That Jesus died for our sins is so ingrained in Christianity it seems almost absurd to question it. It’s in our creed: “For our sake, he was crucified under Pontius Pilate.” It’s in our prayers: “Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world.” It’s in our hymns: “Who did once upon a cross, Alleluia! Suffer to redeem our loss, Alleluia!”
But the concept of atonement—that God and humanity have been reconciled through Jesus—hasn’t always focused so exclusively on Jesus’ death as a sacrifice and payment for sin. Like most teachings, it has evolved over the past 20 centuries of Christian thought, and today is being critiqued by some as problematic, not only for what it says about God but also for what it may mean for victims of violence.
Although theologians have been studying atonement for centuries, Mel Gibson’s hugely successful movie The Passion of the Christ reignited the debate and prompted more than a few everyday Catholics to wonder what kind of deity would require such tremendous suffering on the part of God’s own child—and what kind of Christian would revel in the guilt that inevitably flows from a teaching that emphasizes our personal responsibility for Jesus’ death. Gibson’s choice to do a movie about Jesus’ suffering and death (as opposed to his life, his teachings, or his resurrection) illustrates a strand of Christianity—actually more evangelical than Catholic—that sees Jesus’ death as the be-all, end-all salvific event.
That’s precisely why Matthew Lanier chose not to see Gibson’s movie. The San Francisco computer engineer had heard enough about Jesus’ death during his 20 years of Catholic education and didn’t see the value in witnessing the bloodletting on the big screen. “Concentrating on Jesus’ death does nothing for me. The way Jesus died does not give my life meaning,” he says. “The movie seemed to glorify the death and suffering of Jesus and to suggest that his death, more than any other thing he did, mattered most.”
That’s not what Lanier and his wife are passing on to their preschool daughter. “Instead we’re teaching her that Jesus’ life is a font of examples on how we should live our lives. One of those examples is that he chose to give his life for a cause in which he believed, but that is not the primary example. There are many more that get ignored in the rush to celebrate his death.”
Washed in the blood
Filmmaker Gibson clearly favors what’s often called “substitution,” “satisfaction,” or “ransom” atonement theology, which says Jesus’ blood is payment to God for human sin. In this theory, since the penalty for sin is death, Jesus pays humanity’s debt, restoring us to God’s favor and winning for us eternal life. Some argue this portrays the Christian God as disturbingly similar to gods who demanded human sacrifice to appease their anger. It raises the question: What kind of God requires such horrific suffering and torture in a plan for divine justice?
Not any kind of God most people want to believe in, nor one that sounds like Jesus’ God of love, says Jesuit Father Kenneth Overberg, professor of theology at St. Xavier University and author of Into the Abyss of Suffering (St. Anthony Messenger Press). “If we sift through the layers to try to understand Jesus’ sense of God, it’s simply not a vindictive, punishing, angry, cruel God,” he says.
Jesus did die a horrible death, most likely because his preaching and teaching upset the powers-that-be of his day. “But I certainly wouldn’t say that was God's plan,” says Overberg. “The important part isn’t that Jesus died, it’s that he lived. I suggest we focus on Jesus’ life, not his death. Jesus came to live, not to die. He had to die because he was human. But I’m convinced he didn’t have to die the way he did.”
Rethinking Jesus’ death radically changes our image of God the Father from punishing and wrathful to one with whom most parents can identify, Overberg says. “Then we have a God who suffers with us, as any good parent does.”
Although the meaning of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection has been the subject of debate pretty much since he was taken down from the cross, modern theologians—including Catholic giants such as German Jesuit Karl Rahner and French Jesuit Pierre Teilhard de Chardin—have focused on the problems of what traditional atonement theology means for our image of God. More recently, however, feminist theologians have raised the issue of how it affects those who believe in it, especially female victims of domestic violence.
“I’m convinced that the atonement is the greatest Christian heresy,” says Rita Nakashima Brock, a United Methodist minister and co-author of Proverbs of Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering, and the Search for What Saves Us (Beacon). “It basically says that God uses torture and murder to save the world. It sanctifies violence as divine.”
Brock, who formerly taught at Harvard Divinity School and is now director of Faith Voices for the Common Good in Oakland, California, claims that the early Christian church focused more on Christ’s resurrection than on his suffering and death. For example, crucifixes were rare until the 13th century, and the early church considered the Eucharist a communion feast with the risen Lord, she says.
The ascendance of atonement theology in the 11th and 12th centuries coincides with the Crusades, with the church using atonement to justify Christians committing violence in the name of God, says Brock. “But that’s a medieval view of Christ, not a view from early Christianity.”
“Atonement turns Christianity into a source for blessing human violence,” says the Rev. Rebecca Parker, Brock’s co-author and president of Starr King School for Ministry at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. “It takes a historical act of state torture and says that that was in fact a gift that pleased God.”
Offer it up
Even more dangerous, some say, is how atonement theology holds up Jesus’ acceptance of violence as the ultimate loving act. For victims of abuse—especially those whose abusers tell them God sanctions their mistreatment—Jesus’ acceptance of his death could be interpreted to mean that love should be willing to bear any amount of pain.
It’s a message Parker had internalized herself until a woman who came to her for pastoral counseling admitted she had been a victim of domestic violence. A priest had told her that bearing her beatings, as Christ bore the cross, would bring her closer to Jesus. This woman had learned from her religion that suffering was ennobling and that self-sacrifice was a higher spiritual calling.
Parker was horrified. “I told her that God didn’t want her to suffer, that God wanted her to have life,” she recalls. “A good Christian has to say no to violence.”
Although few today would use Christ’s death to encourage women to return to situations of domestic violence, atonement theology still subtly sanctifies violence and sends a dangerous message to those who are abused, especially in families, some feminist theologians argue.
“What’s really confusing about this theology is that it’s a transaction between father and son—an intimate relationship,” says Parker. “The parent wills the suffering and death of the child, and the child’s virtue is to accept the abuse.”
With Jesus as our role model, we learn to accept suffering, to offer it up, to find some greater meaning in it. “Jesus is the model victim who remains silent in the face of abuse,” Parker says. “That’s part of what’s very wrong with atonement.”
Elizabeth Schaefer always suspected that this approach to atonement was created to make people feel guilty for their sins. That’s the effect it had on her, anyway. Sexually abused by her brother as a young teenager, Schaefer (not her real name) for years felt responsible for the abuse. Although she has forgiven her brother, she still blames herself for not speaking up and perhaps preventing her younger sister from the same fate. “I should have told my parents; maybe I could have saved her from that experience,” she says.
Constant reminders at church that Jesus died for her salvation only exacerbated that guilt. “If something happens, it seems like somebody’s got to be crucified, and most of the time I’ll just take the blame,” says this successful consulting firm vice president.
Eventually she realized that traditional interpretations of the atonement were contributing to her unhealthy attitude toward violence, suffering, and guilt. After being date-raped in her 30s, she finally put the blame where it belonged: on the perpetrator. And she decided she no longer believed in a God who willed suffering on Jesus.
“I think it was Jesus’ choice; he wasn’t a victim,” she says. “Do we have to keep focusing on this? It just seems to skip the whole resurrection, which I think is the main thing.”
What the Bible says
Those who defend traditional atonement theology see the language of ransom and sacrifice as clearly grounded in the Christian tradition and scripture. “Was the death of Jesus simply the result of social and political forces, or perhaps simply bad luck? The Bible hardly thinks so,” says Father Robert Barron, professor of systematic theology at Chicago’s Mundelein Seminary.
The synoptic gospels contain plenty of atonement talk, as do several Pauline letters. In Matthew 20:28 Jesus himself says that he came to “give his life as a ransom for many.” In Romans 8:32 Paul says God “did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us,” and in his first letter to the Corinthians, he states plainly that “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures” (15:3). And many of the New Testament writers also adopted from Isaiah the image of the “suffering servant.”
Barron also cites Jesus’ own words at the Last Supper, which are repeated in the Mass: “This is my body, which will be given up for you…. This is the cup of my blood. It will be shed for you and for all so that sins may be forgiven.”
But it’s interesting to note that the Gospel of John doesn’t include these words over bread and wine, nor does this gospel include much clear atonement language. Critics say atonement has been read into passages in John—including the famous John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
But, if read carefully, often biblical texts don’t really say what many assume they do, Brock points out. “That text is not about Jesus’ death but about his incarnation.”
Even other references in the epistles to atonement through Jesus’ death or blood “should not be understood to give the idea a sacrificial connotation,” says Father Joseph A. Fitzmyer in The Catholic Encyclopedia (HarperSanFrancisco). He notes that mistranslations of Jesus as the “atoning sacrifice” (in 1 John 2:2, for example) should really refer to “expiation for our sins,” which implies reconciliation, not necessarily sacrifice.
Still, the Catechism of the Catholic Church takes the traditional view, setting Jesus’ death firmly in God’s plan. “Jesus’ violent death was not the result of chance in an unfortunate coincidence of circumstances, but is part of the mystery of God’s plan,” the Catechism says.
It goes on to say that “Jesus atoned for our faults and made satisfaction for our sins to the Father.” And it’s clear it is his death that is atoning, not his whole life: “Christ’s death is both the Paschal sacrifice that accomplishes the definitive redemption of men, through the ‘Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world,’ and the sacrifice of the New Covenant, which restores man to communion with God by reconciling him to God through the ‘blood of the covenant, which was poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.’ ”
Diamonds in the muck
Those excerpts from the Catechism echo St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033–1109) who so stressed atonement theology that he is credited with “writing it in capital letters,” as Overberg puts it. In his Cur Deus Homo (“Why God Became Man”) Anselm proclaims that human sin has “infinitely offended” God and that God requires an “infinite satisfaction” in order to restore divine honor.
French theologian Peter Abelard, a contemporary of Anselm’s, insisted that Jesus’ death on the cross was not payment but rather an act of love, yet Anselm’s view prevailed. Thus Anselm has become the target of much blame by atonement critics.
Without overstating Anselm’s theories, Barron rises to defend him, noting that he, like his medieval contemporaries, saw God as utterly perfect, never needing anything from creation nor experiencing passing emotions. Anselm’s atonement theology “does not mean that God has fallen into an emotional snit or that he is a raging dysfunctional father demanding to be placated, or that he needs to see blood before his rage will die down,” Barron explains. “All of that would have struck Anselm as pagan and idolatrous, utterly irreconcilable with a proper understanding of the transcendence of God.”
Instead, a gracious God, seeing the mess into which human beings have fallen, sets things right. “And that can happen only through the sheer generous grace of a God who breaks into the dysfunction and heals it from within,” Barron says.
Anselm compared human beings to diamonds that have fallen into the muck. “God must come in person to the very bottom of the muck in order to lift out those diamonds and clean them off,” Barron says. “And this is precisely what happens in the cross and resurrection of Jesus. What ‘satisfies’ the Father is not so much the suffering of the Son as his obedience, his willingness to go into godforsakenness out of love for the human race.”
But Anselm wasn’t the one to completely canonize atonement theology. That accomplishment belongs to the Protestant Reformers, says Jesuit Father Thomas Rausch, professor of theology at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles and author of Who Is Jesus? (Liturgical Press).
“They develop the doctrine of ‘penal substitution,’ that Jesus took our place and paid the price of our sins in his own flesh,” he says. “This is still dominant in evangelical theology, and though Catholics occasionally talk this way, the church has never formally made Anselm’s theology its own. It remains theology, not doctrine. To this day, Catholic theology places more emphasis on incarnation, while Protestant theology places more on the redemption.”
Atonement critics don’t deny that this theology has been part of the church’s history, scripture, liturgy, creeds, and catechisms. They just insist that it is just one of several ways the church has tried to understand Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.
Widespread Catholic belief that it is the only interpretation is the result of absolutizing one metaphor, that of Jesus’ blood washing us clean of our sin.
“It’s one theology of many,” says Rausch. “The question of how Jesus becomes our salvation is a great mystery. I think his whole life, death, and resurrection are salvific, not simply his death. To focus only on his death is to narrow it down to one single moment.”
Barron agrees there’s some room for discussion. “In faith, [Catholics] are obliged to believe that Jesus’ sacrificial death and bodily resurrection saved us from our sins, but as to the precise ‘mechanism’ of this process, we are free to speculate in different ways,” he says.
Throughout history the Eastern church has downplayed atonement in favor of an emphasis on the incarnation, while early Western Christian leaders emphasized redemption as a transaction, curiously sometimes paid to the devil rather than to God.
At times “satisfaction” language has been taken to an extreme never intended by Anselm, prompting even Augustine to respond in his De Trinitate (“On the Trinity”): “Is it necessary to think that being God, the Father was angry with us, saw his Son die for us and thus abated his anger against us?” Augustine wrote. “Unless he had already been ‘appeased,’ would the Father have given over his only Son for us?”
The meaning of suffering
But if God didn’t will Jesus’ suffering and crucifixion, does his death still have meaning? Critics of atonement theology answer strongly in the affirmative. “I wouldn’t deny that Jesus suffered or that there was sacrificial value in his suffering. I just don’t think it was demanded by God as part of his reconciliation to humanity,” says Rausch. “When we suffer, we in some way enter into that mystery. We share in the Paschal Mystery of life, death, and everlasting life.”
Feminist theologians who critique atonement theology disagree, arguing that joining our suffering to that of Jesus’ is dangerous because it could have the effect of legitimizing or even romanticizing suffering. At the very least, it could in some cases be seen as downplaying the importance of alleviating suffering, leading people to think, “God must have a reason for this,” rather than, “I need to do something to change this.”
It is human nature, however, to try to ascribe meaning to suffering, and people can’t help but ask “Why?” when something horrible happens. Father Overberg asked it when his nephew died in a car accident 10 years ago. “Why did my nephew die? Because a guy driving on the wrong side of the road crashed into him. There’s no real answer to that question,” he says. “And I’m convinced we’re asking the wrong question. The real question is ‘How do we respond to what’s happening?’ ”
And here’s where the example of Jesus’ life is extremely helpful. Overberg sees two responses modeled by Jesus, who continues to trust God in the face of suffering. First, Jesus laments, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” Lament doesn’t try to explain away suffering but admits it is a mystery. Second, Jesus shows us how to take action.
This approach suggests that what Christians should emulate isn’t Jesus’ suffering, but Jesus’ risk-taking to change the world. That’s not the same as accepting suffering for the sake of suffering. “People who take those risks do so not to suffer but to change things,” says Brock.
Theology graduate student Nicole Sotelo of Harvard always had a problem with atonement theology because it let Jesus do all the saving. “I understand the cross and the death of Jesus to be the result of his living a life of trying to bring salvation to earth,” she says. “If Jesus’ acts were salvific, then we too are called to help relieve the suffering in others’ lives and in our own lives.”
That’s also the part of the gospel message that has stayed with Timothy Grivois, a fourth-grade teacher in Berwyn, Illinois. If Jesus’ death is the logical end to a life spent speaking truth to power, then Jesus saves us not only from sin, but from our complacency as well.
“His life reveals God to us, and his death reveals that life with God requires us to take some real risks, even to the point of losing our life,” Grivois says. “The cross reminds us that to follow Jesus is to follow a human being willing to risk everything, even to be nailed to a chunk of wood and left to die.”
This article appeared in the March 2005 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 70, No. 13, page 12).