Talking about atonement
But it doesn't, and I'd better warn you that you're now in for a roller coaster ride through well over five hundred thousand years of human history. We'll whizz past Irish bog burials and treasure-stuffed Egyptian tombs, past famous symbolic stories like Noah and the Flood and Prometheus stealing fire from the gods, past famous books, like Shakespeare's King Lear, Thomas Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles and William Golding's Lord of the Flies. In the blink of an eye we'll notice the priestly manual of sacrifices coded in Leviticus, the writings of revolutionary prophets like Amos and Hosea, and New Testament images of Jesus's death and resurrection; watch out for Abraham poised to sacrifice his son Isaac, the heart-broken Jephthah honour-bound to kill his own daughter, the appalling child-sacrifices made to Moloch; Samuel hewing Agag to pieces; don't miss the Jewish and African scapegoat rituals; catch the strains of Handel's majestic chorus in The Messiah 'Worthy is the Lamb that was slain'; and listen, listen hard for that big theological word, 'atonement'. O.K. Here goes.
Thousands of years ago I live in a world where I am weak and powerless; where my survival is constantly under threat. Death is frequent, terrifying and mysterious. Equally mysterious are the life processes of birth, growth and decay -- in myself, and in the plants and creatures all around me.
I first get a handle on my world by conceptualising these things, these forces in my life, as gods and spirits, everywhere active and present -- in sky, sea and earth, in animals and trees, in fire and water. But I fear these things, and want to understand their behaviour. Surely their dealings with me must be like our human dealings with each other.
So I decide that possibly the gods are just moody and vindictive, killing us for their sport. When I become more confident of my abilities and achievements, I begin to suspect that they are just jealous of us humans, striking us down before we can reach their world and take their powers. I wonder if they are angry with us, because we have taken what belongs to them, or because our moral behaviour does not please them. At all events they seem 'hungry' for me and my clan. Perhaps by giving them something or someone else (an adult, or an even more precious child, for children are the hope of my future) I at least will escape that hunger. The idea of a sacrifice is born.
Now I am sure that the gods can be kept happy, by giving them a share of all I am and all I have: my crops, choice bits of the creatures I kill on my hunting trips, or the life-blood of fellow members of my human community. And if I am a ruler or a war-leader, I can now publicly show my gratitude to the gods (when they demonstrate that they are on my side) by 'sacrificing' some of my loot -- precious objects, prisoners, conquered soldiers, sometimes even whole populations.
At some crucial point in my human history (in the case of the Jewish people recorded in the story of Abraham and Isaac) I convince myself that human deaths are not required: crops or animals or precious possessions can be substituted for me, and still sufficiently please the gods. And this in turn leads to the idea of finding a scapegoat: a creature (or a person) who can be loaded with the collective sinfulness or moral disease of the whole community, and be driven away or killed, to purge the community of its sins and give it a fresh start, a clean bill of health, as it were.
Now if God (or the gods) are themselves perfect, and not to be deceived, only the best will do for them; to give God one's most precious possession demonstrates the strength of the giver's devotion. So there is developed a detailed and well-regulated system of sacrifices, administered by priests (the most religious people in our community). This system (the Jewish version is exhaustively described in the Book of Leviticus) enshrines the idea of sacrifices to the gods, and assures the priests of a good living; the system becomes self-perpetuating. No matter how many sacrifices there are, the demands of the gods and our human sense of insufficiency or moral guilt are never satisfied. The system is in place for ever.
A few troublesome people (in the Jewish tradition prophets like Isaiah, Hosea and Amos) insist that sacrifices are completely unnecessary; that they have become a lazy device to avoid having to live in a way pleasing to God. I refuse to listen to what they say, and of course the priests agree with me.
And now what follows?
But Jesus is put to death outside the walls of Jerusalem, and after his resurrection his followers must try to make sense of that death as best they can: the death of the loved person they now understand to be the son of God, someone both human and divine.
Over time, the explanation that emerges is what we now call the doctrine of the atonement. It is a brilliant makeover of the ancient theory of sacrifice required to please or placate God. It presumes that God (as in the time of Noah) is angry and hostile to all humanity, outraged in this case by the centuries-old accumulation of wickedness. (All those previous sacrifices hadn't done the job they were supposed to do, and never mind the inconsistency with 'God so loved the world . . . ') A perfect God would surely require a perfect sacrifice to give satisfaction for the enormous mess of human sin. So God himself both supplied and received the ideal sacrifice: and miraculously this took away the moral debts of the world.
You have to admit that this is a brilliant idea, even as you realise that this is the Abraham-Isaac story written into the life and death of Jesus Christ. A sinless Christ could be the perfect sacrificial victim, the ideal scapegoat whose death removes the blameworthiness of the whole human community. And God can be praised as both the moral guardian of our race (insisting on the ultimate penalty of death for our sins) and the great lover of the same human race, going to the ultimate extreme to prove that love, by giving up to cruel execution his one and only son.
O God of all grace|
thy goodness we praise,
Thy Son thou hast given to die in our place.
He came from above,
our curse to remove,
He hath loved us, He loved us because He would love.
Jesus, my great High-priest,|
offered his blood and died;
my guilty conscience seeks
no sacrifice beside;
His powerful blood did once atone,
and now it pleads before the throne.
Partly because many Church people are wedded to ancient (Old Testament) texts and ways of thinking -- not for them the revolutionary ideas of the prophets or of Jesus himself. Partly because, like any good scientific hypothesis, the doctrine of the atonement provides an apparently clean and tidy theological explanation of the available data. It is a view of the world that neatly divides the good from the bad, removes our deepest anxieties by offering a way of pleasing God, and supplies a reassuring view of death or suffering (Christ's or our own). Yet behind it stands the Leviticus concept of a God who sniffs up the pleasing odour of a burnt animal carcase; and early Christian concepts of salvation and atonement which require an ogre-like God whose stony-hearted righteousness demanded the sacrifice of his own son.
Those are concepts I cannot subscribe to. I believe we must find other words, other images, to understand, celebrate and make significant to people outside the Church the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The two readings -- from the Book of Psalms and from the Gospel of John -- offer radically different and non-sacrificial ways of thinking about the relationship between God and the members of the human race.