Christianity highlights certain dogmas during Lent. These dogmas relate to Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection. However, one Lent theme—though not a dogma—needs to be set aside; namely, the substitute atonement theory. Christians rightly believe that Jesus’ redemptive suffering, death and resurrection is the world’s salvation. The substitution theory says that for some reason God needed Jesus’ suffering and death. This widespread notion is often harmful and in its casual expression it can be heretical.
The substitution theory has a long history in Christianity. It has gained strength over the past 500 years. Yes, phrases about debt and atonement are Biblical and also found in the liturgy. These phrases are regularly situated near the concept of redemption. The error/heresy is the presumption that Jesus’ death was for God’s benefit. The theory implies or says that an angry God needed to be appeased and that only the innocent sacrifice of Jesus would satisfy God. (The theory puts heavy emphasis on the bloody sacrifice of Jesus.)
Why is the atonement theory wrong theologically? In my opinion, many Christians who are fervent about the atonement theory are weak on the dogma of the Trinity.
Christians often make what is called the sign of the cross. It is done with small variations among the Christian denominations. It is done with small variations among different ethnic groups. The prayer has two elements: 1.) A gesture in which the Christian traces an imaginary cross in front of the body—typically head to stomach; shoulder to shoulder. 2.) Plus these words: “In the name of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.” That is, the symbol of Jesus’ suffering and death (the gesture) is accompanied by a Trinitarian prayer.
God and Jesus are not different beings. To imagine God as separate from Jesus is to take a step into heresy. Human comprehension can only approximate an understanding of God and thus human language regularly uses metaphors to talk about God. No matter the metaphor, however, God is at all moments One in Christianity—as is God in Judaism and Islam. There is no way in monotheism that a god (lower case g, now) can be executed on a cross while another god (lower case g) sits to the side, basking in appeasement. God, One and eternal, died on the cross. It transcends rational comprehension but it is true.
Why is the atonement theory harmful? God is all just and all merciful. Humans are prone to sin and need forgiveness. The atonement theory puts too much emphasis on God’s negative judgment and too much emphasis on human depravity. It does not help those Christians (all of us) who need to feel God’s mercy and inexhaustible love. It also colors one’s worldview; seeing everything awash in evil and insufficiently attending to God’s abounding grace.
The theory also seems to reinforce an individualistic approach to Christianity. It communicates to a Christian that his or her individual sin contributed to God’s anger and in that way the individual’s behavior caused Jesus’ death. This leads to a calculus of suffering. Immersed in atonement theory a Christian can conclude that illness, for example, is deserved because of one’s transgressions. Cancer, again for example, is not thought of as a result of the social sin of pollution. Or, poverty is only considered an individual’s fault, not the result of sinful policies associated with economic inequality. Tragically, some women who adhere to atonement theory assume that they are at fault in abusive relationships.
For me, the best reflection on the meaning of suffering (remembering that all such reflections are imperfect) is the totally innocent suffering and death of Jesus for no Godly reason. That’s mainstream Christianity. However, many people in our country and elsewhere have been so influenced by atonement theory that they miss Christianity’s unique idea.
Why, for example, do I suffer from chronic illness? Beyond some genetic and environmental facts, I don’t know. But I believe that Jesus/God (aka Total Goodness) suffered first. It didn’t make sense. It was seemingly absurd. But Jesus went through it onto Resurrection. Further, Jesus is walking with me and my small illnesses only because Jesus/God loves us prior to anything we do, prior to and subsequent to any sin. God doesn’t love us because God calmed down after Jesus was killed. That’s silly.