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New Page – 21 April 2004

Atonement – sometimes viewed as At-One-Ment – is a strange beast. The word is most often used in connection with The Passion of Jesus Christ as a means of attempting to answer the fundamental (pardon the pun) question of: Why did Jesus Christ have to die on the Cross. I mean like, what's really the whole point from a divine perspective? Not so much from a universal perspective, however, inasmuch as from this latter viewpoint there is absolutely no reason at all. A Creator of the universe obviously needs no such sacrifice, even if the local god-claimant might find a dysfunctional reason for one.

On the one hand, “The atonement ‘is the centerpiece of Christianity, and it's what distinguishes it from all other religions.” It is in a phrase all about Crucifixion Christianity.” In terms of understanding the whys and wherefores, however, the way to the cross is still filled with numerous pitfalls. One of these is as Jack Graham, pastor of a Plano , Texas Baptist megachurch, noted, “There are many mysteries of atonement that we won't understand this side of eternity.” [1]

Well, that pretty well solves that problem! It's an inscrutable, insolvable problem which we would do well to stay clear of. Come to think of it, that's pretty much where the bulk of Christians live, avoiding “the theological nuances,' so to speak. However, it's not – for better or for worse – where this website might choose to stand. Se la vie.

The claim that Jesus died as a sacrifice or as a way to atone for man's separation from God is in reality a very shrewd political move . If as a member of the controlling elite – e.g., the Jewish hierarchy and the Roman government – you wish to control the masses, you don't tell them that the controllers were offended and threatened by Jesus' message of love, compassion, and the need to return to the mysteries of their religion. That would make it clear that the authorities – of every age -- are the bad guys. Instead the controllers conjure up a song and dance about atonement and sacrifice in order to distract everyone from the real reason, and then claim that it's an inscrutable, insolvable problem. It is this distraction which makes the question of why did Jesus had to die so difficult to answer.

But then one then adds insult to injury by offering competing theories of atonement, and thereby further deflects the attention of everyone from the real reason that Jesus died, i.e., He was a radical who threatened the authorities and their power base. That's what it comes down to in every day and every age. Authorities don't like anarchists!

One such theory is called “substitutionary atonement”, whereby Jesus' death was necessary to pay for reconciliation between God and mankind. The debt was initially against a great evil such as the devil, and then transferred later directly to God as a ransom of ‘satisfaction' for the insult of mankind's sins. Such a theory, of course, assumes or creates a sense of debt and a means of social control.

John Dominic Crossan, a Catholic liberal, has called it “the most unfortunately successful idea in the history of Christian thought.” “If I can persuade you that there's a punishing God and that you deserve to be punished but I have some sort of way out for you, then that's a very attractive theology.” [1]

It is certainly attractive for the control freak authority, for this theory clearly creates a sense of debt, an obligation, and thereby a tool for social control. The debt, of course, is by virtue of being born, and has nothing to do with any contract entered into willingly, knowingly, and/or with remedy and recourse.

Substitutionary atonement is thus equivalent to statutory law where it's irrelevant if one is even aware of breaking a law, much less having willingly agreed to abide by it. It is instead the antithesis of Common Law, where there must be an injury to person or property before any crime is committed. As such it also violates the very nature of law.

But then again, most attempts by a hierarchy or aristocracy to impose control over the masses violate most of the covenants corresponding to freedom, liberty, and justice.

Obviously, “substitution espouses divine child abuse.” “The evidence of hundreds of years suggests that, in the wrong hands, it can deliver the wrong message.” [1]

An extreme example of this is provided by the Rev. Dr. Susan Thistlethwaite, president of the Chicago Theological Seminary, of her experience as a spiritual counselor [1]:

“Countless women have told me that their priest or minister had advised them, as ‘good Christian women' to accept beatings by their husbands as ‘Christ accepted the cross.' An overemphasis on the suffering of Jesus to the exclusion of his teaching has tended to be used to support violence.”

Substitutionary atonement – and for that matter, Mel Gibson's so-called “war movie”, The Passion glorifies death and suffering, encourages scapegoating, and makes forgiveness a burden of the victim . Unlike the idea of guilty until proven innocent , one is presumed guilty with the only possible recourse to throw oneself upon the mercy of the Court – and quite possibly be required to suffer an agonizing death as an example to other possible anarchists, revolutionaries, and individuals who think love is a good thing.

An opposing theory of atonement is one known as exemplary atonement . Instead of the central purpose of Jesus' existence being to offer himself as a sacrificial lamb to a God somehow disjointed by humans acting human, the true mission of Jesus' life and ministry was to provide an example, a model for humans as to the extent God was willing to offer mercy, forgiveness, and love. It's not always clear why a divine forgiveness is necessary, but there is a certain appeal to living one's life as an example, and thereby foregoing the tendency to dictate or fix others in one's own personal quest for perfection.

An alleged difficulty with exemplary atonement is that it suggests that there is no special or particular reason for Christ to have been divine. “Any virtuous martyr might do. One wit remarked that the Bible could have ended with the death of Abel, a decent enough man.” [1] And the problem is?

Critics, of course, argue that an account of one human trying to impress others with self-sacrifice is “not the Christian Gospel and never has been.” Worse yet, from these critics' perspective is the idea that exemplary atonement might give the impression that “there is nothing wrong with the world that can't be cured by human endeavor.” [1]

Such criticism, unfortunately, makes a host of assumptions, including the concept that an omniscience Creator would create beings which are wholly dependent upon the Creator's good graces. From a universal perspective, of course, no universal Creator is going to create such inferior quality beings. Such a lack of universal quality control on the part of the Creator would be… well… unforgivable. On the other hand, a dysfunctional, ego-centric being claiming to be God, and being disturbed in his sleep by the clamor of human activity – for example, Enlil – might demand forgiveness, worship, and all manner of strange and bewildering ritualistic activity.

A simple analogy is that of the relationship between a parent and child. Few parents require their offspring to worship them, ask for forgiveness, or suffer grievously for any infractions of house rules. Parents who love their children do not need atonement in any form – substitutionary or exemplary.

A third alternative is best described as “mix, match or mutate.” [1] This could be thought of as custom atonement – including the distinct lack of requiring forgiveness in any form. This latter point has a lot to recommend it.

For example, while it is easy to take offense, it is impossible to give offense without the other party taking it. One can always forgive another for real or imagined transgressions, but one is never required to expect compensation in return. No one is required to demand their just deserts and the payment of a karmic debt by another. No functional individual or being need require anyone to ask or beg for forgiveness. It's instead a matter of Get Ye Over It and it's time to move on to bigger and better things.

No one need require another to sacrifice, and anyone wanting to sacrifice themselves for pretty much whatever… is okay as well. If one truly wishes to worship a Creator, then one might want to extend the greatest compliment to said Creator by emulating the divine being. This can be done by becoming a sovereign creator themselves and by respecting the other creations of the Creator as themselves. In effect, one can follow the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Just don't expect anyone to die for you, even if you're willing to die for them. Anything else is based on the need to manipulate, to control, and to force others to your bidding. Gifts with strings attached can never be construed as gifts. Even divine gifts.



[1] David Van Biema, “Why Did Jesus Have to Die?” Time Magazine , April 12, 2004 .



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