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Beyond Atonement Theology

Letting Go of the Mantra: "Jesus died for our sins"

Within the world of progressive Christianity, it is amazing how the Christian faith, supported by the Christian Church, has continued over the decades and centuries to teach and preach the mantra: Jesus died for our sins.  It would be hard to measure the hurtful guilt and pain this teaching has caused God-fearing Christians over the years.

Where did the idea of Jesus dying for our sins come from?

In our Christian tradition, Jesus dying for our sins is known as atonement theology.  In Judaism, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is one of the six great celebrations throughout the calendar year.1  However, going back to the fourth century during the time of Augustine of Hippo (354-430 Common Era), Christianity began to distort the Jewish meaning of Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement).  For Jews, the Day of Atonement is a time to be “at one” with God (thus, the word, at-one-ment).  It is a time to seek union with God.
The historical roots of the problem date back to the middle of the second century by which time Christianity had become an “almost exclusively” Gentile movement.  Gradually, these Gentile Christians began to read the Bible literally, which was never the intent of the Jewish authors of both the Hebrew and the Christian Scriptures.  Atonement theology is an outgrowth of a literal reading of the creation stories in Genesis 1-3.

The story of Adam and Even partaking of the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden was never intended to be read as an historical account.  It is a beautifully crafted metaphorical narrative of creation and how human kind evolved into a self-conscious awareness of the reality of good and evil.  The Bible never refers to Adam’s disobedience as a Fall.  Again, it is a story; it is not history.

However, by the fourth century, with Christianity becoming the official religion of the Roman empire and with religious leaders increasingly viewing the Bible in a literal manner, the Genesis 3 story of Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit came to be understood as a falling from original perfection into sin.  The resolution of this alleged Fall was what came to be known as substitutionary atonement.  Jesus’ dying on the cross was viewed as an “atoning” for the sins of human kind.  Again, this represents a stark misrepresentation of the Jewish Day of Atonement.

The Fall that never happened

To begin with, the idea of Jesus dying for our sins has the premise of creation and human origins all wrong.  According to Charles Darwin (1809-1882) and evolution theory, there was never any perfect creation.  Human life emerged in a natural selection process taking place over billions of years.2  Therefore, there could not have been a Fall because there was nothing to fall from.  Jesus did not come to rescue fallen sinners from a fall that never happened.  Again, there was never any perfection from which to be corrupted.

Human beings are not born in sin.  Think for a moment how ridiculous this notion is.  Do any of us really believe an infant baby is a sinner.  Sin has to do with freedom and responsibility as we grow into adulthood.  It is not a condition we are born with.  Infant children do not need to have their sins washed away in Baptism.  Christian Baptism, therefore, needs to be reconsidered and understood more as a blessing of life.

Darwin’s revelations radically crushed the traditional Christian view of salvation.  Human beings do not need to be saved from a fall that never happened.  Nor do they need to be rescued or redeemed.  Simply put, the salvation story of traditional Christianity is ill-founded and needs to be reinterpreted.

While salvation is alluded to in the gospel stories, it was never a major emphasis for Jesus or for the gospel writers.  Rather than talk about salvation, Christianity should stress the importance of living lives of greater wholeness and ongoing personal transformation.  That is what Jesus calls us to; and it is what the resurrection unveils for us.  The resurrection is about the birth of a new awareness and a new consciousness that lead to lives of personal transformation.  This transformation includes our passion and commitment to social and economic justice.

Why the mantra, Jesus died for our sins, is so troubling

Consider for a moment what the idea of Jesus dying for our sins suggests about God, Jesus, and us!  Any God who would will the unspeakable suffering and death of an innocent Jesus on the cross is a monster God.  Who could believe in such a God?  The God we Christians are called to believe in is a God of deep love and compassion, a God of forgiveness, kindness, and endless caring.  To cast God in the role of requiring Jesus to die for our sins because of a Fall that never happened is beyond ridiculous and absurd.

In this “dying for our sins” paradigm, Jesus becomes a helpless victim and martyr.  Rather than dying out of faithfulness to God, seeking to freely give his life away so we might be drawn to a higher level of consciousness, Jesus becomes God’s sacrificial victim to pay for the sin of Adam in the Garden.  What a dark and twisted distortion of our Christian story.  Where is the love, and where is the compassion?

And then, what about us?  We end up being miserable, guilt-ridden human beings.  Again, the common practice of Christian faith today deals way too much in sin and guilt.  Check out the hymns, the prayers, and the liturgy in many of our churches!  Sin and guilt are everywhere.  We can’t even sing one of our favorite hymns without being reminded of our guilt: Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.  Indeed, where does it end?

As aspiring progressive Christians, atonement theology needs to be sorted out and laid to rest in the practice of our Christian faith.  There is no place for it as we near the third decade of the 21st century.
The Rev. Dr. Jeffrey Frantz is a retired church pastor who began his ministry in the Baptist tradition before becoming a minister in the United Church of Christ. He holds a Doctor of Ministry degree from the Pacific School of Religion. He is the author of The Bible You Didn’t Know You Could Believe In. Dr. Frantz and his wife, Yvette, are now retired and living in Boynton Beach, Florida.

1. The others being Passover, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Sukkoth, and Hanukkah.
2. Human beings have been evolving since the big bang some 13.8 billion years ago.  Over these billions of years, we have evolved from lifeless matter to life forms (3.8 billion years ago), to conscious life (one billion years ago), and finally to self-conscious human beings (250,000 years ago).

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