New Series: Atone Deaf

I blog about many issues all over the map of bible interpretation and theology. But two issues in particular come up again and again, and seem to define both the tenor of this blog and the reservations some have about it. Even like-minded friends have some misgivings when I raise questions about biblical inerrancy and the sacrificial understanding of Jesus’ death.

Since I recently completed my series on inerrancy, I’ll leave that topic aside (for now!) and focus on the question of “atonement.” That is, the question of meaning and accomplishment in the death of Jesus. As with inerrancy, this is a touchy subject that gets to the heart of what matters most for many Christian believers. For evangelicals in particular, a certain understanding of atonement is a central pillar of “the gospel” as they understand it. In fact, I’d say that more of my evangelical friends are comfortable asking questions about inerrancy and the nature of the Bible than are willing to dissect their beliefs about atonement.

In a new series I’ll examine these questions:

  • What do the Hebrew Scriptures say about sacrifice, and do they predict the atoning sacrificial death of Jesus?
  • What do the gospels say about the meaning of Jesus’ death?
  • What does Paul say about the meaning of Jesus’ death?
  • What does Hebrews and the rest of the NT say about the meaning of Jesus’ death?
  • What did the early church believe about the meaning of Jesus’ death?
  • How did ancient Christian fathers like Augustine, Anselm and Aquinas set the stage for a new interpretation of Jesus’ death?
  • How did the reformers develop substitutionary atonement theology and how has it become the dominant or default Protestant theory of atonement?
  • Why does it matter? How does sacrificial thinking affect our understanding of the gospel of Jesus?

I will show my hand before we even begin: I am not satisfied (see what I did there) with the traditional Protestant party line on the meaning of Jesus’ death, which I would summarize like this: “God sent Jesus to die a substitutionary death in place of condemned sinners so they might be saved and have their sins forgiven by believing in that death.” This view is commonly referred to as “Penal Substitutionary Atonement,” or PSA.

I believe that this explanation, ubiquitous and unquestioned in most corners of modern evangelical Christianity, does great damage to the reputation of God, misrepresents the meaning of sacrifice in the Bible, and obscures the real circumstances and ramifications of Jesus’ death according to the gospels. There are two aspects to my critique: my personal feeling that the “penal substitution” formula is deeply wrong and unhelpful, and my understanding that it is also a sharp departure from what the Bible texts actually say on the topic. That first aspect, my personal feelings about atonement, will be easily dismissed by defenders of PSA. But I think it is vitally important to listen to our feelings and intuition when we engage with spiritual ideas, so I’m not going to swallow those feelings back and keep things strictly academic.

At the same time I want to engage with the texts and traditions in question deeply and thoroughly, so we can get a good grasp on the history and evolution of these ideas. “Why did Jesus die?” is not a question we can answer flippantly or with great certainty. There are historical aspects to this investigation but we are mostly dealing in abstract theological analysis long after the fact. I am more intent on demonstrating that PSA is a late innovation, first fully expressed more than a millennium after the New Testament, than I am with nailing down specific assertions about what we must or should believe. At the end of the series I will offer some suggestions for moving forward with a more beautiful and positive understanding of atonement.