Starting as a teenager, I memorized this doctrine, including that cute little “Atone = at-one” explanation which tells us that because of Jesus’s Blood Sacrifice, we are now “at one” with God.
But I never believed it.
Oh, I tried, but it would not jibe with a God of Love. It simply was not in character with Jesus as I thought of him. It wasn’t even consistent with God as I saw him in the Old Testament—the God who, as Amos and Micah and others kept telling us, said, “I don’t want your sacrifices, your burnt offerings. I want your hearts, your obedience.” If they are right, much of the rest of the Old Testament is wrong.
Well, if he didn’t want our sacrifices, then would he build an entire redemption system based precisely upon sacrifice? Not likely. When I broached this thought to a good friend, I got the reply, “God is God. He can do whatever He wants.”
“Including being inconsistent,” I thought to myself but dared not say.
There I was again. Most of my friends are pretty legalistic conservatives. So where could I go to try out this heretical idea? Back to the Bible for more reading and study.
And try as I might, I could not find Jesus teaching this theory, either. Not even in the earliest record of the Lord’s Supper, in Paul’s record in 1 Corinthians.
Yes, Jesus is quoted as saying “This is my blood of the new covenant…drink it.” But, to really get offensive, I wonder if Jesus said this line, or whether it was “credited” to him years later. It sounds so “churchy” and so unlike anything else he ever said. For a man who was quick to avoid legalisms, this estblishment of still another priestly ritual seems suspicious. Rather, it sounds and smells like a later addition, an extension of priestly ritual into his life by a later, priestly hand.
Moreover, in and of itself, that”s a pretty mysterious saying, and hardly something a self-respecting Jew would have said or even listened to, and I don’t really know what it means.
That’s right. I know what you say it means, but that’s different.
In fact, if today I pulled out this scene and this line and handed the text to anyone and said, “Now, pretend you have not heard an explanation of this. You are not ‘educated’ on this idea. You have no theories, no preconceptions. You have never had a teacher or preacher tell you what you are supposed to think about it. You are unbiased. Tell me what it means.”
Bet you any amount that they would not come up with the Atonement theory on their own. Not even if you handed them every line that Jesus spoke. If they hadn’t been indoctrinated with it, they’d never originate it.
For the life of me, I don’t see it saying, “God is a vengeful god who asks for the shedding of human blood in order to give you redemption.” THAT, friends, is a gloss or interpretation. That is an add-on. And the reason that my guinea pig friends could not come up with it from the sayings of Jesus is… that Jesus didn’t teach it.
Paul came close to teaching it. But that’s Paul, and Paul isn’t Jesus. Not even close.
Paul comes along decades after the fact. Paul, of course, claims a lot for himself. He speaks of a face-to-face encounter with the resurrected Jesus and uses that (and some mysterious goings-on in 2 Corinthians) to claim an exalted status and privileged knowledge of Jesus. And some of this may be true.
And some of it may not be.
Besides, as they say, when Paul thinks and writes, there is “context”:
-Paul, the Pharisee of Pharisees-
-Paul, who not only is Jewish but who is writing to an audience which is of mixed background, but which is primarily Jewish-
-Paul, who grew up in the Jewish sacrificial system-
-Paul, who may be teaching some version of the Noahide Laws to a mostly Gentile audience-
-His audience, an audience which in part also grew up in that Jewish tradition, and even which if partially Gentile, would probably have heard about the Jewish tradition-
-An author and audience who already think in terms of “atonement” and “sacrifice” and “burnt offering” and “scapegoat” and “sacrificial lamb” and the like-
-Paul who said that he’d be “all things to all men” in order to further the spread of his beliefs-
-Paul, who allowed (and probably wanted!) the Gentile convert Timothy to be circumcised to make him more acceptable to a Jewish audience!-
-Paul the brilliant scholar and intellectual who would know exactly what “spin” to put on the story to make it most acceptable to his audience-
That, friends, is a lot of “context.” Paul put a heavy Jewish overlay on virtually everything he wrote. And I submit this: it’s that Jewish overlay that starts the Atonement theory we now have—that Jewish overlay plus a whole lot of Augustine in the 5th century.
Again, I say: Jesus didn’t teach it. Apparently it took a number people and several hundred years to come up with it.
“What about that ‘blood shed for you’ business?” you ask.
People shed blood for friends and for beliefs all the time. Martyrs die for causes, radical teachers (like Socrates) are put to death by their critics, the Bonhoeffers of this world ransom their lives for the benefit of many—and lose. Even Elijah was threatened with death for confronting the authorities of his time, and more than one prophet was executed. We certainly could say that Martin Luther King died for his people….
I see the death of Jesus in these terms.
This reading—though you may think it heretical–makes more sense to me than the usual quid pro quo blood transaction with God, the same God who, in the words of the prophets, asked for hearts and obedience, not blood.
No, I find no direct teaching of Jesus that confirms the ordinary interpretation. Nor do I believe that it was in his mind. Did Jesus know that he was the Son of God, the sacrificial lamb who was to die like any hunk of bloody meat, the “currency” in a cash transaction? Did he, in fact, know that pre-crucifixion night in the Garden, that he was to suffer only a short time and then rise from the death, better than new? I don’t believe it, not for a minute.
Such knowledge—if indeed, this scenario is true at all—would have been possessed only by God the Father. Had the son, the man, the human, the Son of Man, known all this, I believe that he would have talked and acted entirely differently.
As a child, I questioned the validity of the Gethsemane depiction of Jesus…it just didn’t make sense. In Wesley’s Chapel Church, where I grew up, there hung a print of that famous scene of Jesus praying in the Garden. And I stared at that print for years, thinking that if Jesus knew the full story of what lay ahead, he’d have no need to kneel and try to pray it away. In fact, though he’d surely not enjoy the pain, he would have known it was temporary, and he actually would not mind dying that much, because the Resurrection sounded like to be quickly endured, and besides, if his death brought redemption, why, then, the quicker he dies, the better.
A common interpretation, as it turns out, for I’ve met many people who as youngsters had the same reaction to that story. Does it sound familiar to you?
Now, as a man past the verge of being called “old,” I find that my childhood instincts were pretty sound. I think Jesus realized that his days were short. After all, he had been thumbing his nose at the authorities for some time, and I suspect he knew well enough what reports and rumors were circulating, and that he was being hunted. He knew He was in danger. All that makes sense.
But did he know about the Resurrection and all that lay ahead? I don’t think so.
Psychologically, that doesn’t make sense. It would deny his very humanity to have that sort of foreknowledge. And I think he was a man.
Yes, there are some occasional clues that speak of going to the Father and the like. But really, we have to remember that the Gospels and other writings follow his death by some decades and no doubt show some embellishment. And the authors should have known better. They set up an impossible paradox: if he was fully human at the time, he’d have no such Godly prescience; but if he were not fully human, he was God masquerading as a man.
That dramatic scene in the Garden, the haunting night vigil, the extended prayers, the perspiration in the form of blood—all that would be superfluous had Jesus known that his suffering was a very temporary state, to be followed by a quick resurrection into a glorious new body.
For the prayer/death scene to be real, Jesus would have had to believe he was a man.
More vigorously put, if Jesus had known he was God on temporary assignment, the Garden scene, the crucifixion, the whole magilla would have been at bottom NOT a true human execution, but a fake—a staged scene to get the necessary blood for the sacrificial exchange.
And if faked…then unnecessary. The equivalent of a parent advancing a child his allowance so that he can buy his way out of a spanking by the parent.
There is no real quid pro quo here. No more than in that classic, but apocryphal and highly contrived story about the father/judge who heard his own son’s case, fined him, then paid the fine himself. A slick story, but unconvincing. And unworthy of our theology and our belief.
A puzzling notion, this Atonement.
No, I don’t think Jesus-as-human was aware of all that was going on. No, I don’t think Jesus-as-human ever taught the usual doctrine of the Atonement or substitutionary atonement or whatever you want to call it.
No, I don’t God ever created such a system. No, I don’t think he ever intended for us to get such a strange interpretation of this tragic event.
It is absolute nonsense for a good God, the God we see in action as Jesus, the God of love and forgiveness, to contrive a scenario that begins, “I need a blood sacrifice. Because I am a wrathful God and angry, I need blood.” And then to go on to produce the sacrifice…which undercuts the whole idea of sacrifice. Jesus’s death costs us nothing. We have not sacrificed a thing. There’s a quirky sort of coherence to the Atonement theory as presently taught, but at bottom it fails. It fails badly.