In this well written book, Dr. Finlan takes pains to emphasize the positive. Given his subject, this isn’t entirely possible since he is inveigling against a major pillar of Christianity throughout the world. The most powerful argument against the Atonement is that it is illogical, in fact impossible if God is infinite and changeless (see “Prolegomena to a Future Theology”). Finlan covers this argument but briefly in the beginning of the book. In a later chapter on sacrifice in the earliest Christian literature, he points out how very little of it is present (see review reproduced below). He does note the strong re-emergence of the Atonement idea in the further evolution of Catholicism, and much more so in Protestantism. He explores the psychological roots of this process, something that, as a minister, must interest him deeply. What he does not explore, what he seems deliberately to leave out, are the political and financial implications of the doctrine to the institution of “the Church”.
Finlan points out that sacrifice to propitiate or magically manipulate “the gods” was likely practiced from very early in the human experience. The peoples of Europe and Palestine in Jesus’ time were used to the practice, a part of their “ritual calendar”, and in the Hebrew case recorded in their holy book, and cemented into their experience in both Egypt and Babylon. That such practice was inconsistent with an infinite and changeless God was noted by some of the main Hebrew prophets. The compilers of the Old Testament were liberal enough to include these minority voices in their document, though minority that they were, the practice of sacrifice continued, but at least for the Hebrews transformed from human to animal. Interestingly, while Finlan notes that the earliest Christian writings (sans Paul) had very little of sacrifice, they also contained no direct criticism of Paul’s sacrificial idea. There aren’t any “minority voices” challenging Paul’s ideas, at least not in the records that have come down to us.
Paul’s references to ransom and other sacrificial metaphors were not so radical an idea in his time, though they misrepresented Jesus’ purpose. What was radical was Paul’s idea of “last sacrifice”. Thanks to Jesus (according to Paul) no more sacrifice was needed, ever. Jesus’ death ended sacrificial requirements forever! By Jesus’ time, the Hebrew, Roman, and Greek cultures had abandoned human sacrifice and substituted animals. Paul may be credited with ending even this practice as Christianity took root in that part of the world. Of course it did not end elsewhere. Hebrew sacrificial practice did not end until the temple was destroyed and the Jews disbursed some forty years after Jesus’ death. In Rome, sacrificial practice likely continued until Constantine made the new Christianity the “religion of Rome” in 313 AD. The Aztec practiced human sacrifice until the coming of the Europeans to South and Central America in the 16th century! But rather than eliminate the sacrifice idea altogether, the evolving church transformed it, from an external ritual, innocent animals, to an internal one, the not so innocent human being.
A church is a physical and social institution. It wants buildings and, in the case of Catholicism (most religions though) a hierarchy of priests who must be fed, clothed, housed, and so on. But imagine that the evolving church proclaimed what Jesus actually taught, that God is a “Universal Father” and that all peoples, the men and women of all cultures everywhere on earth, were God’s children and therefore brothers. In a view derived from the infinity and changelessness of God (qualities Jesus understood well though he could not convey them in a way that made them stick) this relationship is true, and has always been true, no matter what one’s intellectual beliefs, culture, race or geographic location. While it is obvious that not everyone on earth in Jesus’ time or today believes this, it remains a truth. Atheists and religionists alike are all children of God!
Jesus tried to make it clear that salvation was tied to membership in this brotherhood. Humans are born into it and are saved by default. You need not even believe in salvation or brotherhood to be saved. All you need do is not screw up the gift which you can do only by freely electing to be evil to such an extent that you eventually lose the ability to tell the difference between good and evil (see “What is the Soul?” and “Theodicy in the Urantia Book”). What you must do is demonstrate your spiritual (not intellectual) recognition of the truth of brotherhood by acting like a brother, that is by treating others with love, respect, fairness, and so on, that is, “doing good”.
So why have a church at all? While religion is individual, your relationship with God, its fruits are necessarily social. You cannot go about doing good unless you are, at least occasionally, around others in social settings. It is natural for people who share beliefs in this vicinity to gather together for social and psychological reinforcement. One can do good and practice the social outworking of one’s religion among people anywhere, but it it is also good to refresh one’s outlook on the process by periodically coming together with others who also come into a fellowship because they share this outlook.
Had such a process been followed out socially and politically, resulting churches would be smallish, local, congregations that support their own physical infrastructure, choose the form of their services, and otherwise have no formal relation to other congregations except those they enter into by their own congregational choice. There would be no priestly hierarchy though individual congregations might choose to finance full or part-time ministers. Creedal doctrine, if there is any at all, would emerge at the level of individual congregations, and individuals would be free to leave one and join another. It should be obvious that under this model no large-scale rich and powerful institutional church could possibly emerge.
Yet men (some men) crave power. Prior to the Gospel message in the Roman world there were religious institutions, Mithra-ism being the dominant one in Rome in Paul’s time. Prior to modern times, members of various priestly hierarchies (and not only in Rome, but worldwide) were among the better off classes financially, socially, and politically. As Paul told it, the Jesus story had many parallels in Mithraic myth. The formal structure of Catholicism, as compared to spontaneous congregations of various Christian (meaning only believers in Jesus) groups, sprang from mithra-ism. The Urantia Book credits Paul with convincing the political powers of the Mithraic cult to substitute Jesus and Peter, “his rock”, for Mithras in exchange for adopting Mithraic rituals (like the winter solstice festival becoming Christmas) leaving the priestly hierarchy in place. If this is the case it means that the nascent core of Catholicism sprang into existence during Paul’s lifetime.
Salvation for all who believed in God and accepted the gift became salvation for those who became members of the Church and did so by accepting Paul’s idea that Jesus’ “sacrifice” was for them, while the sacrificial theme was carried through the believer through his or her dedication of both material wealth (proportional to individual means) and work, to the Church. Universal brotherhood became a brotherhood of believers, and the brotherhood was cemented by acceptance of Christ’s sacrifice for the believer. Sacrifice of wealth (among other things) to “temples of the gods” was common in that day as it remains in ours. Paul’s notion of “final sacrifice” did put an end to the slaughter of innocent animals (not to mention the occasional person) in the Roman world at least, and the sacrificial notions made for a nice segue into a doctrinal pillar of the new Church. No longer was it the literal sacrifice of an animal, but rather a sacrifice of one’s self to the Church whose believers were saved and the salvation made real by Christ’s blood.
Dr. Finlan asks why the sacrificial idea has had such sticking power. He devotes two chapters to the subject, but he ignores this particular reason, the power of the idea as a hook securing the relation between believer and Church. Catholicism of course had more than one hook, the intercession of the clergy and “original sin”, being others. Paul’s radical idea was also supposed to put an end to original sin. Jesus’ sacrifice wiped away the sin (of being born), but the Church could hardly abandon original sin without risking their socio-political hold on the believer. If I am not, automatically, a sinner, why must I become a Church member to have eternal life?
Original sin and Atonement became, therefore linked together. I am a sinner, and Jesus died for me, became the door into the Church and salvation. Protestantism abandoned the intercession idea and this perhaps explains why they then put such emphasis on original sin and Atonement. I suspect Dr. Finlan knows all of this, but he elides the political implications of Atonement for the Church out of a desire to avoid unnecessary political antagonism in a book that, in the end, promulgates a positive message of the love of an infinite and changeless God.
Stephen Finlan holds a doctorate in theology from the University of Durham (2004) and has written several books on the Christian Atonement Doctrine. His latest effort appears aimed at a lay audience. Finlan’s writing is conversational, not technical. It is almost as if the chapters emerge out of sermons delivered on the subject in the New England church he presently pastors. Not that there isn’t scholarship here. Every page contains biblical examples (spelled out) and references to other authors (in chapter notes) all enhancing and not impeding the flow of his narrative.
Atonement, the idea that Christ died to reconcile God to man (Finlan distinguishes four variations on reconcilliation) is an idea that infuses every branch of Christianity, though I learn from this book that it is not so much emphasized by the Eastern Christian churches (Greek or Russian Orthodox) as it is in Western Roman Catholicism, and especially in Protestantism. He notes, the idea seems to have taken on a life of its own since the Protestant Reformation and on down to the present day, an emphasis that was not nearly so prevalent in the early Christian church, not even in the letters of Paul who Finlan credits with the development of the doctrine. But while Paul surely did lay the foundations of the doctrine as it entered Christianity, Finlan claims Paul did not mean his redemption and sacrifice metaphors to be taken as literally as subsequent generations have taken them. Finlan points out that in speaking of Jesus’s political murder and miscarriage of justice, Paul deliberately mixed up his metaphors suggesting a message about Christ’s forgiveness of our sins even in his death, and not an attempt to forge a salvation mechanism out of Jesus’s brutal murder.
Finlan begins by pointing out that the Atonement, as it has come down to modern times, is inconsistent with the portrait of God Jesus painted in his life. It is, in fact inconsistent with the very idea of an “infinite Father”, and in particular one who is changeless! In his first chapters, he deals with this issue in the abstract. Philosophically speaking, Paul was wrong to go down that path, but to be fair he could not have foreseen how his poetic excess would be crystallized into stifling doctrine centuries later.
Finlan then asks why this sacrificial idea has so much power? He reviews the sacrificial ritual history of the Jews, Romans, and Greeks, noting that while sacrifice was universal in that age, even many of the Hebrew prophets understood that God did not want sacrifice but rather righteousness. Nevertheless, while recorded, the voice of these prophets amounted to minority opinions, the sacrificial practices continuing on down to Jesus’s time. The culture of Jesus’s time and place was steeped in the sacrificial idea.
Next he moves on to an investigation of sacrifice in the early centuries after Jesus, and notes that there is very little of the notion in the earliest writings except for Paul, and the few references that appear in other writings that come down to us were inserted at later dates. They are not present in the earliest surviving [Greek] texts. Even Paul (Finlan points out) wrote much more about love, community, relationship (brotherhood) and faith (God gives salvation freely, one has only to believe it) than redemption by Jesus’s death.
Moving forward in time, Finlan explores how the Atonement idea became crystallized in the later Catholic church and particularly in Protestantism which, even today, preserves it in an extreme form. Finlan follows his historical review with a chapter on the corrosive psychological effects of the doctrine both in the genesis of Protestantism (Calvinism being the most extreme example) and on down to the present day. We are not culturally inured to the idea of sacrifice to propitiate an angry God. As a result, Atonement cannot help but confuse modern Christians who are told that God is entirely good, and yet, in this doctrine, survives the notion of a God whose heart must be softened by the death of his innocent son. Finlan ends the book with a chapter on Christology emphasizing what Jesus did and said in his life rather than putting so much emphasis on his death.
The Atonement idea should long ago have been purged from the Christian faith. It is inconsistent with the goodness of an infinite “Father God” whose changeless attitude toward all of his children has always been love and salvation, eternal life, a free gift requiring only a sincere desire to do God’s will and love others. Dr. Finlan not only gets all the arguments right, his writing is elegant and persuasive. One can only hope that this little book eases the minds of many confused Christians with Jesus’s real message: God is a good and loving Father, and salvation is a free gift to any who sincerely seek it.