Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Easter: not the atonement

Easter brings up atonement theory - the idea that God sent Jesus here as a sacrifice to die for our sins. But there's another way to see the Easter events ... the primacy of the incarnation ... the idea that Jesus came here to live, not die, that even if there had been no Fall and no Original Sin (and we now know there never was a golden age when all creatures lived peacefully together in Eden), Jesus would still have been incarnated.

It's a view that sees the early followers of Jesus as grasping at explanations for why things had gone so terribly wrong (the crucifixion), and over time creating what became atonement theory. This incarnational view has been held in opposition to the atonement view by Franciscans like Duns Scotus.

Here's a bit of an article by Ken Overberg SJ on this ...

[...] Why Jesus? The answer most frequently handed on in everyday religion emphasizes redemption. This view returns to the creation story and sees in Adam and Eve's sin a fundamental alienation from God, a separation so profound that God must intervene to overcome it .... At times God has even been described as demanding Jesus' suffering and death as a means of atonement—to satisfy and appease an angry God. In many forms of theology, popular piety and religious practice, the purpose of Jesus' life is directly linked to original sin and all human sinfulness. Without sin, there would have been no need for the Incarnation .....

An interpretation that highlights the Incarnation stands beside this dominant view with its emphasis on sin. The alternate view is also expressed in Scripture and tradition .... It holds that the whole purpose of creation is for the Incarnation, God's sharing of life and love in a unique and definitive way. God becoming human is not an afterthought, an event to make up for original sin and human sinfulness. Incarnation is God's first thought, the original design for all creation. The purpose of Jesus' life is the fulfillment of God's eternal longing to become human ...

I was glad to come upon this article because I have never been able to believe in the atonement. As Jeffrey John once said about it ...

I don't know about you, but even at the age of ten I thought this explanation was pretty repulsive as well as nonsensical. What sort of God was this, getting so angry with the world and the people he created, and then, to calm himself down, demanding the blood of his own Son? And anyway, why should God forgive us through punishing somebody else? It was worse than illogical, it was insane. It made God sound like a psychopath. If any human being behaved like this we'd say they were a monster ...

Sadly, his controversial 2007 BBC Lent talk can't be found online now but I have much of it here.


  1. One of the reasons we get into this problem is the tendency of the Western Roman tradition to historicize the liturgy, to break things up.

    The Eastern Byzantine liturgical tradition always brings things together, the Incarnation, the Passion and Resurrection, and Pentecost. (they don't leave out the Holy Spirit as we tend to do)

    For example when March 25 (the annunciation and beginning of Incarnation) occurs on Good Friday, they celebrate both events. Indeed one tradition in the East was that they historically occurred on the same day.

    The Byzantine tradition does not cease to sing alleluia during Lent. They begin Lent on a Sunday evening with Forgiveness Vespers at which each persons asks forgiveness and gives forgiveness for all offenses of the past year. During this they sing the Byzantine equivalent of our Exultet, i.e the ultimate reason for forgiving each other and for all the discipline of Lent is that Christ has risen. It is not like we are going to earn Easter.

    There is a great emphasis on the humility of God. Epiphany is celebrated as Theophany, the manifestation of the Trinity when Jesus was baptized. The West has been embarrassed by Jesus baptism. The East celebrates it as part of God's becoming one of us.

    The emphasis of Pascha (the Passover) their word for Easter is on the victory over death. "Christ has risen from dead, trampling down death by death, and on those in the tombs restoring life"

    1. The Orthodox way of looking at things seems very different. Overberg's article mentions the Cappadocians and their ideas about the Trinity. Have you read any of David Bentley Hart's stuff - he's Orthodox.

    2. No. My interest has mainly been in spirituality, i.e. lived Christian life, rather than in theology, i.e. systematic reflection on the content of Christianity. For example I like Gutierrez We Drink From Our Own Wells which is on spirituality but haven't read his Theology of Liberation.

  2. It sounds like Jeffrey John is describing "penal substitution," whereas I think Anselm's theory of "satisfaction" (and perhaps later developments) has eclipsed penal substitution. On the one hand, a lot of the above sounds like heresy. On the other hand, it verges on the impossible to believe that our "first parents" committed some unfortunate offense that blighted the lives of their descendants, those descendants being the entire human race. The Gospels seem very clear that it was the destiny of Jesus to be killed for some purpose. If we pitch out the theory of redemption or atonement, how do we make sense of the Gospels?

  3. There are a lot of variations of the atonement theory but they all still try to explain why Jesus' death wasn't an unforeseen tragedy but instead a planned event for some greater purpose.

    Overberg's article opines that the writers of the gospels and later theologians used traditions like animal sacrifices and scapegoating and past scripture bits to construct something that made sense, given their belief that God plans every event.

    how do we make sense of the Gospels?

    That's the question I'm always asking myself, because once you start down that slippery slope of "maybe this part wasn't accurate" then where do you stop? But for me, the atonement idea doesn't ring true.

  4. Thanks for posting this, Crystal. This is something that I have thought about a lot, too. John Duns Scotus' take on it makes the most sense to me. Coincidentally there is a good article in the current issue of Commonweal by Jerome Miller entitled "The Cry of Abel's Blood, Christ's Wounds and Ours" which is related to this issue. I was going to write a post on it, but it is behind a subscriber wall. I decided not to because not everyone here is a subscriber, and you really have to read it to get the sense of it. I still would encourage anyone who has access to it to read it. To summarize very briefly, the author sees the passion and death of Jesus in radical solidarity and identification with the victims of sin, and in this it was intentional.
    One sentence that spoke to me was this: "Ignatian spirituality encourages us to try to place ourselves at the scene of the Crucifixion, and imagine what it was like. Some of the great paintings of Western art facilitate this." I plan to write a post on these visual images when I get my thoughts organized.

  5. Katherine, I'm not a subscriber, but I seem to be able to access the article here ... https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/cry-abel%E2%80%99s-blood ... reading it now.

  6. The Commonweal article gives a glimpse into the construction of the sacrificial/atonement doctrine and how little sense it makes to most of us today ... "the Crucifixion itself as an unequivocal evil that no just God could countenance. Insofar as the idea of atonement leads us to think that divine justice in some way required that an innocent man be murdered by way of compensation, it covers up the horror."

    I took part in an Ignatian Spiritual Exercises retreat (19th annotation). We spent a week imagining Jesus' arrest, torture, crucifixion. It was awful. I didn't find it redemptive at all. I was angry that his brutal murder was accepted as a good thing, a necessary thing. I didn't see, and still don't see, why a violent death for him was any better than having him die of old age ... he still would have been resurrected.

    I've come to the conclusion that the church and some Christians really like the idea that Jesus suffered a lot for them. They think that a loved one crawling over broken glass for them makes them special. I think it's a sick construct that aims to re-define something evil as something good. Yuck! :(

  7. Our desire for cognitive consistency produces many strange results.

    Effort justification: if we suffer for something then it must be good, which leads to hazing, and other ritual initiations. The belief that our educations were really valuable because had to work so hard to get through them.

    Derogation of victims: if somebody suffers a wrong, they must have done something to provoke it; people who suffer an illness must have committed some sin.

  8. Crystal, I don't know if I could deal with a week of that, either. I guess the older I get, the more I am okay with some things being a mystery that I won't fully understand in this life. I wish that Jesus hadn't suffered such a horrible death, but for his own reasons, he did. That he became a mortal man meant that he was going to endure death in one form or another. His rising in victory over death is what gives us hope.

  9. "Our desire for cognitive consistency produces many strange results." Jack, very true!

  10. Jesus dying of old age? I think there was something inevitable about what happened. Good people who stand up for the poor and the God of the poor end up like Jesus. The more you try to do the right thing,the less chance of seeing old age. What am I still doing here?

    1. You clearly haven't been good enough :-)

  11. Yeah, I do think he must have realized that he was living a dangerous lifestyle. There are some who think it was necessary that he die violently, though, and I don't see any reason why that should be so.

  12. This comment—I would not go so far as to call it a "review"—I wrote over on Strange Notions regarding Carl Olson's book Did Jesus Really Rise From the Dead? may be of some interest to readers of this thread. I am not particularly sympathetic to apologetics, and as with many books of its kind, I found this one to be potentially convincing only to the already convinced.

  13. Both Jesus and the Baptist were considered by many to be prophets; they were both executed by government officials (as were some other similar people at the time). The Roman Imperium was a military occupation, but they ruled through collaborators whose job was to keep things under control.

    Mark, the earliest Gospel makes it clear that Jesus was in conflict with most of the establishment (priests, Sadducees, Pharisees, scribes). His chasing of the money changers from the Temple is recorded by all four gospels. Jesus was a threat to the establishment.

    Mark also records that Jesus had a lot of trouble with his disciples as well as his family. One of the disciples betrayed him and the rest fled.

    One of the earliest interpretations of Jesus death was that he was persecuted like the prophets before him.

    All that being said, we have to remember that Jesus lived only a brief public life (one to three years), the rest of it was spent as a carpenter. He liked eating, drinking and the company of women. He was not an ascetic like John nor a member of any of the factions at the time.

  14. Jean, that's a good summery of Jesus;s life situation. When we look back it doesn't seem surprising that he was killed. What bothers me is the effort after his execution to turn it from a tragedy to a planned and necessary event that was all for the good.

    Knowingly living a life that's bound to bring you into conflict with authorities because of your principles is not the same as planning from birth to die a violent death as a sacrifice to save people from original sin.

  15. Father Thomas Reese some things to say on this subject in an article in the National Catholic Reporter. He references a piece originally published 2 years ago entitled, "How to Cope With Holy Week When You Feel Less Than Inspired" here

  16. Thanks for the link, Katherine. I really like Fr. Reese.

  17. Yes, thank you, Katherine.

    Jesus is God and God is Jesus. Whatever was willed by God was willed by Jesus, and whatever sacrifice Christ made was also made by God. So I don't see the Crucifixion as God doing things to Jesus, especially not using him as a whipping boy for the rest of us.

    Does the Crucifixion show a change of heart in God? Instead of punishing the Jews for their sins and making a lit of rules, is God teaching himself to become more merciful (and powerful) by being willing to suffer (and conquer) death?

    If the Crucifixion is an atonement, is it, in part, God atoning for the remoteness and distance he has kept from his creatures until his Incarnation?

    Certainly one of the most intimate human encounters between God and man is between Jesus and the Good Thief. The last act of Jesus' ministry is to offer comfort and mercy to a dying man.

    Not pushing these ideas, just raising questions that come to mind at this season.

  18. I'm not sure the gospels, except for John, show a Jesus who is God .... he prays to God, he calls him Father .... he changes his mid about stuff like with the Canaanite woman but can God change his mind? .... he asked God *not* to do the crucifixion thingy and he was so scared about it that he sweated blood.

    Why does sacrifice even come up? How does killing something or someone make anything better? How does dying "for" someone make their sins go away .... we are all still responsible for our sins and apparently people still are punished by God for the bad things they've done, despite Jesus' death. Why doesn't God just act as Jesus did with the their and say, "no worries, we will all be in paradise together"?.

    I think many Christians just accept this explanation of Jesus' death - a planned sacrifice to save them - without ever considering if it makes any sense. It's like they worry that if they believe Jesus' killing was an unfortunate event, they will be saying he wasn't really God or that he wasn't really resurrected.