On the Alternative Atonement

St. Francis by Seth Fitts

St. Francis by Seth Fitts


No, I’m not about to discuss that terribly sad movie with the memorable library scene. Rather, I’m going to address the issues I have surrounding the traditional beliefs surrounding atonement and put forward an alternative.

The traditional theology surrounding the atonement, where Jesus Christ was sacrificed as payment for humanity’s sins, has never set well with me. Growing up outside of Christianity this was always a major barrier for me as I started to look into the religion as a teenager. How could a God of love and forgiveness need and want the death of his son to make up for his own creation’s shortcomings? If there was something inherently wrong with humanity, why did God make us that way in the first place knowing that we would be lacking something in order to fully receive some form of salvation? That seemed illogical and cruel. Further, if you were to hold the Trinitarian viewpoint (believing that Jesus was the physical incarnation of God) that would present an even stranger and more upsetting notion that not only God deemed it necessary to murder his own child, but that God was actually suicidal to boot. (Frankly, I find trying to apply any logic to the Trinitarian concept of God gives me a headache, but I digress.)

The more I learned about Christianity (and indeed the more I continue to learn about my faith) the concept of blood sacrifice was not one which spoke to my head or my heart in my understanding of what kind of deity God is. In fact, the entire theological concept of Jesus’ death being required as a blood sacrifice on the world’s behalf doesn’t even really jive with what’s in the Bible. God was decidedly anti-human sacrifice at the conclusion of the story of Abraham and Isaac. Nowhere in the New Testament is human sacrifice demanded, encouraged, or condoned, by God or Jesus. Jesus was, in fact, very outspoken against violence of any kind. When confronted with violence that was considered necessary and required by ancient law he rebuked those demands and instead showed mercy. Why would a God who made a point of showing love, mercy, and grace to all in existence actually mandate the torture and murder of his own son? The writers of the Gospel were coming from the same Jewish background as Jesus and were, therefore, approaching the crucifixion within a framework where sacrifice and quid pro quo in their relationship with the Almighty were regular occurrences. While early believers may have had a limited scope of experience in order to understand what happened with Christ’s death and what it meant, we are not so limited.

Though atonement theology has always been something I have disagreed with and didn’t believe in, I was concerned with voicing this belief as I had always understood that blood atonement was considered a central tenet, if not THE central tenet, of Christianity. In my experience, I have found that it is not an uncommon opinion or belief that without Jesus having died for our sins, there was really no point in being a Christian at all. The intertwining of original sin with Jesus serving as humanity’s scapegoat to save us from our own inherent evil nature are beliefs which have become so imbued within mainline Christianity that it’s hard to believe that there exists a faith without them.

I wondered: Could I still really be a Christian and not believe in this atonement theology?

Actually, yes.

This past week I was introduced to the “alternative orthodoxy” of St. Francis as presented by Fr. Richard Rohr. This “alternative” orthodoxy is one which falls in line with other orthodox Christian beliefs & doctrines, but rather than the emphasis being on the “stain” of Original Sin and Jesus’ death serving as payment for that, Franciscan orthodoxy postulates that God’s creation is inherently good. A radical notion eh? St. Francis believed that it is through us and through the world (God’s Creation*) that God expresses his love (Franciscans actually call creation “the mirror of God”). Franciscan theology does not separate God from creation into categories of holy and profane, good and bad, but rather sees the presence of God in every aspect of life: in the dirt, in trees, in the sparrow & the wolf, in suffering & the sick. Since God was the center of an interconnected world, to Francis all of life was kin to him, which he expressed in sentiments used for his environment such as Brother Sun and Sister Moon. To Francis, God’s Kingdom was not an abstract & otherworldly place, it was here in this tangible and tactile reality now.

Since there is nothing profane about God’s creation, humankind does not need someone to suffer and die on their behalf in order to receive the love and grace of God. God loves us in spite of ourselves, with no strings attached, with no caveats, with no exceptions. As I heard it phrased from Richard Rohr quoting another theologian:

Jesus did not come to change God’s mind about humanity, he came to change humanity’s mind about God.

Christ saved us by being the living example of God’s love in this world and showing us how to live our lives serving as instruments of that peace in this kingdom – not through grisly torture and execution.

I can’t tell you how good it feels to have a personal theological issue suddenly settled by your favorite saint. I must admit that despite feeling that this “little poor man” was responsible for leading me to Christianity in the first place, and identifying him as my patron saint because of that, I’ve been lazy in researching much in his own personal theology above the “lite” version we’re all familiar with. How remiss my soul has been in not finding this information sooner. How delighted my soul now feels in finding affirmation and reassurance of God’s love in this “alternative” orthodoxy.

“My soul in an excess of wonder cried out: ‘This world is pregnant with God!’ Wherefore I understood how small is the whole of creation- that is, what is on this side and what is beyond the sea, the abyss, the sea itself, and everything else- but the power of God fills it all to overflowing.”
– Angela of Foligno

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