Atonement: Is it open for discussion?

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Easter is upon us. The days are a bit longer, the weather is a bit warmer, and the new life of Spring is emerging incrementally around us. Easter is a big day for candy sales. It’s a big day for all sales in our commercial economy. Beyond all of this, Easter is a big day for sales in the religious world too. It’s a holiday where Christians focus on the atonement of Jesus.

Churches throughout our cities will make a big deal about Easter. It is the best opportunity to make an impact on new visitors, who will help church growth metrics. I’ve seen it all. I’m seen flying angels suspended from ceilings, I’ve seen a bloody Jesus get whipped as he walked through the crowd, I’ve witnessed celebrities perform, I can’t count how many paper maché rocks I’ve seen roll out from an illuminated tomb. I’ve even seen live animals take a dump in the sanctuary. “It’s all worth it, IT’S EASTER.”

From a theological perspective, Easter celebrates the death and resurrection of Jesus. The Jesus story is that both Church and State captured, condemned, tortured and punished an innocent man to a brutal death on the cross. He was then buried in a guarded tomb and then miraculously rose from the dead three days later proclaiming his victory over death. I think most people resonate with the idea of new life emerging from death. It is the story of Spring. It’s also a pattern that is seen in all of life. Sacrifice and suffering are required for new life to emerge. That’s the easy part of Easter.

It’s the subplot that trips up modern people. It’s the subplot that is not open for discussion. In fact, many feel that the subplot is the defining belief of whether a person is a true believer. It is foundational and thus cannot be questioned. Of course, I questioned it.

What is the subplot? In a nutshell, the view is that ALL people are terrible, hell bound sinners, and as such we all stand guilty before a holy God who will judge us. God therefore sent his only son, Jesus, to pay for our sins on our behalf, thus putting us in good standing with God. That’s what atonement means. The implication is that Jesus isn’t so much saving us from our sins as he is saving us from God. A scary, angry, judgmental, harsh, exacting, punitive God. I refer to this as Sniper God atonement.

Did you know there are other atonement theories?

  1. Satisfaction/Penal substitution: This is the most common theory of modern Christianity and it is the one I just described. In the Reformed traditions, Jesus only loves and died for those he will save, not for everyone. The rest are purposed for destruction. Thus his death is effectual for only a few. Thomas Aquinas widened the net much further by making the death potential rather than actual, thus all people are savable, but they have to choose it. Do you see how evangelism is birthed here?
  2. Ransom: Jesus death was paid to Satan to get people back from his evil grasp. Thus Satan is seen as the controller of the dark, evil world and owns all souls unless Jesus beets him in a cosmic game of chess, or maybe you prefer a UFC event.
  3. Moral Influence: The death of Jesus is archetypal of how martyrs influence moral change. Faith in Jesus equates to behavior modification and saves us from badness.

The bible says Jesus will save people from their sins (Matt 1:21, 1 Tim 1:15),but doesn’t really detail how his death does this. But did you know that that most of the places in the bible where it talks about salvation, it doesn’t mention sin?  Salvation was seen as what modern people call conversion. Conversion means to change ones mind. Churches today don’t see salvation like this.

In my doctoral thesis I prove that sin is not limited to our deeds, but is ultimately a necessary context of non-faith (Rom 14:23). Sin is unawareness. Our bad deeds always come from low consciousness. (otherness is low consciousness, love is high consciousness) To be saved from sin means to be raised in consciousness or awareness (belief), and then to act in accordance with that consciousness (action). Jesus called this loving others (Luke 10:27). Paul called this being transformed by the renewing of our minds (Rom 12:2). The Greek word to change one’s mind is Metanoia, which is translated as repentance. The writer of Hebrews calls this enlightenment (Heb 6:4). In fact all religions call a transforming awareness enlightenment.

Atonement is one of those areas that I believe the church really needs to re-examine. Most people think that sin is a bad thing we do. This translates into a theology that says: “If you are naughty, God will be angry and punish you. Jesus will make you into a good person that God will love.” Is it any wonder people are confused?

How is that Good News? The scandal of the Christian faith is that rather than destroying sinners, God loves them (John 3:16), thus leveling the playing field and making one people out of all distinctions and categories. Sin actually unites us. 

When I began to question atonement models, I was quickly cautioned and even rebuked or diminished because this subject wasn’t really up for debate. The question that no one was able to answer was: “If Jesus died to take away all my sin, then why do I still sin? If Jesus then died to take away the punishment for my sin, then why should I concern myself with sin any longer? If Jesus transforms sinners then why are churches full of them?”

Why is everything always about sin? Is it me or does it seem the church has lost its focus? The obvious answer is the system doesn’t run on good news, it runs on bad news (sin).

I invite you to try these questions out on your pastor. See if you are not given a chicken and the egg scenario, something like this: “Well, you see, he has forgiven you for your sins, but you are still a sinner. You have to fight against sin, to show that you are grateful for him forgiving you. Then when you do accidentally sin, he will forgive you again. Faith is about struggle with sin, not sinless perfection.” Behind it all is behavior modification based in the fear of hell.

I’m not the only one who got trapped in this feedback loop. I’ll bet you did too. This loop traps people into a behavior based faith system or works righteousness. It keeps our churches and small groups and bible studies full, but obscures the atonement of restoration.

I have a solution if you are willing to consider it. It’s kind of radical. I believe it has always been radical.

What if Jesus death actually atoned for all the sin of all humanity? What if there was absolutely nothing standing between any person who ever lived and God? If this were true, then the most religious people in our world would be the unbelievers (Matt 7:21). The power structures that separate people would fall apart since no one could quarantine and patent or promote their own God experience. All experiences would be valid and varied. This would only be possible if the death of Jesus is a culminating event in history, that is archetypical for a much larger, broader and diverse and ongoing Christ experience.

Easter then would not be about replaying an historical event over two thousand years ago, but it would be the present and ongoing christ experience known as enlightenment. Atonement would be an awareness of present things being restored. The incremental changing of ones mind is transformation (Isa 28:13).

Do you see how Christmas (incarnation) and Easter (atonement) become present experiences?

It turns out the cosmic aspect of Christ has been saving people long before Christianity ever existed (1 Cor 10:4, Num 21:9), and it continues everyday in all people in all religions.  Abraham wasn’t a Christian. Neither was Moses, neither was Jesus. Christianity was never intended to be an alternative religion to which we must be converted. It was the Christ revelation that completed all purified religions starting with Judaism. Atonement is completion, not initiation, thus it is restoration.

This doesn’t diminish in any way the Jesus story, in fact it makes it even bigger. It does so by exposing an atonement that is perfectly represented and displayed in the Jesus story, but is in no way limited to the Jesus story. It is an atonement story that has been told in every tradition throughout human history, and is being retold in every life that is living today. It doesn’t belong to Christianity, but it is beautifully displayed there. Instead of seeing oneness with God as a single event in history, it can now be seen in every atom of the universe, quantum science is proving this. Maybe this is what Paul was explaining to the Philippians when he said at the name of Jesus ever knee should bow in heaven and on earth (Phil 2:10).

Maybe Easter is good news because it is the end of a low consciousness sniper God, and the beginning of a complete and total awareness and the experience of oneness with God’s very being, which we experience everyday in each other.


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2 thoughts on “Atonement: Is it open for discussion?

  1. The following quote, from a 99 year old world-renowned Jesuit theologian and scripture scholar, seems to sum up the good news very nicely:

    “I have written so many books on God, but after all that, what do I really know?
    I think, in the end, God is the person you’re talking to, the person right in front of you.”
    – Leon Dufour, quoted in ‘Tattoos on the Heart’ by Gregory Boyle

    Thank you for this gift on Easter, Keven. I am also convinced that atonement is not owned by Christianity, and I have traveled many lonely and bumpy roads to arrive there.

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