Considering The Atonement Doctrine: A Letter to a Friend
by Preston Thomas
Dear B. J.:
At Thanksgiving our original discussion centered around the "blood of Jesus." As you know, my son and the girl he planned to marry broke up over this issue. She felt that as long as he did not believe that Jesus died for our sins they had no future. She believed this even though they shared a belief in God, Jesus, and basic Christian values. So this is an important issue and one I would like to discuss with you and make a clear presentation of my beliefs.
Let me begin with a short discussion of the historical beliefs and attitudes that led to the atonement doctrine. The early Hebrews believed that "without the shedding of blood there could be no remission of sin." (Heb. 9:22) They accepted the primitive idea that God could not be appeased except through blood sacrifice. Moses made a distinct advance in that he forbade human sacrifice and substituted instead the ceremonial sacrifice of animals.
This concept of ceremonial sacrifice was preserved, in principle, by the apostle Paul as the doctrine of atonement for sin through the sacrificial death of Jesus. Paul, however, went beyond Moses and the Jewish teachers in that he expounded theories of original sin, hereditary guilt, and innate evil. Paul was a great man; he more than anyone else was responsible for bringing Jesus' teachings to the world. But he also injected a number of his own ideas which were not taught by Jesus, and indeed, were at variance with the teachings of his Master.
I emphasize that human teachers such as Paul were not only fallible but made a serious blunder in promoting the atonement doctrine. I believe we need to make a fundamental distinction between the teachings of Jesus and those of the human followers of Jesus. Jesus is the Son of God as well as the Son of Man and his life and teachings are a divine revelation. Therefore, I believe that we should look to Jesus first, and judge all other teachings by their harmony with his life and teachings.
A Loving Heavenly Father
Accordingly, the first reason I would cite in defense of my belief that the atonement doctrine is in error is that it is not harmonious with Jesus' revelation of God as our loving heavenly Father. While the ancient Jews taught the necessity of sacrifice, Jesus, in his life and teachings, revealed a God of love, mercy, and forgiveness. The Old Testament prophets and the New Testament teachers recognized God but not with the insight, clarity, and perfection of Jesus. Although Jesus' God is just and righteous, it is love -- the heavenly Father's perfect love for his human children -- that is the defining characteristic of his teachings. This concept of God as our loving heavenly Father was the only concept, besides acknowledging God as a spiritual being, that Jesus ever taught. He said, "God is love," and in his teachings God's love is supreme over justice and all other divine attributes.
The ancient Jews had conceived of God as a harsh king-judge. They believed that the only approach to God was through fasting and sacrifice. They felt that racial guilt had separated them from God and that sacrifice was necessary to appease his divine wrath. Paul's atonement doctrine grew out of these beliefs.
But such a God sounds little like the God of Jesus. He taught that God's attitude toward us is that of a Fatherly affection -- he loves us as his sons and daughters. This fatherly affection is the dominant characteristic of the God revealed by Jesus. God's loving forgiveness is always open to us; we must only seek it and be forgiving of others. Jesus revealed this in the prayer he taught his apostles: "forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors." God's love is not held hostage to an inflexible justice that cannot forgive until a totally innocent Son is sacrificed in remission of sin.
This brings me to the second problem I find in the atonement doctrine. It assumes a lower conception of God than is presented by Jesus' life and teachings. Indeed, the conception of a father who will not forgive his erring children until an entirely innocent elder brother dies as a human sacrifice sounds barbaric. We would expect more even from a human father. This conception is a relic of ancient times and primitive beliefs, ideas, and practices which Jesus came to free us from. He brought a new and higher revelation of God; and in his life he sought to free believers from the Jewish system of ceremony and sacrifice.
The last argument I would advance in opposition to the atonement doctrine is that it was not taught by Jesus. Isn't it reasonable to assume that if Jesus' purpose in living his bestowal life on our world was to die on the cross for our sins, he would have emphasized this doctrine? But Jesus did not teach the necessity of sacrificing himself for man's sins; instead he consistently focused on the Kingdom of God.
There are other problems with the atonement doctrine. In particular, it tends to mask Jesus' true teachings of the kingdom of heaven. In his message, the gospel of the kingdom, Jesus taught that God is our loving heavenly Father and we are his sons and daughters. We are called to live a life of faith in our Father's love and over-care, to trust in God as Jesus trusted God, to trust Him as a little child trusts his earthly father.
Jesus' emphasis was always on the kingdom of heaven -- the rule of God in the hearts of his sons and daughters. The prayer he taught his apostles reveals this central teaching: "Your kingdom come; your will be done." He identified the kingdom of God with the will of God and taught that we enter the kingdom by the inner submission of our will to God's will. It is this teaching that Jesus held supreme; he did not teach the atonement doctrine.
The Meaning of the Cross
Paul taught the atonement doctrine to help make Jesus more acceptable to the Jews, and to try to explain the seemingly inexplicable fact that the Creator (John 1:3, Col. 1:16, Heb. 1:2) of our universe was killed by his own creatures.
Jesus' death was significant; it was the final act of a life of love and service bestowed upon mortal man. The great thing about Jesus' death was the way he died, the magnificent spirit in which he met that death. His final prayer, "Father forgive them, for they know not what they do," is Jesus' final demonstration of the love and forgiveness of our heavenly Father.
In Gethsemane Jesus sought to avoid his death if this choice would be consistent with the Father's will. He prayed, "Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me." But his purpose was to live the full human life of his earth creatures. And in a human life we cannot usually have our death avoided or taken away. So Jesus submitted himself to death on the cross, a death brought about by men -- not by God. It was God's will that Jesus finish his human bestowal, even though it included "drinking the cup" of death at the hands of his enemies.
Jesus' courage and selfless devotion to the service of man and God in his crucifixion inspires us onward. It was the final act of a life of service. "Greater love has no man than to lay down his life for his friends." Jesus lived a life of service, revealing truth to humankind, and he courageously and selflessly submitted to the death that truth teachers must often face.
After Jesus had asked if the cup might be removed, he finished the prayer with the words, "Nevertheless, not my will but yours be done." This prayer -- not the atonement of Jesus -- is the key to our salvation. We are saved not by Jesus' death on the cross but by our faith submission to God's will. This is evident from the fact that believing in "the blood of Christ" will not save someone who does not faithfully choose to live in accordance with the Father's will. And such a choice of God's will over our own personal will can be made independently of the death of Jesus.
Although I believe it is incorrect to refer to Jesus as our redeemer, he is truly our savior. For even though the way to salvation was open before Jesus lived, he, in his bestowal life, did truly make the way of salvation more clear to humanity. His life and teachings are our lighthouse, our certain and infallible guide to salvation. Certainly we may gain much from the teaching of his well-meaning followers, but we must also recognize that they were human and fallible. Jesus is divine and his teachings are perfect; they are the touchstone by which all other teachings should be judged.
B. J., in this letter I have attempted to restate and organize what I said to you at Thanksgiving. I do sincerely appreciate your good hearted and sincere effort to help me better understand the apostolic teachings concerning the "blood of Christ." I am also delighted to have the opportunity to express my beliefs to you. I hope they have found some reception in your mind and heart.