Christianity Divided by the Cross

Christianity Divided by the Cross October 25, 2013

American Christians are deeply divided by the cross of Jesus – namely, by how they see the meanings of his death. At the risk of labels and broad generalizations, “conservative” Christians generally believe a “payment” understanding of the cross: Jesus died to pay for our sins so we can be forgiven.

Most “progressive” Christians (at least a majority) have great difficulty with the “payment” understanding. Many reject it. Some insist that rather than focusing on Jesus’s death, we should instead focus on his life and teachings. They are right about what they affirm, even as they also risk impoverishing the meaning of Jesus by de-emphasizing the cross.

It is the central Christian symbol. And ubiquitous. Perhaps even the most widely-worn piece of jewelry. Its centrality goes back to the beginnings of Christianity. In one of the earliest New Testament documents, Paul in the early 50s summarized “the gospel” he had taught to his community in Corinth as “Christ crucified” (I Cor. 1-2). In the New Testament gospels beginning with Mark around 70, the story of Jesus’s final week and its climax in crucifixion and resurrection dominates their narratives. All four devote more than a fourth of their gospels to Jesus’s final week. And all anticipate the end of Jesus’s life earlier in their narratives. It is as if they are saying: you can’t tell the story of Jesus unless you tell the story of the cross.

Thus for Christianity from its beginning, the cross has always mattered. The crucial question is: what does it mean? Why does it matter? What is its significance?

The most common meaning in much of Christianity today is the “payment” understanding: Jesus died to pay for our sins. Insisted upon by “conservative” Christians, it is foundational and fundamental to their theology. Its influence extends beyond. Many, perhaps most, of today’s mainline Protestant and Catholics grew up with it even if perhaps in a softer version. The language of most Christian liturgies is shaped by the payment understanding and thus reinforces it through ritual repetition.

But the payment understanding has serious problems, both historical and theological. The historical problem: the payment understanding was not central in the first thousand years of Christianity. In the New Testament, it is at most a minor metaphor. Some scholars argue that it is not there at all. I am inclined to agree.

But regardless of the verdict on that question, the first systematic articulation of the cross as “payment for sin” happened just over nine hundred years ago in 1098 in St. Anselm’s treatise Cur Deus Homo? Its Latin title means, “Why Did God Become Human?” Anselm’s purpose was to provide a rational argument for the necessity of the incarnation and death of Jesus.

He did so with a cultural model drawn from his time and place: the relationship of a medieval lord to his peasants. If a peasant disobeyed the lord, could the lord simply forgive if he wanted to? No. Because that might imply that disobedience didn’t matter that much. Instead, compensation must be made. Nothing less than the honor and order of the lord were at stake.

Anselm then applied that model to our relationship with God. We have been disobedient and deserve to be punished. And yet God loves us and wants to forgive us. But the price of sin must be paid. Jesus as a human being who was also divine and thus perfect and without sin did that.

To repeat: familiar as it is, the payment understanding is less than a thousand years old. On historical grounds, it is not ancient Christianity, not traditional Christianity, not orthodox Christianity, even though it has over the last several centuries become dominant in Western Christianity. It has become a lens through which a number of New Testament passages that seem to support it are seen. But without that lens, they can be understood quite differently.

The theological difficulties of the payment understanding are even more serious. It seriously distorts the story of Jesus and the meaning of the cross:

*Makes Jesus’s death part of God’s plan of salvation – indeed, God’s will. It had to happen so that we can be forgiven. Really?

*Emphasizes God’s wrath and that it must be satisfied. But is that what God is like?

*Makes Jesus’s death more important than his life, and thus obscures his message and what he was passionate about (for example, Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ focuses on the last 18 hours of his life).

*Makes believing in Jesus more important than following him

*Makes Easter irrelevant. Of course, Christians who believe that Jesus paid for our sins also emphasize Easter. But there is no intrinsic connection between his death and resurrection. What matters most is that he paid for our sins.

Given the theological implications of the payment understanding, it is not surprising that progressive as well as many moderate Christians have problems with it. They should be problems for all Christians.

The rejection of the payment understanding does not make Jesus’s death irrelevant for Christians. On the contrary, it has robust meanings in the gospels and the New Testament as a whole. In my next blog, I will describe those. The purpose of this blog is to invite conversation about the payment understanding and its effects upon Christianity.

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  • Josh

    We will never be whole as Christians and more importantly as human beings until we let go of violent and sadomasochistic theology such as the kind you describe here. The Church has many transformations it must undergo, yet none are more important than this letting go. I know you realize that this theology is absolutely foundational to contemporary fundamentalism, so we have a lot of work to do.
    But it is truly worth it. Each time you write or speak about it, it is worth it. Each time.

    Keep singing, Brother Borg, for you do not sing alone!! 🙂 As Peter Gomes said once, if you didn’t exist we would have to invent you!!!!!!!!


    • Josh

      with Love

  • Jim Beyer

    If the most positive light I can manage, St. Anslem was wrong, In fact, I think he did and continues to do real violence to Christianity. Certainly that was not his intention, but it was the result, “substitutionary atonement is fatally anthropomorphic,


  • Doug Milliken

    Nothing matters except what is true, Truth is not found in discussion, or philosophy, or opinions of others, Truth is discovered by those who diligently seek it. When it comes to God, Seek and you will find Knock and the door will be opened unto you. Truth is found in The Bible and the attempt to understand it from Genesis through Revelation. If you don’t find truth there then you either have not studied it for yourself long enough, or you discount its validity with out honest investigation. You must not just understand Christianity you must understand the jewish roots of it, and how the Sacrificial system of the temple and the Feasts days of the Jewish people are fulfilled by Jesus The Messiah. The only salvation, and forgiveness of sin, and restoration of Proper relationship with ones Creator, according to the Bible when taken as a whole, is found in the once for all substitutional sacrifice of the Messiah to provide Forgiveness of Sin. There is none other where by we may be saved. He is the kinsman redeemer of the book of Ruth, He is the Passover lamb of the Exodus, He laid down His life as a perfect sacrifice. His Blood purifies us of all unrighteousness. His Spirit in us is a well of living water springing up to eternal life. All that is left is for us to do is Accept the truth as presented in the Bible and come to Him. He has borne the cost of our failures, we cannot live a perfect life, so he offered Himself as a payment, a redeemer, so we could enter the family of The Perfect God, the all powerful Creator of all things. His mission is complete He is now seated on the Right hand of the Father, waiting for those who will accept his sacrifice, receive His forgiveness and come to HIm. In Revelation at the end of the book it says Rev 22: 17″The Spirit and the bride say come, And let the one who hears, say come, and let the one who is thirsty come. Let the one who wishes take the water of life without cost.” All we need to do is come to Him. We can accept this free offer of redemption and entry into the family of God, or we can reject it, no strings attached, Know true Christian is going to try to force anyone. Jesus has done all that is necessary and all that He is going to Do. We were created with free will. What does Religion offer the sinking man, those of us who struggle in life? Confucius says ” profit from the experience, learn from it” Buddhism says ” Keep struggling, keep trying, fight against it, deny yourself, seek perfection, seek Nirvana” Islam says” If you live or die, it doesn’t matter, it is the will of Allah, Your pain does not matter only the will of Allah, Your only hope is in death at the service of Allah.” Christianity through Jesus Christ says “Reach up! Take my hand,! I will lift you up and save you” Which will you choose or will you reject all. It is my choice and your choice to make. No person so called Christian or anything else can help you. You must find this gift for yourself. This my friend is truth, and eternity is the future for those accept it.

    • Rebekkah Wilde

      The problem with your assertion that “truth” cannot be found through discussion and contemplation, but only through reading the Bible, is this: the words you read in the Bible have no inherent meaning. No word does. We understand language through our culture, our place in history, and our own experiences. A friend of mine has taken this view that the only path to truth is a literal understanding of the Bible (as read by herself) and is on the verge of starting her own cult, because her interpretation is based purely on her own understanding of a particular English translation of the Bible.

      In reality, we need to be in conversation with others. It is a living text, and God reveals himself not just through words on a page, but through the experiences of those who read it, and share the Bible. We need to listen to those who have read the ancient texts because we lose a lot of meaning in the translation between languages. We need the insight of those who have studied the culture of the times when the Bible was written, because that again can alter our understanding.

      We are a fellowship of believers for a reason. We need each other, we need to be in conversation with each, to enrich our faith and to pool our knowledge. God does not give one person all of his truth: he lets work together as a community to further our collective, and individual, understanding.

    • Josh

      When we get to hell, we’ll tell Jesus “hi” for you. He’ll be in the Jewish quarter. And I hear Confucius serves a mean cup of iced tea.

  • SF Frog

    Very interesting… I never specifically thought of Christ’s death & resurrection as “payment”, yet I realize that “He died for our sins, that we might go to heaven” since man is imperfect IS what I have heard most of my life. To me, the most important day of the year is Easter, when we celebrate His resurrection. I dislike crosses that show Jesus on them, because they emphasize His Death, rather than His resurrection. To me the “empty cross” shows that “He is risen”, no longer on the cross, symbolizing God’s power & mercy, so I support the “empty cross” as a Christian symbol. I still believe the “payment” message, but believe that His death and resurrection are not nearly as important as His life.

    A good example is His debate with the Pharisees when they tried to trap Him by asking “What is the greatest Commandment?”. His reply was “The first and greatest Commandment is, ‘Thou shalt love thy God with all thy heart and all thy soul and all thy might, and the Second is like unto it, thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two Commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets'”. (I hope I’ve quoted the King James version correctly; no time to look it up)

    From the conservatives who have misappropriated the word “Christian” to refer only to themselves & like-minded people, I usually hear hateful references to Muslims and “fire & brimstone” theology, which I believe ignore almost everything that Christ taught us. However, in my life, particularly when debating conservative “Christians”, without consciously doing so, I always emphasize His acts & His lessons as THE message of Christianity, a message of love and tolerance (e.g., the parable of the Good Samaritan).

  • Stuart C. Hancock

    Roger E. Olson wrote on this topic in Patheos in April 2011:

    “Some have questioned whether anything like the satisfaction or penal substitution theories of the atonement can be found before Anselm. I have asserted they can be.

    Hear Athanasius in De Incarnatione (On the Incarnation of the Word) (and these are only two selected quotations out of many possible ones):

    “And so it was that two marvels came to pass at once, that the death of all was accomplished in the Lord’s body, and that death and corruption were wholly done away by reason of the Word that was united with it. For there was need of death, and death must needs be suffered on behalf of all, that the debt owing from all might be paid. Whence, as I said before, the Word, since it was not possible for Him to die, as He was immortal, took to Himself a body such as could die, that He might offer it as His own in the stead of all, and as suffering, through His union with it, on behalf of all, bring to nought [sic] Him that had the power of death, that is the devil; and might deliver them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage.” (para. 20, 5-6).

    “[b]y his death has salvation come to all, and all creation been ransomed. He is the Life of all, and He it is that as a sheep yielded His body to death as a substitute, for the salvation of all….” (para.37, 7)

    Now, my argument is NOT that Athanasius or any church father relied on satisfaction or substitution language exclusively. That’s obviously not the case. But some argue that language cannot be found earlier than Anselm in any church father or theologian and that’s just not true.”

  • You said the substitutionary atonement theory: “Makes Easter irrelevant. Of course, Christians who believe that Jesus paid for our sins also emphasize Easter. But there is no intrinsic connection between his death and resurrection. What matters most is that he paid for our sins.”

    Well said! I do not accept the substitutionary atonement either, and I believe the essential action was not Jesus’ death but the resurrection. Of course, his death was necessary in order for him to be resurrected.

  • Richard Crawford

    i guess I should have seen the word, Progressive blog, then I would have realized that truth would not be found in this article. Jesus talked much about the cross and about hell. His death on the cross was the plan, not plan B, not plan C, it was “The Plan!” Yes the cross does divide and what you believe about the cross divides, you either believe that Jesus, who was and is God, died for a purpose or you believe that he allowed himself to be killed for no reason despite the fact that he had the command of all the Heavenly host, who could have rescued him at any time.

    • Stuart C. Hancock

      Excellent, Richard. I have never quite understood the motivations for believing in a Bible in which the central themes–fall, redemption and restoration–have been declared irrelevant. If there was no Fall, then there was no need for redemption and nothing to restore us to, so what would be the purpose of Christ’s coming? To provide a good example? If that’s all, then in the words of Flannery O’Connor, “To hell with it.”

      • Richard Crawford

        Indeed, just like the words of one of my favorite Christian authors, Jesus was either a Liar, a Lunatic, or Lord, by his words he didn’t give us any other options. The actions of his apostles after his resurrection tell us which one they believed he was.

        • Josh

          Another option might be Living One. If God is living, we needn’t rely on prooftexts and alliteration to feel secure in our relationship with God, because the reign of God lives within us and among us, and Christ’s sheep can hear Her voice, now and forever.

      • Andrew Dowling

        Hint hint . . there is no “Fall” in the Bible just like penal substitution is not found there either. You are conflating “the Bible” with certain theological interpretations of the Bible made hundreds of years after the Biblical canon was codified. The only way to be logically consistent would be to declare that the earliest Christians simply got the major components of Christianity wrong. Which of course is ridiculous.

        • Stuart C. Hancock

          Clearly you are a biblical historian and I am not. And yes, I am aware that the term “The Fall” does not appear in the scriptures. However, as it is an apt term for what is described in Genesis 3, and reiterated in New Testament passages such as Romans 5:12-19, 1 Cor. 15:21-22, and 1 Timothy 2:12-13, I feel no compunction to avoid it as a theological concept.
          I’m not entirely certain what you mean by the last two sentences: Are you suggesting that the earliest Christians did not believe in the aforementioned passages or others such as 1 John 2:2, “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world”? If there was no Fall (or whatever term one would use to describe the willful separation of Adam from God), why the hundreds of mentions of sacrificial laws in the Bible?

          • Andrew Dowling

            Meaning those phrases you find in John and others that penal substitutionists refer to when looking for evidence to back up their theory where not written with that in mind. That I John says “Jesus was the atoning sacrifice for our sins” was a metaphorical way to say that in the revelation of Jesus, culminating in his death and resurrection, the barriers between God and man are no longer. The sacrificial system, already rendered obsolete by the Temple’s destruction a couple of decades prior, is not necessary anymore. The author(s) of the Johananine works in the Bible and other early Christians didn’t view Jesus’s death as atoning for a ‘Fall’ in Genesis . . you simply don’t see that theology in any 1st/2nd century Christian documents, which makes sense as the Jews did not read Genesis through the lens of a ‘Fall’ or have a concept akin to “original sin.”

          • Stuart C. Hancock

            I have to respectfully disagree. Once you start viewing the NT epistles through the lens of metaphor, certainly, you can pretty much settle on any interpretation you like. I believe the writings of John, Peter, Paul, Luke, et al. to be real letters written to the early Church, to Christians undergoing persecution for their beliefs. I find it hard to believe that so many would be tortured and die for a metaphor.

          • Andrew Dowling

            The metaphors represent ideas/ideals that shape or have the possibility of shaping our tangible reality. People die for those all the time.
            And you are conflating time periods. While there was no doubt some harassment of Christians in the 1st century by Jewish authorities and a few sporadic persecutions by Roman authorities, there was no widespread persecution/martyrdom of Christians by the Roman government until much later. Many Christians in the 1st century had to fear estrangement/being cast out from their families or communities for their decisions to follow Jesus, but from all of the historical evidence we have, the majority did not have to fear being killed or physically harmed for their beliefs. That is a popular misconception.

          • Stuart C. Hancock

            I don’t discount the use of metaphor in the Bible; after all, Jesus was referred to as “the Lamb of God,” the church is “the bride of Christ,” Christ called his body as a “temple,” etc. That said, I can’t see that “atoning sacrifice” is a metaphor in the same sense, but a description which provides an explanation of a real act. I agree with you (if I understand what you are saying), that the sacrificial system was no longer necessary, but because the perfect sacrifice by Christ had now been made.
            I’m not sure I’m reading you right concerning the conflation of time periods. Christian persecution began with the stoning of Stephen, was followed by the execution of James: persecution of believers is described throughout the Book of Acts; how many Christians died during that period can only be estimated, but I think “harassment” would be too mild a term. And of course there were the persecutions under Nero and Domitian, occurring during the first century.

          • Josh

            “the sacrificial system was no longer necessary, but because the perfect sacrifice by Christ had now been made.”

            Yes, because Judeanism was known for its vocal support of human sacrifice at the hands of genocidal empires. 😐

            What about stopping at “the sacrificial system was no longer necessary?” There’s lots of Christian ways to understand the end of the temple cult other than God needing to take it out of Jesus’ hide.

            Or even better, we could take Jesus as the standard of orthodoxy and “go and learn what this means: I desire compassion, not sacrifice,” bypassing the echo chamber commonly called Christology, and returning to the heart of Christianity.

          • Andrew Dowling

            As I state in a post above, there are common misconceptions of the Jewish sacrifical system common among Christians:
            i) The death of the animal itself didn’t do anything; it was the blood of the animal that “purified” the altar of uncleanliness.

            ii) The giving of the sacrifice was ritualistic; Jews did not believe sins were forgiven once a guilt or sin offering was made. Forgiveness was only granted when the person repented in his heart before God.

            To think of God needing an actual death of a person in order to forgive is completely foreign to Judaism.

          • Josh

            As Elie Wiesel has said, original sin is “alien” to the Jewish tradition. Not to mention all other religious traditions, save ours. Its fabulous if you want to control terrorized people, but not so much if you want to summon wholeness and Love more deeply out of the caverns of the human heart.

            The only context the payment theologies make any sense in anyways is in the nightmarish and profane worldviews that prominently feature original sin. How incompatible original sin is in every way with the Real Jesus, as with many (if not most) points of so-called orthodoxy.

          • Alice

            And there are Christian denominations who do not teach the “ancestral sin” part of the Fall. I grew up in an extremely religious family and fundamentalist church. I was taught that every human being sins, which is why we need forgiveness. I was taught that death and suffering came into the world because of Adam’s and Eve’s sin. I am a progressive Christian now, but just pointing out that even fundamentalists have differences.

      • John W. Morehead

        I would argue for a more complex understanding of the issues. The Orthodox tradition does not hold to a view of the Fall as in Catholicism and Protestantism, so there are options within Christendom for alternative thought. Beyond that, there are some Christian theologians considering what the implications of evolution mean for new theological paradigms. So there are various hermeneutical possibilities that does not make the Bible irrelevant. A related observation: It is interesting that many atheist skeptics read the Bible like Christian fundamentalists as they seek to refute it based upon these literal ideas. But as I’ve said, there are possibilities beyond such hermeneutical approaches.

        • Stuart C. Hancock

          However, doesn’t the Orthodox Church teach the doctrine of “ancestral sin,” i.e., sin passed down from Adam & Eve? If so, where did Adam & Eve’s sin originate, if not in an initial act of disobedience?
          I’m sure plenty of theologians are contemplating the implications of evolution on any number of “new theological paradigms,” and when they come up with some solid proof I’ll be happy to examine the evidence.
          As to the question of the Bible’s relevance or irrelevance, it’s going to come down to an individual’s view as to the Bible’s authority. For those who do not believe the Bible to be authoritative, I wish them well, but find it difficult to take seriously their arguments against long-held doctrines of the faith.

    • John W. Morehead

      Surely the word “Progressive” is not enough to find truth missing in a blog, Mr. Crawford. Surely Jesus talked about the cross, but the questions arising from this are how does this relate to balance in this with Jesus’ life and resurrection, and what is the meaning of the cross? Is the concept of penal retribution the only or best one? What about Christus Victor with its ideas of healing and restoration? Although the questions Borg raises may be threatening to many Evangelical assumptions hopefully we can make an attempt to be more open minded in considering alternatives without casually dismissing such ideas.

  • Larry Erickson

    If payment is required then my debt has been paid and I can go on with my relationship with a living and active God. If no payment is required then I can go on with my relationship with a living and active God.

  • Dear Dr. Borg, this was truly a wonderful post.

    Since I believe we are saved through God’s love
    (though it is up to us to accept or reject this love) , I don’t see why he could not JUST forgive us for our trespasses.

    Your historical explanation of the origin of this belief makes excellent sense to me.

    Ironically ernough, many beliefs of fundamentalists are non-Biblical.
    Another example is this idea of a sinful nature inherited from Adam: it can be found nothing in the pages of Genesis, and only in embryonic and very ambiguous found in much later texts.

  • John W. Morehead

    I am a conservative Evangelical, but one willing to think self-critically and outside the box. In my view my tradition has downplayed the life of Christ to focus on his death. I’d like to see a balanced consideration of his life, death and resurrection. You are also correct that we have emphasized belief in Christ over following Christ in discipleship. Evangelicalism tends to equate the faith with adherence to certain doctrinal propositions. Again there is a need for balance. And finally, I much prefer a Christus Victor theology that emphasizes healing and restoration to punitive payment. I have benefited greatly from your interactions with N.T. Wright on Jesus, and can do so again here by way of these comments. Thanks from a reflective conservative Evangelical.

    • Gustav Aulen (1931) “Christus Victor”, is the major book on this position — based on Gregory of Nyssa in the 300’s, no?

      That could sell in the age of Somali Pirates (just saw the movie), where the Idea of Ransom is key — it is the “Ransom Theory”, isn’t it? (see my list).

      But it the Devil is a made up story, then owing Ransom to the Devil is weird too. Maybe I am mixing up theories. Could you help me on that one?

      • John W. Morehead

        Thanks for your question, Sabio. no, Christus Victor is not the Ransom Theory. Instead, it carries with it the idea that through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection he conquered the power of evil in its various manifestations, whether individual, institutional, and in Satan. And in terms of Satan, this figure can be construed either as a literal personification of evil as a supernatural being, or more along the lines of Walter Wink’s ideas of evil in institutions as the “principalities and powers.” Christus Victor incorporates the idea of healing and restoration rather than punishment. Derek Flood explores this in his book “Healing the Gospel,” and on his website he has an interesting article titled “Penal Substitution vs. Christus Victor”:

  • Gene Stecher

    For me, the cross is about Reality being just, it’s about there being a reason for asserting the “divine” side of Jesus. The cross means that God himself, Reality itself, if you will, fully participates in the suffering of human kind and each human being. The cross provides the reason for not committing suicide in despair of the grossly unfair functioning of the world, the rule of evil in the world and in the human heart, the capriciousness of life. This is the Divine/Reality/Life acting to take responsibility for his/her/its unjust world, not a doling out of punishment.

    Having said that, I’m certainly not sure that the “payment” understanding wasn’t prominent among the earliest believers, and didn’t show up until Anselm. In his just released book, The First New Testament: Marcion’s Scriptural Canon, BeDuhn translates Galatians 2:20, “…But what I now live in the flesh I live entrusted to the child of God who purchased me…”, and 3:13, “Christos has purchased us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse on our behalf…” In the NRSV canonical translation we find “gave himself for me” and “redeemed me.” (But compare 1 Cor 6:20, 7:23, “bought”). Some interpret Marcion’s theology to include a Supreme High God, the Father of the Christ, and a capricious Demiurge, the Creator referred to in the Jewish scriptures, from which the world must be freed.

  • The notion that Anslem was influenced by the culture of his times is logical. But cannot the same be said of the NT writers? If the Jewish environment of the first century influenced their thinking, no doubt a certain measure of sacrificial atonement thinking went along with it. Without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness of sin, says the Letter to the Hebrews — a concept that was accepted by the Jews of 2,000 years ago. And beyond Judaism, I dare say that sacrifice, even human sacrifice, to appease some god or other has dotted the various cultures of our world since before Moses wrote.

    The undertone is there.

    • Andrew Dowling

      But the actual death of the animal didn’t do anything in the Jewish sacrificial system; it was the blood itself that purified the altar/Temple. So when early Christians speak of Jesus “dying for our sins” or being “the final sacrifice” we are talking about the employment of metaphors. The belief that the actual act of dying had some major cosmological significance to it didn’t come until you had the Greek-educated fathers get their paws on the Christian narrative; to claim that through the death of Jesus, God’s wrath was appeased makes zero sense in a Jewish context. Even for Paul, who the Reformed folks and others love to quote out of context, the big event of the Christ story was not the death but the Resurrection.

      • I appreciate the distinction, Andrew, but since there is no record of sacrificial bloodletting unaccompanied by the death of the bleeder, the death and the blood would seem to be two sides of the same coin. The value of the blood was that it contained the donor’s life essence, and tapping it always required its/his life.

        • Andrew Dowling

          But you’re partly making my point. In Judaism, which had no human sacrifice, the animal sacrifice provided the blood which was literally smeared over the altar in order to make it “purified.” Yes, the death of the animal, especially in an agrarian community, was a symbolic sacrifice to God, but death of the animal itself didn’t “do” anything.

          We also see in so-called guilt or sin offerings in Judaism, the giving of the sacrifice didn’t result in forgiveness of sins (many Christians wrongly believe the contrary); forgiveness was only granted between God and the individual and the latter’s decision to change their ways. The sacrifice was simply a ritualistic way of saying “I recognize I’ve done wrong; here is a way I will show you I’m serious about repenting.”

          So again, the concept of the death of an individual service as something that would have forgiven sins would’ve been unconscionable to the Jewish mindset.

          • You discount Jewish sacrificial atonement far more than I am prepared to do, Andrew. I see in the fourth chapter of Leviticus both a
            manual for and an explicit statement of the purpose of sacrificial sin
            offering that goes well beyond blood purification of an altar. (And those rituals are just for unintentional sins. Woe to those whose sin carried a Mosaic death penalty.)

          • Andrew Dowling

            The Jewish sacrificial system (especially by the time of the 2nd Temple period) cannot be understood via a straight reading of Leviticus. But regardless, there was never a perceived vicarious atonement derived through the death of the sacrificed creature. The death of the animal itself did not convey forgiveness.

      • Gene Stecher

        “…the big event of the Christ story was not the death but the Resurrection.”

        My view is that Paul did not want the C and R to be so neatly divided and that, in fact, together they represented one event. One cannot read Galatians, for example, with out being confronted by the crucifixion over and over and its connection with the risen Christ who lives within. For example, “…Christ (who) gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age…(1:3)…It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly exhibited as crucified…Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or believing what you heard (3:1-2)…I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me (2:20).

  • Ian Stubbs

    A useful way of summarizing the two different perspectives is to quote Mrs Alexander’s famous him. Conservatives happily sing, ‘…where the dear Lord was crucified who died to save us all’. The progressive view, closer to Abelard rather than Anselm, would read, ‘…where, in showing us the way to salvation, he died’.

    • Yes, that position even works for liberal Christians who feel Jesus was a great teacher and lived like God on earth but whose death was accidental. Right?

      • Andrew Dowling

        Not believing a death was pre-ordained doesn’t equate to a death being “accidental.”

        • but it very well could have been

          • Andrew Dowling

            I think the execution of Jesus can only be though of as an “accident” if one were to also describe the likes of Martin Luther King’s or Oscar Romero’s deaths as “accidents.” If you agitate against the powers, things often get dangerous.

          • All events in our lives has factors involved to help explain them. A child killed crossing a road may have: (1) didn’t listen to parent’s instructions; (2) A drunk driver; (3) Slippery ice (4) Distraction by a balloon, (5) running for ice cream truck.
            And with any other those, you could say, “It wasn’t ‘just’ an accident”.

            Point being: Jesus may have had no intention to die — as the story is often told — as was surprised by his own capture and death, and in that way, an accident.

            No point to quibble words when we can spell ourselves out.

  • Good questions, Marcus!

    “Atonement Theology” surely is key to grasping the different flavors of Christians. I list the 8 major views that I found here.

    The “Payment” model of atonement, is the “Penal Substitutionary Theory” correct? But your criticisms of it also seem to knock holes in The Ransom Theory, The Governmental Theory, The Satisfaction Theory

    While your theory seems to leave open hope for The Participatory Theory, The Mystical Theory , The Recapitulation Theory, The Moral Influence Theory. — Just trying to anticipate your next post.

    So your criticism in this post seem to knock out 4 of the 8 main models. I will be interested in yours.

    I know that no taxonomy of these Salvation schemes will be perfect, but that is what I see. Any other thoughts?

    If not, I wait until the next post.

  • Do you feel that perhaps the NT writers held different attitudes toward the C & R. Perhaps the NT writers did not speak with one voice?

    • Gene Stecher

      Not sure if you were addressing me, Sabio, but I’ll reply just in case. I do think that one can find different attitudes toward the Cru and Rez in the NT. For example, in Luke/Acts, I think that there is a Messiah crucified/ vindicated theme. There seems to be no atonement, payment, etc. theory. (see especially the first few chapters of Acts) But the Messiah was killed due to failure of the Jewish leadership to recognize him and also due to God hardening their hearts. But the Messiah was vindicated by being raised from the dead. The primary task becomes, not appreciation for sins being forgiven, but believing that Jesus actually was the Messiah and living as he would wish.

      • well, Gene, my question could have also been applied to what you said, so thank you:

        So you see different atonement theologies between the various gospel writers. How many different type of atonement theologies do you think live side by side in the NT? Looking at my list (link above) which of these atonement theories went with each writer? Which went with that of Luke that you mentioned above?


        • Gene Stecher

          Sorry Sabio, that’s far too big a task. Gal 3:13 has this interesting notion of “cursed,” though. The result of Law under flesh = sin is that human beings are cursed. That curse was transferred to Christ when he hung on the cross. How do we know that, well, Paul provides a quote from the scriptures that’s supposed to apply. So Jesus paid for our sin by taking on the curse. The point is that the basic payment belief must have come first, and the writer then sought out his scriptures for confirmation.

          • It sounds like different atonement schemes were sought by males in different professions: a lawyer, a business man and a priest. Everyone trying to explain an accidental death in loftier terms.

  • Josh

    The larger context for this discussion is what we understand salvation to mean. In relation to the forgiveness of personal sin, Jesus reiterated in no uncertain terms the truth of “I desire compassion, not sacrifice.” I find it ironic that the majoritarian interpretation of his death would refute his own understanding of the forgiveness of sins so dramatically. Then again, we are dealing with history’s greatest identity theft.

  • Tom Gehrels

    I like – we should instead focus on his life and teachings. When is your next blogpost due?

  • raymond

    Christ’s raised two people from the dead while he was living. He also manifested food, healed the sick, gave sight to the blind, calmed the storm of sky and sea, and changed the hearts of hardened sinners. How did Christ do all these things while he was living? That’s the real question which humanity has ignored for 2,000 years.

    • You ask “How did Christ do all thes things [miracles] while he was living?”
      and you wonder why they are ignored. Well…..

      The great Christian Church Father, Justin Martyr, in “The First Apology” (approx 150 AD) speaks of Jesus to the Pagans (predominant culture at that time). In chapter 22 Justin try to justify [no pun intended] the reasonableness of his Jesus Story by comparing it to their stories about their gods. He points out commonly believed stories of Pagan heroes who suffered at death, had virgin births, had resurrections and ascended into heaven.

      He also spoke of great healing miracles of Pagan gods. For instance:

      And in that we say that He made whole the lame, the paralytic, and those born blind, we seem to say what is very similar to the deeds said to have been done by Æsculapius.


      So, humanity ignored Aesculapius for more than 2,000 years too — as they have ignored Jesus’ miracles and the reported miracle stories of many others. That should not be surprising, should it? It sounds wise to ignore these.

      • raymond

        If it was belief in the love of the power of God that led Christ to perform miracles, then it would be wise to believe that we are capable of them with the help of a loving God. And, many of the miracles humanity could perform today would not be feats beyond comprehension. We could choose life over money, healing over creating suffering, good over evil, sacredness over vileness. We choose our vision of ourselves and all life around us. We create miracles or misery – for ourselves, for others, and for all life forms on planet earth.

  • raymond

    2,000 + years have passed since the death of Christ, and we still don’t believe that we can do the things that Jesus did, even though he said we could do all the things he did and more. God is within. Jesus was the first to truly comprehend the power of God within. 2,000 + years later and we still are looking to his death, or forgiveness for our sins, rather than recognizing, knowing and sharing in the power of the God within.

  • raymond

    correction –
    “sharing in the power of the love of God within”.

  • Joe Kay

    I see the cross as participatory. If we’re going to be passionate about the things that Jesus is passionate about _ making sure everyone is loved and treated as an equal child of God _ then there’s going to be a pushback from those who see it differently. And we’re going to pay a price, carry a cross in our own way. The cross is ongoing and participatory. And the challenge is to not only bleed, but to bleed joyfully.

  • raymond

    People push back because they cannot see or fathom their own sacredness. Humanity has been bleeding on crosses for all of human history, but it hasn’t helped us to attain a higher vision of ourselves, or a better world. God is within, and we are one. Humanity is enslaving itself with a vision that still believes in the worst in ourselves and others, that still creates societies of superior and inferior human beings. the entitled vs. the disenfranchised. However, this view of humanity will fail everyone, not just the poor and those we consider inferior. God is within, and we are one. Until we comprehend this, all the bleeding and suffering of all life forms will continue until we have destroyed ourselves and all created life on planet earth. We choose who we are as a humanity. And, our choices will lead us to our destiny.