A Progressive Christian Minister Reconsiders Atonement

Sometimes I attend services in an Episcopal Church. Before people share the bread and wine known as communion, the priest makes a dramatic gesture.  Holding the circular bread-wafer so that all can see, the priest exclaims: “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us.”  In unison, the response comes from the people: “Let us keep the feast.”

The image, Christ as the Passover, is biblical in origin. Paul, writing to the ancient community in the Greek city of Corinth (see 1Corinthians chapter 5) draws a parallel image between the lamb slaughtered in the Passover Seder meal and the death of Jesus on the cross.  In the account from the Hebrew Bible, the book of Exodus, lamb’s blood painted above the door as the sign to the angel of death to pass that house and go to the next. Similarly, Paul writes that the spilling of Jesus’ blood on the cross is the sign of his followers passing over from death to life.  While I find this image powerful and rich in meaning, there has been a troubling evolution in Christian theology around the interpretation of the death of Jesus.

As a Progressive Christian, I believe that the message of Jesus, both his way of life and his teachings, are an example for me to follow as a guide to living life fully.  Their essence conveys truth about living in ways that are grace-filled, loving, and rich in compassion.  The message of Jesus was controversial.  In fact, it upset the religious leaders of his day to such a degree that they plotted to kill him.  As astute politicians, they found a way to have him labeled as an enemy of state, a subversive bent on overthrowing the government.  The penalty was capital punishment.  And so it was that Jesus was crucified.  But even facing death, he remained true to his message and continued to demonstrate love and compassion toward others.

From this perspective, I understand the redemptive ministry of Jesus to be the way he taught by word and example.  His life and death embodied how people can reach beyond horrible circumstances so that they become  life-giving: sharing love and compassion with others.  His way was about transforming horrible events to become possibilities; his truth was that loving-kindness was always available for us to share; his life demonstrated how to give of one’s own life for others.

Christ is our Passover not because he was slaughtered like a scapegoat. In ancient cultures, once a year, as a way to overcome the sins of the community, people would gather around a goat and touch it — placing their sins on the goat.  The goat was either let out in the wild to die or slaughtered.  A scapegoat represents a kind of sympathetic magic:  ritualizing something to make it happen.  Jesus was not a scapegoat.  Instead, he was a prophetic teacher who was killed because he threatened the status quo of organized religion.

Some Christian theologies have made Jesus into a scapegoat.  In particular, the doctrine of substitutionary atonement states that God requires payment for every sin we’ve ever committed. In this context, the suffering and death of Jesus was the payment for every sin committed by human beings.  This makes Jesus into a magical scapegoat and God into a bookkeeper who wants debts paid.  I find that the concept of substitutionary atonement is incompatible with the God revealed by Jesus whom John, the beloved disciple, called love.  A deity that requires the death of another to atone for grievances is simply cruel and barbaric. This concept, which developed and came to the forefront among 17th Century writers, is in many ways a contradiction of the teachings of Jesus and makes no sense to many people today.

The death of Jesus was politically orchestrated by devious religious leaders.  But the way Jesus recognized and embraced the false accusations and victimization as an enemy of the state turned this death-dealing act into something inspiring and life-giving.  He forgave those who accused him, beat him, and killed him because he recognized their frailty and saw them with compassion. In doing so, he showed us the way from death to life.

For my part, I appreciate the image of Christ, the Passover that was sacrificed.  It conveys to me that the good news of Jesus was so good that even people in his day found it too unsettling to accept.  Jesus taught that the last will be first and the first will be last and what is done for others is done for him. Such teachings went before the prevailing culture of his day just as they are contrary to the values of our culture today.  When we keep the feast, we are invited to follow in his way.


Photo credit: Corey Holms via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

© 2017, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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4 Responses to A Progressive Christian Minister Reconsiders Atonement

  1. Dan Shafer says:

    Well said, Lou. As you point out, the doctrine of substitutionary atonement, which can be found in some of the Pauline epistles, was not a major point of doctrine until well into the early Christian movement’s history. Its purpose seems to be to find a basis other than Unconditional Love with which to bind believers to Jesus the Christ.

    As an interfaith minister with deep Christian roots, I have come to think of the word “atonement” not in the sense of paying retribution but rather in the sense of that ultimate reunification with the Divine that lies at the heart and core of all of the world’s major religions and spiritual traditions. At-one-ment, the making of One, is a process in which we and the Divine participate (though not equally) and which leads not to cancellation or payment of debt but rather erasure of walls of apparent separation.

  2. Thank you! I follow Richard Rohr, ofm’s “Alternate Orthodoxy” to a large extent. Most of the Philosophy and Theology he uses I read in the seminary in the 1970’s. I’m becoming increasingly appreciate of an understanding of Jesus as something more than the “divine plumber” sent down to “fix” original sin.

    In addition I subscribe to the thinking that Jesus expected to be killed, but probably did not expect crucifixion but, more probably stoning. (Death is death so I doubt it matters.)

  3. Lou says:


    Thanks for your comment. I appreciate that you took the time to share your thoughts.


  4. Lou says:


    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I agree that Jesus likely expected to be killed. One crowd was going to throw him off a cliff. The impact of his teaching had to be clear to him.


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