My mother was never afraid to ask difficult questions. While she didn’t graduate from high school, she was inquisitive and had a very sharp mind. It should have been no surprise to me when she began to ask heavy-hitting questions about theology.
I remember when she first asked about the Christian doctrine of salvation. While it’s stated in various ways, the traditional Christian belief is that the purpose of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus was to save people from sin and restore our relationship with God. Knowing this, she one day asked in a various serious way, “What is it that I need to be saved from?” When I asked about her question, she explained, “If Jesus is supposed to save me, what does he save me from?”
I understand that there are people who have experienced a need for salvation. For example, I know many people whose spiritual awakening in a 12-step program was an experience of being saved from the past and freed to live a balanced life for the future. There are also people who have been marginalized and oppressed who experience belief in a saving deity to be a source of inspiration and strength. But what about those of us who have led lives based on the Golden Rule and live with honesty and integrity to the best of our ability?
I remember explaining to my mother that we all sin in some way and that salvation is from our sinfulness. My mother’s response was very direct. She said that she understood that Jesus died because of people’s sin. But she asked, “What did I ever do that was so bad that someone should die for me? That doesn’t make any sense!”
Mom was onto something. The concept that Jesus died for the sins of others is based on the ancient tribal practice of a scapegoat. The sins and transgressions of the community were symbolically transferred to the goat. The goat was then sacrificed as a substation for the people’s penalty. While substitutionary atonement apparently made sense in ancient tribal cultures, it doesn’t make sense to me today. It clearly made no sense to my mother.
The concept of atonement took on broader dimensions in Christian theology with Augustine’s doctrine of original sin. Steeped in Platonic philosophy, Augustine believed that the material world was fundamentally defective while the spiritual realm was pure. Anything in the physical world was defective by nature. So, while original sin has no place in Judaism and is foreign to the Bible, Augustine’s concept which extended Platonic philosophy to Christian theology was incorporated by Western Christians. The doctrine of original sin caught the attention of reformer John Calvin, who took it a step further with his articulation of the doctrine of depravity. For Calvin, humanity, by nature, is fundamentally depraved; there is no good within us. That’s a belief that’s very popular among today’s Evangelical Christians. I’ve often wondered how those who believe in original sin and the doctrine of depravity missed the stories of creation in Genesis in which God pronounced humankind “very good” because we were created in God’s image and likeness. In terms of original sin, the doctrine of depravity, and substitutionary atonement could it be that some theologians were overly determined to extend a philosophical argument? It seems that based on Platonic philosophy, they developed a pseudo-theological position that gained a great deal of traction. But are these theological positions valid?
As a Christian minister, I’ve often attempted to reframe the understanding of salvation. Our English word, “salvation” comes from the Greek verb, “sozo” and the related noun, “soteria.” These Greek words convey an understanding of health, healing, protecting, and making whole. In other words, I understand that salvation is rooted in healing, the restoration of health, wholeness and well-being for people, not just in a spiritual way but for the whole person. That’s a belief I can affirm.
If salvation has any merit, then I don’t think it’s about a shallow pie-in-sky-when-you-die kind of theology. Instead, the teaching of Jesus and the salvation he inspired is about life here and now, bringing about the realm of God on earth with justice, peace, and wholeness for all people.
As for concepts like original sin, the doctrine of depravity, and substitutionary atonement, when I look at them from the lens of the teachings of Jesus, they simply miss the mark. They’re off target because they reflect a dualistic philosophy that was foreign to Judaism and the worldview of Jesus. (And by the way, “missing the mark” is the term Paul uses for “sin” in his writing. The Greek word is “hamartia.” Something is sinful when it’s off target or misses the mark.)
I’m thankful that I had a mother who pushed the questions as far as she did. In my youth, I was more willing to accept the theology I was taught without examining it carefully. She helped me come to understand that theology is living and needs to be examined in each generation. She wouldn’t have used those words, but that’s exactly what she did. It’s much like the basic tenant of liberation theology: the good news needs to be reincarnated in each generation or it’s no longer good news.
In the end, I believe it’s time to let go of theologies that are based in Platonic philosophy and dualism. That’s a worldview that doesn’t work for anything else today. Yet, many Christians cling to Platonic ideals as though they were gospel!
© 2014, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.