Tuesday, October 10, 2006

5. Changing our View of God: God and the Atonement

Thank you to those who have sent me some very thoughtful comments in the past couple of days. It helps me shape not just future blogs, but also my own thinking. I know you are busy people, and I really appreciate you taking the time both to read and react to my ramblings!

Today, I am picking up the next in the series on Changing our View of God. It is on the theme of God and the Atonement. The atonement, as you will know, is about the meaning of the death of Christ and what, if anything, it achieved. I am focusing on its relationship to sin. I will post, all being well, the next in this series, on Thursday. It will be on Judgement, which, if anything, is even less popular in today's church than sin!

Changing our View of God: God and the Atonement

As a teenager, in a church where the predominant view of God was that of the Authoritarian God, the most important festival in the Christian Year was Easter. I remember the Rector once preaching at Christmas and saying that, basically, while it was all very nice celebrating the birth of a baby, the most important events in the life of Christ were his death and resurrection . It was Easter that was at the heart of the Christian faith.

This was because, on the Cross, Christ had died for our sins. The resurrection was effectively the proof that it had worked. It was taken for granted that the death of Jesus was about sin, not just in the sense that it was a sin to have crucified him – whoever it was who was ultimately responsible for crucifying him – but because, in some way, Christ was dealing with the problem of individual human sin in his death. In a real way, he was dying for you and for me.

This understanding was at the heart of what are known as the four spiritual laws, and which I remember learning:

  • Law 1: God loves you and offers a wonderful plan for your life.
  • Law 2: Man is sinful and separated from God. Therefore, he cannot know and experience God’s love and plan for his life.
  • Law 3: Jesus Christ is God’s only provision for man’s sin. Through Him you can know and experience God’s love and plan for your life.
  • Law 4: We must individually receive Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord; then we can know and experience God’s love and plan for our lives.

You can see a flash presentation of these laws here: http://www.campuscrusade.com/fourlawsflash.htm or read them more fully here:

At first sight, these may seem to be incredibly simplistic, but that was rather the point, they were designed to make spiritual truths easy to understand. And they are longer than St Paul’s summary in 1 Corinthians 15:3: ‘For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures’.

Despite all attempts to make it more complicated in recent years, in essence, this understanding of the death of Christ is still embedded in the Eucharist Prayers used by Anglicans and Catholics alike. Take, for example, the Eucharist Prayer that we used at my church last Sunday, it contains these words:

‘And so, Father, calling to mind his death on the cross,
his perfect sacrifice made once for the sins of the whole world.’

While, however, the understanding of Jesus’ death as a sacrifice for sin is quite clearly there in the Bible and liturgy for all to see, it is more often than not passed over when it comes to preaching and teaching. Part of the reason is, as I wrote last week, that we are not at all sure we believe in individual sin as such any more and, that, even if we do, then not that much. Why have Christ dying for something that isn’t that serious in the first place and which requires us to believe it even exists?

It was inevitable that the idea of someone dying for sin in the way animals used to be sacrificed for it was going to cause us problems. We were struggling with the big bang and the origins of the universe, with the theory of relativity and quantum physics. The idea of Christ dying as a sacrifice for sin like a lamb once died seemed to belong to a very outdated worldview. What is more, having moved to a benevolent view of God, we also had a major difficulty in understanding why Christ would have to die for sin. Why God would need anyone to die for sin? Surely, God being God could just forgive sin if that is what he was disposed to do. Why go through the act of having Christ die for it?

There was a distinct air of unreality about how Christ’s death was explained. It was something that was believed and regarded as necessary, but no-one seemed to know quite why. It all seemed rather irrelevant or at least very distant and removed from our lives in the present. Furthermore, as we were moving away from an emphasis on sin, it only seemed natural to move away from an emphasis on Jesus’ death as being for sin. We couldn’t understand it, and didn’t like the sound of it anyway. And as we were busy getting involved in this world through politics and social action, we started exploring other ways of looking at Jesus’ death.

We really liked to think that Jesus died because he took on the ‘powers’ in his own day. This justified us taking on the powers in our own whether these powers were personal or abstract. So the fact the Jesus challenged authority and was nailed to a Cross meant we could challenge the authority of (allegedly) unjust governments and corporations safe in the knowledge that this is what Jesus would have done. It meant, too, that we could challenge more abstract powers that we believed enslaved people, powers such as institutionalised racism, sexism, and capitalism.

Jesus had died not as a sacrifice, rather he had sacrificed his life for what he believed in his struggle against all that undermined human life and prevented it being lived to the full. We had new saints now. Not the old saints who died because they tried to tell sinners about personal faith and forgiveness in Jesus, but people who stood up to injustice, men like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was dead, and Desmond Tutu, who isn’t.

Much of the old language was still used, but it was given a radically different meaning. Fighting the good fight of faith did not mean resisting temptation in one’s own life and experience, praying and reading the Bible for daily guidance, and sharing the faith with friends and contacts, but opposing right-wing regimes in South America and South Africa. More recently, it has also become about tackling the effects of globalisation and the causes of global warning. The fact is that having de-personalized and de-invidualized sin, we didn’t need Jesus to die for it.

Jesus’ death is a very good example, perhaps even the supreme example (although not everyone would want to go as far as that), of someone taking on the powers of this world while at the same time giving us an example of how we should live. As Jesus served so we, too, should serve.

Having reinterpreted Jesus’ death this way, many have wanted to go back and condemn the traditional, historical view of the death of Christ, which, in some sections of the church, is still believed in. Probably most don’t. As I have said, it is far easier to just not teach it or discuss it. There are, however, no shortage of voices, even within evangelicalism, which claim that there is something profoundly wrong and disturbing about seeing Jesus death as a sacrifice for sin. The suggestion that it was a sacrifice in which Jesus experienced the anger of God gets a very angry response.

Let us allow that there is truth in this modern re-interpretation and that Jesus did take on the powers, even if the powers that Jesus took on in the Bible were primarily spiritual rather than political ones. And it is clearly true from a Biblical perspective that Jesus’ death does give us an example of how we, too, must live and suffer, even if what the suffering is for in the Bible is different. Nevertheless, can we still either dismiss or ignore the idea of Jesus death as a sacrifice? And isn’t the idea of Jesus’ death as a sacrifice the dominant view of the death of Jesus in the New Testament?

While we may not now understand the idea of sacrifice, is it possible that the problem lies with us and not with the idea? And is it possible that instead of the first Christians being primitive and outdated in their understanding of Jesus’ death, that they got it right and we have got it wrong? And if we are prepared to sacrifice this, aren’t we sacrificing Christianity itself? Are we left with anything that makes Christianity in anyway unique?

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