Friday 9 December 2005

On Atonement

I received the most interesting comment from a perfect stranger named Tim on my last post. For those who don't addictively read my comments, I wanted to share it and provide some thoughts.

Initially quoting me, he says: "He’s so hell-bent on making someone pay for defiling the world He created for us that he needs to find one person to carry all those sins, and then to die for them. And would it be good enough for any old person to do that. No. He has to concieve a Son, because this salvation business ain’t nothin’ but a Family Thing."

He then continues on his own: That's probably the weirdest way I've ever heard anyone talk about atonement. But you realize what you said? That's actually what makes Christianity amazing... It's not that he's "hell-bent on making someone pay" in the way that a criminal desires vengeance. It's Justice, and it makes perfect sense... God is holy, pure, righteous, and just. It's really popular to talk/think like you're talking, but what's it based on? Intuition? Since I'm a fan of the Bible, here's an interesting bit that deals with our perception of Christ from the letter to the Corinthians that Paul (the guy in the Bible) wrote:

[He then quotes 1 Corinthians 1:18-31. I have redacted it to this link from the NRSV, though he quoted New King James. Every translation has its place.]

Anyway, if you actually read that; don't you think it's cool? Maybe it's kind of hard to wrap your head around without reading more of the Bible, but I just have to say that the Bible is actually an amazing book. You can read the same stuff so many times and if you are reading to learn (not necessarily with the intent of proving or disproving your point of view, for as Plutarch so wisely said- "It is impossible for anyone to learn that which he thinks he already knows"), you will learn!

I'm not trying to provoke hostility here.. I know that people tend to get hostile or frustrated when one quotes the Bible, but the Bible really ought to be quoted in the context of God. I went through a pretty major crisis of faith when I started university (I'm a Geology student, so it had to happen!), so I just wanted to share that... I don't even know how I found this blog, actually. Kinda random. So that's that.


Contrary to Tim's implication, I own a Bible, and I've even read some of it. Paul is one of my favourite writers, for it is in the closing of some of Paul's letters, particularly 1 Corinthians — "Stand firm in your faith; be courageous, be strong. Let all you do be done in love." — and 1 Thessalonians — "Encourage the faint-hearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them. See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you." — that we find this distilled essence of what it means for us to be Christian.

The reason why what I say sounds about atonement sounds weird is we look at atonement differently. You think of substitutionary atonement; that is, that Jesus died on the cross in our place, individually and collectively, as propitiation for our sins. Propitiation is exactly where my problem lies — that Jesus must die in order for "it [to] become consistent with [God's] character and government to pardon and bless sinners." (Propitiation – Wikipedia). If I believe in atonement at all, which is questionable at best, I believe in the moral influence view of it, in which Christ's death is not a substitute for our own, but an exemplar of God's great love and the devotion and obedience of the Christ.

I cannot comprehend substitutionary atonement for the same reason I cannot comprehend the death penalty, because I find justice in compassion and forgiveness, not revenge. Say, for example, that I kill another person, a member of your family. How does my death equate with justice; surely it does not return your family member to you. Likewise, I sin, and God will forgive my sins, thus saving me from death, but only if someone (the Christ) is punished for my sins instead. My trouble comes in that God cannot simply forgive.


  1. Agreed. There are many thing about the Jesus story that I like. I am an especial fan of the Birth story. I think that there are lots of great messages in what Jesus teaches, and what the other authors of the New Testament preach. But that fundamental problem -- that someone had to die; that we couldn't be forgiven without a sacrifice -- seems to me no less "barbaric" than the goat sacrifices that early Christians fought against. Oh, or those virgin daughters.

  2. My thing on the substitutionary atonement equates revenge thing is that, in order for there to be revenge, one has to kill someone else. God didn't kill Jesus, God killed himself. He killed off that part that couldn't simply forgive. I am possibly seeing it this way because I spent so long being suicidal. And, it could be heretical, I'm not sure. I think the propitiation happened when Christ was born, maybe when the Bible loses track of young feller Jesus. I think God went - 'wait a minute, this whole system with the sacrifices and things isn't bringing people closer to me'. He had to change himself, and to do it, he did what many of his folks did for him in all those years of eye for an eye, he made a sacrifice himself. Since it was a big deal, the sacrifice had to be The Biggest Deal. It couldn't be someone he created, It needed to be God. Only God can Change God, I assume.

    I know where you're coming from though. A friend of the family is an atheist, sorta. He simply can't accept God as being vengeful. And, right or wrong, I agree. The God of Abraham, who asked for his son's life - the God that hardened Pharoh's heart - how can that be our God? Sure, that God is someone to be in awe of, to be in abject terror before, but I just don't know if it's the same God I know, who asks us to love our neighbour, turn the other cheek, and greet the world with love and compassion. The god who heals. Somehow, though, I feel it is the same God. There's a passage from the Bible somewhere that keeps circulating throughout my head as I write this. Forgive the rough paraphrase: 'When I was a child, I thought as a child, and talked as a child...there comes a time to set aside childish things'. Maybe God set aside his 'childish things'.

  3. Cereal Killer: "When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child, but when I became a man, I put away childish things. What? It's Corinthians one, chapter thirteen verse eleven."

    It's from Hackers, duh. :P

  4. I was pretty sure it was from Corinthians somewhere. Everything I ever quote seems to be from Corinthians. What's with that? :-P

  5. It is from Corinithians. I didn't quite finish the thought, though; i was pretty tired. The thought is, maybe God saw fit to set aside his 'childish' things. Moved on to a new stage of development.