Atonement as satisfying a vendetta

Some time ago, on the local Christian radio station, I was listening to a preacher explain how Jesus’s death on the cross saved us all by paying the penalty for all our human sins against God. He used the analogy of a judge who lets a convicted person go, because some other person, innocent of the crime, volunteers to go to the gallows instead. The law is satisfied by someone paying the penalty; the convict just has to accept the sacrifice of the innocent person and walk free.

I’ve run into this analogy before; I would guess that it circulates in the culture of evangelical Christianity. It just happens to be particularly striking in the way it makes no sense. None of our legal systems work this way. And it seriously grates against the common modern conception of moral responsibility.

No doubt there are other conceptions of responsibility under which the satisfaction version of the Atonement make sense: conceptions where persons are much more strongly integrated into collectivities than modern individuals, and where responsibility and punishment are much more plausibly taken as communal affairs. Not being an anthropologist, though, the only example that I can think of that might help me make sense of the Atonement as satisfaction is a vendetta.

In many tribal or segmented societies, a tribe or (partly fictive) kinship group regularly bears collective responsibility for transgressions against another group. Say one person murders another from another group, starting a vendetta. For the aggrieved group, justice will often be deemed satisfied if any one person from the offending group is murdered in turn—it does not have to be the original murderer. Groups bear collective responsibility, and because of this, they can also often be effective in discouraging their members from transgressing against other groups.

So I guess in a vaguely similar sense, I can imagine humans bearing some collective responsibility for transgressions against the God-in-chief. Maybe some perfect sacrifice on behalf of all of us can satisfy that sort of debt. Maybe—I expect this sort of thing made more sense in Near Eastern societies of a couple thousand years ago where collective responsibility was a familiar everyday reality.

What I don’t get is conservative American Christians today still taking about the Atonement as satisfaction. These are often the same people who make a fetish of “personal responsibility” and rugged individualism. They don’t do vendettas. So don’t they feel the tension between that modern conception of responsibility and the stories they tell about Jesus atoning for our sins? Or should I speculate that collective responsibility is not so foreign to the evangelical subculture? After all, many conservative Christians today are quick to ascribe collective responsibility to Muslims for acts of terrorism. What’s going on here?

I’m not too concerned about how conservative Christians come up with intellectual excuses for their ideas about the Atonement. A religion that affirms the Trinity and Jesus being both fully divine and fully human should have no trouble with a bit of intellectual tension between conflicting senses of responsibility.

What I wonder is how the tension manifests itself (or not) psychologically. Do conservative Christians just, by and large, not think about this sort of thing? (I’m fairly sure they don’t give the Trinity much thought, for example.) Or is there something to a speculation that their culture has an element of tribalism that helps defuse the tension here?

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About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • The Universe is an Atheist

    I think they literally aren't capable of seeing the inherent logical contradiction. I have confronted people on it before, and all depends on how you say it. Well, not How you say it – it depends on who says it. If they say it, then it all made perfect sense but you are rejecting god and so can't understand it, but if you say it, you arent really understanding what is really happening because, hey, you arent a christian – you cant understand what is really happening. thank you for pointing this out, this has always really ticked me off.

  • David Mabus
  • jroark

    I was in that tradition for 14 years including college and seminary. I left 25 years ago and have done a lot of reflecting.

    With regard to tension, logical inconsistencies, you're right, they ignore them. They may say that god spoke to them (in sermons, meetings, prayer, bible reading) and that's why they believe it. (Just like Muslims can say that Allah "just spoke to me" in the Koran.)

    They might also say that logical explanation is often incomplete and that we should consider it a matter of faith and/or obedience.

    But most lay persons won't use either of these more advanced responses, leaving outsiders scratching their heads.

    Also, seeing as such contradictions have been pointed out at least since the Renaissance, ignoring them can also be a defensive attempt to preserve critical pieces of the world view that organizes life and helps make sense of it. Revenge is a normal human feeling, and so it seems "right" to react in that way and to use it in other, similar situations. It might be considered constructive to restrict it to god's prerogative, thus encouraging us *not* to use it.

  • jroark

    Some well meaning and dedicated believers have lost the ability to have constructive dialogue.

  • Eugene

    As a Christian, I'd have to say that most people in the church don't consider logical discrepancies at all, although I'd say that's true not just for Christians but a majority of people in general.

    In terms of the point itself, I think it's safe assume that God has a different perspective with regards to the concept of justice.

    For instance, it says in the bible that it is a sin to take the Lord's name in vain. However, it's not as if it's a sin to take our own name in vain. The rules that apply to us are different than the rules that apply to God.

    Thus, if the rules themselves are different, it's not a stretch to assume that the punishment is different and that the justice exacted for the transgression is different.

    Although all this is fairly moot in the context of conservative Christians. The brand of Christian you alluded to are an embarassment to Christ, for any real Christian knows that we have no business condemning others whether it comes to matters of personal OR collective responsibility.

  • Charles

    A Christian’s faith is not a blind faith. He does ask questions and uses reason. After all, he is a human being, who is created with a brain. At the same time, he is also created with a heart longing for the Creator.
    The doctrine of God is Trinity is definitely difficult to comprehend. Human beings may never understand it or resolve it using the human logic. But it is clear that there are three persons in God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Rejecting something because it does not fit the human logic is to regard human beings and human thinking as supreme. This is exactly what we should not do. Human beings are “creatures” and not the Creator, who is God.
    Atonement is not a vendetta. It is to recognize that a price must be paid when a wrong is committed. “The wages of sin is death.”, i.e. the price to pay for the human sin is death. But Jesus died for the human sin to satisfy the requirement for God. Why did he do that? The answer is that God loves all people. And, Jesus, the Son of God, came to die and atone for the sins of the world. But more importantly, he resurrected and proclaimed his victory over death.
    I do not believe any human analogy will adequately explain the atonement of Jesus. But accepting God, his justice and love is the first step to understand it.

  • jroark

    Christian faith allows reason to be used alternately to defend or allow gay marriage, for example, depending on the believer. That's because reason and revelation are finite. A scientist will use reason to extrapolate from known data to projected conclusions that may not be verifiable, only probable — for example, the earth will continue to revolve, and the sun will "come up" tomorrow. That's the best anyone can do. Believers fill the gap with ideas about divine beings, and these are no more verifiable than a scientist's probabilities.