July 13, 2023
I’ve been working on this for ages, and I need to publish something, so here it is. I’ll likely come back to this post and refine it—it certainly isn’t in a final form, but it is a good start.
I could be accused of burying the lede here, because changing my view of atonement, actually, just learning there were alternative views of atonement, was the first domino that fell and knocked down a whole series of beliefs.
Atonement is simply how we become at one with God (at-one-ment). More specifically, it is how the life and work of Jesus achieved oneness between God and humanity. It’s not terribly hard to define, but it’s a bear to explain. There are multiple atonement theories, some of which are compatible, some of which vary in the details, and some of which flat out contradict each other. Explaining atonement requires an understanding of the concepts of sin and punishment (especially hell), both of which are complex and nuanced, having evolved over literally thousands of years. Even within the confines of scripture they are referred to by multiple terms and in multiple languages. What began as the words of a nomadic middle eastern herdsman, speaking ancient Aramaic has passed through Hebrew and Greek to English over multiple millennia. Concepts which can be expressed in a single word in one language and culture may require paragraphs to explain in another, especially when they encompass/address issues of ultimate meaning, eternity, the beginning and end of time, and the divine. Easy peasey, eh?
The theory I was taught as a child was Penal Substitutionary Atonement (sometimes abbreviated as PSA). It was taught most famously by John Calvin, who was trained as a lawyer, and holds that we are separated from God fundamentally by a legal debt—we have broken God’s law and must pay for those infractions (aka sins). It is accepted unquestioningly by the majority of Evangelicals, most of whom are completely unaware that it came from Calvin and his infant sprinkling ilk or that it is only about 500 years old, out of a Christian history of roughly two millennia. There is close to zero chance that they know it is only one of many atonement theories and even less chance that they know what any of those alternatives are. I know this because, even though I was a theologically sophisticated layperson, I didn’t know that there were alternatives myself until my mid-fifties.
In order to understand what Calvin was claiming, it would be helpful first to unpack a couple of concepts:
- Hell—More generally, this is the concept of punishment, with hell being the state or place of punishment for sin after death, possibly eternal. The earliest notions of our post-life condition were simple nonexistence or perhaps existence as shadows of our livings selves in an equally shadowy underworld. Even in the New Testament, Gehenna was a vague metaphor referencing a constantly burning garbage dump in the valley of Hinnom, outside Jerusalem. In Reformed thought (aka Calvinism), this developed into eternal conscious torment—a place of agonizing, never-ending torture, perhaps in literal flames, inflicted by God himself. Some, seeing hell as the natural consequence of our decisions rather than of God’s divine anger, define it simply as eternal separation from God, devoid of any love or even contact with another being, a la C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce. Not a happy place in any definition, but also not the hierarchical kingdom of pain ruled over demons with pitchforks envisioned in Dante’s Inferno. Dante was imaginative but not at all literal. And the fact is, scripture isn’t clear as to the nature of heaven or hell, other than that one is good and one is bad. It’s not even clear if hell is a place or state, whether it is temporal or eternal, or who is condemned to go there—it could be people who have rejected God, or it could be the accuser and his fallen angels, if those are actual beings and not metaphors themselves. It seems all we can do is imagine what our eternal existence, might be like and leave it to God to know the specifics. All else is simply speculation.
- Sin—I learned growing up that sin was simply an infraction of God’s law, a definition that fit nicely with PSA. Sin is often translated in the Septuagint as hamartía, that is, missing the mark, as in archery. This is also the most common word used in the NT. Similar to hell, the concept of sin developed though the OT. Several words are used for sin, which denote violating a norm, incurring a debt. At this point, suffice it to say that a definition of sin requires a whole lot more detail and nuance than we got in Sunday school or even Sunday sermons, and salvation is far more than a cross bridging a chasm.
I grew up being told again and again that Jesus died to save me from my sins. As I grew older, I learned this was a very particular kind of saving—Jesus took the punishment for me (and all the elect) breaking the law of God. Any infraction of this law resulted in eternal separation from God and torment in hell. Only Jesus, the Son of God, could live a sinless life and substitute his righteousness and suffering in death for my totally depraved life and those of all who believed in him and accepted his free gift of salvation. Note that the salvation in question had moved from saving me from my sins to saving me from hell—not at all the same thing. Since all Christians continued to sin after being saved by the blood of the Lamb, the Bible must have gotten that bit wrong.
Well, what if it didn’t? What if we didn’t need Jesus to intercede for us before the harshest of judges but instead for him to save us from our sins? What if living as a follower of Christ was less about avoiding sin and more about loving God with all our being and loving our neighbors as ourselves? Could Jesus’ work have somehow changed how we lived our lives rather than rejiggered the legal calculus of the universe? Frankly, that seems to be the much tougher problem and vastly more helpful to our existence in the here and now rather than in the by and by.
Scripture says that Jesus conquered sin and death, and I suppose that could be interpreted to mean he was God’s whipping boy1 if you turn your head and squint just right. Seems to me more likely that he did what scripture says—he broke the power of sin (that which harms our relationship with God) and death (eternal separation from God or maybe nonexistence) over us and replaced them with joy, purpose, and shalom, that is, deep peace and flourishing, and possibly eternal life with God. I can only guess what that actually means.
Look it up—it likely contributed to Calvin’s theory.