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Indicting the Cross

Last night was spent at a local theology reading group hosted by a philosophy professor from the university in town. It’s an eclectic mix—a few professors, a chaplain (who was gracious enough to invite me!), history and philosophy students, Mormons, atheists, agnostics, and a handful of other positions on the way to or from faith, no doubt. The discussion was freewheeling, lively, and very stimulating. I spend a lot of time in “churchy” circles where I am supposed to be some kind of “authority” or, ahem, “expert.” It was nice to take that hat off for an evening and just explore some interesting questions with others.

This year, the group is reading S. Mark Heim’s Saved From Sacrifice which looks at the atonement of Christ and the question of if/how this doctrine be redeemed in a context where many find it irrelevant, offensive, incomprehensible, or some combination of the above. In last night’s reading, Heim laid out five common “indictments” against the atonement:

  1. The atonement requires the language of sacrifice. This concept  is both foreign to our experience, and morally problematic. It is a kind of “pre-science”—it’s what our ancestors did to appease imaginary forces in the world before we understood what was really going on.
  2. The atonement can (and has) lead to anti-Semitism. “The Jews” were Christ-killers, it is sometimes said, and despite the fact that these same people affirm the necessity of Jesus’ death as a part of God’s sovereign plan, it is easy and convenient to cast Jews in the role of villains.
  3. The atonement is not that unique. There are, after all, other ancient stories of gods dying and rising from the dead (Orisis, for example), and often without the crudity and violence of the Passion narratives. Why claim that Jesus’ death is special—especially if other versions emphasize more symbolic truths about the cycles of nature, the healing of inner wounds, etc?
  4. The atonement paints a morally troubling picture of God. This is by far the most common, in my view. A God who is thought to require blood sacrifice in order to forgive or to grant salvation is a monstrous God whose character we could hardly imagine emulating. The cross is seen as a kind of “divine child abuse” where God’s rage was directed at Jesus rather than us. A God to fear, perhaps, but hardly a God to love, worship, or admire.
  5. The atonement has had toxic psychological and social effects. It has led to a valourizing of victimhood—”don’t resist injustice, abuse, etc, just rejoice that you can participate in the sufferings of Christ.” Such sentiments have proved fertile ground for those bent on all manner of abuse and perverse exploitation of the weak and the vulnerable.

It’s a pretty sobering list of indictments. Heim summarizes thus:

Any one of these indictments would be significant. Though persons may differ about which charge is most telling, there is an implicit sense that they are linked and mutually reinforcing. They assert no minor flaw in Christianity, but a consistent fault line in the whole foundation that runs from distorted views of God to spiritual guilt fixation to sacrificial bloodshed to anti-Semitic persecution to arrogant ignorance of world mythology. All this adds up to a fatally skewed faith, revolving around a central narrative based on sacred violence and the glorification of innocent suffering.


Of course, these are well-known and oft-rehearsed critiques of the atonement, both inside and outside the church. And while I think that there are things that could be said in response to each of the five indictments above, I don’t think there is some nice, neat, logical package that wonderfully answers each charge and ties the whole thing up with a nice pretty bow on top. The atonement is a puzzle and a deep mystery on a number of levels. I am suspicious of anyone who claims otherwise.

What’s interesting to me—amazing, really!—is that many people look at the atonement and come to very different conclusions than the ones above. Throughout history, many, many people have looked at this barbaric cross with its ugly violence and its logical contradictions and interpreted it as a sign of love. As a sign of their value in God’s economy. As a motivation to love and serve and sacrifice for others. As a beacon of hope in their own suffering of injustice.

It’s also interesting to consider which people come to different conclusions. At the risk of gross oversimplification, those protesting the barbarity of the cross and the immorality of the atonement tend to be drawn from the ranks of the liberal, educated, upper middle-class, often white, Western, post Christian set. The most scathing critiques of the atonement don’t tend to come from the poor, the uneducated, and the marginalized. They don’t tend to come from the Global South.  To quote Heim:

As a supposed charter for oppression, the theology of the cross has a peculiar history among the poor and the marginalized. The testimony of numberless such persons indicates that they do not see in the cross a mandate for passive suffering of evil. Instead, in the midst of a world that regards them as nobodies, they see an unexpected and extraordinary affirmation of their individual worth. That Christ, that God, was willing to suffer and die specifically for them is a message of hope and self-respect that can hardly be measured, one that transforms their lives. That God has become one of the broken and despised ones of history is an unshakeable reference point from which to resist the mental colonization that insists that God belongs to the side of the powerful.

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus’ very first public words in the temple are these:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19).

Good news to the poor. And, perhaps, a caution to the rich, the entitled, the smart and sophisticated, the enlightened, the progressive, the more-righteous-than-God. Perhaps we’ve simply got our categories and our expectations all wrong. Perhaps the atonement was never meant to be conceived as a logically airtight, transparently necessary, morally pure and stainless divine transaction involving the transfer of forensic status between ontological unequals. Perhaps it was simply meant to be embraced and clung to as a lifeline for desperate people in a desperate situation.

And, as is so often the case in the divine economy, perhaps it is the poor, the oppressed, the prisoners, the blind, the weak, the rejected and forgotten, who understand this best and who will, God willing, lead and instruct the rest of us about the ways of this strange and beautiful God.

15 Comments Post a comment
  1. James #

    Well said, Ryan. I might even go as far as saying that the atonement, like suffering itself, by their nature, make for very confusing theological/philosophical discussions. On the one hand we like categories and answers- on the other hand they always seem to miss the point to greater and lessor degrees. When faced with those who suffering our presence among those in pain and our desperate search for the right words are in the end, often more comforting than the words themselves. That’s a humbling realization for those whose stock in trade is words.

    September 26, 2012
    • Thanks, James. I agree—discussions about the atonement often run into the same problems as those of theodicy. These are not “solveable” problems or logical riddles to decode; they are—or at least they point to—deep existential wounds that all of us, “religious” or not, must come to terms with on an experiential level.

      There was a time when I was obsessed with finding answers to these questions, or at least better ways of understanding them, but those days are fading. It’s important to try to understand and I think there are certainly some conceptions of these issues that are less damaging than others, but, as you say, suffering alongside those in pain is often far more valuable than words and “correct” ideas.

      September 26, 2012
  2. The five points challenged my thinking. Honestly, I’ve never dealt with such criticism. But that’s the nature of truth — it can stand the attack. I understand how the atonement would come under scrutiny. They desperately want to say, “no big deal,” because to us, it IS a big deal. In fact, it’s the only deal.

    The foolishness of such a sacrifice is lost on many. But for me, i need it — desperately.

    September 27, 2012
    • I agree, truth ought to be able to stand up to scrutiny. In my experience, critiques of the atonement are often profoundly moral in nature. It’s more than just wanting to discredit it or say “no big deal”—it has to do with needing a morally coherent view of the character and behaviour of God. These are the critiques that I am sensitive too and take seriously.

      Of course, other critiques are based more on a simple desire to criticize and often trade in caricature and ridicule. I’m not so concerned about these.

      September 28, 2012
  3. Paul Johnston #

    I’m not quite sure how to say this. I might need help “fleshing it out”.

    Everything that matters to me; everything that identifies itself as “me”, to me, is immaterial. My mind is where I’m “at” to me. Show me my mind? Show me the material place where “I am” to me? I’m not asking about my brain here. Examine that all you like and then tell me what I think, what I dream, who I love, what I fear.

    God makes sense to me, precisely because he reckons with my immaterial self. God seems of a “higher order” than science to me because only God meets me where “I am”.

    Until those who would speak against God can first answer the immaterial/material question (conundrum?) effectively, I will ignore their conclusions.

    It would seem to me that everything they have to say is founded on a thoroughly inadequate understanding of what constitutes the human person.

    September 27, 2012
    • I agree with much of what you’ve said here, Paul, I’m just not sure how it relates to the themes addressed in the post. It seems to me that one could accept virtually everything you’ve said here and still register the same objections to the doctrine of the atonement described above.

      It would seem to me that everything they have to say is founded on a thoroughly inadequate understanding of what constitutes the human person.

      I agree that very often objections to God/religion or this or that specific doctrine often have a faulty anthropology in the background, but I’m curious to know what led you to this conclusion in this specific issue about the atonement?

      September 28, 2012
      • Paul Johnston #

        Fair question.

        I struggle to write. In a conversation I could make the connection between your post and my answer in minutes. Writing an answer can sometimes take me hours, so very often I, “cut to the chase” so to speak.

        As I read your framing of Mr. Heim’s critique, I was struck by two things.
        One, you didn’t seem to be inviting a specific response to any of the five criticisms listed and I want to be more sensitive of the directions your post’s point to, then I’ve been in the past. ( Kind of ironic, huh 🙂 )

        Secondly, as a consequence of my first understanding, and assuming an accurate framing on your part, I tried to determine what supposition(s) informed the critique as whole. What was the critique’s underlying assumption?

        I concluded, rightly or not, that the criticisms were pretty elementary and mostly non spiritual. I concluded that if those 5 criticisms were meaningful to a person, I couldn’t imagine that person to be seeking a love relationship with the Lord. I assumed they were writing from the perspective of non relationship and maybe even outright unbelief.

        If that were true then, it seemed to me that the real discussion that needs to take place first, is with regard to the “reality” of the immaterial. It seems to me that from the get go the non-theist gets a pass on this vital subject. He is allowed to build a case on a false premise, that being that the material world is all there is, when in fact so much of what what is “real” to us, about ourselves and others are wholly immaterial understandings.

        Hence the response posted above.

        As for the specifics that prompted my conclusion, I cite both criticisms #1 and #4.

        Criticism number one holds the default assumption that the immaterial is “imaginary”. This is the language of the non-theist. For the non-theist to make this assumption he must support the claim and at the very least offer some kind of explanation as to why, (if the non material is imaginary), so much of what is real to a person, even a person’s own sense of self, resides within this immaterial realm.

        My crude response would be something like, “let’s stop talking about God for the moment and explain to me why anyone is anything more than “meat and muscle” if the immaterial is imaginary.

        Further, I would argue that anyone with even a basic appreciation of God and/or the concept of love would see the “language of sacrifice” as essential. Requiring right understanding and application to be sure, but hardly” foreign to our experience”. Frankly if “sacrifice” isn’t on the table, I find that, “morally problematic”.

        With regard to criticism # 4, I can only ascribe this one to a non believer also. Any basic understanding of the trinity recognizes that God does not indulge in an abuse of another, specifically His Son. God is the “other”, as the Son. God does not inflict unto another. God absorbs unto Himself.

        Hope this helps and I certainly encourage you to question any and all inconsistencies this comment reflects.

        September 28, 2012
      • Paul Johnston #

        Ryan, you asked…. “I’m curious to know what led you to this conclusion in this specific issue about the atonement?”…..sometimes you look again at a question and the answer it spawned and think if I cannot say, “because I believe it to be where the Holy Spirit leads me” it would be better to leave questions and their answers alone.

        September 28, 2012
      • Thanks for tracing the links between the post and your comments, Paul. It’s helpful to see how you arrived where you did. I do not mean to downplay the role of the Holy Spirit in sparking responses or comments. I was just trying to get a clearer sense of the connections you were making.

        To be clear, Heim was simply articulating common critiques that exist “out there.” He was not promoting these or defending them, simply saying, “this is what (some) people say about the atonement.” The rest of the book will, I assume, respond to the five critiques more directly.

        For my part, I agree with you—there are often assumptions about the (im)possibility of the “immaterial” lurking implicitly (if not explicitly) behind many criticisms of the atonement. I’m not sure these need to be cleared out of the way before other objections can be dealt with (i.e., the moral objections). Who knows? Perhaps dealing helpfully with the latter could be a way to encourage reconsideration of the former.

        September 28, 2012
  4. Paul Johnston #

    Thanks, my virtual friend. 🙂

    I would never think of you as someone who “downplayed” the Spirit. Frankly I think your clarity of thought and sincere morality are essential to the discernment process. I think you are blessed though at times I can easily imagine your blessing could feel like a curse :)… I read you as a voice of the Spirit.

    With regard to Mr. Heim I indeed assumed him to be an academic Christian before I responded. I couldn’t imagine Harris, Dawkins and others focusing their entire work around a subject matter that they would likely dismiss out of hand. I decided not to read about Mr. Heim in advance though, thinking that it might prejudice my response, and just deal with the words and ideas you presented before me.

    After my last comment, I took the time to look up Mr. Heim on-line. He is indeed, as I suspected, a professor of Christian studies and a Baptist minister as well. Interestingly I found an article posted that presented the subject matter you have here, in greater depth and detail. If I understood the critique correctly I read Mr. Heim to affirm the legitimacy of the criticisms rendered and the failure of modern Christian churches to respond effectively to the crisis. His reference of the Catholic faiths (both Roman rite and EO) was cursory and to my understanding inaccurate. His quick criticism of mainline Protestant movements I would leave for others to examine.

    Further at the articles end Mr. Heim promises to articulate the “new way” of understanding the atonement (perhaps the second half of the book you describe), so that we might better understand and defend our arguments. (I assume)

    As you well know I am often troubled by this approach to faith. So much so that I struggle to ascribe the word “faith” to the process. I see it more as an academic exercise, affirming mostly academic processes (deconstruction/critical analysis) than I read it to be affirming Jesus Christ. I fear that the process becomes the priority, the medium becomes the message, so to speak, and that faith in Jesus is either lost or diminished…..and a “Gospel of Relativism” takes it’s place.

    Academic understandings; the wonder and glory of true knowledge itself, will always be an anathema to mankind, in my estimation, unless mankind is first formed by the morality of the Gospels. For me it is what we do with what we know, that really matters. And ,”what we do” will always be, first and foremost, a moral question.

    I would wish also that Mr. Heim and similarly inclined Evangelical authors would be a bit more judicious in their use of the term Christian. As I understand the numbers, those who self identify as Evangelical represent only 15% of the world’s Christian population. ( Baptists, though the single largest confession/denomination within the Evangelical churches, represent an even smaller portion still) In order not to offend truth or reason they ought not to ascribe, as they often do, the weight of the word, “Christian” to many of their agendas and pronouncements. Particularly when over 70% of the worlds Christians, who dwell within the catholic communities, stand opposed to much of what is essential to their confession.

    All this being said, I clearly find Mr. Heim’s “piece” to be the work of a thoughtful and intelligent man and will believe him to be, as I would hope he would believe of me, a sincere man, seeking God.

    September 29, 2012
    • Thanks for your kind words, Paul.

      I can’t really comment on Heim’s position on the atonement as I haven’t read the rest of the book yet. I would offer a world of caution re: Heim’s “academic” approach to faith. Whatever his understanding of the atonement turns out to be, its rightness or wrongness won’t be because of its academic presentation. The most traditional conceptions of the atonement were, after all, formulated by theologians at some point along the way. The New Testament presents a number of different images and metaphors around the nature of Christ’s death and its saving significance, but never explains it. No matter which view of the atonement we happen to prefer, they are all the product of “academics.”

      Re: the usage of the term “Christian,” I don’t know what article or reference you are talking about here, so I probably shouldn’t say much. Out of curiosity, thought, what term would you prefer these people to use if “Christian” is off limits?

      September 30, 2012
  5. Paul Johnston #

    Your welcome, Ryan.

    Your right, of course, theories of atonement are the “product” of academics. In the end, I am mostly concerned with priorities and what a right ordering should look like. Instinctively (for good or for bad) I recoil from another, “theory”. I’d like to think it’s been figured out, to the extent that that it can be known and that we should just get down to ” a life in Christ”.

    I like what this guy says, 🙂

    …”There was a time when I was obsessed with finding answers to these questions, or at least better ways of understanding them, but those days are fading. It’s important to try to understand and I think there are certainly some conceptions of these issues that are less damaging than others, but, as you say, suffering alongside those in pain is often far more valuable than words and “correct” ideas.”….

    It is reported that near the end of his life, St. Thomas Aquinas said that all his theological writings ( and he wrote a lot) were pretty much straw in the wind.

    So I leave my “atonement foray” at that. I’m only likely to get confused and contrary, anyway. Quit while I’m not as behind as I could be, so to speak, 🙂

    The S Mark Heim article I referred to I found through a Yahoo search and was titled, “Why Jesus’ death Matters”..I think…

    As for the use of the term “Christian” I think all denominations need to be careful in how they appropriate the term. Most Catholic teachings I read describes itself as precisely that,” Catholic teaching”. The little Orthodox Catholic and Mainline Protestant reading I’m familiar with also seems to make the distinction. (I have no understanding of the Mennonite/Anabaptist approach, perhaps you’d care to comment.)

    Evangelicals, on the other hand, seem a bit dodgy on this issue, to me. A lot of what I read presents itself as “Christian” with organizational names that include the word “Christian”, when in fact they would do better to say we are Evangelical, or better yet the more specific derivative denomination, within the Evangelical network. Or maybe even better yet ….”my name is so and so and I am an Evangelical and this is MY theodicy.”

    October 1, 2012
    • What can I say? The rationalist in me dies hard :). I don’t think academic theories or correct ideas are useless, of course. It is, as you say, a question of priorities. Perhaps Aquinas saw this clearer than many toward the end of his life.

      I don’t know what I can say about how Anabaptists/Mennonites use “Christian language.” We certainly aren’t averse to using the word “Christian,” but I have also come across Anabaptists (theologians and others) who distinguish between RC, EO, Evangelical, or whatever kind of theology is being articulated. In addition, Mennonites tend to use “confession” language as opposed to “doctrine” or “teaching” language. As I understand it, there is a deep recognition that all of our knowledge and conviction is provisional in nature and subject to further light.

      I understand your hesitation with the casual manner in which “Christian” is used. At the same time, I think it is probably unavoidable. All of us, rightly or wrongly, trace our identity back to the same Jesus, the same story of salvation, however poorly we understand or implement this, and according to whoever is making this judgment. Do I think Fred Phelps is a “Christian” as I understand the term? No, I don’t. But I’m not going to lose much sleep about him using the term to describe himself either. Jesus will be his judge, not me.

      October 1, 2012
  6. This is a poignant, powerful reflection. Thank you.

    October 1, 2012

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