First, I must apologize for the past couple months of absence from blogging. Life has been busy through the holidays. I have found a moment to catch my breath and as such now have time to write a bit more. I currently sit overlooking an ice covered lake with a backdrop of snow blanketed mountains. Perhaps this post will find a somewhat more positive tone then the previous…although we should start there to address this topic.
If you haven’t had a chance to read my last post please take a second to do so: An Abusive Relationship with G-d.
This last post was a reaction to a particular doctrine that I formerly affirmed, namely Penal Substitutionary Atonement (I’ll refer to it as PSA for convenience throughout the remainder of this piece). I felt it necessary to express my frustration with this commonly espoused atonement theory to perhaps point out some of its short comings and the damage that it can do to us personally and our relationship with G-d. However, it certainly isn’t enough to tear something down and walk away with the dust of the rubble falling off my boots. So then, I offer an alternative for consideration. Please keep in mind that what I will present is just another theory. I am not advocating that this is the final and true atonement theory…only that it is perhaps a better alternative to the popular PSA. I wouldn’t suggest anybody simply take this explanation and build a rigid doctrine around it, but rather use it as inspiration to continue the journey of finding new ways to experience G-d, love, and life with each other.
Let’s start by taking a step back in history, considering where PSA came from and why it emerged. Throughout most of the first millenium of Christianity the atonement was understood by a vast majority of followers through either of 2 metaphors. The first would be the Ransom theory. It teaches that the death of Christ was a ransom, paid to Satan, in satisfaction of his just claim on the souls of humanity as a result of sin. The second is closely related and is known as Christus Victor. This theory sees Jesus not used as a ransom but rather defeating Satan in a spiritual battle and thus freeing enslaved mankind by defeating the captor. In the 11th Century the established western church officially rejected both of these theories in favor of the Satisfaction theory at the direction of Anselm, then Archbishop of Canterbury. Satisfaction theory eventually emerged into PSA under the Reformers 500+ years later. As a reminder, PSA argues that Christ was punished (penalised) in the place of sinners (substitution), thus satisfying the demands of justice so G-d can justly forgive the sins. So here we are in present day…dealing the the Mark Driscolls of the world telling us that G-d hates us and that we need to feel guilty because we aren’t holy enough for him, that G-d demanded a human sacrifice to appease his wrath against us. If such an assertion came from any other religion we would immediately be able to identify how dangerous such an understanding of G-d would be…but since it comes from our own tradition we seem to be generally quite blind to it.
I’d like to pose this question: Why did Anselm send us down this path? Why did he see it necessary to change the path of a millenium of Christians before him. It is reported that Anselm rejected the ransom theory because he had discerned that Satan, an actual spiritual being, could not have possibly had any just claim to G-d’s creation, thus eliminating the legal requirement for a ransom to be paid. For Anselm a similar dilema was posed by Christus Victor in that it portrayed Satan as such a powerful being so as to be able to enslave G-d’s creation against His will. Anselm contended it was much preferable to see us (humanity) as enemies of G-d, through our sin, then to assert godlike power to the spiritual being of Satan. I wouldn’t argue with Anselm on his identification of a problem, but I would obviously have some contention with his resolution (again, see my previous post).
In the tradition of this blog I would approach the resolution of the criticisms of Christus Victor by exploring the metaphorical interpretation. We have already established that it is fairly unattractive to view our condition as a subjection of humanity to the literal spiritual power and authority of a being that is not G-d, namely Satan. If we do this we effectively create another god who is just as powerful as, well maybe just a little less powerful than, the main G-d, in so doing we become polytheists. So what if Satan is a metaphor for something? Is there some problem, power, set of issues that humanity faces from which we would need a savior, a hero? If there were, then perhaps the analogy of the spiritual battle of Christus Victor could still be maintained, albeit slightly modified.
In searching for the villain, our Satan, in the narrative of Christus Victor I would introduce us to, or for some remind us of, another atonement theory that has seemed to exist in some form or another throughout the history of Christianity. This atonement theory is known as “moral influence“. It teaches that the purpose and work of Jesus Christ was to bring positive moral change to humanity. This moral change came through the teachings and example of Jesus, the Christian movement he founded, and the inspiring effect of his martyrdom and resurrection. If we let moral influence inform our decision on choosing a metaphorical definition of “Satan”, then it would appear that immorality, as defined by Jesus, would be the villain in our narrative. If we review Jesus’ teachings it appears that our Satan, the one he came to defeat, is/are the systems and individual interactions that are unloving, those that cause alienation and oppression, those that ignore or perpetuate poverty and need, etc.
This way of approaching the question gives us something real and tangible to work with. We are no longer fearing and struggling against some lower diety who is manipulating our life events (I hate it when Satan hides my keys on Sunday mornings to keep me from getting to church, but Jesus usually overcomes the attempts of the Devil by helping me find them! PTL!). Rather we move into addressing real world problems by practicing “The Way” (for those who don’t already know, early Christians identified themselves not as “christians” but rather as followers of “The Way”…that way of course being the one Jesus taught and demonstrated). We are trying to solve issues like poverty (locally and globally) with generosity and compassion, we try to find ways to create and maintain peace by rejecting the cycles of violence and retribution, we seek to have relationships that are healthy, beneficial, and that demonstrate authentic love regardless of race, class, religion, or sexuality, etc.
If we see the reason for Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection in the context of this collision of Christus Victor and Moral Influence then we effectively resolve Anselm’s problem with these traditional atonement theories while simultaneously avoiding the afore mentioned pitfalls and abuse of penal substitutionary atonement. I see this approach as much more beneficial, hopeful, and as calling Jesus’ followers to a higher responsibility in the narrative of life and existence in the universe.