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What is atonement theory?
There comes a point in your faith journey where, unless you’re living under a rock or within the confines of a cult, someone will inevitably question your faith. They will want to know why you believe what you do, and you will need to come up with a valid answer.
When I write that I struggled with a belief in God, that’s not entirely true. It was never hard for me to believe in an Intelligent Designer; it is my opinion that one only needs common sense to understand that living things must be created by something, somehow, although I fully respect a person’s right not to believe.
I didn’t struggle with believing in a historical Jesus, either, because the history of the Catholic Church is well written, and, give or take a few decades, takes up right where Paul and the disciples left off.
No, I didn’t struggle with belief in God and/or Jesus…
I struggled with believing what I’d been taught about God’s character and nature.
Various people groups throughout history also have struggled with what they’ve been taught about Judeo-Christianity:
- Muslims refused to accept a peaceful Christianity during the Crusades because they were being killed for practicing the faith of their choice (also, the Crusades were not exclusively fought against Muslims, but that’s a story for another day).
- Native Americans struggled to adapt to Christian Americans because White Americans were stripping them of their nation, identity and heritage.
- Slaves in the South (and North) sang Spirituals because the God of White Slaveholders was vengeful, harsh and punishing. Their Jesus was not.
- People groups all over the world have fought against Christian missionaries proselytizing in their countries because oftentimes they cause more harm than good.
People struggle to reconcile a “good and loving God” with what they are subsequently taught about him.
For example, in the throes of writing this study, I turned on YouTube one afternoon while getting dressed and clicked a video from a preacher that is fairly well-known in Reformed theological circles.
Something about him has always rubbed me the wrong way. Maybe it’s the way he pretends to know the state of each person’s soul. Maybe it’s the way he attempts to make others feel ashamed for being human.
But most likely, it’s the way he misinterprets very clear scripture.
The well-known Reformed preacher quoted this passage during his sermon. It comes from the Book of Ezekiel:
[Ezekiel 36] 22 “Therefore, give the people of Israel this message from the Sovereign Lord: I am bringing you back, but not because you deserve it. I am doing it to protect my holy name, on which you brought shame while you were scattered among the nations. 23 I will show how holy my great name is—the name on which you brought shame among the nations. And when I reveal my holiness through you before their very eyes, says the Sovereign Lord, then the nations will know that I am the Lord. 24 For I will gather you up from all the nations and bring you home again to your land.
25 “Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean. Your filth will be washed away, and you will no longer worship idols. 26 And I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart. 27 And I will put my Spirit in you so that you will follow my decrees and be careful to obey my regulations.
28 “And you will live in Israel, the land I gave your ancestors long ago. You will be my people, and I will be your God. 29 I will cleanse you of your filthy behavior. I will give you good crops of grain, and I will send no more famines on the land. 30 I will give you great harvests from your fruit trees and fields, and never again will the surrounding nations be able to scoff at your land for its famines. 31 Then you will remember your past sins and despise yourselves for all the detestable things you did. 32 But remember, says the Sovereign Lord, I am not doing this because you deserve it. O my people of Israel, you should be utterly ashamed of all you have done!Ezekiel
Notice in this passage that the people do nothing. God does it all.
And yet, this preacher told his impressionable flock that unless the congregation put their filth away, stopped worshiping “idols” and started following God’s decrees and regulations FIRST, God was not going to dwell among them, giving the good things he promised.
But this is the OPPOSITE of what that scripture passage says!
The scripture is clear that God in his mercy alone turned the people’s hearts towards him. There was zero mention of the Israelites doing anything to change their own behavior, but God specifically said He was doing good things despite the fact that they were behaving shamefully! (Not to mention, this passage is centuries upon centuries old, so there’s no way to tell if God is speaking to any of us in the modern day.)
It was God’s good gifts that cleaned the Israelites’ spirits. Not the other way around.
This is the singular facet of modern-day Christianity that I believe to be the tragic flaw. The “first you do, then God does,” mentality isn’t Biblical at all.
To make matters worse, preachers often simultaneously proclaim the “saving grace of Jesus” as the only thing that can wash us clean, so congregations all across the world are caught in a catch-22 of Salvation, the BUT-theory, as we talked about a few days ago.
It’s all about Jesus, BUT… (you must do A, B, and C to get to Heaven).
God’s grace is sufficient, BUT…
Jesus was our Savior, BUT…
He died for all, BUT…
And after that “but” comes all the things that Christian leaders say we should do, but they can’t even seem to do themselves.
That one word, BUT, has halted more Christian conversions than any other word on the planet.
The funny/sad/ironic fact about this reasoning is that it really damages the ransom theory Christians love to latch onto.
- Because Jesus either paid a ransom because we couldn’t pay it ourselves, or he didn’t, right?
- He either died to save us because we can’t save ourselves, or he didn’t, right?
- We are either bought at a high price because we’re that valuable or we aren’t, right?
I get where the ransom theory came from. The disciples were making clear connections to the sacrificial lambs of their religion, the burning and killing of flesh that they thought “satisfied” God’s wrath the same way it did the pagan gods. They didn’t understand the point of sacrifice at all, and quite frankly, they hated doing it. It was time consuming, dreadful and confusing.
John the Baptist called Jesus the “lamb of God” and Jesus himself said he “lays down his life” willingly. That’s the textbook definition of sacrifice.
But what we don’t really understand, not one of us, is why the sacrifice had to be made in the first place.
We make guesses and claims, but none of us really knows for sure because we are not God. If we’re going to take the Bible literally, then once again, it was God Himself who said His Ways and Thoughts are Higher than our own.
So how did we come to view Jesus’s death as a substitution for ours?
Well, surprisingly, atonement theory was not the original belief about the Crucifixion!
Read the following excerpt:
“In the dominant American Protestant (and Catholic) narrative of Christianity, Jesus died for our sins in our place–a substitution. This view is often called “substitutionary atonement.” It comes as a surprise to many (if they ever learn of it) that this view of Christ’s death is less than a thousand years old, which means Christianity existed for over a thousand years without any Christians holding this view! A theologian named Anselm of Canterbury first wrote about in 1097. Anselm wrote that God’s justice requires someone to pay for sin and only a human death can pay that price. Since humans are sinful, only a perfect human would do, so God came as Jesus Christ to die and pay the penalty for our sin.”~ There’s More Than One Way to Understand the Death of Jesus, Park Hill CC
Bottom line: it could very well be that the Jewish people were simply practicing sacrifice as they saw it being done around them by pagan nations.
Or, they were following the lead of their great leaders, Moses, Abraham, etc.
Or, God really did ask them to sacrifice helpless animals, as a picture, a reminder, a symbol, a foreshadowing, of what He would do for us in the future.
This much should be clear to any Christian who has studied history: Christ died on the cross, and unless thousands of people who saw him after his death are crazy, he rose again.
And I believe he was able to do that because he was God in the flesh.
I also believe that his greatest commandment is to love Him (God) with all my heart, soul and mind, and to love my neighbor as myself.
Here is the coolest part of that seems-so-easy-but-really-isn’t-easy-at-all command. If I love my neighbor as myself–celebrating him as I would like to be celebrated, validating her as I would like to be validated, caring for them and listening to their hurts, habits and hang-ups as I would like to be listened to myself, then I am actually loving God with all my heart, soul and mind! You can’t have one without the other!
Chew on that, folks. We don’t do that nearly enough as we walk this whole Christ-following thing.
See you soon,