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THE CHRISTIAN CONCEPT OF ATONEMENT

Beliefs by some very liberal Christians and post-Christians

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Note to religious conservatives:

You may well find some of the following essay confusing and bewildering. You may even consider it blasphemy. Please don't write us angry Emails. We are merely reporting the full range of Christian beliefs. Think of us as reporters. We have not thought any of this up.

If you want to read theories of the atonement that you will feel more comfortable with, please go to our atonement menu where you have a choice of theories of the Roman Catholic, Orthodox, World Faith, and other Protestant denominations. If you have strong objections with liberal Christian beliefs about the atonement, please take it up with religious liberals.

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Topics covered in this essay:

  1. Why a range of atonement theories exist in Christianity
  2. Liberal beliefs about the Bible
  3. Events leading up to Yeshua's (Jesus') execution
  4. Significance of Yeshua's death
  5. The theology of the cross and the atonement

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Why a range of atonement theories exist:

An enormous range of conflicting beliefs about fundamental doctrines coexist within Christianity. Theologians from conservative, mainline, and liberal wings of Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Protestantism, etc. all study the Bible as a primary information source. However, they have different assumptions about its nature, and thus come to very diverse conclusions about its contents. For example:

bulletFundamentalist Protestants generally believe that the Bible is the Word of God; its authors were inspired by God; the text, in its original autograph version, was inerrant, and the Bible should normally be interpreted literally.
bulletLiberal Christians generally accept that the Bible was written by authors who were promoting their own evolving religious beliefs. They incorporated some text from nearby Pagan countries. They attributed laws and statements to God and Yeshua (a.k.a. Jesus Christ) which were the writers' own creation. Many are actually opposed to the will of God.
bulletMost very liberal Christians generally believe that many passages in the Gospels describe words that Yeshua never spoke and actions that never happened. They were simply invented by the authors in order to promote their faith group's beliefs. They were attributed to Yeshua in order to strengthen their claim to truth.

Many theologians in the most liberal wing of Christianity place much less emphasis on the death and resurrection of Yeshua of Nazareth (a.k.a. Jesus Christ) then do those from other wings. Liberals tend to pay more attention on Yeshua's life and teaching.

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Liberal beliefs about the Bible and Christianity:

Liberals hold a wide range of beliefs that often differ markedly from each other and from historical Christian teachings. However, there are a few themes running through the writings of many of the most liberal Christian theologians:

bulletThe text of the Christian Scriptures (a.k.a. New Testament) is not inerrant. Its authors were not inspired by God. The gospel writers were not writing biographies of Yeshua. They were promoting their personal developing theological beliefs and those of their own faith groups. They frequently invented many of the sayings and parables that they later attributed to Yeshua. The Gospel of John in particular contains very little information on the actual life and teachings of Yeshua. For example, it is probable that none of the "I am" sayings were actually uttered by Yeshua.
bulletChristianity, as we know it today, is largely the creation of Paul, who never actually met Yeshua during his ministry. Paul appears to have little knowledge of Yeshua's teachings. Professor Paul Laughlin comments: "...the teachings and actions that constituted the ministry of the man of Nazareth played no appreciable role in Paul's writings or his theology." 1
bulletWhereas Yeshua's message was almost entirely confined to his fellow Jews, Paul directed his ministry to the Gentiles -- the non-Jews who formed the majority of people in the Roman Empire and who followed a variety of Greek and Roman Pagan religions, Mystery Religions, Mithraism, etc.
bulletPaul and subsequent authors of the Christian Scriptures incorporated into their teachings many of the life-events of god-men and heroes from Pagan cultures. This is where various stories originated about Yeshua's life: his conception by a virgin, miraculous events associated with his birth, a coming-of age-ritual, events during his ministry, his resurrection, etc. Many details of the accounts of his execution by the Roman Army were either made up by the authors of the Gospels to match prophecies in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament), or borrowed from non-Christian sources. Over 100 of the events described in Yeshua's life and death appear to have been copied from much earlier stories of Osiris, a mythical Egyptian god-man who died "as a sacrifice for the sins of the world." 2 Osiris also was hung on a tree, or cross. After death, he descended into Hell. On the third day, he was resurrected. The cave where he was laid was visited by three of his female followers. He later ascended to heaven.
bulletPaul, and other writers in the early Christian movement converted primitive Christianity from the religion of Yeshua to a religion about Yeshua. They elevated his status from an itinerant rabbi and natural healer to a God-man.
bulletIn order for us to catch a glimpse of the historical Jesus -- the Jewish itinerant rabbi who wandered through Palestine during the first century CE -- it is necessary to strip away many layers of myths about Yeshua which the biblical authors included in the Gospels and Epistles. Even then, we can only obtain a vague idea of this teachings and actions. We can only speculate What Would Jesus Do (WWJD) in a given situation.

This essay continues below.

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Events leading up to Yeshua's execution:

Before dealing with liberal beliefs about the atonement, it is necessary to examine what some liberals believe about the execution of Yeshua by the Roman occupying forces.

Some liberal theologians suspect that the stories of Yeshua's aggravated assault of the vendors in the commercial stalls in the Jerusalem temple may refer to an actual historical event. It is described as occurring early in Yeshua's ministry in the Gospel of John:

bulletJohn 2:13-16: "....Jesus went up to Jerusalem, And found in the temple those that sold oxen and sheep and doves, and the changers of money sitting: And when he had made a scourge of small cords, he drove them all out of the temple, and the sheep, and the oxen; and poured out the changers' money, and overthrew the tables; And said unto them that sold doves, Take these things hence; make not my Father's house an house of merchandise." (King James Version)

The same event is recorded near the end of his ministry in the remaining three of the canonical gospels. For example:

bulletMatthew 21:12-13: "And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves, And said unto them, It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves." (KJV)

The synoptic gospels -- Mark, Matthew and Luke -- describe the assault as happening just before the Jewish Passover, when the Jews recalled the events leading to their escape from Egypt -- the Exodus. It was an annual time of heightened national feeling; emotions were strong. The the Roman army garrison in Jerusalem was augmented at this time, in order to nip any potential riot or uprising in the bud. It is inconceivable that Yeshua could have attacked the vendors in the Temple without having being detected by the occupying forces. He would have undoubtedly been arrested. He probably was taken before a junior army officer who would have been given standing orders to execute by crucifixion anyone engaged in a major destabilizing act against the state. The stories in the gospels about Yeshua's arrest by the temple guards, his trial(s) by the Jewish authorities, and his trial before the Roman Procurator Pontius Pilate are mostly anti-Jewish propaganda created by the emerging Pauline Christian movement, and were unrelated to real events.

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The significance of Yeshua's death:

In today's world, an individual found guilty of aggravated assault with a whip against some shopkeepers would not receive the death penalty. Unless there were extenuating circumstances, they probably would be given a relatively brief jail sentence. But in occupied Palestine of the 1st century CE, such an attack would be considered an act of insurrection against the state -- a capital offense.

Crucifixion was reserved for slaves, and those guilty of insurrection or treason. Thousands of Jews were crucified by the Romans during Yeshua's lifetime for such offenses; many were probably innocent. The crucifixion of Jesus was an act of state terrorism. The entire process, from the initial flogging of the victim to the disposal of the body in a pit was designed to terrorize the population into submission. Although unjust by today's standards, it was typical punishment for a person committing that type of crime in that era and country. The horror of Yeshua's death is aggravated by the realization that Yeshua's death was only one of thousands of Jews tortured to death by the Romans during the first half of the first century CE.

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The theology of the cross and atonement:

The following list compares traditional Christian beliefs with those of many liberal Christians. The latter are partly taken from the writings of John Shelby Spong, a retired bishop of the Episcopal Church. He is one of best known liberal Christian theologians in the U.S. He is critical of the traditional Christian "theology of the cross." This is the belief in the fall of humanity, the creation of a gulf between God and mankind, and the necessity of a human sacrifice of an innocent person to heal that chasm and make atonement possible. 3

Much of Christianity has traditionally taught the series of beliefs shown in the left column, below; many conservative Christian denominations still do. Reactions by some liberal theologians are shown in the right column:

Traditional beliefs Typical responses by liberal Christians
The Bible is the Word of God. The entire Bible is inerrant and divinely inspired. That is, God directly inspired the authors of the Bible so that they would write material that is free of any error. Bishop Spong: "The Bible is not the word of God in any literal or verbal sense., It never has been. The Gospels are not inerrant works, divinely authored." 3 The creation and flood stories in Genesis were copied from the earlier religious  writings of nearby Pagan countries.
Adam and Eve were literally the first humans, created by God -- with the world, the other forms of life, and the rest of the universe -- less than 10,000 years ago. Radiometric analysis of rocks indicates that the Earth is about 4.5 billion years old. Species of plants and animals evolved over a period of billions of years. Humans are the highest species, so far, on the evolutionary ladder.
God created the first humans, Adam and Eve, in the image of God. "We were not created in God's image in any literal way. We simply evolved out of lower forms of life and ultimately developed a higher consciousness," and a moral sense. 5
The original creation, before the fall of humanity, was perfect and complete. There is no such thing as an original, perfect creation. There never was a "fall." The theory of evolution shows how humans have risen over time.
The world was initially perfect, without death. By disobeying god and eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, Adam and Eve were banished from the Garden of Eden, and sentenced to eventual death. The sin of Adam and Eve caused sin and death to enter the universe The story of Adam and Eve and the fruit is clearly a religious myth: words of deep spiritual meaning, but which describe events that never happened. Species down through billions of years have died, long before the first humans walked on the earth. There was no perfect golden age in the past from which humanity fell.
The original sin of Adam and Eve were passed on to future generations, even down to the present time. Some Christian denominations teach that this is transmitted by the act of sexual intercourse. The concept of sin being transferred from parents to children, then to grand-children and continuing for hundreds of generations is profoundly immoral. Present-day humans cannot be in no way responsible for sin committed six millennia before they were born.
A massive, unbridgeable gulf was created between God and humanity. Humans were and are hopelessly lost and unable to save themselves. In the Hebrew Scriptures, a sacrificial system and system of annual rituals was provided whereby sin could be forgiven and the gulf between God and humanity could be healed.
The transfer of original sin from generation to generation was interrupted only once in history. This was when the virgin Mary conceived Yeshua through the aid of the Holy Spirit. [In St. Augustine's day, physicians believed that the woman merely played the role of an incubator to the developing embryo and fetus; she made no genetic contribution. So, the fact that Mary had inherited original sin was thus of no consequence. Later, when women's genetic input at conception was recognized, the Roman Catholic Church declared, on logical grounds, that Mary herself must have been conceived without original sin. They declared the "Immaculate Conception" of Mary to be official dogma in 1854.] Parthenogenesis -- pregnancy initiated without fertilization by a male -- is quite possible among some plants and very small animals like salamanders. It is quite impossible among humans or other mammals.

The story of the virgin conception of Yeshua was imported into the Bible from outside Pagan sources.

The concept of transferring sin from a guilty person to their children is rejected as immoral by almost every religious and secular philosophical belief system in the world. It makes no logical sense to hold a person responsible for the sins of their parents, grandparents etc., back thousands of years. Holding innocent people responsible for the sins of others is unethical.

Yeshua was born free of original sin and led a sinless life. This is confirmed by many passages in the Christian Scriptures. If he were sinful, then his death would not have created a path to atonement. Original sin does not exist. When compared to human standards, Yeshua did sin as an adult. For example, he made a racist statement likening a foreign woman to a dog; he conspired to steal a donkey; he committed aggravated assault in the temple.
God is perfectly just. Thus he cannot or will not accept into Heaven anyone who has unforgiven sin. God is quite capable of forgiving sin, whether the perpetrator follows Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, etc. Jesus commands that humans also forgive.
Atonement can only be achieved through Jesus' death. According to Hebrews 9:22, "...without shedding of blood is no remission" of sin. We can be only "saved by the blood of Jesus." We must be "washed in the blood" of Jesus. Bishop Spong writes that Christianity has changed God into an ogre. "A human father who would nail his son to a cross for any purpose would be arrested for child abuse....I would choose to loathe rather than to worship a deity who required the sacrifice of his son." 4

Bishop Spong concludes: "We human beings do not live in sin. We are not born in sin, We do not need to have the stain of our original sin washed away in baptism....We have rather emerged out of our evolutionary past, and we are still being formed....A savior who restores us to our prefallen state is therefore pre-Darwinian superstition and post-Darwinian nonsense. A supernatural redeemer who enters our fallen world to restore creation is a theistic myth." 6

The history of the world shows a gradual evolution of species with increasing capacities culminating, for now, in human beings. There never was a fall. There never was a fall of humanity. Thus, there is no need for a savior. There is no need for a perfect, sinless God-man to be tortured to death in order for humans to be given a path towards salvation. Jesus' execution was an unfair application of harsh Roman justice -- one of thousands of similar judicial murders during the first third of the first century CE. It is primarily Jesus' life, not his death, which is important to us today as an example and goal to inspire us. Humanity is in no need of a rescuer.

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Criticisms of historical atonement theories:

bulletSince God is omniscient, omnipotent, omnibeneficient, just, and ethical, it is illogical to assume that he would be willing to allow his son to be tortured to death if there were another way to achieve atonement. God might have, for example, simply forgiven Adam and Eve for their sin. Yeshua repeatedly taught that extending forgiveness is taking the moral high road.
bulletThere is no obvious way whereby a person can achieve salvation and atonement with God by simply expressing faith in Yeshua. Professor of Philosophy Michael Martin writes: "Since, on the ransom theory, after Jesus' death and resurrection, human beings were out of the devil's clutches, it would seem that the way to salvation would simply be to follow a life free from sin so as not to fall under the devil's control. What has faith in Jesus [as Lord and Savior] got to do with this?" 3
bulletTraditional Christian theories of the atonement would route many non-Christians to Hell after death for the simple reason that they have not had the opportunity to learn of Yeshua, Christianity, or the gospel message. Being ignorant of Yeshua, they could hardly trust him as Lord and Savior and be saved. These theories punish non-Christians for not having made a decision in favor of someone of whom they are unaware. This appears to many people to be illogical, irrational, and immoral.
bulletMany liberal Christians generally reject most of the historical atonement theories in favor of the moral theory that was introduced by Abelard in the 12th century CE. This theory suggests that Yeshua's life is primarily a moral example to humanity. After mythical components of the Gospel are removed, we can get a glimpse of Yeshua and his teachings. These can inspire us to lift ourselves out of sin and develop an intimate relationship with God. Other liberals accept one of the non-violent theories of the atonement derived from 20th century feminist and African-American thought.

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References:

  1. Paul Laughlin, "Remedial Christianity: What every believer should know about the faith, but probably doesn't," Polebridge Press, (2000), Page 178 to 182. Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store.
  2. Timothy Freke & Peter Gandy, "The Jesus Mysteries: Was the 'original Jesus' a Pagan god?" Acacia Press, (1999). Read reviews or order this book
  3. J. Shelby Spong, "Jesus as rescuer: An image that has to go," Chapter 6 of "Why Christianity must change or die," HarperSanFrancisco, (1998), Pages 83 to 94. Read reviews or order this book
  4. Ibid, Page 95.
  5. Ibid, Page 97.
  6. Ibid, Pages 98 & 99.

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Home > Christianity > History, Beliefs, etc > Beliefs > Atonement > Theories > here

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Copyright © 2004 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2004-APR-11
Latest update: 2004SEP-08.
Author: B.A. Robinson

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