Atonement Revisited
Thank God, They Cried "Barabas": An MCC Clergy Rethinks the Atonement
by the reverend Charles M. Bidwell, PhD
Easter, 1994

For many years, I have been uneasy with the image of God that the doctrine of the atonement conveys. This Easter, I have moved beyond uneasiness to abhorrence. Let me tell you why.

Hebrew tradition and religious rituals required that a living mammal (or were the doves useful too?) be slain and its blood poured out in order for God to forgive a person's sin(s). Paul and others confirm that view of a God whose forgiveness must be purchased when he wrote "Our paschal lamb has been sacrificed." [1 Cor 5:7] and "a reconciling sacrifice in his blood." [Romans 3:25] Can God not be reconciled to me or us unless a death is involved?

Hebrew tradition was what Jesus and his followers were raised in and it is natural for them to see the killing of Jesus as a sacrifice to a vengeful god [Isaiah 34:8, Rom 12:19, Hebrews 10:30]. But that is not the understanding that Jesus gives. Jesus gave us an image of a loving (compassionate) God and we have been slow to get beyond that Hebrew concept to one that reveals a more compassionate love from God.

Many outside the church will interpret these atonement and sacrificial lamb concepts as indicating a god who is limited in power and compassion. I say those who are outside the church because most of the people within the church have become so accustomed to this idea that they unquestioningly read and sing the words our pastors program into the worship services. These congregants have learned long ago not to question statements because they have been told that these are matters of faith which are to be accepted on faith. My life experience and my God-given curiosity and mental problem-solving skills lead me beyond unquestioning acceptance of anything. I have been rethinking the atonement doctrine for years and I have come to some conclusions.

My God is not limited in forgiveness or compassionate love. My God is not restricted by what someone on earth does or does not do. The fact that someone has not baptised an infant does not limit my God from blessing that child into eternal bliss. My sins are forgiven perhaps even before I accept that I have committed them because my God is my creator and knows intimately my weaknesses and my struggles to become all that God created me to be. Once I realize my sins (those thoughts and actions that separate me from God or that distance me from loving another for who they are) and take steps to change my ideas and actions, God is way ahead of me and guiding me into the future, having forgiven my sins probably before I forgive myself. God does not require that someone else do something before my sins can be forgiven.

In the Great Vigil of Easter eve, there are words such as "For Christ has ransomed us with his blood and paid for us the price of Adam's sin to our eternal God!" Do we really think of God as incapable of forgiving centuries of human error until people hung Jesus on the cross until dead? Is that the image of God Jesus gave? Is that the image of God we want to give those outside the church? Do we want them to imagine or envisage a God so limited in power and compassion that murder of the son of God is required before forgiveness of sin can be granted? I say the people outside the church because most of the people inside the church have learned to habitually say the words and sing the songs in worship without questioning their meaning very much.

I renounce the doctrine of atonement as a heresy giving a false image of God and leading people to see God as a major child abuser who seems to be saying "I cannot forgive your sins, unless you kill my son". Having said that, I want to describe my understanding of the martyrdom of Jesus and the image of God which that understanding gives me.

To begin, I regard Jesus as divine but not God. He was the Son of God but was not God. For more insight into that distinction, I recommend Tom Harpur's book For Christ's Sake. For now, let me assume that Jesus keenly felt that he was a child of God and referred to himself as such but never claimed that he was God. This frees me to consider that when Jesus was agonizing in prayer in the garden and again on the cross, he was not talking to himself.

Jesus tried hard to convey by his teachings and his example a new image of God as compassionate and devoted to being in relationship with people. Rather than the Hebrew image of a distant god who had to be summoned and given offerings to win favour, Jesus presented a god who was compassionate and not limited by what people did or did not do.

Jesus ran against the teachings of the fundamentalist religious leaders of his time and knew the price he would have to pay for that bold stand. He entered Jerusalem amid a crowd of followers who had come to recognize that his teachings had a ring of truth to them and that he spoke as one with authority (not imposed authority but given by the people because his words and actions touched a resonant chord within them as being true.

Jesus was a very insightful and intuitive person with a keen understanding of how humans operate. He was a great psychologist and knew what people needed to be happy enough to consider that they were living in a heavenly state. He knew that people thought that he was bringing an immediate solution to their woes. Judas believed in his promise of a new kingdom and felt betrayed when he realized that Jesus was not going to lead a public revolt to overthrow the Roman occupation that was oppressing them. He felt so betrayed by Jesus that he informed the authorities of the religious fundamentalists where they could capture Jesus. Since it was their goal to silence this new disruptive message by eliminating the messenger, they made their move and arrested Jesus.

Jesus had free will. He had several choices to make about his future now that he was in Jerusalem. He probably had four choices or options to facing the religious right or official opposition to his ministry: suicide, armed revolt (killing to avoid death?), face the inevitable execution or escape. Some might say that facing the inevitable execution was a form of passive suicide but I do not envisage Jesus considering this option for very long; after all what purpose would it achieve. Leading a political insurrection was what Judas argued for and Jesus refusal to choose that route after Judas had been a supporter for so long led Judas to feel betrayed and to turn Jesus over to the religious authorities.

In the garden, Jesus 'sweat blood' during his prayer vigil with God as he agonized over what his impending martyrdom would achieve for his loving, compassionate God. He must have been weighing his choices. On the one hand, he could escape and try to help his followers spread his ministry better; he had evidence that they did not understand his message well and that his parables confused them. On the other hand, he could stick with these faithful few even in the face of torture and death to demonstrate to them that God is committed to being our constant companion even in the face of abuse and death.

Jesus' chose to face whatever it took to stick with his followers and that demonstration of determination to stay with his followers must be exceeded by God's commitment to be with us in the face of everything. By Jesus' willingness to face death rather than abandon his followers, he has given me an image of God's love being so great that nothing can separate me from it. By Jesus' willingness to face death for his followers, he has given me an image of God's love that convinces me that my sins are forgiven before I ask and that God is eager to lead me into a new life as I turn from my self-centred ways and thoughts.

Even Pilate did not think that Jesus should die and so he offered the crowd a choice of who should be the prisoner who would be freed in celebration of the Passover. The fundamentalists then, as now, must have rejoiced that the crowd cried for Barabas; otherwise Jesus would not have been sacrificed and nobody's sins could have been forgiven. Is that what we are telling people who listen carefully and questioningly? Do we believe that only through Jesus being bled on the cross as a sacrifice was God able to forgive our sins? Is that what we believe? I have been cleansed by God's love flooding through me, not by Jesus' blood washing over me.

I have heard some people trying to rescue something from the doctrine of atonement by playing with the words and making it into the "at one"ment but that still does not make me want to be at one with a god who requires the death of another to forgive my sins.

I have come to realize that sometimes, if not always, something in me needs to die before something better can rise to take its place. This rings true with my experience and with Jesus' teaching "... unless a kernel of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains a single seed; but if it dies it bears much fruit." [John 12:42]. However that is a death of something within me, something that is blocking my spiritual growth and my fuller relationship with others and with God. It is something in me and cannot be cleansed by another, even if they die for me.

I now believe that God did not require that we murder Jesus before God could forgive our sins. But because Jesus chose to face torture and death rather than abandon his followers, I am convinced of God's even greater compassionate commitment to be my companion in the lessons of this life-long school of experience we call life on earth. This is what is good for me about Good Friday. Easter morning is a bonus.

In the Great Vigil of Easter eve, we are reminded of the light that always follows darkness both figuratively and literally in this life. In the face of overwhelming oppression, Jesus showed us that God is faithful and stays with us. Through this understanding of God, I am convinced that God will lead me into a state of release from my sinful ways and I will experience even more of what God created me to be and of the blissful state of mind that will make me think that heaven has come to earth where I am.

THIS I BELIEVE ... I would encourage everyone to write their own statement of faith or belief or creed. I assume it will change over the years from your life experiences and other learning, but do it to see what you would claim as truth for you now. I do not ask you to adopt my beliefs but I do encourage you to question beliefs and statements of faith that are given to you and wrestle with what they mean to you and come to some that you can claim are yours.

You could start with the statement of faith of your church that you asked to adopt when you become a member.

Check out the paper "For God So Loved the World" by Rebecca Parker in Christianity, Patriarchy, and Abuse.

Copyright © 1995 Charles M. Bidwell