For those of you who are “into Lent” as the run-up to Easter, I invite you to think with me about one of the primary Lenten doctrines, atonement. You might be surprised to learn that atonement has been a source of controversy since the early centuries of the Christian church.
Simply put, there is no agreement on what “atonement” really means. For many Christians today, atonement’s focus is strictly on Jesus being sacrificed by God to “pay for our sins.” The “faithful skeptic” in me asks, “What does that really mean?” Does it mean that God is really so bloodthirsty that he is only willing to purify humanity if “we” enter into an agreement to kill an innocent man? I hope not. But I sense that is what too many people in and out of the church think atonement means.
The whole theory hearkens back to the ancient sacrificial practice of scapegoating, where a goat was saddled with people’s symbolic sins and driven into the desert to die. If Jesus atones for our sins, then God is appeased?
I never did buy into this kind of hurtful God, even as a child. Now I better understand that childlike, intuitive reluctance. Now I’m able to make more intellectual and spiritual sense of another way to think of atonement, the theory.
In “Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality,” the Rev. Richard Rohr talks about an earlier Franciscan scholar, John Duns Scotus (1266-1308). Rohr says Scotus was “not swayed or limited by the numerous metaphors of ransom, debt, redemption as ‘buying,’ ‘blood sacrifice,’ payment of price, ‘purchased in blood’ vocabulary that we frequently find in … both the New and the Old Testaments.”
Scotus saw these metaphors as limited because “they made God’s redemptive action a ‘reaction’ based on human sin instead of God’s perfect and utterly free initiative of love.” Scotus started with God’s freedom to love us for our intrinsic worth, not with our victim-mentality that really begins with us – not God.
Then Rohr summarizes in an eye-opening way: “The trouble is that (in our obsession with our own sin) we emphasized paying a cosmic debt more than communicating a credible love. …The cross became more an image of a divine transaction than an image of human transformation.”
Having put this alternative view of atonement out to you, I also want you to know this is like swimming against a swift current. I know this challenges a popularly held view of atonement.
But like I’ve said before: There is always more than we’ve settled for. Maybe some people are more secure seeing Jesus as “paying a price” for our failings. Personally, I never have been comfortable with that notion. That can lead to us not taking much – or any – personal responsibility for our own failings. But much more than that, I believe it is spiritually healthier to consider an alternative theory of atonement that focuses on God’s transformative love of every person, not on God’s wrathful judgment. Our God is so much bigger and inclusive than that!
Put another way: atonement is more than God throwing Jesus under the bus so we can ride inside. While God may have “allowed” Jesus to sacrifice himself at some level, the cross became a gigantic affirmation of the intrinsic worth of every person in God’s eyes. That’s at-one-ment!
This God-view of each person invites each of us (to continue the bus image) to get on the bus. And we find Jesus already there, welcoming us along for the ride.