|If I were to ask you about “sub-stitutionary atonement,” you might not understand what I mean. However, chances are you know the definition without knowing the technical term. |
Stated simply, substitutionary atonement is the belief that Jesus died on the cross as our substitute; that you and I and all of humanity deserved to be punished for our sins, but Jesus paid our penalty on the cross. Therefore, when the New Testament talks about Jesus as a “sacrifice” for our sins it means Jesus was sacrificed in our place.
I cut my theological teeth on such theology, and if you were raised in the church, so did most of you. Over the years, however, I have become increasingly uneasy about defining the center of our faith in this way.
I do not have the space to outline all of my reservations, but here is a sample. First, I do not see the God revealed in Christ as a deity whose holiness must be appeased. People are more important than rules to the God I see in Christ. Second, this belief was first outlined by Anselm of Canterbury in the 11th century. It made sense in feudal Europe where peasants were accustomed to kings and lords who set the rules and needed to be placated for breaking them.
Philip Gulley’s and James Mulholland’s book If Grace Is True helped me to outline a different way of understanding the cross and resurrection, but I still could not get beyond the biblical language of a “sacrifice” for sin.
|In Marcus Borg’s and John Dominic Crossan’s book The First Paul, I found what I had been looking for. Apparently, the ancient world did not understand sacrifice (to the biblical God or a pagan one) as a substitution. Sacrifices were gifts offered to gods in gratitude for good fortune, or to gain favor in times of crisis, or to repair a broken relationship. |
This third reason is behind the New Testament’s use of the word “sacrifice.” Jesus died on the cross, not to take the penalty for our sin, but to demonstrate the depth of God’s love for us; to show us how desperately God wants to repair the relationship with us. It is a gift to us, not to purchase forgiveness for us, but to prove we are already forgiven.
This may seem like splitting theological hairs, but, as we approach Holy Week and Easter, I think it makes a difference. How we frame the events we commemorate will determine what kind of celebration we will have. Will the sanctuary be plunged into darkness on Maundy Thursday because God requires somebody’s blood, or because God will go to any lengths to restore a relationship with us? Will we sing “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today” on Easter morning because Jesus made an end run around God’s holiness, or because God has rejected our rejection of God?
Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed!