Substitutionary atonement is not forgivenessPosted: February 12, 2011
It also reminded me of a realization I had the Easter before I finally accepted that I was agnostic. I still felt a bit of an obligation to observe it in some way. I think I was also still holding out hope that I could be a Christmas and Easter Christian, if nothing else. So I tried to come up with reasons to attend Easter services, tried to dredge up some tiny remnant of personal meaning or positive feeling for what used to be my favorite season in the church calendar. I tried to find some meaning in the Resurrection. Something about hope or renewal? But you can’t have the Resurrection without the crucifixion, which, I soon realized, was a big problem for me.
I couldn’t find anything to celebrate about Easter because I found the event at the heart of it senseless and barbaric. If God wanted to forgive everyone, why not just do it? Why require violence, death, and a blood sacrifice for forgiveness? How could deliberately slaughtering an innocent human being (divine or not) ever be a good thing for God to do, much less a necessary one? I couldn’t stomach the thought of standing in church and singing hymns thanking God for killing someone “for” me.
There are a lot of theologies of the cross out there. One that makes some sort of sense to me (as someone who, to be clear, does not at all believe Jesus is/was God) is that the crucifixion is God identifying with the poor and outcast and suffering, and being in solidarity with them. Which, you know, still seems a strange and futile gesture to me, but at least it’s not one that claims that the violent death of another human being was (part of) God’s gift to me or anyone else.
Substitutionary atonement – the doctrine that Jesus literally took the sins of every human dead, living, or not yet in existence on himself, and that he literally took on the infinite punishment that every human being deserves for their sins – is not forgiveness. True forgiveness is freely given, it doesn’t come with strings attached. It doesn’t demand retribution, not on the person who did wrong, and certainly not on someone who had nothing to do with the wrong. Substitutionary atonement is both an irrational and abusive theology. A couple comments at Unreasonable Faith encapsulate why that is.
Kodle [after pointing out that it would make no sense for a regular person to withhold forgiveness until someone other than the offender is punished for the offense]:
And notice the unequal relationship. God never asks forgiveness for abandoning you in times of need, or killing your mom with cancer, or taking up all the parking spots so you have to drive to the far end of the lot, or making your presentation at work a disaster so you don’t win the account, or your child getting bullied at school, or your boyfriend moving out. He had a very good and secret reason for doing all this and the only way you can move on, rather than forgiveness, is excuses for god’s very good and secret reasons for making terrible things happen.
Michael, responding to that comment:
This point you are making about the unequal relationship is exactly what pissed off Job. In the end of the book, God came down to answer him–not to apologize, but to be a jackass and ask pompous rhetorical questions. On a larger scale, this relationship is what the entire OT is about, or perhaps the entire Bible. It establishes God as a patriarch who is above question and even above his own law.
Substitutionary atonement requires us to accept that it’s alright for God to behave in ways that would be considered cruel and capricious from anyone else. It requires that we claim God is “good” in a way that doesn’t resemble what we would call “good” in any other context. It preaches a patriarchal God who brooks no defiance and demands perfection from others that “he” doesn’t live up to, and doesn’t have to live up to. In so doing it provides a script and model for authoritarian, hierarchical, abusive relationships between human beings that mirror the authoritarian, hierarchical, abusive relationship between God and humans.
Let’s be real. This is a god who simultaneously expects absolutely perfection from humans (and “graciously” provides it in the form of Jesus) and rationalization of his considerable flaws. He takes his anger out on undeserving people, becomes angry at the drop of a hat, requires that everything be done just so, demands constant praise and attention, thinks the entire world has has wronged him and holds eternal grudges, and thinks everyone should be grateful just to be around him, grateful for whatever they get from him, no matter how meager. In any other context, we’d call that narcissistic, and we’d certainly call it abusive.