Guest Post: A Scourge of Bad Theology: Overcoming the Atonement Doctrine

By Byron Belitsos

The domains once known as Christendom have long been steeped in civil violence and warfare, and even occasional acts of genocide. The scourge of war also pervades our earliest scripture. One is shocked, for example, to learn that Jahweh calls for ruthless warfare against Israel’s neighbors, epitomized by Joshua’s campaign of virtual genocide against the previous occupants of the Promised Land. Many other stories of armed conflict are found in the Deuteronomistic History. The Hebrews were frequent aggressors, but they just as often were overrun by neighboring empires. The hapless Jews fought internecine battles as well. In Exodus, Moses orders the execution of 3,000 followers because of their idol worship (Ex 32:28). And, during the harsh period described at 1 Kings 15, for example, Judah and Israel engage in an ongoing vicious civil war, with competing religious ideologies at stake.

Pre-modern Christian institutions followed a similar pattern in the name of the Christian God, sometimes called the Prince of Peace. Christian leadership fomented the crusades, the Inquisition, and the witch-burnings. During the Reformation, Catholic fought Protestant in decades of devastating warfare. In modern times, two great world wars were waged by nominal Christian nations against one another. In the U.S., almost all Christian denominations supported the War in Vietnam until Martin Luther King denounced it, and only a few church groups aggressively opposed several dozen other military interventions and the more recent wars in the Middle East.

In many of these cases, points out scholar Robert J. Daly, the combatants exceeded the boundaries of “just war” theory, while still feeling themselves to be acting consistent with Christian belief.[1] Daly suggests, and I agree, that bad theology and mistaken beliefs about God lie behind such violence—at least in part.

If indeed there is such a correlation, one source of this mistaken theology seems fairly obvious. The theological error that offers the most ideological support for structures of violence down through the millennia is Paul’s atonement doctrine, which was in turn a logical extension of the sacrificial and purification rites of the ancient Hebrews.

Here, for example, is a characteristic statement of this teaching [bold emphasis mine]: “[We] are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith.” (Rom 3:23–25) Throughout his epistles, Paul points to blood atonement as a core meaning of the cross, offering along the way a wide array of creative metaphors and rhetorical devices to support the idea.



[1] Robert J. Daly, “Images of God and the Imitation of God: Problems with Atonement,” Theological Studies, Vol. 68, Iss. 1, (Mar 2007): 36-51. This compelling article by Daly inspired much of my argument in this essay.

 

The Pauline idea of blood redemption pervades the Gospels as well, where we read for example that Jesus “gave his life . . . as a ransom for many.” This stark idea can be found at Mark 10:45, who we now know in part based his Gospel after the writings of Paul. Matthew quotes this very same line at Mt 20:28, most likely copying Mark. We find blood atonement ideas in John as well, though much less so in the Gospel of Luke

The general atonement concept, especially as abstracted from Paul’s writings and elaborated by his successors, amounts to the idea that God deliberately intended Jesus’s violent death. In its most extreme form, Jesus’s sacrificial death (and his victory over death by resurrection) was seen as being planned by God from the beginning of time, or at least from the time of Adam’s default. Later theologians extended this idea into a crystallized dogma, especially in the West.

In his masterful book on the atonement idea in Judaism and early Christianity, Stephen Finlan calls the doctrine “crazy-making theology.”[1] For, if your God demands violence—if at God’s level certain acts of brutality are sometimes necessary—we humans can feel justified in engaging in violence at our level.

“No wonder there seems to be a widespread tendency to take violence for granted in human affairs,” laments Daly.[2] After all, we are to imitate the ways of our God, but must we mimic a God who demands the bloody sacrifice of his only son?

Defining the Doctrine of Atonement Classic atonement theory can be understood as God’s “honor code.” God is in charge of all power transactions with his creatures, governing their behavior as a matter of divine honor. Each time collective human sin or some other offense damages or offends God’s sense of honor, a payment to restore God’s favor must be made through a sacrifice or some form of purification. Otherwise, sinful humanity will be subjected to a divine verdict against it, and must undergo a serious punishment. For example, in Genesis, God had to make humanity as a whole pay for its corruption through a great flood (Gen 6–9).

Later in the Hebrew history, sacrifices and purification rites became essential features of cultic practice, and they often entailed extreme violence. In Deuteronomy 3:13-16, God commands that if a town worships idols, “you shall put the inhabitants of that town to the sword, utterly destroying it and everything in it—even putting its livestock to the sword. All of its spoil you shall gather into its public square; then burn the town and all its spoil with fire, as a whole burnt offering to the Lord your God.” [Emphasis mine.] In other words, the destruction of the town is a sacrifice, a burnt offering that honors God and induces him to restore his favor. The payment of the sacrifice also functions like a propitiatory gift to God.



[1] Stephen Finlan, Sacrifice and Atonement: Psychological Motives and Biblical Patterns (Fortress Press, 2016), p. 120.

[2] Daly, page 45.

Other examples of this kind are common in the Old Testament. At Samuel 21, God sends a famine on the land, then tells David that it has occurred because “there is bloodguilt on Saul.” God ends the famine after seven of Saul’s sons are “impaled . . . before the Lord.” Only then does God lift the blight.

According to Finlan, “Costliness was necessary to the sacrificial gift being effective.”[1] Paul grew up amidst the sacrificial cult of Jerusalem as a Pharisee, and he instinctively understood this equation. Paul must have reasoned that, if humankind as a whole was to be saved, a very expensive transaction was needed as a payoff to expiate its sins once and for all. Otherwise, why was an uneducated Galilean—a powerless man who had been crucified like a common criminal—appear to him as a risen savior? Why else would this marginal person have to die such a cruel death, only to be resurrected?

The most effective payment Paul could imagine would be for God to offer up, as a sacrifice, his only Son. Jesus, as God incarnate, was a large enough offering that he alone could propitiate God’s violated honor. In other words, Jesus’s death was deemed a sacrifice that was sufficient to permit God to reconcile sinful humanity to himself, and thereby create a new covenant with all humanity. Jesus’s suffering was needed to save us, for God’s love alone cannot save us.

Doing Away with Bad Theology

Today many of us believe that the doctrine of the atonement through the shedding of Jesus’s blood is entirely erroneous, truly an embarrassment. How can it be consistent with Jesus’s idea of God as a true and loving Father? In effect, this doctrine teaches that God’s infinite love is secondary to a requirement for a sacrifice to appease him for man’s offenses.

No wonder these crude ideas get downplayed once a mature Trinitarian theology evolved in the fourth century. “Such inner-trinitarian tension fails to appropriate the insight that, in sending the Son, the Father is actually sending himself,” says Daly.[2] In other words, the idea of atonement is not only barbaric, but is also a monstrous logical contradiction.
It is most unfortunate that this primitive notion—that Jesus’s death is a divinely ordained ransom—gets mixed up with Paul’s other insights, many of which were brilliant. Among these is what might be called Paul’s “cosmic iconoclasm,” in the words of biblical scholar Brigette Kahl. The revelation of the risen Christ on the Damascus road, she says, exploded Paul’s universe. He will never again see the old world he once inhabited, and is blind for three days. Paul eventually realizes that God had “changed sides,” shattering the prevailing images of a divine order that, in Paul’s immediate experience, included


[1] Finlan, p. 26

[2] Daly, p 50. He goes on to say: “It might be seen as a battle between the idea of Incarnation and the idea of atonement/sacrifice. . . . What would happen if we were to remove the idea of atonement? The vibrant  Christianity of the East that, although founded on the same biblical and patristic origins as that of the West, based its theology of salvation . . . much more on theologies of theosis/divinization rather than on Western-type atonement theories.”

Hebrew accommodation to Roman rule and its pagan state religion. All around Paul were images (statues, coins, and temples) that depicted Caesar in the role of the universal Father, or pater patrie. Conquered peoples like the Jews must pay tribute to this deity, submit to unjust Roman law, and even permit Roman surveillance of their most sacred rites. As Paul sees it, the God of the risen Christ carries out a great reversal. Those who were once the enemies of this false idol of empire, the oppressed subjects of imperial rule—both Jew and Gentile—now have a much greater God who favors them instead of the rulers. The great revelation to Paul portrays to him a God of justice and mercy for all, the true universal Father. This is the original God of Abraham. This was that God who before the Law was promulgated by Moses, only requiring a simple faith. This revolutionary insight leads Paul to declare that Jew and Gentile alike are now liberated from both the Hebrew Law and the Roman oppressor through the love of God through Christ. Jesus died to rehabilitate those at the bottom of the social hierarchy, who have immediate access to the Kingdom and are justified in God’s eyes by simple faith.[1]
I would only add that this picture of Christ’s work on Earth is the kind of inspiration we need today, once we leave behind the bad theology of Paul’s mistaken atonement concept.


[1] Brigette Kahl, “Reading Galatians and Empire at the Great Altar of Pergamon,” Union Seminary Quarterly Review, 2005.

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