So, I got kind of busy with Easter and training for half marathons and I've neglected the blog. I'm going to start a different approach and build up some drafts so I can post more consistently...we'll see how that goes.
Anyway, so way back a few months ago I read Tony Jones e-book on The Atonement titled A Better Atonement. (You can find my posts about atonement theory here: http://www.methodistmissionary.com/1/category/atonement/1.html) Tony basically had two main goals: 1) debunk some of our typical thinking about Original Sin, and 2) dethrone Penal Substitutionary Theory of the Atonement from its prominence. He did this by presenting multiple theories of the atonement that have been presented throughout Christian history. The two most recently developed theories being "The Last Scapegoat" and "The Solidarity Theory". He does a good job giving a general overview of each and showing some fo the dangers. The Solidarity Theory is very intriguing and I never quite got around to it here on the blog. So here it is...
The inspiration for the theory comes from Jurgen Moltmann. A great theologian whose experience of The Holocaust colors his theology. Speaking from that experience and his understanding of The Gospel, Moltmann puts forth the idea that Jesus' death on the cross is God's choice to be in solidarity with us in suffering. He uses the term "godforsakenness" to name the intense oppression and suffering that Christ faces on the cross, which is witnessed to by his saying "my God, my God, why have you forsaken me." Human beings also experience godforsakenness when experiencing oppression and suffering. God chooses to be with us through it all. This choice is very powerful for those who face incredible oppression and suffering. It means you are not alone, God is with you. That brings great hope.
Here are the closing thoughts from Jones:
Our call is to identify with Christ's suffering and death, much as he has identified with us. In his death, we are united with his suffering. And in identifying with his resurrection, we are raised to new life.
This does not mean that Solidarity is the only and correct theory of The Atonement. I think the whole point of Jones' book is that Atonement Theories each express different aspects of the mystery of God's salvation of humanity. The theories of atonement are like golf clubs, you can pull out a different one depending on the context.
Tony Jones, in his book A Better Atonement, introduced me to a Theory of the Atonement I had not discovered before: The Last Scapegoat. I must say, it is very intriguing. Read the book to get Tony's full explanation of it, but I'll do my best to cover the gist of it.
According to Jones, this theory is developed by anthropologist and literary critic, René Girard. Jones quotes from James Alison in an article published here: http://www.jamesalison.co.uk/texts/eng05.html, which describes Girard's way-of-thinking about humanity. Basically, he says that we all have a desire for what other humans have. This idea is called "mimetic desire." We want to be like others, and have what they have. Girard posits that this mimetic desire leads to rivalry and violence as we try to get what others have. This rivalry and violence grows and grows rampantly, until the community unites against a Scapegoat who takes on all of the guilt and is sacrificed. (I'll admit, that's probably not exactly the best explanation, but that's how I re-phrase it in my own words to try and explain it to you).
Much of human religion was sacrificial religion until Judaism and Christianity changed things and wrote the story differently. Ultimately, Jesus Christ is the Last Scapegoat. Here's what Jones writes:
"In Christ, God becomes the one who is rejected and expelled. That is, the scapegoat is not one of us who is sacrificed to appease an angry deity. Instead, the deity himself enters our society, becomes the scapegoat, and thereby eliminates the need for any future scapegoats or sacrifices."
He then quotes James Alison's summary: "Christianity is a priestly religion which understands that it is God's overcoming of our violence by substituting himself for the victim of our typical sacrifices that opens up our being able to enjoy the fullness of creation as if death were not."
This makes some sense to me. I think this has some similarity to the Moral Influence Theory of the Atonement, which suggests that Jesus's actions inspire us to a better life.
To me, what is intriguing about this Theory of the Atonement is that it emphasizes how Judaism and Christianity were different from the religions of their time. It shows how we were counter-cultural, choosing to show that the One True God is different than what the world had ever really experienced. It basically plots a course of human history that is entirely different than what had been in place prior to that. I think this is fairly consistent with the Narrative of the Scriptures. I think this is a culturally relevant way of talking about the Atonement to someone who has never known Jesus Christ. We all know envy, rivalry, jealousy and striving against one another. We know the violence of the world we live in. The Last Scapegoat Theory of the Atonement gives a way of communicating Jesus Christ as one who provides a different vision for life than envy, jealousy, rivalry, strife and violence. Christ brings peace, hope, love. Instead of working against each other, we can work together in harmony.
I feel like I didn't really do this justice, so do your own reading and feel free to comment and adjust my explanation to more closely depict Girard's thought. I too should do some more study about it.
So, in my recent study of theories of The Atonement, I bought an Amazon Prime membership so I could borrow for "free" Tony Jones' book, A Better Atonement: Beyond the Depraved Doctrine of Original Sin. Then, yesterday, for Ash Wednesday, Tony puts it on sale for free to buy! Now I can't borrow another book for free until the month is up. (In actuality though, I was going to buy a Prime membership anyway, but I thought I'd share my experience of life messing with me, at least now I can read it on any device for "free".)
Tony does a good job discussing Original Sin and the origins of how we think about it due to Augustine and others. Basically, Tony proposes that the notion that we inherit the guilt of Adam's sin through biological parentage is ridiculous. Why should we be held accountable for someone else's sin? That's not justice. Tony reminds us of the corporate/social aspects of sin. Sin is bigger than just my individual, personal mistakes. The point he makes is that we inherit Death from Adam, but not the guilt of his sin. So that changes how one views The Atonement and the work of Christ.
He then goes on to outline a few theories of The Atonement, ending with the one that he thinks is most helpful. He touches on the Penal Substitutionary or Satisfaction Theory of Atonement and in his words wishes to "dethrone" it from being the primary understanding of The Atonement. As you can guess, I agree. As I've already written in the last week, the PSToA can be useful, but for the most part can prove to be toxic to faith because it takes power away from the Resurrection and promotes a concept of justice that is not Restorative or Redemptive. Tony even includes some discussion of current proponents of PSToA Mark Driscoll and John Piper. He even discusses a conversation he had with Piper about different theories of the Atonement. All along the way, Jones reminds us these are just "theories" not scripture, and all of them can be used to communicate what God is doing in Jesus Christ on the Cross in different ways to different contexts.
Jones also talks about the Christus Victor Theory of Atonement and The Ransom Captive Theory of Atonement, which are closely related to each other. He writes those off because he doesn't believe in Demons or personified evil like Satan. You can choose to agree or disagree as you please. I am ambivalent about it because I leave the possibility open that those things exist, but I doubt it.
The last two theories of The Atonement are the ones that I think deserve the most thought: The Last Scapegoat and Solidarity. Since this post is getting long enough, I'll discuss those in a couple of future posts and conclude this one with some general thoughts on Tony's book.
I recommend the book because it is a pretty quick read that is not overly academic. However, that is also my main complaint about it. It goes through everything very quickly. I really wish the Solidarity Theory of Atonement was developed more. Jones basically just quotes Jurgen Moltmann a few times to explain it. Including some reasons why this should dethrone PSToA would be nice. He would just have to answer the question: How is thinking of the Atonement in this way more helpful in today's context than PSToA? He had previously stated why he doesn't like PSToA, and he briefly says why he likes the Solidarity Theory of the Atonement, but I'm looking for more explanation. I guess "de-throning" PSToA is enough. He relativizes all of the theories as useful. If I were supporting a particular theory, I guess I would want to put it on the throne instead of PSToA. But as Tony says "It is just a theory, right?"
All in all, it is a good read to get a quick overview of Theories of the Atonement. The ideas presented could be made into a much lengthier more academic book.
You can also read Tony's blog, Theoblogy, at www.patheos.com/blogs/tonyjones
So this past week, I talked about two different theories of Atonement, that emphasize different aspects of what God is revealing to us in scripture and through Jesus Christ. I think the Christus Victor and Solidarity theories of Atonement are more helpful to express what God accomplishes in Jesus Christ. Especially when you consider the USAmerican culture that we live in today. Not everybody agrees with me, but that's their problem.
Part of my sermon mentioned that Jesus mentions Hell, but not as a place of eternal punishment and torment. He was actually talking about a real place that existed in his time, a valley called Gehenna. During my sermon, I only mentioned it as a trash heap like a city dump, but now I've done a little more research and discovered the imagery and metaphor Jesus was using goes even further.
I know Wikipedia isn't always the greatest source of information, but It gives a quick overview of what Jesus meant by "Gehenna": http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gehenna. So, this Valley was a place that had historically seen Child Sacrifice and Human Sacrifice. Bodies would be burned there. Animals would come and gnash their teeth on the bones. It smelled bad. And people probably wept at the loss of life: their family, friends, sons and daughters. Basically, the worst think on earth. Something you would never want to see or experience...but people did.
Does your life have experiences like that? Where suffering, grief, injustice and pain overwhelm you? Where you know things are absolutely wrong, and no one seems to care? Where it seems impossible for things to be made right? If so, I have Good News! JESUS CAME TO BE WITH YOU THROUGH THAT, AND TO RESCUE YOU FROM IT to ETERNAL LIFE IN HEAVEN! One day, everything will be made right. Jesus' resurrection--being raised from the dead--was the first sign of the new life that is to come. Jesus was victorious over Death and Sin and Evil, and when he comes again, that work will be complete. That New Life can begin in you today through faith in Jesus Christ!
That is the Good News of the Gospel. That is why I am thankful for heaven. Jesus rescued me and carried me through my darkest moments, and I have hope for the future--the best days are yet to come! Heaven is beginning now as Jesus and his body, the Church, live out God's purposes here on earth. The Holy Spirit is at work in me and the Church bringing heaven and New Life, helping God create "The New Creation." I'm excited! Are you?
redletterchristians.org has an article that helped me think differently about Atonement, heaven and hell
So, this last Sunday, I got off on a tangent that I didn't plan on going down. And I talked about something that I wasn't prepared to talk about: hell and eternal punishment. I didn't stay on that topic very long. But I know that I said some things in a way that I regret.
The actual topic I was speaking about was "How Can I know God's Will for my Life?". The sermon for the most part went pretty well. I was trying to talk about reasons that we have great Joy and Love because God has saved us. That was when I turned to some teachings that I was taught growing up in conservative Christianity. I'm speaking of the most predominant Theory of Atonement taught among conservative Christianity today: The Penal Substitution Theory of Atonement.
Basically, the theory says that God is set on punishing (or Penalizing, hence Penal) Sinners by death. Jesus Christ is offered instead of sinners to take that punishment. Jesus is our Substitute. So by Jesus taking the punishment that was meant for us, we can be "Atoned" or have peace with God, and enjoy eternal life in Heaven. If we reject Jesus Christ, then we receive the punishment of Hell, eternal separation from God, torment.
I believed that way of thinking for most of my childhood and teen years, and probably even into college. I never really liked it though. I felt that preachers used it to incite fear and proclaim threats, which they could then use to manipulate people into making a decision for Christ. I don't see that being God's way or Jesus Christ's way of working in the world. In fact, I seem to remember the New Testament saying, "perfect Love casts out fear." Even though I didn't agree with that way of thinking and preaching, I still did not pursue re-programming the 18+ years of that teaching in my brain. So it is unfortunately, the default way I think about the "Good News" of the Gospel: God saves us from the punishment of Hell so we can enjoy Heaven. You'd think in Seminary and through Board of Ordained Ministry Interviews, I would have clarified what I really think.
Fortunately, yesterday I came across this article: http://www.redletterchristians.org/healing-toxic-faith-did-jesus-die-to-save-us-from-god/. Derek Flood does a good job of putting forth a different way of thinking about The Atonement, and showing why the Penal Substitution Theory is not simply "What the Bible says." The main issue he raises with it is the fact that it sets up a scenario where Jesus Christ dies to save us from God--why would we need to be saved from God? Isn't God Good? The PSToA isn't so much what the Bible reveals to us, rather it is some Christians imposing Punitive Justice upon the Bible. The article briefly presents the Christus Victor Theory of Atonement, that was taught by the church for many years before the PSToA took over:
For the first thousand years, the work of Christ was understood primarily in terms of God’s act of healing people, and liberating them from the bonds of sin and death. This understanding of the atonement is known as Christus Victor. But gradually there was a shift towards a legal focus, and with it a focus on violent punishment. The message was flipped on its head: instead of the crucifixion being seen as an act of grave injustice (as it is portrayed in all four Gospels), there was a shift towards the claim that God had demanded the death of Jesus to quench his anger. Not coincidentally, this coincided with increased violence perpetrated by the church, and it went downhill from there.
So, this Sunday, I plan to make up for my mistake and answer the question "Why does a Loving and Just God plan eternal punishment in Hell?" I can promise you that my answer is "He doesn't, and here's why..." It's time to have a Christ-like faith that brings healing, not fear.
I am a Software Developer, a career shift made in 2018. So far, I have experience with C# .Net and Angular. I continue to let curiosity lead me into learning new technologies. I plan to share what I learn along the way about technology and personal/career life. Previously, my vocation was United Methodist pastor. So in addition to coding, I'll share about theology, the Church and The Bible. I also enjoy running, music, and I'm a deeply committed father and husband. Maybe my experiences will help you. I know it helps me to share.