logo Practical Dreamers

Colin Gibson:

Talking about atonement

Bible passages:  Psalm 67:1-5;  John 14:18-23

You have listened to those readings from scripture,  and your mind is already glazing over.   You've heard it all before:  God is a gracious God of blessings,  says the psalm writer.   And Jesus,  talking quietly to the small inner group of his disciples on the eve of his arrest and trial,  describes a world in which love and attention to his words will draw forth a corresponding love,  and the divine pair of father and son will come and make their home there  --  like friends coming to stay with their host family.   If only the Christian Church always talked like Jesus!

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.


But  I  need to be kept happy too, by the thought of taking with me to the world of the dead my most valuable possessions,  my best slaves,  even close members of my family,  particularly my wife.   (Yes,  now I am sure there is such a place where,  if I can take them with me,  I can continue to enjoy my privileged and luxurious life.)   And one way of persuading others to participate in these burial-rituals is to encourage them to believe that such deaths are noble and virtuous actions,  selfless and rewarding for the victim.

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?


Jesus is born into a world view of the kind I have described:  a sacrificial system of by now great antiquity and authority,  centred on the great Temple at Jerusalem,  and run by a well-organised bureaucracy of priests.   His family take a regular part in that system;  it has become an essential part of their culture as Jews.

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.


This reading or theory or hypothesis or theological doctrine or 'spin'  (for that's what it is)  has been perpetuated down through the Christian centuries,  sometimes disputed,  sometimes stressed,  sometimes played down.   Evangelistic preachers hammered home the message that the true believer had been  'washed in the blood of the Lamb';  that through the sacrifice of Jesus their listeners had been saved from the wrath of God.   Older hymn writers were very fond of the doctrine of the atonement, too.   Although there is no sign that Jesus ever thought about his life and death in these terms  (remember what he said on the eve of his death)  Charles Wesley writes:
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.
Isaac Watts  ('Join all the glorious names')  agrees:
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.
As Watts perhaps unconsciously points out in the final line of his hymn,  one of the big problems with this doctrine of the atonement is that Christ's sacrifice has apparently been no more successful than any other sacrifice in clearing the slate of all human sin.   We go on sinning,  and God apparently continues to be angry with our bad behaviour,  waiting to 'get' us now at the Last Judgment.

I want to suggest to you that the whole barbarous and primitive idea of sacrifice to please God,  or wipe out our moral debts,  deserves no place in modern Christian thought.   In John Spong's words,  this image of Jesus as the sacrifice for our sins is an image that has to go.   We do not need such an explanation to value Christ's life  --  or to understand his death at the hands of a lynch mob manipulated by hostile political and religious leaders.   Why does it persist in the language and ideas of the Church,  a language and a theology largely ignored or found meaningless by those outside the Church?

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.


For further discussion of these ideas see the chapter
'Jesus as rescuer: an image that must go',
in Bishop John Shelby Spong's
Why Christianity must Change or Die
(HarperSanFrancisco,  SanFrancisco,  1998)



>>>   Home Page


>>>   Site Index