept that both elements are true and essential facets of the Christian faith.

    In one of your comments, you cited several OT passages such as Micah 6:8. And you are absolutely correct in pointing out that we human beings have stubbornly ignored the instruction we’ve been given. Even those of us who want to do the right thing according to Jesus’ teachings will find that we have failed in some way.

    This inability or refusal to live in accord with God’s nature is what has separated us from Him and what makes atonement (reconciliation and re-connection with God) necessary. And God knew of this need when He created us. So, you are also correct in acknowledging that Jesus was never “plan B”.

    “The blood of the lamb” is most definitely a dramatic theme. Maybe it would help to consider that there are many symbolic references in the Bible and blood, throughout Scripture, represents life.
    In John 6:33, Jesus identified Himself as the one who had come from Heaven to “give life to the world”. When His blood was poured out on the cross, His human death also signaled the pouring out of His divine life. There are several implications there, but it is the resulting spiritual restoration that enables us to want to know Him in a personal way and have an interactive relationship with Him.
    On the surface, it sounds barbaric, but I’m sure you’ve heard stories of heroic efforts of individuals who have sacrificed themselves in order to save a loved one or even a perfect stranger. We tend to admire such people for their lack of selfishness. This merciful behavior is simply a dim reflection of the character of God.

    • Thank you Heather. I’ll think about your comment. I feel that there’s something that I’m not ‘getting’ about this issue so this might help 🙂

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