Thursday, April 21, 2011

Did Jesus Really Die To Atone For Our Sins, Or Rise From Death To Show Us Our Truth?

Jesus gave a number of important commissions at the Last Supper.  This one about leadership seems to have gotten lost in translation.

The following is from an article written by Jesuit Kenneth R Overberg for the publication American Catholic.  The article deals with the alternative view of Jesus's death and resurrection.  This is the view that has been present within Catholicism since the Gospel of John, but under taught in favor of the atonement view.  In this alternative view, Jesus is not God's 'plan B' developed after Adam's sin, but Jesus is actually the purpose of creation and the reason for the existence of humanity.  In this view, God wants to directly experience His own creation because He loves it like He loves all of His creation.  For reasons of length, I have chosen the post the last paragraphs of Fr. Overberg's piece, in which he shows the difference this view of Jesus's mission can make in the lives of average believers.  The entire article is well worth the read for it's discussion of some of the historical development of this view.

What Difference Does It Make?
For almost 2000 years, believers have found hope and light in recognizing the primacy of the Incarnation. God’s overflowing love wants to embody itself in and for others. Jesus is the first thought, not an afterthought. Does this remarkable belief make any difference in our lives? Absolutely, especially for those of us whose faith has been shaped by images of atonement and expiation.

First, the perspective of creation-for-Incarnation highlights the rich meaning of Jesus. He is not Plan B, sent simply to make up for sin. As Duns Scotus emphasized so well, God’s masterpiece must result from something much greater and more positive (God’s desire to share life and love). Jesus is the culmination of God’s self-gift to the world.

Second, the focus on the Word made flesh helps us to appreciate the depth of our humanness and the importance of our actions. Rahner’s marvelous musings on our life in a world of grace give us renewed understanding of the biblical phrase “created in God’s image”—along with many implications for how we treat all our sisters and brothers in the human family and the earth itself.  (Jesus shows us how to be fully human, to touch and act from our own shared divine life, not necessarily to save us from our fallen humanity.)

Third and most important, our alternate view offers us a new and transformed image of God. Many people suspect that the dominant perspective of God demanding the suffering and death of the Son as atonement somehow missed the mark. (Ya think?)

Indeed, Rahner gently says that the idea of a sacrifice of blood offered to God may have been current at the time of Jesus, but is of little help today. Rahner offers other interpretations of how Jesus saves us, emphasizing that God’s saving will for all people was fully realized in Jesus through the response of his whole life.
Other contemporary scholars, including Walter Wink, are more direct. He states that the early disciples simply were unable to sustain Jesus’ vision of the compassionate and nonviolent reign of God. Overwhelmed by Jesus’ horrible death and searching for some meaning, the disciples slipped back into an older religious conviction that believed violence (sacrifice) saves. (This implies the early disciples never got the point of the resurrection, which is Jesus's culminating statement about the truth of humanity.)

The emphasis on Jesus as the first thought can free us from those images and allows us to focus on God’s overflowing love. This love is the very life of the Trinity and spills over into creation, grace, Incarnation, and final flourishing and fulfillment.

What a difference this makes for our relationship with God! We are invited into this divine dance. Life and love, not suffering and death, become the core of our spirituality and our morality. 

“In the beginning was the Word...and the Word became flesh.” Alleluia! 


I've been doing a lot of thinking lately about these two very different views of Jesus.  They almost mandate two very different views of Church and priestly ministry.  We've had 17 centuries of the atonement Jesus and have wound up with a very dysfunctional church in the twenty first century.  Maybe it's time we organized around the Johanine view of Jesus and put atonement Jesus on the back burner.  The truth is the Church has very little to lose, and might just regain it's soul.



  1. The Prologue to John's Gospel is the Gospel read/ chanted, ( nowadays, because of modernity, in as many languages as possible), at the Paschal Liturgy in the Orthodox Church.

    As far as I can tell, atonement theology has never had much sway among Orthodox.

    For them, Christ trampled down death by death.

  2. Following on the Anon comment above, here is an excellent summary of the Orthodox view of "Salvation in Christ":

  3. I thought if he rose from the dead and he saw his shadow there'd be six more weeks of winter.

  4. I am not a big fan of self-promotion for it's own sake, but as an amateur and a lay person I did a series on something like this very recently that may be of interest to those curious about what an alternative view might look like sketched out a bit more:

  5. As for the Orthodox view, to add to what has been offered, here is a brief but potent exposition (with excerpt):

    Church-historians admit that the Orthodox Christ is more than slightly different from the Christ of the mainstream Christian traditions, even that of the so-called “orthodox churches”. He is the all-encompassing Christ, who embraces within His universal Body saints and sinners alike. Church membership never mattered to Him; neither faith, nor lack of such faith in Him ever made a great difference. Not only had He practically proven Himself indiscriminate, by drawing “near unto Him all sinners” (Luk.15:1) and forming out of them His inner-circle and table–companions (Matt. 9:11), but even made Himself known in advance as “Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world” (Joh.1:29). And the only sin, which the world in its entirety ceaselessly commits, is divisiveness and separation from Him, which shall be thoroughly taken away when the world shall be inevitably absorbed into Him.

    Indeed, the most amazing event in history was that He was born already being the Saviour of the world and was not merely destined to become the saviour of mankind in due course. The Angel’s announcement to the shepherds of Bethlehem leaves no room for doubt: the Good Tidings of Great Joy, that a Saviour is born in the city of David apply “to all people” (Luk.2:10): it is meant neither only for believers, nor just for Christians, nor for particular members of any Church… For the born Saviour has been the Saviour of the world long before His Birth, indeed, before the creation of the universe. He has saved the world before all ages, certainly before creating.

    This is what many modern Christians do not want to know. This is what all Churches and denominations find ridiculous, meaningless, even threatening to their very existence. What would be the point of any Church function if indeed, without any church support, He has “finished the work” of mankind’s Salvation given Him “to do” by His Father (Joh.17:4) and that before all ages?

  6. Why is it that I always feel the sting of guilt, whether from conservative Catholics or so-called progressive Catholics? When as a child I was taught that Jesus was nailed to a cross because of my sins, now I hear that if I make one wrong move I have wounded God. It seems no matter what one does, they have wounded and as well have been wounded. This does not seem to be enlightening at all. I'm utterly frustrated with religion, sorry to say, because in my heart I care, I love, I seek God in all things.

  7. “Again and again people say: It must be a cruel God who demands infinite atonement. Is this not a notion unworthy of God? Must we not give up the idea of atonement in order to maintain the purity of our image of God? In the use of the term “hilasterion” with reference to Jesus, it becomes evident that the real forgiveness accomplished on the Cross functions in exactly the opposite direction. The reality of evil and injustice that disfigures the world and at the same time distorts the image of God – this reality exists, through our sin. It cannot simply be ignored; it must be addressed. But here it is not a case of a cruel God demanding the infinite. It is exactly the opposite: God himself becomes the locus of reconciliation, and in the person of his Son takes the suffering upon himself. God himself grants his infinite purity to the world. God himself “drinks the cup” of every horror to the dregs and thereby restores justice through the greatness of his love, which, through suffering, transforms the darkness.”

    - Benedict in his second volume on the life of Jesus

  8. This is a profoundly significant theological exploration. What kind of Father murders one child to make peace with another? What kind of Father sets his own children on fire to make a point? Answer: a sadist. And one of the things that Genesis shows is that GOD is the first ancient diety to FORBID child sacrifice. To deplore slavery. I think the events of Easter show what happens when we live the Gospel in full faith and the Resurection confirms that Christ got it right.

  9. Borgue and Crossan make the case in their excellent book, "The Last Week", that Mark's gospel shows Jesus's confrontation with the major domination systems of his day, imperial Rome and the imperially installed Temple collaborators with Rome, and the aftermath of that confrontation both shows what so often happens to anyone who dares defy Power, and what the Divine's answer is to Power in the Resurrection. It's a great book, IMO.

    Not to mention that Bishop Spong also dives into the suffering Jesus question with some startling revelations of his own. If violence is really the story we tell when we tell the gospel story, what we crave, even, then we have a sadomasochist church. There will be no end to the demand for Jesus snuff films (Passion of the Christ anyone?) and fetishising pain and brutality ("mortification" and ye olde flagellation). Some heavy stuff there.