Those of you who read my blog a lot may notice that this is the second essay I've written on this subject in the last month or so. I'm writing another one simply because I felt that I hadn't really "gotten it out" the first time. I suppose you could call this a reworking of the ideas presented in the first essay. Anyway, here it is:
Anyone who has studied the life of Jesus must ultimately decide on one of four scenarios regarding his death:
1. That his execution was a senseless, unjustified act by a group of people who saw him as a threat to religious stability;
2. That his execution was a reasonable and justified act that put to rest someone who was stirring up rebellion;
3. That his execution was part of God’s ultimate plan to atone for human sinfulness; or
4. That his execution was and is an opportunity for humans to ask forgiveness from God for sinfulness.
The first two scenarios presuppose that Jesus’ death had no divine significance, while the last two are attempts at understanding Jesus’ death against the backdrop of some grand divine plan. In the days, weeks, and months after Jesus’ execution, those who knew of Jesus had to choose between options one and two. Most chose option two, but those who followed Jesus and believed in the lifestyle he taught clearly chose option one. For the option two crowd, that was where it ended. However, those who believed Jesus’ death was a senseless tragedy began, in the years and decades after his death, to see his death in light of options three and four. They accepted his death as seemingly senseless, and, because of this, sought ways to define his death as something that perhaps wasn’t so senseless and final after all. In this essay, I want to primarily focus on these last two options, as those are the two that have most impacted Christian theology.
It’s important to define the difference between atonement and forgiveness. Because Christian theology has for so long confused these terms, we tend to use them interchangeably, or at least as two parts of one whole. Atonement is a method of “making up” for a wrongdoing. If I cut down a tree in my neighbor’s front yard that had been planted by her grandfather and was sentimental for her and irreplaceable, I may atone for this act by paying her a thousand dollars or washing her car every day for a year. In that scenario, forgiveness is not an issue, because I am paying the debt for my mistake by doing something else in return. I don’t need forgiveness. Another example might be a bank robber doing 15 years in prison – he pays his debt for the crime he committed. He atones for the crime – that is, he makes up for the crime – by doing the time.
Forgiveness, on the other hand, involves one person absolving another from a mistake or shortcoming. In the scenarios above, the woman whose tree I cut down could simply forgive me and I wouldn’t have to do anything to make it up to her – pay her money or wash her car. For the bank robber, if his crime was forgiven, he would not have to do time in jail. The crime would be absolved through forgiveness. Forgiveness, by its very definition, does not require atonement. On the flip side, if something is atoned for, forgiveness is not necessary or relevant.
Yet, Christian theology, as I said above, has confused these two terms in a convoluted effort to understand Jesus’ death as something other than a senseless tragedy. Most Christians understand that the blood of Jesus functioned as an atoning sacrifice for human sinfulness (option three above). But most Christians also understand that they must ask God for forgiveness for their sins, and if they do so, God will be “faithful and just” to forgive them their sins (option four above). Yet, as I already illustrated, it can’t be both ways. If Jesus’ death atoned for human sinfulness, then no forgiveness is necessary. If, by Jesus’ death, my sins are atoned for, then why do I, if I am a Protestant, feel the need to daily or weekly ask God to forgive my sins? If I am a Catholic, why do I feel the need to go to confession? And, on the flip side, if forgiveness is required, then what significance did Jesus’ death really have? If I still have to ask forgiveness for my sins, then why did Jesus have to die?
This, of course, was the central question that plagued early Christians.
Our earliest Christian documents are the letters of Paul. In these letters, Paul consistently portrays Jesus’ death in light of atonement – option three. For Paul, human beings are hopelessly and irreversibly sinful. Because of this, God chose Jesus – an especially upright and moral teacher – to die for the sins of the world. Since average men and women are incapable, because of sin, of ever being right with God, God used Jesus’ death as an atonement; that is, the blood Jesus shed functioned as the ultimate sacrifice to put humanity right with God. No longer would God require the blood of animals – Jesus’ sacrifice was the end. And this was proven, for Paul, by the fact that God raised Jesus spiritually into heaven with him. In all of Paul’s authentic writings, there is never a discussion about forgiveness of sins being part of the equation. For Paul, sins are already washed away, because Jesus paid the ultimate price.
In the decades after Paul, as Christian theology continued to develop, an obvious problem was encountered with Paul’s atonement theology. If Jesus’ death, instead of being a senseless tragedy, was actually part of God’s master plan for atonement, then this must mean that all sin, past, present, and future, was automatically washed away at the moment of Jesus’ death. My sins, your sins, George Washington’s sins, and King Tut’s sins were all absolved and atoned for when Jesus’ blood was shed. Clearly this posed a problem because it meant that no religion was really necessary. Everyone is already saved! Thus, you have later New Testament writers changing this theology from one of atonement to one of forgiveness. Jesus’ execution became an opportunity for forgiveness – sinful humanity put Jesus on the cross, but if we ask God to forgive our sins, he will do it. The requirement for getting right with God is repentance.
An example of this changing theology is the book of Acts, where Paul is depicted preaching on his missionary journeys about the forgiveness of sin, and never once uttering a word about atonement – even though in Paul’s own letters, it is exactly the opposite. Which is more likely to be representative of the real Paul’s theology – Paul’s own writings, or Paul’s biographer, writing several generations later? Forgiveness theology permeates most of the remainder of the New Testament books and letters.
The Church, of course, once it had created the New Testament and once it had begun to centralize its power, had to face the problem I mentioned above – if we have to ask forgiveness for sins, then how was Jesus’ death really an atonement? And if it wasn’t really an atonement, then what purpose did it actually serve? Couldn’t God have forgiven our sins, at our request, without having Jesus put to death first? He’s making the rules, after all. So Church doctrine, and especially Church liturgy, began to be formulated in such a way as to mix Paul’s atonement theology with later New Testament forgiveness theology. Jesus was the ultimate sacrificial lamb, his blood served as the ultimate atonement between humanity and God, but one still must ask God for forgiveness in order to make the atonement “kick in” (for lack of a better phrase). In other words, the atonement doesn’t count for you if you don’t ask forgiveness.
Well, you can see the problem here. I’ve already explained how atonement doesn’t require forgiveness, and forgiveness doesn’t require atonement. But the Church, in an effort to make divine sense out of a senseless tragedy, and in an effort to mesh early Christian theologies (some of which were already quite convoluted to start with) into one, pretty package and thereby centralize its power, came up with this complicated mixture of forgiveness and atonement to explain Jesus’ death. They couldn’t throw the atonement idea out the window, because then Jesus’ death would have been pointless – God could forgive us with or without Jesus’ death. But they couldn’t throw forgiveness out the window either, because then they couldn’t lord our sinfulness over us as a means of wielding power, and they would also have to admit that everyone was automatically forgiven upon Jesus’ death, thereby rendering their own institution irrelevant. I suppose they could have come up with an entirely new theological reason for Jesus’ death, but it was too late for that.
So modern Christians are left with a confusing, contradictory, and complex theology in order to understand why Jesus had to die. This elaborate and intellectually irreconcilable theology is one of the reasons so many Christians leave the Church and leave the faith. I saw a comic strip just today that had God sitting in heaven on a throne with a newly arrived human being standing before him, pleading his case for entry into heaven. “But I’m forgiven!” the man says. “You died on the cross for the world’s sins! Jesus saves!” God’s response is: “That’s absurd. Why would I sacrifice Myself to Myself to allow me to change a rule I made Myself?”
For me, when understood without divine overtones, and when understood against the backdrop of his life, Jesus’ death has a lot more significance. His message was so powerful and revolutionary that the religious power base he threatened killed him over it. He, apparently, was willing to go to his death for his message. And his message lived on even beyond the bounds of death, because of its transcendence and relevance to life. For me, Christianity is not about atonement and blood sacrifice or forgiveness of sins, and it’s certainly not about a convoluted and irreconcilable mixture of the two; instead, it is about abundant life in the here and now, a life lived to the fullest, and a life over which the boundaries of death can hold no sway.