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Making Much of What Cannot Matter Much to God

20 October 2004: Start the discussion! »

I ask my readers’ indulgence this week as I roam over some of the terrain of my own ministry. My reminiscence revolves around a simple phrase: “when we would make much of that which cannot matter much to God.” These words have echoed in my mind for at least 50 years. I associated them primarily …

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Question & Answer

The Rev. Dr. Kathleen from Michigan

Question:

Overcoming the widespread Christian belief that "Jesus died for my sins" seems an insurmountable challenge! Preachers, liturgical rites, hymns and religious education curricula continue to reinforce "atonement theology/theories." Would you do a series on "atonement theology/theories" – their origins, rationale, continued justification, etc.? Personally and pastorally, "atonement" thinking creates a mire of destructive results and I, for one, would well appreciate your cogent analysis of how we might best approach this.

Answer:

Thank you for your letter and its challenge. There is no doubt that atonement/sacrifice theology constitutes a deep burden that weighs down the Christian faith today. I work on this subject constantly. It is a major theme in two of my books, Why Christianity Must Change or Die and A New Christianity for a New World. I am still engaged in this study as I begin to work on a new book scheduled for publication in 2007 and tentatively entitled, Jesus for the Non-Religious.

Atonement theology, however, involves far more than a salvation doctrine. It brings into question the theistic understanding of God and even the morality of God. This theology assumes that God is an external Being who invades the world to heal the fallen creation. It also assumes that this God enters this fallen world in the person of the Son to pay the price of human evil on the cross. It was the central theme in Mel Gibson's motion picture; "The Passion of the Christ" which might have been dramatically compelling but it represented a barbaric, sado-masochistic, badly dated and terribly distorted biblical and theological perspective.

All atonement theories root in a sense of human alienation and with it a sense of human powerlessness. "Without Thee we can do nothing good!" So we develop legends about the God who does for us what we cannot do for ourselves. For Christianity, I am convinced that our basic atonement theology finds its taproot not in the story of the cross but in the liturgy of the synagogue, especially Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. In the Yom Kippur liturgy an innocent lamb was slain and the people were symbolically cleansed by the saving blood of this sacrificed Lamb of God. Jesus was similarly portrayed as the new Lamb of God. As we Christians tell the story of Jesus' dying for our sins in doctrine, hymns and liturgy, we quite unknowingly turn God into an ogre, a deity who practices child sacrifice and a guilt-producing figure, who tells us that our sinfulness is the cause of the death of Jesus. God did it to him instead of to us who deserved it. Somehow that is supposed to make it both antiseptic and worthwhile. It doesn't. I think we can and must break the power of these images. Just the fact that you are sensitive to it and offended by it is a start.

Consciousness is rising on this issue all over the Church, and as it does, Christianity will either change or die. There is no alternative. I vote for change, obviously you do too.

-- John Shelby Spong

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