Friday, November 12, 2010

Substitutionary Atonement

The common Christian belief of substitutionary atonement really bothers me, and is one example of doctrine and dogma gone wrong. I see it as having some value when we understand how it came about, what it meant in context of early Christianity and Judaism, and when it's not expanded beyond a useful idea and codified into doctrine and dogma that defines what Christianity is. (Instead of, for example, what Jesus says is important and is not important.)

The ideas behind substitutionary atonement (i.e. Jesus died for our sins) are compelling when put in context of the common religious beliefs of Jesus' and Paul's time. Judaism and other religions believed in sacrifice to please the gods or to atone for sin against God. In addition, the Pharisees, a very strict, powerful, and influential group within Judaism taught that one's religious and moral obligations were fulfilled primarily through ceremonial deeds. So when Paul speaks of Jesus as a sacrifice to end all sacrifices, it's important to understand that much of Paul's perspective and particular emphasis comes from the fact that he was previously a very zealous Pharisee. With him, the idea of Jesus' atonement has a real practical meaning, it does something – it ends the overall emphasis on sacrifice and ceremonial deeds, opening and pointing to a new way of the spirit, of life, love, and understanding. This is a living way, based on good deeds flowing from love and personal transformation. Combined with seeing our relationship with God as a friend or heir instead of a slave or servant opens up the realm of spirituality instead of rules, legalism, and the kind of blind faith where we just do things without knowing why. Why is something good or bad? We are supposed to know and understand this if, as Jesus says, God's will is made known to us.

Nowadays, substitutionary atonement does the exact opposite of leading the religion toward a living way based on the spirit, where love and good deeds through personal transformation are key. It reinforces the spirit of the Pharisees but packages it as a wolf in sheep's clothing by drawing on Paul's ideas and imagery about Jesus. As a result, it is believed that Christians (and people in general) are saved through particular beliefs about Jesus which can have little to do with their actual moral and spiritual development. These beliefs trump everything else, including Jesus' own very specific teachings and emphasis on following his example and path, as well as coming to intuitively understand what God is about and even move toward being “one with God” as Jesus prayed would happen with all his followers. The current beliefs create much more acceptance of the excuse “Christians aren't perfect” used to explain why Christians don't actually follow Jesus' example and teachings. (Examples of Jesus' insistence on his example and teachings are: “if you love me follow my commandments” and vice versa, “my mother, brother, sister are those who do God's will”, the emphasis in the Sermon on the Mount on putting into practice what he says, and of building your life on the solid foundation he lays out in the Sermon on the Mount that can weather the worst storms).

This view of atonement actually takes the power out of what Jesus taught and the example he lived, sapping its meaning and substance. Then Christians take Jesus' words “I am the way, the truth and the life – nobody comes to the Father but through me” combined with this shallow and weak understanding of atonement, making an even worse set of doctrines that “keep the doors of the Kingdom closed to others”, meaning that many Christians don't enter into the gate of Jesus' reality and way of life and thus are spouting all kinds of nonsense to the rest of the world. In Christian terms, they are not pursuing and entering the reign of God or the kingdom of God, and by their weird ideas are actually putting up barriers for other people as well. Seen through the lens of substitutionary atonement, belief in Jesus in particular – and not what he stood for (in its full spirituality, not just rules) – is what's important and makes Christianity superior to and separate from any other religion, as opposed to the actual core spirituality and essence of love. The bible emphasizes that God is love, and Jesus directly says that God is spirit. He says the things that matter the most are loving God and loving our neighbors (everyone) and especially those people who are different than we are. Jesus criticized the Pharisees for forgetting what is truly important – mercy, justice, and love. The commonly held doctrines today deserve the same criticism. Jesus' death didn't wash away our sins. Aligning ourselves to him and his love which transcends death does. This is not something that requires a belief in outdated, human-created, and exclusivist doctrines.


  1. I agree much with your post Ethan, and the sadness of the consequences of that line of thinking.

  2. I so appreciate this too! Thanks Ethan!