Was Suffering the Mechinism of Atonement?


Christians may be expressing the Gospel badly. Atheists are tapping into the emotive level of popular piety and trying to use that as the official understanding of the atonement rather than dealing with the doctrine on a doctrinal level.

Nerd fighters
Posted by Seamus O'Byrne-IngliS on March 19, 2010

I was raised Catholic, but I'm an Atheist, I believe strongly against the existence of a sentient being that created the universe. Here is one of the weirder questions that has stuck in my mind about the story of Jesus as told in the Bible.

When you think about it, what did he really sacrifice?

He went through a day or so of torture, then disappeared into the Kingdom of Heaven, to sit at the right hand of God. Now people who don't know whether they'll make it to heaven, who give up their lives, they're heroes. Jesus, while undoubtedly a pretty sweet guy, even as an Atheist I can acknowledge some of the stuff he said is beautiful. I just don't understand it. Wouldn't it be rather selfish to not go through that comparatively trivial ordeal to save the sins of humanity? I know I'd sure as hell do it.
So to simplify

So God took all of the sins against himself upon himself and then 'killed' himself to forgive humanity for its sins against him?

Yeah, pretty much. And because He was was human (it's confusing, I still don't get it but Jesus was fully human and fully God at the same time) He died the actual human death, and somewhere it says He went down to Hell and preached before returning three days later and ascending to Heaven. So He even went to Hell for us. I know the existence of Hell is controversial even among Christians, but what it is is a place where God is not, basically, because God can not be in the presence of sin so those with sin still on them can't be in the presence of God. In Hell God exists but He isn't present, so the peace and the order that are God's creation aren't there either, leaving chaos, pain, and all the bad things (disease, natural disasters, etc.) that came into the world at the fall of man in Genesis because they stem from a universal disconnect from God.* I think more specifically Jesus' sacrifice was that He was separated from God even though he had no sin on Him and was worthy of God's presence, so it wasn't just that He gave up His life. I know that doesn't make much sense that God was separated from Himself, I don't understand well enough to explain that to you.

*I'm not saying that bad things happen because people don't know God or because God is punishing people though, which is what that statement is going to be interpreted as. When Adam and Eve disobeyed God in the garden the perfect world that God had made broke and that brokenness permeated every aspect of the world and affected everyone and everything in it, that's why there is disease and natural disasters and criminals.
Atheist discussion group on Good Reads:

I got into this conversation yet again recently at a local theology discussion group. One of the members was asking me if I was a sinner, tried to prove to me that I was (pretty easy since I break the first commandment being an atheist), and saying that I needed a savior.

When I brought up the following argument, he got very upset with me and said that if he wasn't a Christian, he would have hit me in the mouth. Unfortunately, that was best argument he offered.

Basically, why was Jesus's sacrifice a good thing? To me, it seems utterly abhorrent that I would worship the idea of someone dying for my actions. If I was such a bad person that I should be punished, I would not want an innocent man punished in my stead.

How is requiring punishment (even via a scapegoat) forgiveness? How is giving punishment to an innocent considered justice?

The entire idea of Jesus dying for the sins of others and worshipping that seems utterly insane.

One wonders how the gospel could be communicated so badly that they just can't get it. I can't take the time now to clear up all the confusion expressed above. The major issue I want to deal with is the idea that Jesus' sacrifice is not good enough or is somehow unjust or unfair becuase one should not have to suffer for the wrongs of another.

Theology requires subtlety and shade of meaning matter. subtle shades of difference can make huge differences in theology. Atheists are not subtle creatrues. Atheists are head bashers in the sense that they do not put themselves out to understand or appreciate a theological concept that doesn't' hit them over the head with its common sense. Theology wont work if you don't to try understand it. Its' not football, it's reason. It requires thinking and learning. On the issue of sacrifice. They seem to want God to hurt more. He didn't hurt enough. No passage says that atonement works by the depth of Jesus' suffering. Popular piety focuses on the phsyical pain of it, dwelling on issues like the nails in this wrists (rail road spikes driven though the wrists) yet that's people who feel love for Jesus wanting other to appreciate aspect they find moving. That is not the official reason for the atonement. It's not the mechinsm.

Some skeptics think the mechanism is sacrament. They talk about the scapegoat in OT they think Christ's atonement is a re-creation or a superior version of this. The author of Hebrews presents a sacrificial atonement style of theology. Yet Christ did not mimic the sacrifice of goats he replaced it. Even Heberws speaks of the Once=-and-for-all aspect of the atonement. Its' not a sacrifice, it doesn't work the intensity of Christ's pain. Mat 26:28 "This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins." Sounds sacrificial but

Hebrews 9 gives a sacraficial slant:

11 But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) 12 he entered once for all into the Holy Place, taking not the blood of goats and calves but his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. 13 For if the sprinkling of defiled persons with the blood of goats and bulls and with the ashes of a heifer sanctifies for the purification of the flesh, 14 how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify your conscience from dead works to serve the living God.

15 Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred which redeems them from the transgressions under the first covenant. 16 For where a will is involved, the death of the one who made it must be established. 17 For a will takes effect only at death, since it is not in force as long as the one who made it is alive. 18 Hence even the first covenant was not ratified without blood. 19 For when every commandment of the law had been declared by Moses to all the people, he took the blood of calves and goats, with water and scarlet wool and hyssop, and sprinkled both the book itself and all the people, 20 saying, "This is the blood of the covenant which God commanded you."21 And in the same way he sprinkled with the blood both the tent and all the vessels used in worship. 22 Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.

That author is writing to Hebrews, thus the issue of comparision of Jesus' atonement to temple sacrifice would be a big issue. The author is using the comparison because audience thinks in those terms. Silly evangelicals think they aer doing a big great spiritual work by arguing that the sacrificial rite is perpetuated but they are only making it look stupid to an age that's forgotten how to think in those terms. This doesn't say that it works because he suffered enough. It's not the intesity of pain or the sacrifice in the sense of loss. Not the fact that he gave up something that makes it work. It's the fact the giving up and our ability, through God's grace, to participate in Jesus future that makes it work. The mechanism of sacrifice is not pain or loss but the fact of solidarity, that God participates in our life and we participate in his.

Historically the atonement has been viewed in many ways. It has not always been reflected as just a sacrifice or penal substitution. Church fathers reflect a wide variety.

Christian Studies
Participatory Atonement in
Early Christian Era.

Early beliefs on the atonement often contain a range of elements. For example, Ignatius described Christ’s sacrifice as an example,[5] yet included other themes in his exposition of the subject.

Interpretations such as ransom, substitution, or penalty are found in the majority of writers, such as Eusebius,[6] Gregory of Nazianzus,[7] Basil of Caesarea,[8] Chrysostom,[9] Cyril of Alexandria,[10] Cyril of Jerusalem,[11] Nestorius,[12] Hilary of Poitiers,[13] Ambrosiaster,[14] Augustine,[15] Leo the Great,[16] and Gregory the Great.[17] However, even at this stage the focus was still largely on representation, not substitution.[18]

* fl.96: Clement of Rome; exemplary, participatory[19] [20] [21] [22] [23] [24] [25]

* d. c. 215: Clement of Alexandria; exemplary[26] [27] [28]

* d.254: Origen; ransom, exemplary, participatory[29] [30] [31] [32]

* d.330: Arnobius the Elder; exemplary[33]

The Orthodox chruch basically understands atonement as participatory. The source above in Christian studies links substitutionary atonement to the Romans.

A modern way of phrasing participatory is the solidarity view of atonement. In this model Christ's death is seen as God's statement of solidarity with Humanity (see Mathew Lamb, Solidarity with Victims).

I.The Atonement: God's Solidarity With Humanity.

A. The inadequacy of Financial Transactions

Many ministers, and therefore, many Christians speak of and think of Jesus' death on the cross as analogous to a financial transaction. Usually this idea goes something like this: we are in hock to the devil because we sinned. God pays the debt we owe by sending Jesus to die for us, and that pays off the devil. The problem with this view is the Bible never says we owe the devil anything. We owe God. The financial transaction model is inadequate. Matters of the soul are much more important than any monetary arrangement and business transactions and banking do not do justice to the import of the issue. Moreover, there is a more sophisticated model; that of the sacrifice for sin. In this model Jesus is like a sacrificial lamb who is murdered in our place. This model is also inadequate because it is based on a primitive notion of sacrifice. The one making the sacrafice pays over something valuable to him to apease an angry God. In this case God is paying himself. This view is also called the "propitiatory view" becuase it is based upon propitiation, which means to turn away wrath. The more meaningful notion is that of Solidarity. The Solidarity or "participatory" view says that Jesus entered human history to participate in our lot as finite humans, and he died as a means of identifying with us. We are under the law of sin and death, we are under curse of the law (we sin, we die, we are not capable in our own human strength of being good enough to merit salvation). IN taking on the penalty of sin (while remaining sinless) Jesus died in our stead; not inthe mannar of a primitive animal sacrifice (that is just a metaphor) but as one of us, so that through identification with us, we might identify with him and therefore, partake of his newness of life.

B. Christ the Perfect Revelation of God to Humanity

In the book of Hebrews it says "in former times God spoke in many and various ways through the prophets, but in these latter times he has spoken more perfectly through his son." Jesus is the perfect revelation of God to humanity. The prophets were speaking for God, but their words were limited in how much they could tell us about God. Jesus was God in the flesh and as such, we can see clearly by his character, his actions, and his teachings what God wants of us and how much God cares about us. God is for humanity, God is on our side! The greatest sign of God's support of our cause as needy humans is Jesus death on the cross, a death in solidarity with us as victims of our own sinful hearts and societies. Thus we can see the lengths God is will to go to to point us toward himself. There are many verses in the Bible that seem to contradict this view. These are the verses which seem to say that Atonement is participatory.

C. Death in Solidarity with Victims

1) Support from Modern Theologians

Three Major Modern Theologians support the solidarity notion of atonement: Jurgen Moltmann (The Crucified God), Matthew L. Lamb (Solidarity With Victims), and D.E.H. Whiteley (The Theology of St. Paul).In the 1980s Moltmann (German Calvinist) was called the greatest living protestant theologian, and made his name in laying the groundwork for what became liberation theology. Lamb (Catholic Priest) was big name in political theology, and Whiteley (scholar at Oxford) was a major Pauline scholar in the 1960s.In his work The Crcified God Moltmann interprits the cry of Jesus on the cross, "my God my God why have you forsaken me" as a statement of solidarity, placing him in identification with all who feel abandoned by God.Whiteley: "If St. Paul can be said to hold a theory of the modus operandi [of the atonement] it is best described as one of salvation through participation [the 'solidarity' view]: Christ shared all of our experience, sin alone excepted, including death in order that we, by virtue of our solidarity with him, might share his life...Paul does not hold a theory of substitution..." (The Theology of St. Paul, 130)An example of one of the great classical theologians of the early chruch who held to a similar view is St. Irenaeus (according to Whiteley, 133).

Tim Bayne and Restall:
A Participatory Model of the Atoenment

In this paper we develop a participatory model of the Christian doctrine of the atonement,
according to which the atonement involves participating in the death and resurrection of
Christ. In part one we argue that current models of the atonement—exemplary, penal,
substitutionary and merit models—are unsatisfactory. The central problem with these models is
that they assume a purely deontic conception of sin and, as a result, they fail to address sin as a
relational and ontological problem. In part two we argue that a participatory model of the
atonement is both exegetically and philosophically plausible, and should be taken seriously
within philosophical theology.i

2) Scriptural

...all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were Baptized into his death.? We were therefore buried with him in baptism into death in order that just as Christ was raised from the death through the glory of the father, we too may live a new life. If we have been united with him in his death we will certainly be united with him in his resurrection.For we know that the old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be rendered powerless, that we should no longer be slaves to sin.--because anyone who has died has been freed from sin.Now if we have died with Christ we believe that we will also live with him, for we know that since Christ was raised from the dead he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him; the death he died to sin he died once for all; but the life he lives he lives to God. In the same way count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Chrsit Jesus.(Romans 6:1-5)
In Him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of flesh in the circumcision of Christ; and you were buried with Him in Baptism, in which you were also raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. And you, who were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, having canceled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands; this He set aside, nailing it to the cross. (Colossians 2:11-14 RSV)

In Short, if we have united ourselves to Christ, entered his death and been raised to life, we participate in his death and resurrection though our act of solidarity, united with Christ in his death, than it stands to reason that his death is an act of solidarity with us, that he expresses his solidarity with humanity in his death.

This is why Jesus cries out on the cross "why have you forsaken me?" According to Moltmann this is an expression of Solidarity with all who feel abandoned by God.Jesus death in solidarity creates the grounds for forgiveness, since it is through his death that we express our solidarity, and through that, share in his life in union with Christ. Many verses seem to suggest a propitiatory view. But these are actually speaking of the affects of the solidarity. "Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God's wrath through him! For if when we were considered God's enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! What appears to be saying that the shedding of blood is what creates forgiveness is actually saying that the death in solidarity creates the grounds for reconciliation. IT says we were enemies then we were reconciled to him through the death, his expression of solidarity changes the ground, when we express our solidarity and enter into the death we are giving up to God, we move from enemy to friend, and in that sense the shedding of blood, the death in solidarity, creates the conditions through which we can be and are forgiven. He goes on to talk about sharing in his life, which is participation, solidarity, unity.

D. Meaning of Solidarity and Salvation.

Jurgen Moltmann's notion of Solidarity (see The Crucified God) is based upon the notion of Political solidarity. Christ died in Solidarity with victims. He took upon himself a political death by purposely angering the powers of the day. Thus in his death he identifies with victims of oppression. But we are all vitims of oppression. Sin has a social dimension, the injustice we experience as the hands of society and social and governmental institutions is primarily and at a very basic level the result of the social aspects of sin. Power, and political machinations begin in the sinful heart, the ego, the desire for power, and they manifest themselves through institutions built by the will to power over the other. But in a more fundamental sense we are all victims of our own sinful natures. We scheme against others on some level to build ourselve up and secure our conditions in life. IN this sense we cannot help but do injustice to others. In return injustice is done to us.Jesus died in solidarity with us, he underwent the ultimate consequences of living in a sinful world, in order to demonstrate the depths of God's love and God's desire to save us. Take an analogy from political organizing. IN Central America governments often send "death squads" to murder labor unionists and political dissenter. IN Guatemala there were some American organizations which organized for college students to go to Guatemala and escourt the leaders of dissenting groups so that they would not be murdered.

The logic was that the death squads wouldn't hurt an American Student because it would bring bad press and shut off U.S. government funds to their military. As disturbing as these political implications are, let's stay focused on the Gospel. Jesus is like those students, and like some of them, he was actually killed. But unlike them he went out of his way to be killed, to be victimized by the the rage of the sinful and power seeking so that he could illustrate to us the desire of God; that God is on our side, God is on the side of the poor, the victimized, the marginalized, and the lost. Jesus said "a physician is not sent to the well but to the sick."The key to salvation is to accept God's statement of solidarity, to express our solidarity with God by placing ourselves into the death of Christ (by identification with it, by trust in it's efficacy for our salvation).

E. Atonement is a Primitive Concept?

This charge is made quite often by internet-skeptics, especially Jewish anti-missionaries who confuse the concept wtih the notion of Human sacrifice. But the charge rests on the idea that sacrafice itself is a premative notion. If one committs a crime, someone else should not pay for it. This attack can be put forward in many forms but the basic notion revolves around the idea that one person dying for the sins of another, taking the penalty or sacrificing to remove the guilt of another is a primitive concept. None of this applies with the Participatory view of the atonement (solidarity) since the workings of Christ's death, the manner in which it secures salavtion, is neither through turning away of wrath nor taking upon himself other's sins, but the creation of the grounds through which one declares one's own solidarity with God and the grounds through which God accepts that solidarity and extends his own; the identification of God himself with the needs and cares of his own creation.

F. Unfair to Jesus as God's Son?

Internet skeptics sometimes argue that God can't be trusted if he would sacrifice his son. This is so silly and such a misunderstanding of Christian doctrine and the nature of religious belief that it hardly deserves an answer. Obviously God is three persons in one essence, the Trinity , Trinune Godhead. Clearly God's act of solidarity was made with the unanimity of a single Godhead. God is not three God's, and is always in concert with himself.