A friend of mine is struggling with the atonement. He wrote some thoughts questioning our common mentaliy that focuses ONLY on the death of Jesus and nothing more. Here is my response. You can debate me on this if you so desire.
I think that you’re really on to something. I think we might have discussed it in class, but I don’t think a sacrifice was needed. When I look back over just Israel’s history, I see this being the case. I don’t think that God chose Abel’s sacrifice because there was blood in it. If that were the case, I think it would be in the story or some other Biblical writer would make reference to it in that light. Rather, I believe that God chose it just because He chose it.
Then comes the flood and Noah and his family come on the scene. Noah offers a sacrifice at the end of the story. Here is the response:
And when the LORD smelled the pleasing aroma, the LORD said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth. Neither will I ever again strike down every living creature as I have done. (Genesis 8:21 ESV)
God never commanded the sacrifice be made. He never told Cain and Abel to make a sacrifice and He is never recorded as commanding Noah. Sacrificial commands come when the Law is recorded. But I do not think that the sacrifice was necessarily needed.
You see, if the people would have obeyed the Law in all its elements, they would never have had to make a blood sacrifice. But, because of their sinfulness, and because of this little statement after the flood,
And for your lifeblood I will require a reckoning: from every beast I will require it and from man. From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man. (Genesis 9:5 ESV)
MAN was required to make a sacrifice. God was NEVER obliged to accept the sacrifice they made, as the Cain and Abel story shows, and God was never bound to His demand for sacrifice. And, like I briefly stated above, if man had lived according to the Law, he would never have had to make the sacrifice in the first place.
So I think you are on to something when you say that there is a problem with a theology that focuses ONLY on the death of Jesus. As Kyle (I think it was) once stated on South Park’s The Passion of the Jew,
If you wanna be a Christian, that’s cool. But you should focus on what Jesus taught, not how He died. That’s what they did in the Dark Ages, and it leads to really bad results.
I happen to believe that atonement is multifaceted. I do believe that there is an element in the sacrificial death of Jesus that needs to be addressed, but to narrow the atonement to one theory or one act or one anything is just plain foolish. Here’s a brief excerpt from The Wittenburg Door’s interview with Brian McLaren (I have a link to the whole thing posted on my blog).
I guess this kind of thing [the claim that he believes in a theology that has abandoned the cross] would be coming from people who claim that the gospel can be reduced to one theory of atonement. I have consistently affirmed that there are a whole range of classical theories of atonement, and have resisted pressures to reduce the mysterious and majestic power of the cross to a flat, one-dimensional explanation. I have also sought to explore the biblical understanding of the cross in its social dimensions and what it says about reconciliation both with God and among humanity, including those who criticize, persecute or posture themselves as enemies. On a practical and personal level, my understanding of the cross is teaching me to listen, to critique humbly, to learn all I can from it, and to trust in God’s power to bring resurrection from my own failures and weaknesses…
I’m saying that far from abandoning the cross, I want to experience what Paul spoke of when he said he was crucified with Christ and yet lived. Like many of our best contemporary theologians and missiologists, I see the cross as having many dimensions, not just one. I’m not for limiting our understanding of the cross and the gospel to forensic categories. Obviously, the New Testament writers employ legal metaphors to describe the work of Christ, but they use many other metaphors, too—disease metaphors, kingdom metaphors, and so on. I think a fair reading of my works will show that I’m simply trying to affirm a multi-dimensional gospel, not a flattened one.
There is so much more to Jesus than a bloody death. I am willing to say that His death is not even the main point. If that was the case, it would have been all He talked about, but He didn’t. He showed us how to live as well.
I guess what I am trying to say is that you are right in questioning the flawed mentality of most of modern Christianity, but I would advise you against throwing out that aspect of the atonement completely. Atonement is important. And understanding it rightly is important. But it is also important to understand it in all of it’s many dimensions. Penal substitution is not the only right way to view the atonement. It is only ONE way to view it. And it is only one aspect of a very big element of the Gospel.
God bless you in your journey. As Red Green says at the end f his show every week, “I’m pullin’ for ya! We’re all in this together!”