Note: This is the second part of a two-part series on Progressive Christianity, and it is written to answer a question asked directly of me: If you, like many Progressive Christians, “reject” the Substitutionary Atonement theories of what the cross means, do you still believe in the cross?
I again encourage you to “follow your disturbance” (VISIONS) as you read. If something gets to you a bit, makes you feel uncomfortable, please don’t shut yourself down and stop reading. Say a prayer for understanding and peace of mind and read on. If you need to stop and pray again, stop and pray again! If you want to, send me an email or pick up the phone and call. I’d be humbled and blessed to hear your thoughts and questions.
“Pastor, do you believe in the cross?” YES! I believe in the saving power of the cross! YES! I believe Jesus died on the cross and on the third day rose from the dead! YES! I believe that “God so loved the world that God sent Jesus, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.”
For me, having had to put those beliefs into my own words to satisfy my seminary professors and the pastoral search team, I have arrived at this: The Gospel is first and foremost the Good News that God so loves us that God became flesh, dwelt among us, taught us what it means to love God and neighbor, and did not stop loving us even after our rejection led to Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross. We who surrender ourselves to this great love can live as resurrected people with Christ, assured of God’s unconditional love and forgiveness without end through Jesus.
Now my response becomes a little more complex. I wish it was simpler, but honestly, what’s simple about the Jesus story? It’s about the collision of God with humans. Of self-sacrificing love and selfish motives. Of the powers of Love and Goodness toppling the forces of Hate and Hard Heartedness. Of life, death, and resurrection that holds out the hope of transformed lives and an earth that will one day match God’s vision for it.
My belief in the cross is, in one respect, as simple and straight forward as John 3:16: “God so loved the world that God sent God’s only child, so that everyone who believes will not perish but have eternal life.” I believe God GAVE God’s only child. I believe this act was an act of sacrifice. How so? Well, this is a simplified version of what I think happened in the mind of God (How presumptuous, right?!!) I think God looked upon the human race and said something like, “These people, my children, just don’t get it! They continue to reject me. They hurt each other and strive for things like power and wealth that don’t last. I’ve sent prophets and signs and they still don’t understand. But I’m not giving up. I’m going to try one more time. I’m going down there to love them, live among them, and show them how to love me and to love their neighbors and themselves. And I know it will be risky! There’s a chance their fear or selfishness or need to be right will get the best of them, and that those things could play out in violence and pain and even death. But they’re worth it.”
And it played out just that way. I believe it.
So I do believe that Jesus’ death on the cross was a sacrifice. What I don’t believe (anymore) is how the word “sacrifice” is taught in conservative Christianity. In other words, I don’t believe that God “sacrificed” Jesus upon the altar of the cross exactly as the priests sacrificed lambs on the altar in the temple.
Now, for some, that might seem like splitting hairs. But I believe that passages like John 1:29, when John the Baptist sees Jesus and says, “”Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” are faithful attempts to describe Jesus, the Savior, in images that the Jews could understand. John was a preacher. He used imagery, metaphor, rhetorical tools, and every other tool he had to try to convince the people that their long wait was over….that they were beholding the Messiah. This is perfectly in line with many other images of Jesus that I understand metaphorically rather than literally and still cherish: Jesus is the Bread of Life, Living Water, the Good Shepherd, Bridegroom, King of Kings, and on and on.
Let me put this in a more scholarly way. The way that we understand the cross, the way that we “believe in the cross,” has been given a name by theological scholars. It’s called a theology of atonement or an atonement theory. Here is one of my favorite explanations of what “atonement” means. It’s a little bulky, but that’s part of what I like about it. It doesn’t gloss over or ignore sin:
All real religion presupposes the grim and inescapable fact of sin; the language it speaks, in judgment and mercy, is the language of atonement. Communion with God is the very goal of [our] being, but this is impossible without reconciliation to God. Atonement means, therefore, the creation of the conditions whereby God and [humanity] come together. – J. S. Whale, Christian Doctrine
There are many, many theories of atonement. The specific one that best represents my understanding of the cross, the understanding I laid out in my first paragraphs, is called the Moral Influence or Moral Exemplar Theory. Coming to this understanding was a big step for me and a departure from what I learned in my youth in Confirmation classes, so I was pleased to learn that many church historians believe the Moral Exemplar theory is the oldest atonement theory AND the one most widely held by the early Church Fathers. In other words, it’s not a New Age theory.
How I wish I had been taught this understanding of the cross when I was young! But I wasn’t. Like many people of my generation growing up in Christian churches in the US, I was taught a Substitutionary theory of atonement. (Remember, there are quite a few theories of Atonement.) Below you will see four of the most common that can be grouped into a category called Substitutionary Atonement.
What’s important to note here is that all these are founded on an acceptance of Original Sin, which is the teaching that the sin of Adam & Eve is passed down through all humans. Each theory attempts to explain that what humans really deserve, because we are totally depraved, is eternal damnation. They teach that God had to figure out a plan for pardoning humans for original sin.
Four Common Theories of Substitutionary Atonement
||When Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden of Eden, the Devil gained power over and “lordship” of the fallen human race. Human beings were, therefore, enslaved in sin to Satan. In order to rescue the fallen human race, God had to provide a ransom to the Devil so that the devil would release them back to God.
||Similar to the Ransom Theory, human beings have been held under the dominion of Satan ever since Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit and committed the original sin. To save the people, God sent Jesus into battle with the powers of evil. According to Aulén, “the work of Christ is first and foremost a victory over the powers which hold mankind in bondage: sin, death, and the devil.”
||Anselm developed this theory to address what he saw as inadequacies in the Ransom Theory. Anselm states that God is the moral governor of the universe and that humans as God’s creatures owe God absolute obedience. Humans sinned (Adam) by disobeying God and, therefore, withholding the honor due to God. In doing so, they have offended God. God, who is Righteous, can’t just forgive this sin without receiving satisfaction for God’s own offended honor. Therefore, Jesus was offered up as a sacrifice to satisfy God’s offended honor.
|Penal Substitution Theory
||Builds upon Anselm’s Satisfaction Theory of Atonement. The Reformers agreed that Jesus Christ (God-human) is the only one who could perfectly satisfy the justice of God, by being punished for humanity’s sins. The Reformers changed the language of sin from “insult to God’s honor” to “sin as the breaking of God’s law.”
Many of us who grew up in the church learned one of these theories from our pastor, depending on the denomination we were in.
This is VERY important. Very faithful, learned men (I’m speaking of the distant past) who were devoted to Christ developed these theories based on their own understanding of Scripture. So, for example, Calvin read these words in 1st Peter 2:24, which state that Christ “himself bore [or “carried up”] our sins in his body on the tree” (NIV) and ended up with a theory that Christ was our substitute on the cross and, therefore, we need never die because Christ died for us. The Apostle Paul, though, had a different understanding. He believed that because Christ died, we ALSO MUST die. For Paul, it was very important that humans must PARTICIPATE in the work of atonement, and, therefore, saying that Christ accomplished it on his own as our replacement did not work for him. Paul wrote in Romans 6: “Or aren’t you aware that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We therefore were buried with him through baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of God, we too may walk in newness of life.”
Since those early days, other learned people (no longer only men), devoted to Christ, have developed or modified theories of atonement based on their own understanding of Scripture.
Personally, I didn’t even know there were other theories of atonement until I went to seminary. I always thought that the New Testament, if you knew how to read it correctly, laid it all out and anyone with a little faith and intelligence could map out the theory. The RIGHT theory. Now I see that not only does scripture not do that, it doesn’t even try to.
Over time, as I mentioned, I began to move toward an understanding of Jesus’s work on the cross as the deepest expression of God’s love. I do believe that, left to our own devices, humans are often sinful, living in ways that reject the example of Jesus. I admit that I am a sinner. I think Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection offer me a way of living “at-one-ment” with God that is, again, based in God’s love for me through Jesus Christ, and not based in a formula for satisfying the anger of God that was kindled in the Garden of Eden. Jesus showed us an example of how to love God, neighbor and selves with our whole hearts, AND even in the face of death his faithfulness to his mission and to God did not waiver.
When I was young, I didn’t look at any of this from a logic standpoint, nor did I carry it through to its logical conclusion. I felt SO LOVED that God would DO THAT (sacrifice Jesus) for ME! I thought my heart would explode! I was overcome by the reality of GRACE. It didn’t bother me that I was being saddled with “original sin,” the sin of Adam and Eve, because at the very same time I learned that I was guilty of it, I learned that I was forgiven of it!
But as I studied more, lived more, and yes, became a parent myself, it began to really wear on me that God had intentionally created a plan that involved the death of God’s child. I mean, I would die for my kids, any or all of them, in a slow and painful way and more than once if it would save them. And I understood that THAT is what God would do for me! But the difference is that I would NOT sacrifice any one of my children willingly for the other. I would do everything possible and half of what’s impossible to save them all. I know I am NOT God, and God’s ways are NOT my ways. But GOD IS LOVE! And the theory of God’s willingly sacrificing Jesus (especially if it was out of some need to satisfy God’s offended honor) just didn’t hold up under the light of my adult experiences.
Do I believe God sent Jesus to earth? YES! But to LIVE not to DIE. To show people what a life lived in love for God and fellow humans could look like. Did God know it was a risk? Yes. Because people are often selfish and small minded and power hungry and swayed by the crowds (“crucify him!”). But God took the chance because God’s love for us is so great.
The result? A heartbreaking death on the cross. But BEFORE that? A life lived as an example of how to love God, neighbor, and selves with our whole heart. And AFTER that? A paradigm shattering, world saving Resurrection that promises human beings that we, too, can triumph over the ways of the world and live in perfect love (and yes, obedience) to God. Jesus showed us how.