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The (Psycho-)Logic of the Atonement
By Robert M. Price
The Essence of Christianity
What is Christianity all about? Or, as at least two important books (by Adolf von Harnack and Ludwig Feuerbach) from around the turn of the century put it, what is the "essence of Christianity"? For this is what we want to know, e.g., when we ask in the abstract how Christianity is to be estimated alongside the other world religions. Is it just one more can of soup in a row of others? It might be so even if this can has a label reading "Hinds," while that one says "Campbell." Often such redundant products are even made by the same company! To a great degree, I think the analogy is not a bad one. On the one hand, there are theological differences within each faith that are easily as great as those separating one faith from another. So no religion has a monolithic unity of identity. But on the other hand, all of them sooner or later, here or there, turn out to be facing the same agenda of issues and to have evolved a similar smorgasbord of responses to those issues.
So we must ask what makes Christianity unique, or more modestly, what is distinctive about it in the sense that every religion is unique or distinct unto itself. Jacques Derrida (Limited, Inc.) contends that there is no "proper" use of any piece of language. There is no inherent "real" meaning that governs "correct" use. There is only convention. Dictionary writers and grammarians just agree that a certain cross-section of current usage will count as "proper English," "the King's English." But every "straight" use of it invites "twisted" use. Without "isn't" it would be no fun to say "ain't." Everything invites a parody of itself, a distortion of itself. The straight line doesn't rule out flexibility; rather, it gives you something to be flexible with.
This implies that any definition of what Christianity "really is" or "is supposed to be" is going to be merely descriptive, not prescriptive. Any textbook orthodoxy will be useful only as an "ideal type," a conceptual yardstick to use in measuring the varying proportions of real live Christian groups. Their variations from the norm do not count against them. They are not "heresy" in the sense of "thoughtcrime." To the contrary, these differences reveal what is distinctive about a particular Christian sect or thinker. If they are to some extent "not true to type," unorthodox, so what? That just helps to chart their position on the theological map. It doesn't mean they're charting a course to Hell, or out of the True Church. Maybe the Moonies or the Mormons or Matthew Fox are getting pretty far from the essential Christian norm. That may mean they are in the process of evolution into something else, just as Christianity eventually reached the point where it could no longer be counted a Jewish sect. Maybe you think they should call themselves something else than Christian. Eventually they'll probably agree with you. Till then, why be in such a rush to segregate the wheat from the tares?
The Essence of the Essence of Christianity
What is, then, the essence of Christianity? Before we separate the form from the content, we have to make an even finer-tuned distinction. We have to use a heuristic device that is sharper than any two-edged sword, dividing between joints and marrow, soul and spirit, and, as Seymour Chatman says (Story and Discourse), between "the content of the content" and "the form of the content." I think that what constitutes the essential content of Christianity is a central doctrine, and a theological doctrine is a different kind of thing from, say, a central principle or a central moral value. It matters a great deal whether you think the essence of Christianity is love, or you think it is the doctrine of the atonement. Everything is going to be different from there on in, depending on that starting point.
And I am going to argue that the essence of Christianity is not love, but is in fact the doctrine of the atonement. That does not mean that the atonement is supposed to be "better" than love or more important than love. It's just that love is the common possession of all the religions. It is not what distinguishes them from each other. Contrary to what the Johannine Jesus says, "all will [not] know that you are [his] disciples [merely] because you have love toward one another." That wouldn't tell them you weren't Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Humanists, etc.
If you are thinking there is something wrong here, you are thinking what Kant and the Eighteenth-Century Rational Religionists thought: it is the distinctives of religion that lead to religious wars, not what they have in common, certainly not love. Might it not be better to shear away those distinctives, since they threaten to get in the way of love?
As I understand it, the Christian doctrine of the atonement means more or less this. Human beings, thanks to the Fall of Adam, are fatally tainted with sin, in a fundamental state of moral impotence and alienation from God. The self is the center of interest, where God should be. And if God were central, things would fall naturally into place. Loving and serving God, we would thrive like a heliotropic plant that always bows in the direction of the sunlight. Such was our nature till it jumped the track when Adam sinned and fathered a race and a social system of sinners. We are born in sin like a fish born in water. Thus it would take radical surgery to lift us out of the briny deeps of sin and make us breathe air on the surface. We can no more reform ourselves by good intents and efforts than a fish can simply decide to live on land from now on. God would have been well within his rights to wash his hands of us, but instead he went the second mile and provided the radical surgery, the means of re-creation, rebirth. This he did by the atonement of Jesus Christ. At the very least this means that Jesus was altogether righteous and thus could not have deserved the punishment of death or indeed any punishment at all. But he died a punitive death, on the Roman cross, to take the punishment for the sins of the human race. And though his atoning work is said to be all-sufficient, we are not out of the woods till we consciously embrace his sacrifice on our behalf. We have to admit we are sinners and accept a salvation we need and could never have earned. Those who do not consciously embrace the gospel of salvation will not receive its benefits.
If Jesus Is the Answer, What is the Question?
This salvation, this solution, raises more problems than it solves.
One: What about the future? Once converted, are you on your own with the sins you may commit before you die and get past the finish line? Many early Christians lived in fear and postponed baptism till their deathbed just to play it safe.
Two: if the change conversion makes is more than a clean slate ("Go and sin no more, lest something worse befall you" John 5:14), if it is rebirth as a new creature who walks in the Spirit, why do we still find pretty much the same old temptations and defeats awaiting us after the initial period of neophyte enthusiasm?
Three: why should your response to the atonement, or even your knowledge of it, make any difference? If Christ died to save you, mustn't it have worked?
To make salvation depend on your believing in the atonement, i.e., in the doctrine of the atonement, aren't we simply saying you are saved by cognitive works? Maybe not doing the right thing, but by believing the right thing. This is the inevitable result once we say morally noble non-believers are not saved. The options would seem to be:
1) You are saved by good works, regardless of your beliefs. This means God's grace overlooks error in belief, but not immoral actions.
2) You are saved by orthodox beliefs, regardless of your works. This means God's grace overlooks immoral actions but not errors in belief. He is a strict theology professor, and he doesn't curve grades. But neither does he care how wild you party, as long as you study for the exam.
3) Everyone is saved by the grace of God, regardless of their beliefs or deeds.
4) The traditional popular Christian view, that you are saved by a combination of faith and works (a diversified portfolio), each being necessary but neither being sufficient by itself. But in this case, grace has little to do with it.
It seems to me that Christian theology has usually gone with number two. You are saved by right belief. When all is said and done, a "sinner" seems to mean simply "not a Christian believer," since the latter is the dangerous and depraved state from which one must be extricated. That is not to say that immoral behavior is ignored. No, specific sins are roundly condemned. But the crucial point is that conversion does not necessarily change this. If you're lucky, it may, but stories of such dramatic night-and-day turnabouts are tall tales that float around the evangelical community like water-cooler chatter about someone on TV who won the Lottery. Most lives are mediocre and stay that way, despite all the "Dieting with Jesus" books.
What conversion does change is your beliefs, or the intensity of them, or your membership in a particular religious group. So belief, being "in with the in-crowd" of the 144,000, is what matters. You can still commit sins and yet be a Christian, as the bumper sticker assures a surprised world: "Christians aren't perfect, just forgiven." And why are they, and not you, forgiven? Because they are Christians. Not because Christ has died for them. If that were all there was to it, why, then you, Mr. Satanist, you, Ms. Secular Humanist, would be forgiven, too! But there are no bumper stickers proclaiming these glad tidings.
No, they are forgiven because, unlike you, they believe Christ died for them. It all comes down to passing that exam. Thus the old joke is no joke: Junior sees his grampa reading the Bible and religious tracts and he asks mom why. She says, "He's cramming for his finals!" He'd better!
What a Tangled Web We Weave
When We Practise to Believe
You see, Christianity did not bring into the world an answer to an ancient longing, a long-delayed salve for a festering wound. No, it created the problem to be able to peddle the solution. You only think you have the problem the Christian gospel will solve if you already accept the Christian bill of goods. Karl Barth put it euphemistically by saying that we are so blinded by sin that we do not even know the right question to ask till we hear the answer. But I think Dietrich Bonhoeffer was more to the point when he said Christianity survives by circling like a vulture, trying to make the healthy believe they're sick so they will buy the patent medicine we have to sell. Like asbestos in your basement: the stuff's only toxic once the environmental experts get there to remove it and start stirring up the dust of death.
How did the doctrine first emerge? Here is one plausible scenario. Jesus of Nazareth is put to death for anti-Roman sedition. His followers denied he deserved a criminal death; he was innocent of all charges. (Was he? That's another can of worms.) His disciples faced two options for understanding what had happened. Either he was a sinner abandoned by God to a richly deserved fate, which is what Jesus' enemies thought, or he did not deserve his fate. They believed the latter. But then a related problem had to be addressed: how come God let him die? He wasn't being punished for any sins of his own. But death is a punishment for sin, so he must have died for some sins. It must have been the sins of others.
This was nothing new. Jewish martyrs' deaths were typically explained this way. At this stage of the game there was no central doctrine of an atonement. It was simply a rationalization for the otherwise apparent failure of divine providence to safeguard Jesus. The earliest Jewish Jesus sectarians probably did not view him as a savior in the now-traditional Christian sense at all. Nor were they called Christians. (The word "Christian" appears only three times in the New Testament, and in late writings, Acts and 1 Peter, and it is always a term applied by outsiders.) This is an important point, implying as it does that Christianity as such did not exist till the atonement doctrine existed. Thus the atonement is what constitutes a religion as Christian.
The atonement doctrine may well have emerged (as Sam K. Williams argues in Jesus' Death as Saving Event) as a piece of Hellenistic Jewish missionary theology. Gentile "God-fearers" admired Jewish theology and ethics, but they remained hangers-on at the margins of the synagogue, not full, circumcised proselytes, because they did not relish embracing the whole mass of Jewish dietary and ceremonial customs. Some of them began to join communities of Jews who expected the return of Jesus as the Messiah, and a new problem arose. Jews looked to the Jerusalem temple sacrifices to atone for their sins. Gentiles were beyond the pale, unclean before God, outside the Levitical system of sacrificial atonement. How could God accept them as full members of the household of faith? In other words, how could they now receive full admission to the synagogues of Jews who revered Jesus? We can see the controversy over this point in Paul's Epistle to the Galatians: do Gentile believers in Jesus have to become full proselytes to Judaism and keep the Torah regulations? Many Jewish Jesus sectarians assumed so. Remember, they weren't trying to start a new Jesus religion. That came later.
A big step in that direction was the theological answer to this question that said Gentiles did not have to keep the rituals of the Torah, because the death of Jesus had cleansed Gentile unholiness, like the atoning deaths of sacrificial animals had for the Jews. God had accepted Jesus' faithful martyr death as an atonement on the Gentiles' behalf. The Epistle to the Ephesians and 1 Peter both make this point clearly. Christ's death has included Gentiles in the Jewish fold. His death has torn down the Berlin Wall that separated Jew from Gentile.
What was it Gentiles needed to be saved from? Ritual uncleanness, being "unwashed heathen." Traditionally Jewish thought held that God required of Gentiles only the rudimentary commandments of Noah in Genesis 9, an elementary slate of decency laws. Non-Jews were not required to keep the 613 commandments of the Torah. Those were for Jews alone. Gentiles weren't damned, unless they were immoral pagans, whose idol-worship led them into immorality. Righteous Gentiles would be saved all right, but in the meantime, they just weren't part of the House of Israel. Even so, the question Paul and others faced was not whether Gentile God-fearers would be damned. The issue was whether they were entitled to full membership in the Household of God. And the death of Jesus provided for their adoption as sons and daughters, as Jews already were by birth. This early version of the atonement doctrine was still quite a different thing than it has since become.
The big change came once the Jesus sect had spread further in time and space beyond its Jewish origin. Since Jewish ritual taboos were dropped, the distinction between sin as ritual uncleanness and sin as moral guilt was lost. To say that Jesus died "for the world" first meant "for the rest of the world outside Israel," but now it came to mean "for the whole human race, including Jews." The original Jewish Jesus sect did not necessarily think their fellow Jews were damned for not believing in Jesus, any more than Rabbi Akiba would have damned Jews who didn't agree that Simon bar Kochba was the Messiah in 132 CE. But now Jesus was understood as the Savior from moral guilt and from divine damnation. So everyone had to jump on the bandwagon!
Epidemic of Salvation
Here is the logic as I see it: Look, we've got an explanation for the death of Jesus that says he can't have died for sins of his own, so it must have been for someone else's. This means these others must have needed him to die for them. So their sin must have been something more serious than the Jewish concept of "spot sins" that could be dealt with by "spot forgiveness" here and there. Otherwise, why go to the trouble to send a divine savior? Again, Galatians: if things are still as they were under Judaism, then what was the point of Christ dying? It must have been necessary, so let's posit a condition serious enough to require it! That's original sin, total depravity, something going way beyond the Yetzer Harah (evil imagination) that Judaism ascribes to human nature.
Ironically, redemption theology only begins to make sense once you drop the expectation that it makes sense! That is, you only begin to see what's really going on once you recognize that it is not theoretically coherent. You can stop looking for the logic of the thing and start looking for the "psycho-logic" that went into it. It is not an inference inductively arrived at. It is an after-the-fact rationalization. You stop looking for the reasons that account for it, for there are none. You seek instead for what the atonement is rationalizing. E.P. Sanders recognizes this. He observes that Paul "thought backwards, from solution to plight, and... his thinking in this, as in many respects, was governed by the over-riding conviction that salvation is through Christ. Since Christ came to save all, all needed salvation.... Paul did not begin by analyzing the human situation" (Paul, the Law, and the Jewish People, 68).
How can the Christian be sure everyone needs Christ's atonement? This is what we are asking when we tell the pushy evangelist that his faith is fine for him, but that we prefer another way. Why do I have to go your way? The answer, the real, psychological answer, is that "It has to be the way for everybody without exception. If it's only for some people, I won't know if I am one of the ones it will work for!"
Sometimes, like Paul, who claimed to have been the chief of sinners, an evangelist will say, "If it worked for me, it can work for anybody." But what this really means is, "Since it will work for everybody, then I can be sure, deductively, that it will work for me." The revival chorus celebrates "All sufficient grace for even me." I must have certainty! So for me to be sure the gospel will redeem me, I have to believe that you need it, too. Hence I cannot be satisfied thinking you might not need it. If I admit that something else might do the trick for you, I have to suspect that something else might work better for me, too. And since the much-vaunted claims that "Christ changed my life" are usually more statements of faith than accurate descriptions of experience, this suspicion would be fatal. I might then have to recognize that Christ is not living up to the advertising rhetoric and get back on the road looking for another panacea. And I'm sick of that.
A good but partial analogy might be the disingenuousness with which certain AIDS activists warn us that heterosexuals are every bit as much at risk as homosexuals are. The assumption is that straights will not get serious about stamping out AIDS if they don't think everyone needs a cure or vaccine for it.
It's another version of the problem that plagues Calvinists. God predestines the elect to be saved; there's no way they can fumble the ball. So the belief in predestination should be a source of great reassurance, right? Calvin thought so. But he was wrong. His successors realized that since one could never be sure one was in fact one of the elect, since not everybody was, there was more reason to worry than ever before! This is pretty much the same anxiety that the Christian evangelist is trying to fend off by insisting that you need his gospel, too, whether you like it or not. If it's not for everyone without exception, it may not be for him either. And the fundamentalist wants nothing so much as security.
Once unleashed, the doctrine of the atonement runs amok like a computer virus, corrupting every file. Once the question arises as to how sin could first have entered the picture in Eden, how the Fall of Adam was even possible in the first place, God himself gets implicated. (And it is himself, not "herself" half the time, because I am willing to argue that the maleness of God is a structural necessity in traditional Christian theology, the kind we are discussing here.) The logic will sound familiar to us by now, though no less pernicious. And Calvinists did not hesitate to embrace it. God, being all-knowing and all-powerful, cannot, in the nature of the case, have merely waited to see whether Adam would obey or disobey him. No, God must actually have caused the Fall of Adam. Oh, don't worry, Francis Turretin reassures us, God didn't force Adam's hand. He just pulled the plug of sustaining grace at the crucial moment so that Adam lacked the wherewithal to resist Satan's temptation. (As if that gets God off the hook! At least it shows the uneasy conscience of the Calvinist in the matter.) Why would the Almighty pull such a stunt? Well... if it's not broke you can't fix it, and God had this little plan of salvation in his pocket, see?
This doesn't sound kosher to you? Despite their protests that it all makes perfect sense, theologians know how it sounds to any fair-minded person. "You will say to me, then, 'Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?' But who are you, a mere mortal, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, 'Why have you made me thus'?" (Romans 9:19-20). In other words, Sit down and shut up! But we are not answering back to God; we are answering back to fellow mortals who seem to think they are God. Mortals who think it lies in their power to condemn you to Hell for not believing in the doctrine of the atonement.
Apologetics Means Never Having to Say You're Sorry
Once things assume such nightmarishly surreal proportions, wouldn't you think someone would conclude their theory had, like Bugs Bunny, made a wrong turn at Albuquerque? How much more could the atonement doctrine find itself reduced to absurdity? By now, merely to explain it is to refute it. Perhaps it is no surprise, given the male monopoly on theology, that theologians would show the male propensity, when hopelessly lost, to just keep going and not ask directions. To stop and double back now would be too devastating an admission of error. It is all a matter of cognitive dissonance reduction. If you're hell-bent on hanging on to the paradigm of classical Christianity, there is no expedient you won't seize upon to patch the rags.
Wilfred Cantwell Smith hits the nail on the head:
Actually the only basis on which their position can and does rest is a logical inference. It seems to them a theoretical implication of what they themselves consider to be true, that other people's faith must be illusory. Personally, I think that this is to put far too much weight on logical implication. There have been innumerable illustrations of man's capacity for starting from some cogent theoretical position and then inferring from it logically something else that at the time seems to him persuasive but that in fact turns out on practical examination not to hold. It is far too sweeping to condemn the great majority of mankind to lives of utter meaninglessness and perhaps to Hell, simply on the basis of what seems to some individuals the force of logic.... The damnation of my neighbor is too weighty a matter to rest on a syllogism. (The Faith of Other Men, 122-123)
But such hobgoblin consistency is just what we might expect, seeing that the whole thing began as a cognitive dissonance reduction maneuver. In the wake of the execution of Jesus, somehow virtue had to be made of necessity. The atonement doctrine was the result. Otherwise, "Christ died to no purpose" (Galatians 2:21). And we can't have that. We can't brook genuine tragedy. It must have a happy ending. Forgive me for paraphrasing Paul: "I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live in denial."
The history of the doctrine of the atonement is a long series of proposals for lending some sense to the thing. One grotesque analogy follows another, but, recalling what the Epistle to the Hebrews said of the Levitical sacrifices, if any one of them had possessed any merit, the rest wouldn't have been necessary!
It is not merely a question of cross-cultural equivalencies, finding the appropriate counterpart in our cultural frame of reference. The problem is that of a drastic discontinuity of values between the biblical culture and our own, something far more serious than the ancients believing heaven was literally above us, while we imagine it as, I suppose, another dimension. No, the whole atonement transaction presupposes the ancient confusion of criminal law with tort law, as if the sins of the world merely required a fine which a generous friend could pay off for us. Once one sees the logical difference between the two, as we have long ago drawn the distinction between astronomy and astrology, we should see that the atonement doctrine really has nothing at all to do with justice as we define it. The closest analogy in our justice system might be a friend posting bail for a criminal pending trial. This is a buying of someone's freedom by paying the price he cannot pay for himself. But I doubt that this is really adequate. And nothing else is.
If we bemoan the unreasonableness of Christian spokesmen who insist on belief in the cross, we should not be surprised at it. How can one hold fast to such a doctrine except unreasonably? If they could coherently explain it to anyone's satisfaction, you can be sure they would.
Are You Lonely Tonight?
There is a terrible irony when modern theologians claim that, against critiques like mine, some sense can be made of the atonement. We are not talking anymore about a savior of sick mankind. Now we are talking about whether we can save the ailing doctrine of the atonement itself. It is like the Ottoman Empire in its declining days, "the Sick Man of Europe." It is no longer saving us; we must save it. But I say, why bother? The patient's brain-dead; why bankrupt the family by paying for the life-support contraption? Pull the plug!
But can the centrality of Jesus Christ be maintained without the doctrine of the atonement? If he is not central in this way, what is left? Harry Emerson Fosdick held that it is "the personality of Jesus" (as if we knew anything about it) that is "the soul of Christianity." But this is to make Christianity into sentimental fan-worship, a maudlin personality cult like the Elvis Cult. Or suppose we hold, as Tillich did, that we value Jesus only insofar as that which is Jesus in him yields to that which is Christ in him, so that he becomes a perfect window through which we can behold God. If Jesus in this way tells us anything about God we did not know before, then it is something his individual personhood has contributed, and we are back to worshipping him. To say that "God is like Jesus" is really to say, we worship Jesus as a god. Ritschl admitted it when he redefined the Incarnation as the belief that "Jesus has the value of God for us."
But, as I said at the start, the essence of Christianity, as of anything else, is a variable, a moving target. The center of gravity may change as the movement evolves into new shapes. I think that, measured by the most successful forms of globe-circling Christian denominations, Christianity is consolidating itself into a differernt sort of religion that does not depend upon the atonement doctrine, though that doctrine is usually (residually) cherished by the Christians I am thinking of. I believe that we are witnessing the transformation of Christianity into a devotional cult where the criterion of salvation is emotional committment to a chosen savior and the projective psychology of a personal relationship with him. The analogy with the Elvis cult is unflattering, though telling. But a more charitable comparison would be to the Hindu-Buddhist cults of Bhakti in which the devotee chooses (or inherits) a divine savior (Ram, Krishna, Kali, Avalokiteshvara, Amida, Siva, Chaitanya), usually believed to have been an ancient mortal avatar of a God. And one dedicates every breathing moment to the personal savior as a living sacrifice of praise, seeking not mundane reward (karma) but rather the saving grace of the Bhagavad.
Though the Gospel of John is quite amenable to such devotional reading, in the process becoming a Christian counterpart to the Bhagavad Gita, I am persuaded that such Christianity never dawned till the Pietist Movement of the Eighteenth Century. That is when belief- and sacrament-centered Christianity (both based on the atonement doctrine) began to share ground with, then to give ground to, devotional, bhakti Christianity. This is when we began to hear from the mouths of the most vocal Christians that one could believe as earnestly as one chose in the Christian creed yet not be a real Christian without the "heart-warming" experience of true grace. "Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal savior?"
Such is the shibboleth of Pietism. One can be a Pietist and a believer in atonement theology. The two go well together, as they do in the religion of Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of compassion who suffers in hell of his devotees, among other favors. But the mere fact that an individual entity is available to do such a thing shows that the focus has shifted from the balance of karma or the technique of self-salvation through Yoga, to a person-centered cult, a personality cult. Some sparks of the same mystic fire have ignited some quarters in Hassidic Judaism, when the personified Sabbath is pictured as giving the damned a periodic day of respite. Yes, evangelical Pietists can believe in the atonement, but I say it has become theologically secondary.
We have witnessed a cameo of this larger transformation of Roman Catholicism in the United States in the form of the Catholic Charismatic Movement as of 1967, when a group of educators, priests, and nuns, all read Pentecostal David Wilkerson's autobiographical The Cross and the Switchblade and sought initiation into the Pentecostal experience. They and their burgeoning movement remained within the Catholic framework, soothing the occasional jitters of the hierarchy. Their influence has since thoroughly permeated the Catholic Church in the United States, so that Catholic laity are urged to undertake a personal relationship with Christ in terms reminiscent of Baptist revivalism. Personal savior Pietism has become the most popular form of Christianity on earth, just as it has dominated Buddhism in the form of Pure Land Buddhism, founded upon the saving grace of Amida (Amitabha) Buddha, appropriated by faith by his devotees who henceforth live a life of goodness as gratitude for salvation. While some may understandably call the dominance of Pure Land Buddhism a Westernizing of Buddhism, it shows no real sign of having been influenced by Christianity. It seems rather to have asked similar questions and supplied similar answers in parallel, like the emergence of homologous structures among different animal specieis (wings on flies, birds, pterodactyls, and bats). And I would rather switch the terms around and suggest that we are witnessing the shift in religious evolution to where Christianity will best be understood theologically, not by comparison to Judaism, but rather in comparison with Buddhism and Hinduism.
Robert M Price
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