One of the central foundations upon which most Christian religions are centered is the doctrine that Jesus died on the Cross in an atoning sacrifice that “paid the price for” our sins which then allows us to be eligible for Eternal Salvation.
The specific details of how this works vary from Catholics to evangelical Christians to Mormons and to other sects of Christianity, but for the most part, other than the most liberal of denominations which take a less doctrinaire view of the subject, most Christians teach this belief at their core.
An important question at the core of this belief in an atoning sacrifice would be: what is required for mortal humans to enter “heaven” or “paradise” in whatever life exists after death. Central to that is the role of Jesus in that “salvation”: does he offer us the path to Salvation because he taught us the path we should follow, or because he died for our sins in an Atonement?
Whether or not there is any life after this one, it could be clearly argued that the moral teachings of Jesus, centered on universal compassion expressed in behavioral action, at least make the world a better place in this life. If there is life after this one and his teachings continue to better our existence after death, so much the better. There is much to be said for what Jesus reportedly taught his followers and, through the record that has been handed down, to us.
Yet there are many who would undermine this legacy, and weaken it with a bloody mythology of human sacrifice. They would simplistically dismiss Jesus’ teachings about the need for behavioral action, and preach that salvation exists because Jesus died on a cross as payment for our sins. Such a belief shows a total disregard for human accountability in achieving salvation, and allows someone like Beverly Russell [stepfather to Susan Smith (who drowned her two innocent boys)], to molest his daughter over a period of years — as a teenager and even continuing as a young married mother — and, by becoming a “born-again believer” receive complete forgiveness, without any other real change of character or behavior. No wonder he joined the Christian Coalition! Is this a great religion, or what!?
Focus On Greed
The emphasis of the belief in bloody human sacrifice mythology is one of greed: getting a “free gift” for doing nothing in exchange. This, of course, contrasts directly with the teaching of Jesus to love others and give unselfishly, as Jesus is quoted in Acts 20:35 as having said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” How different from the focus on getting a free gift, which is the emphasis of atonement mentality.
Sinners in the Presence of God
First of all, the need for an Atonement seems to hinge on the concept that our “sins” must somehow be “washed away,” owing to a concept that no “unclean” thing (or person) can tolerate the presence of a perfect god, and thus there is the need for a mediator to cleanse such “unclean” mortal sinners.
Yet, while the worshippers of bloody human sacrifice mythology would have us believe that it is predicated on the fact that god cannot have imperfect sinners in his presence, these same people believe that this same god (incarnate as Jesus) embraced the lowliest and most sinful and sought them in his presence! One cannot logically believe that Jesus was God, that God cannot abide the presence of sinners, and that Jesus embraced, touched and love sinners in his presence.
The scenario goes something like this: “I need to be pure or of perfect goodness in order to enter the kingdom of god. But I am blemished with sin, a stain that I am incapable of washing out myself. My lack of goodness constitutes a debt, but lacking the requisite goodness, I am not able to pay this debt myself.” Therefore, I need someone perfect (of enough pure goodness) who has the capacity, or richness, or affordability to pay the debt on my behalf.” Thus, the need of a savior or mediator.
Need for a Mediator?
It seems to me that this presents a very wimpy view of what is supposed to be an omnipotent, all-powerful deity. Either he/she is incapable of withstanding the presence of one “tainted” with “sin” (is this weak or what?), or is incapable on creating the right times and situations where one so tainted might be able to approach his/her divine presence. Both are limitations on the “power” of the “all”-mighty. [Compare Romans 8:38-39: Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is Jesus Christ our Lord.]
If god is our spiritual father, then shouldn’t he at least measure up to the standards of imperfect, puny mortal fathers? (See Matt 7:11). I am a “Daddy” as well as a “Grandpa.” If my daughter or granddaughter did something wrong, or got “dirty,” I would still have the ability (as weak and imperfect as I am compared to a god) to stoop to her level, hold her close to me and try to help her through the problem. Her imperfection, even if it required some form of punishment or discipline, would not prevent me from being able to remain close to her, if I really loved her. It might require some form of remedial attention, but that would not necessarily mean separation. So how can some people claim that a god described as being all powerful can’t even remain close to his spiritual children if that’s what he wants? Why are they imposing limits on what god can or can’t do? Is he all powerful or isn’t he? Why does he need a mediator? And if Jesus is really god, and they are one and the same, then he isn’t really an intercessor or mediator at all — he would be interceding to or mediating with himself!
And even if the whole ludicrous concept made any sense at all, we still wouldn’t need a Messiah. If a perfect being needed to “take upon himself” the sins of others, why couldn’t god just do it himself? If Jesus, assuming the debt, has the right to forgive it, why doesn’t the original debtholder? Why not just be efficient and cut out the middleman (which is, literally, what the “mediator” is)? Why can this omnipotent deity forgive after being crucified but not before? How does Jesus’ torture give an omnipotent God more power to forgive than he already had? And, if one holds a concept of trinity, which says that Jesus IS god, then, in fact, there IS no mediator or middleman anyway, god is just punishing himself, so what exactly is the point? What is accomplished?
Suffering for all the sins of humankind
The concept of atonement often includes the belief that Jesus also took upon himself the suffering for all the sins of all persons who have ever lived, now live or will ever live.
Even if you believe that Jesus somehow took upon himself that suffering, as well as the suffering of every other sin against every other human who ever lived or will live, I have never even heard anyone even suggest that Jesus’ “taking upon him the suffering for those sins” in any way also took away the suffering of those victims. At the very best, if you can even believe that he did that, all you have is a single instance in which you simply double the amount of suffering in the universe (once by the victim and again by Jesus when he re-experiences all this suffering). You have not taken away the victimhood of the original victim. If Jesus could take away the pain and suffering of those victims, and transfer the entire victimhood away from them and solely to himself, this concept might hold a little more merit. But we all know that didn’t happen. No one has ever even claimed that all the victims were relieved of their suffering, since everyone of us has endured some level of suffering for others’ sins against us so we all know that it didn’t happen. If Jesus just added another instance of that suffering to himself, then all you have is an increase of suffering, and for what? Sorry, but I just can’t see an all-knowing, all-wise deity working that way. Let’s imagine the worst possible crime: an evil, malicious man kidnaps, molests, tortures and ultimately murders an innocent young child. The child suffers terribly through every phase of this crime. The fact that Jesus died on the cross or even re-experienced all that suffering does not undo or eliminate the fact of how much this child has suffered. Even a smaller crime, like schoolyard bullying or taunting someone who is “different” — the victim has suffered, and Jesus’ death did nothing to change that.
Paying “The Price”
If Jesus “paid” a “ransom” for our sins, who did he pay it to? Is it to the Devil, who owns our souls because we are imprisoned in sin (Satan has “kidnapped” our souls) — would God pay off a ransom to a criminal? Or does Jesus pay this “ransom” to God — the supreme judge of the eternal court? Does God extort the payment of ransoms like a common kidnapper? If Jesus is God, is he paying the ransom to himself?
Secondly, did he pay the ransom? The Bible says “The wages of sin is death” [Romans 6:23 (as part of Paul’s ridiculous atonement theory based on a transferably physical concept of sin that goes way beyond the purely symbolic gestures of animal sacrifices or scapegoats in the Old Testament in Lev 16:9-10)]. The consequence of sin is HELL [Matt 5:22, 29, 30; 10:28; 18:9; Mk 9:43, 47; Rev 20:14-15 and many more]. Did Jesus die? Well, he was killed on the cross. But, in that sense, all humans die — so, if that is what pays the price of sin, we all pay for our sins, so why do we need a surrogate to pay it for us? If something on the order of 36 hours worth of being “dead” (from sunset Friday to sunrise Sunday — notwithstanding that Matt 12:40 and Mark 8:31 prophecy that the “son of man” will stay buried three days and three nights — more contradictions and failed prophecies) pays the price of all sins of all persons who ever lived, now live, or will ever live, then if each person pays their own share, stays dead for a brief time, then why can’t they then live in heaven, having paid their price? Since your belief is that those who don’t accept Jesus WILL pay their own price (to satisfy justice if they reject mercy), then they must be capable of paying it. So let them pay it, come back from their sleep, and let eternal life roll forward!
Did Jesus die in some other sense? Is he dead? No! Christians tell us that he lives! Despite the absurdity of saying that the response to sin should be torture by the “fireboarding” of hell, at least if they said that Jesus paid for our sins by dying from the eyes of god and spending an eternity in hell for every person’s sins, there would be a modicum of moral consistency. But no, he is not dead, and he is not in hell — he is at the right hand of god! He did not pay the price that we would have had to pay without his supposed sacrifice.
Further, if Jesus actually paid the price, then it is paid. Period. It is either paid or it isn’t. So if I sin and don’t accept Jesus as my savior, but he already paid the price, then why should I have to pay it again? If I reject faith in Jesus so that I have to pay my own price by actually suffering death or the eternal torture of “fireboarding,” but Jesus already paid it, then it has been paid twice.
Part of the problem with the concept of blood atonement, beyond the need for absolutely purity already discussed, is that it does not address the nature of sin — what “sin” is — and thus how to become cleansed from it. “Sin” is not a tangible, physical object, like a ball or a Frisbee, that you can throw or catch or hold onto or give from one person to another. Sin is an intangible function of character, representing the negative aspects of character flaws just as virtue represents the positive aspects of character goodness. While one might use allegoric examples from the physical world to illustrate ideas, the literal belief that you can transfer sin from one person (the sinner) to another (a guiltless substitute) is absurd because it contravenes the very nature of sin. And, in fact, the absurdity of saying that Jesus took upon himself all the suffering for sin is made clear by the fact that, as a consequence of mortals’ sins, the original participants (both perpetrators and victims) did not have their suffering transferred to Jesus. They still suffered fully, so if Jesus also suffered, the only thing that happened was a doubling of the suffering, which hardly seems to be an act of either justice or mercy. Killing Jesus did not undo the original sins he supposedly took upon himself or the suffering that resulted from them.
While the Old Testament clearly has symbolic gestures of sin transference such as animal sacrifices (detailed in the first and third chapters of Leviticus and numerous other references) and the infamous “scapegoat,”* Paul is the one who seems to have adapted this to a literal transference with a human sacrifice. While Jesus does mention ransom for sin and forgiveness for sin (and please note that words such as “ransom” or “sacrifice” do not imply sin transference — those who pay ransoms to kidnappers do not transfer sins, and heroes who give their lives for others do not take upon themselves the sins of those others), Paul is the one who introduces a literal concept of sin transference.
Additionally, Paul is the only one, directly contradicting numerous other New Testament references, who says that this atonement occurs completely apart from the requirement of any behavioral component (works or deeds). Many Bible teachers, including Jesus himself, do emphasize the need for faith — but always in conjunction with the ensuing behavioral action which follows. Paul stands alone in teaching that faith can exist apart from behavioral response or character transformation.
Punished for OTHERS’ sins?
Furthermore, Paul not only teaches a ridiculous concept of sin transference in regard to expunging our own sins, but he goes even further with suggestions in Romans 5:14 and I Cor 15:22 that many have interpreted to mean that we also have to be redeemed from the transgressions (sins) of Adam and Eve! If my father and mother do something wrong, why should I get punished for that — something that happened before I was even born? What do their wrongs have to do with my sins? Talk about unfair! The scenario is ridiculous enough if the atonement supposedly pays a physical price (transferable, with no explanation of how) for my own sins. When Paul suggests that it isn’t even for my sins, but for someone else’s, he has really lost any semblance of justice!
There is no logical connection between killing an innocent man and making the sins of others go away! The only purpose served by this bloodthirsty doctrine of human sacrifice is to propose an easier way, based on affinity or loyalty — us vs. them — instead of actually having to change your flawed character and then live by what you profess. It transforms Christianity from a movement of activists reaching out to those in need, into a movement of subservient followers. The entire doctrine of blood atonement to take away sins is not merely irrational, but a device invented by the renegade “apostle” Paul for bypassing the much higher standard for salvation taught by Jesus himself — that salvation can only occur through universal compassionate love expressed actively in deeds.
Civil or Criminal?
Even the analogy of “paying the debt” is inappropriate. It would be more applicable to a civil debt, whereas the commission of sin is more akin to a criminal violation. While we might appreciate that one person can pay the debt of another, we would not tolerate innocent people being punished for guilty ones. If a convicted serial murder/rapist plead guilty to multiple counts of murder and rape, would we allow his law-abiding gray-haired mother to volunteer to step in and serve his prison time (or be executed) in his stead? Following that “satisfaction of justice,” would we then tolerate allowing the murder/rapist to be turned back onto the streets?
Jesus’ Gift of Salvation
What, then, is the role of Jesus in salvation (either in a life after this one or in making this one a happier and more peaceful existence)?
First of all, Jesus explicitly and emphatically rejects Paul’s teaching, referenced in the preceding paragraphs, of a salvation theology based on atonement through a bloody human sacrifice. The gospel according to Matthew twice, in Matt 9:13 and Matt 12:7, states that Jesus said: “I will have mercy, and not sacrifice” (King James Version). More modern translations, such as the Revised Standard Version and New International Version, update the archaic meaning of the word “will” and translate Jesus’ statements in both verses as: “I desire mercy and not sacrifice” (emphasis added). This could not be a more explicit rejection of Paul’s later teaching.
A loving but omnipotent god would have the ability to condescend to the level of imperfect sinners and make them feel comfortable in his presence. In our modern world, highly educated medical professional go into emergency rooms to care for those covered with blood and dirt or risk their lives (“greater love hath no man”) in the presence of those with deadly incurable communicable diseases; counselors work with those who are poor, in jail, or abused to help them find a better way; and teachers condescend to the level of those who are uneducated to lead them out of ignorance. 2,000 years ago, Jesus (reputed to be perfect and a representative of the Godhead) made those who were dirty, poor and reviled to feel comfortable in his presence. He touched lepers, forgave sinners, blessed the poor and consorted with (yuck!) tax collectors. As has been previously noted in earlier articles, it was the central message from Jesus: his first teaching, his last teaching and the foundation of his teaching in between.
At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus taught us to love our enemies. Later, when asked by a lawyer what is the “greatest commandment” in the law, this Jewish rabbi quoted from the Old Testament law to love god [Deut 6:5] and love your neighbor as yourself [Lev 19:18], as reported in Luke 10:25-37 and Matt 22:36-40. Note further, that in the Luke account, this was illustrated by an example, the parable of the Good Samaritan, which was used to define “neighbor” very broadly, to include enemies. The Samaritan (the hated enemy) is the one who exemplifies this broad definition, and who provides the example of one who is saved by their compassionate actions toward their enemy. Yet the Samaritan is not even a believer, not one having “faith” nor one who has accepted Jesus as savior, yet this is who Jesus chooses as the example of one who gains eternal life, which is what the lawyer specifically asked.
In his last general teaching, Jesus said that salvation would be based on our love for god in how we treat those whom he called “the least of these” (Matt 25:31-46). In his own actions, Jesus consistently expressed love and closeness to sinners, lepers, tax collectors and other outcasts, while saving his rare words of harshness and anger for the Pharisees and Sadducees — the pompous, self-righteous administrators of the established religious orthodoxy.
Yet some would assert this ridiculous doctrine that god is incapable of adhering to this doctrine, because either he/she cannot withstand the presence of these least ones, or is incapable of making them feel comfortable in his/her presence. What kind of eternal parent is incapable of embracing his/her weak, imperfect children, even when they are dirty or hurting and need that presence the most?
The Real Process of Removing Stains
But, even if such a scenario were correct — that we must have all “stains” removed before we can be in the presence of god — (only for the sake of argument, since I do not agree, as noted previously), the process of using a “mediator” to eliminate the stain of those sins by “paying off a debt” is terribly simplistic and flawed. It does not address the real nature of sin. It treats good and evil as physical commodities — something tangible, like a baseball or a Frisbee that you can chase and catch, as previously discussed.
Aside from the problem with why we cannot simply cleanse the stain ourselves with a good washing (learning correct principles and values to offset the wrong ones), or go out and productively earn enough “goodness currency” to pay the debt off ourselves, it does not address the nature of sin and of how to overcome it.
Sin is a negative spiritual essence — a flaw of character — not a tangible object. It exists as a negative form of consciousness, of thought, of motive, of spirit — in some way that intangible energy of life force in its negative expression.
It is not an object that can be bought, sold, lent, owed, or the object of indebtedness. If I am burdened by sin, there is no physical action that another person can take to remove it. The only thing another person can do is reach me at the applicable level of consciousness, of thought, of motive, or spirit involved — by condescending to my sinful level, if necessary and teaching me what is right, or developing in me right values, attitudes, feelings and motives that will lead to changed feelings and a new life.
The atonement concept represents the same mentality as the misguided people who seek happiness (which is also not physical in nature) so they try to pursue it directly, by selfish means, as if they could reach out and grab it like chasing a baseball or a butterfly, instead of setting in motion the internal processes which allow happiness to develop naturally. In the same way, overcoming “sin” or evil is an internal transformational process, not something that can be handed off to someone else.
Punishment or payment are not part of the equation, except insofar as they may help in an instructive manner. And especially there is no logical need for punishing an innocent man for the sins of others. What a miscarriage of justice! Even if Jesus’ sacrifice were voluntary, or a noble gesture of love on his part, it would be a manifestation of his goodness; it would do nothing for our salvation. There is simply no logical connection between an innocent man hanging painfully on an old wooden cross, and the eradication of evil thoughts, motives, or behavior from those who can only do so through a change of heart and attitude through the experience of kindness, love and compassionate joy.
The irony is that Jesus, in what he taught throughout his ministry — not in an “atonement,” but in a consistent message of universal compassion actively expressed — provided the means for character reformation and grown that actually can transform the sinner and allow him to overcome sin. By developing feelings of universal compassion and then expressing them in action, or if one does not feel such feelings, do the actions anyway until they become natural to you and you do feel the compassion, character is truly transformed. Those who are hardened become softened and gentle. Character is transformed. Sin is expunged.
Yet Jesus is remembered and worshipped as a savior for his suffering and death on the cross, and supposed resurrection, which became an “atonement” for sin. In cruel irony, this off-centered emphasis, founded in greedy motives of selfishness, along with a preoccupation on rituals, ceremonies and unrelated lesser teachings, distract most of Jesus’ nominal followers from primary attention on the core of what he actually taught.
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