Robert D. Brinsmead

57 Duranbah Road,

Duranbah, NSW 2487, Australia

New Year Essay – 2001:



About 200 years ago, a few NT scholars started to draw attention to the distinction between the Jesus of history and the Jesus of Christian interpretation. One of the pioneers in this field lost his chair at his university for his "subversive" observations. Another scholar who came to similar conclusions had his findings published posthumously. This illustrates the extreme reluctance on the part of the Christian world at that time to even consider the possibility that any distinction existed between the Jesus of history and the Jesus of Christian interpretation.

About a hundred years ago, Albert Sweitzer launched what is now called the "first quest" for the historical Jesus. The Jesus Seminar, a group of scholars who transcend denominational affiliations, are currently on the forefront of what is now called the "third quest" for the historical Jesus.

Out of all this ferment, one significant advancement has been made: the distinction between the Jesus of history and the Jesus of Christian interpretation is now widely acknowledged among both Catholic and Protestant scholars. A good Catholic example of this is Alfred Nolan's very popular Jesus Before Christianity. One of the best known Protestant examples is Marcus Borg's “Meeting Jesus Again For the First Time.”

Whilst Christians were slowly and sometimes grudgingly coming around to admit the validity of any distinction, non-Christian admirers of Jesus had always recognized a distinction. One of the most celebrated of these was Gandhi. His politics of non-violence was inspired, at least in part, by the teachings of Jesus. When he was asked what was the greatest hindrance to the message of Jesus reaching India, he replied without hesitation, "Christianity!"

Martin Buber, a Jewish thinker of universal distinction and respect has said, "I am more than ever certain that a great place belongs to [Jesus] in Israel's history of faith." Geza Vermes is a contemporary Jewish historian and NT scholar who has written several highly acclaimed books on the historical Jesus. His thesis is that the Jesus of history is "neither the Christ of the church, nor the apostate bogey-man of Jewish popular tradition." (Jesus the Jew, p.17) Another Jewish scholar, Pinchas Lapide, is convinced that God did in fact raise Jesus from the dead, but he is far from convinced that the Jesus of history is compatible with the Jesus of Christian interpretation (The Resurrection of Jesus: A Jewish Perspective).

American Christians are often quite surprised and shocked to learn that the revered founding fathers of their nation were so ruthlessly critical of the Christian religion. Jefferson said, "I do not find in orthodox Christianity one redeeming feature. The greatest enemies of Jesus [are the doctrines and creeds of the church]. It would be more pardonable to believe in no God at all than to blaspheme him by the atrocious writings of the theologians."

James Madison declared that Christianity bore the fruits of "superstition, bigotry and persecution." John Adams contrasted the Gospels, which he admired, with the "foolish trumpery that we find in  Christianity." Lincoln tersely declared, "Christianity is not my religion. I could never give assent to the long complicated statements of Christian dogma."

 Atheist thinkers have often made a distinction between the Jesus of history and the Jesus of Christian interpretation. Bertrand Russell dismissed Christian theology as "an outline of intellectual rubbish," but he retained a lot of respect for the Jesus of history.  There is now an Atheists for Jesus Website.  It publishes some quality material on the Jesus of history.

An example of this is Thomas Sheehan's very excellent First Coming: How the Kingdom of God Became Christianity.

These non-Christian sources are cited simply to illustrate that there now appears to be a broad consensus among Christian and non-Christian thinkers alike that, at least for discussion purposes, we need to acknowledge the difference between what is history and what is interpretation.

This essay is not going to propose that we abandon all interpretations of the Jesus of history. That is manifestly impossible. Even those who are not convinced about the Christian interpretation of his history have their own interpretations. Vermes, for instance, sees Jesus fulfilling a role similar to a number of other Galilean holy men (Hasidic rabbis) who were known to that era.

Being human means that we are always driven to find meaning, not only in our own lives, but in the lives of others. That is why humans are addicted to telling stories and listening, reading or watching stories. Stories give us insights into the meaning of the human condition with its joys, suffering, disappointments, loves and contradictions. Jesus was a master story-teller.

His life, no less than the stories that he told, demand some kind of interpretation. We have to make something out of the facts of his history.

This paper raises the question being asked all over the world today by an increasing number of both Catholic and Protestant scholars: Can the Jesus of Christian interpretation continue to be satisfying and convincing?  Is the Jesus of the Christian creeds the real Jesus of history?


The Christian Interpretation Re-examined

The heart of Christian interpretation is what theology calls "the Person and Work of Christ." Under the heading of Person is the doctrine of the Incarnation, meaning that God appeared on this earth in the human form of Jesus of Nazareth.  Work refers primarily to his death on the cross as an atonement for sin.

 It has often been said that the heart of the Catholic faith is the mystery of the Incarnation, while the heart of the Protestant faith is the atoning sacrifice made on the cross for human salvation. If there is any difference here, it is one of emphasis rather than substance, for both branches of the church hold to essentially the same doctrine of the Person and Work of Christ.

As we have already pointed out, no one is ever going to prove one way or the other whether Jesus was divine or whether his death on the cross was a blood atonement for human salvation. We can only ask if such statements about his Person and Work are still satisfying and convincing. After two hundred years of Biblical scholarship, and after three quests for the historical Jesus in the last one hundred years, is the Jesus of Christian interpretation compatible with the Jesus of history?

Everyone, of course, has to answer these questions before his own conscience and to his own satisfaction. What I want to do in this paper is to suggest a methodology that may prove the most helpful to those willing to undertake a re-examination of the Christian interpretation of the Jesus of history.

Instead of trying to marshal all kinds of arguments and proof-texts to use one way or another, we will simply try to understand how and why Christian interpretation developed the way it did.

All ideas have a history of development, and Christian ideas are no exception. One of the best ways to evaluate an idea is to understand how that idea developed. This is a big picture approach, or at least it looks at the big picture before it tries to grapple with a lot of the fine detail.

Any good teacher will tell you that this is the best way to get a handle on any subject. It is also the way Albert Einstein worked out his theory of relativity and the way Stephen Hawking does his astronomy.

If the reader will excuse a personal illustration, I grew up in a Christian sect which had its own doctrinal icon called "the investigative judgment."

I was not the first one in the ranks to call this sectarian doctrine into question, but it was clear that the questions about it were not going to disappear. I finally decided that the best way to evaluate this teaching was to investigate all the steps in the development of the idea between 1833 and 1857. When I understood the history of how the idea was developed step by step, it was no more convincing to me than the story of Jack and the Beanstalk.


How Did the Christian Interpretation of Jesus' Death Develop?

In Jesus' death on charges of blasphemy and sedition, the early Christians not only had to come to terms with his tragic death, but they were hard pressed to explain an embarrassing scandal. Jesus had been executed as just another bandit messiah from Galilee, a province thought incapable of producing anybody worth a serious hearing. Crucifixion was an extremely humiliating way to die. Victims were denied an honorable burial. If they were not eaten by vultures and dogs, their bodies were thrown into a common pit. But far worse than that, according to the sacred Jewish law, being hanged on a tree was a sign of God's curse. If Jesus had died as a drunk in a brothel, it could not have been worse than this!


The early Christians were hard put to explain the scandal of his death.

Eventually they proposed that there was more to his death than the tragic mistake that met the eye. Somehow God was involved in his execution too!  He had ordained that Jesus should be slain as a blood sacrifice for our benefit. His death was said to be a propitiation "for our sins."

This interpretation of Jesus' death found its first cogent expression in the gospel according to Paul. Then it rapidly took hold as the view of things most satisfying to the early Christians.


Paul said almost nothing about the historical circumstances of Jesus' death.

He only had eyes for the apocalyptic dimension of things – the supra-historical, end-time act of atonement by which the world was redeemed and somehow brought back into the embrace of Almighty God. In Paul's who-dunit story, he lets us into an amazing secret. The prime mover in the death of Jesus was not Jewish quislings or Roman executioners. They were merely the pawns in a grander purpose. It was God himself who allowed and even ordained it all to happen! It was God who "set him forth" to die. God was the one who "offered him up for us all." 

Paul's interpretation is not rounded out in any kind of systematic theory of atonement. Answering such questions as "Why did he have to die in order to save us?" spawned all kinds of theories of the atonement. The most persuasive theories came from men of a very legal turn of mind - Tertullian, Athanasius, Augustine, Anselm and Calvin. The doctrine came to its fullest and most logical expression in Protestantism's most celebrated lawyer and theologian -John Calvin. His theory of the penal or substitutionary atonement was skillfully crafted to answer all the legal questions concerning the divine jurisprudence. It became the heart of Protestant orthodoxy and has not undergone any development since. Catholic teaching, on the other hand, has always subscribed in general terms to the doctrine of the atonement, but it has preferred to emphasize the mystery of Christ's death without trying to answer too many questions with legal explanations.

When we examine the background to the whole idea of making atonement by some kind of bloody sacrifice, it becomes clear that there are ideas here that did not originate with the early Christians. Joseph Campbell's multi-volume series on Primitive Myths, Oriental Myths, and Occidental Myths demonstrate that when it comes to blood sacrifices, there is nothing new under the sun, including the Christian one. What we are dealing with here are ideas that have been common to humanity right back to the beginnings of human history.

From the dawn of human consciousness, human beings started asking question about the human condition. What is the cause of suffering? Why do evil things such as drought, crop failures,   earthquakes, floods, wild beasts, diseases and enemies come to destroy our homes or our lives? Why are we cursed with pain and death? Why do we have to struggle to survive in a hostile world?

The world of the nuclear Near East, the cradle of civilization, shared some creation myths that were designed to provide answers to these questions about the human condition. Although the myths varied from country to country and from culture to culture, they had a common theme. There was a golden age at the beginning of creation when heaven and earth were much closer in that men and the gods were on much friendlier terms. This all changed when the gods became offended, and then as a pay-back, they punished humans with all the miseries of the human condition. 

The Hebrew Bible had its own version of what was essentially the same myth. That the Jews borrowed their creation story from Babylonian sources has been well documented by many OT scholars.  The Jews encountered the Babylonian creation myths during their Exile. They refined them by eliminating some of their pagan crudities, and then recycled them in the setting of a Jewish monotheism. There are also remarkable parallels between the OT story of creation and earlier ones found in the Persian religion of Zoroaster.

In the OT story, man's fall from an original state of innocence resulted in the snake crawling on its belly, women having pain in childbirth, women being made subordinate to men, humans being made to sweat to survive in a harsh environment, human shame about being the one naked animal, separation from a God who withdrew to his high heaven, and if that was not enough, the curse of death upon the whole human race. A heavy pay-back indeed for a deed that was inspired by ordinary human curiosity!

Other versions of this myth have been found all over the earth - in the jungles of Africa, the rainforests of Borneo and among the tribes of South America. This deeply rooted mythology of man's estrangement from the higher world of the gods has produced all the priestcraft, religious mediators, and all the ideas about making atonement or pay-back by some kind of blood sacrifice.

In this kind of world-view, every human set-back or calamity - whether it be crop failure, military defeat, sickness or the threat of death – was thought to be some pay-back of an offended deity. This was a world in which the whole cosmic arrangement had to be kept in equilibrium by adequate pay-back. Any failure to balance things up would put the universe out of balance, jeopardizing the orderly cycle of reproduction, harvests and life itself. The gods had to maintain the balance by getting even with retributive justice. And man himself had to maintain the balance by getting even with pay-back justice too. As the old Babylonian code of King Hammurabi decreed, there must be an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. This Babylonian code was copied straight into the priestly writings of the Hebrew Bible. And we might add that the head-hunting tribes of New Guinea practiced this kind of pay-back too as a religious duty that kept the order of the universe even - a head for a head!

In its most primitive form, atonement or pay-back took the form of offering human sacrifices to the gods. Screaming children (generally the first born) slaves or other hapless victims were regularly slain on altars or fed into ritual furnaces to make atonement to the gods and to bridge the gulf between heaven and earth.

Although generally frowned on, the offering of human sacrifices appeared from time to time in the history of the Old Testament people. At one time, even God demanded that the seven sons of King Saul be hanged to make an atonement for a wrong done to the Gibeonites. Only after this atonement had been made did God stop killing the Israelites with a pestilence.

On another occasion, God is represented as telling Abraham to offer up his son on a sacred mountain. Abraham proceeds to impress God with his willingness to do it. (An enlightened society, of course, would lock up an old man who intended doing any such thing.) But just as the old man was about to thrust the knife into his son, God intervened to provide a ram to take Isaac's place on the altar of death.

There is more than a grain of truth in this appalling legend, however, because the story suggests how more enlightened human societies began to slaughter animals instead of humans in their religious rituals.

It appears also that the rite of circumcision originally began as a substitute for human sacrifice in some primitive societies. This is even suggested in the Biblical story wherein Yahweh threatened to kill Moses' two sons. They were saved when their mother hurriedly circumcised them with a sharp rock -hardly the hygienic procedure that some practice today!

About the 8th century BC, which some scholars suggest was the beginning of historical consciousness, some great reformers began to appear in different parts of the world. They had a new spiritual and ethical vision for humanity that rose above shallow tribalism or priestly ritualism.

Among these reformers were the great Hebrew prophets. They vehemently refused to see any value at all in the offering of sacrifices. They passionately called for the practice of a new kind of justice that had nothing to do with making any blood atonement. The kind of justice that God wants, they said, was the kind of justice that God exhibited when he freed some oppressed slaves in the beginnings of Israel's history. It was the kind of justice that is exercised in relief for the oppressed, mercy to the poor, compassion for the weak, food for the hungry, clothing for the naked, shelter for the homeless and a kindness which reaches beyond ethnic boundaries. This is the only kind of justice God wants, they declared, not the offering of sacrifices! Not rivers of blood from sacrificial animals!

Not offering firstborn children as a pay-back for human sin! Only a compassionate kind of justice - doing the human thing - for all your fellow men!

The prophets were generally persecuted or put to death by a priesthood bent on retaining their privilege and power. They ate the meat of the animal sacrifices and were not amused by the prospect of the prophets drying up their religious trade. Yet the witness of the prophets was preserved in the OT side by side with the priestly writings - the prophets speaking of a saving justice for the oppressed, and the priestly writings speaking of making atonement in sacrificial rituals.

We need to keep these two OT streams in mind, for when we come to the formative Christian years, we find the same two streams represented in the Jesus of history and the Jesus of Christian interpretation. One stream embodies the prophetic passion about a justice for the oppressed, while the other takes up the priestly tradition of making atonement with blood sacrifice.

Before we get to this very crucial point of this early Christian development, however, we need to trace a couple of further trends that played a role in the Christian interpretation of Jesus' death.


The first concerns Judaism's tradition of "the suffering servant." 

The Jewish return to their homeland after their Babylonian Exile inspired some of the most beautiful poetry every written in any language. This is now known as the Second Isaiah. It contains a series of songs about a "servant of Yahweh."  The servant is a poetic metaphor for the Jewish remnant which suffered and survived the Exile. In a famous passage in chapter 53, this remnant is depicted as a suffering servant who is punished by Yahweh on account of the nation's sins. That the Exile was a well deserved chastening of the Jewish nation had already been proclaimed by prophets such as Jeremiah and Ezekiel. But Second Isaiah joyfully announces that the period of suffering is over. Israel has received from the Lord "double [pay- back] for all her sins." Now was the moment of forgiveness, liberation from bondage.


Babylon and restoration to the divine favor.

In the next national calamity - when the Syrian king Antiochus IV subjugated the nation and tried to wipe out the religion of Judaism in the late second century BC - Second Isaiah's very poetic description of the suffering servant began to take on a meaning that became gruesomely literal.

As some of the pious Jewish martyrs were being horribly tortured for their faith, they prayed that God would count their dying agonies as sufficient punishment for their nation's sins. From this folklore about the Maccabean martyrs, the idea developed within Judaism that somehow the martyrdom of a righteous man could pay for the sins of the nation. This idea was already in circulation, waiting to be picked up and used by the early Christians to interpret the meaning of Jesus' death.

Meanwhile, in the non-Jewish world, parallel ideas had also developed. To start with, there existed a parallel tradition of offering up animal sacrifices. The Greek mystery religions, awash through the Greek-speaking world of Paul's day, had recycled some old Egyptian and Babylonian myths about dying and rising gods in their own myths about Zeus, Sarpedon, Perseus Hercules, Apollo, Dionysus, the healer Asclepius and  others.  Many of these were virgin born god-men, heroes who in some way suffered and died before ascending to heaven as divinities. Virgin born god-men included rulers such as Alexander the Great and Caesar Augustus. In the mystery religions so popular in Paul's Greek world, salvation was obtained by some kind of sacramental union in the suffering and death of a god-man.

Long before Christianity arose, the Persian religion of Mithra proclaimed a theology of the fall of man and the redemption of the world that was astonishingly like the Christian story of Paradise lost to Paradise restored.  Mithra's sacrificial mystery was proclaimed in these words: "He who will not eat my body and drink of my blood, so that he will be made one with me and I with him, the same shall not know salvation." The remarkable likeness of this passage to some familiar words in the Fourth gospel will be readily apparent.

Joseph Campbell, a specialist in comparative mythology, summarizes his findings by saying, "Modern scholarship, systematically comparing the myths and rites of mankind, has found just about everywhere legends of virgins giving birth to heroes who die and are resurrected. India is chock-full of such tales. The Buddhists and the Jains have similar ideas. And looking backward into the pre-Christian past, we discover in Egypt the mythology of the slain and resurrected Osiris; in Mesopotamia, Tammuz; in Syria, Adonis; and in Greece, Dionysus; all of which furnished models to the early Christians for their representations of Christ." (Myths to Live By, pp. 9,10).

In his Study of History, Arnold Toynbee wrote: "Behind the figure of the dying demigod there looms the greater figure of a very God that dies for different worlds under diverse names - for a Minoan world as Dionysus, for a Sumeric world as Tammuz, for a Hittite world as Attis, for a Syriac world as Adonis, for a Christian world as Christ." 

What ought to be clear by now is that the Christian interpretation of the death of Jesus did not suddenly drop down out of heaven as some new revelation to the mind of Paul or anyone else. The Christian ideas about the blood atonement were an amalgam of ideas that had a long history in both Judaism and Paganism, with roots going right back to the dawn of human consciousness.

Paul was the real founder of the Christian religion. His gospel of the cross became the Christian interpretation of the death of Jesus. Basic to his world-view was the same creation myth from which sprang all the priestcraft mystery religions and blood sacrifices across the face of the earth. Paul interpreted the meaning of Jesus' death against the backdrop of sin and death entering the world by Adam's one act of disobedience. Jesus' death was seen as the second Adam's act of obedience which made an atonement for the Fall and reconciled the world to God. (See Romans 3 -5)

It was left to the theologians of the Church to fill out this interpretation of Jesus' death with various theories of atonement, using all kinds of regal, military, feudal and law-court metaphors and models. There was one underlying idea which united all the theories, however, and that was the basic idea of atonement.

In the OT the word atonement comes from the Hebrew word kaphar which literally means to cover. That is to say, an atonement was something which covered an offence from the eyes of the one offended. But more important than the etymology of the word is its plain contextual and practical sense wherein atonement means to make amends or to pay back. Atonement is based on the very old pay-back or retributive principle of "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth."

So in the language of the Church and its theologians, the atonement has been defined in all the terms of a retributive or pay-back justice. Jesus' death has been called such things as payment, reparation, penalty, satisfaction, compensation, price, punishment, retribution, etc. As an apologist for orthodox Christianity put it: "Christ propitiated the judicial sentiment in God, thus making it possible for God to offer pardon to sinners. This is the essence of the atonement=8AThis is Christianity; let no one be deceived." (Edward Carnell, quoted in Rudolph Nelson, The Making and Unmaking of an Evangelical Mind, p. 202)


Why the Christian Doctrine of Atonement is Being Called into Question

The Christian interpretation of the death of Jesus is becoming less satisfying and less convincing to an increasing number of both Christian scholars and ordinary Christian people around the world. Scholars have become particularly uncomfortable with the penal and substitutionary theory of atonement which has been the hallmark of Protestant orthodoxy since the days of John Calvin.

The reasons why the Christian doctrine of atonement is being called into question are as follows:

1. To start with, the Christian interpretation of Jesus' death is based on a world-view that is as unscientific and as out of date as the Flat Earth theory. The mainline churches and their scholars now accept evolution and the evidence that earliest man walked out of Africa about 1.7 million years ago. The sedimentary record indicates that there was enough death and destruction happening on this earth in the ordinary course of evolution or by earthquakes and massive climate changes to create rivers of fossil fuel and all this long before the first humans walked the earth.  It is not true, therefore, to go on saying that death and destructive events entered this world by the sin of the first human. We need to have a theology that is consistent with a modern scientific cosmology that can actually see things happening 12 billion light years away in space and 12 billion years ago in time.

 2.  Is it is even defensible to say that the Biblical myth of creation is metaphorically or theologically true?  For is not the theology of the creation myth as bad, if not worse than its science? Is this God who sentences not just Adam an Eve to a life of hardship leading to death, but billions of their descendents too, all because of one solitary act of natural human curiosity, worthy of any sort of credence?  And if this Lord of the universe is so easily and implacably offended by one human fault that he gets in a snit, withdraws to his high heaven and shuts the gate against the whole human race, worthy of respect?  How can we seriously build a theology on this kind of intellectual rubbish?

 3.  Doesn't the Christian doctrine of atonement really imply that the only thing wrong with human sacrifices was they were not valuable enough to effect an adequate atonement? In order to satisfy divine justice, the Christian doctrine says that the human sacrifice had to be perfect and of infinite value. According to Anselm, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Adam had sinned against an infinite majesty. It was therefore an infinite offence that demanded an infinite punishment. The atonement or human sacrifice, therefore, had to be of infinite value. Couldn't we be excused for calling this kind of theology medieval twaddle? 

4.  The Christian doctrine of the atonement is part of the wider story of God's severe response to the sin of man at the beginning of history, and the terrifying punishments of hell at the end of history.  Does not the bloody sacrifice of Jesus in the middle of this history teach us that at is heart, Christianity is a religion of violence, notwithstanding all the talk about God's love and mercy? Should we be surprised, therefore, to find that a religion that portrays these acts of divine violence as a remedy for human sin should find itself legitimizing so much violence throughout its own history? In Catholic theologian Hans Kung's assessment of things, Christianity has made more martyrs than it has produced from its own ranks in the persecution of heretics, in pogroms against the Jews, in the Inquisition, in the Crusades, in the drowning of Anabaptists by the Reformed Church, in the floggings of the Quakers at the hands of the Puritans, in Pope Pius xii looking the other way during the Holocaust.

5.  Does the God who insists that the debt be paid in full before he extends his forgiveness really forgive at all? One can demand that a debt be paid or one can forgive the debt, but doing both is mutually exclusive. Yet according to Christian teaching, Christ died "making it possible for God to offer pardon to sinners." (Edward Carnell)

6. In Christian theology, justice is represented as an attribute of God which was in tension with the attribute of his mercy - that is, until these opposite attributes were reconciled in the death of his son. Citing an OT Psalm, the Christian theologians were fond of saying that at the cross, "justice and mercy kissed each other." There is a failure in this kind of theology to recognize that in the OT the Hebrew word for justice, sadak, is actually used as a synonym for loving kindness toward our fellow humans, and especially for "all that are oppressed" - orphans, widows, debtors, poor,  homeless, foreigners, imprisoned, slaves and the guilt ridden. Sadak is rarely, if ever, given a retributive meaning, especially in the Prophets and the Psalms. If the poet can say that justice and mercy kiss each other, it is because they never needed any reconciliation. Justice is being merciful!

So Daniel could say to a selfish king, "Break off your sins with justice in showing mercy to the poor, etc."

7.  The icon of the cross and its dying victim is so central to the church that the Christian religion tends to become morbidly pre-occupied with sin, guilt, death and personal salvation. Walter Kaufmann (The Faith of a Heretic) says that this ego-centric guilt-ridden focus  results in the Christian religion falling short of the robust ethical and humanitarian vision of the OT prophets.

It is possible, of course, to marshal answers to the above questions. What needs to be understood, however, is why an article of faith, once so satisfying and convincing, should now be called into such serious and radical question.

The need for a re-assessment of Christian theology may be illustrated by the following analogy. There was a time when Christians generally accepted, or even vigorously advocated the persecution of heretics, the subordination of women, the practice of religious intolerance, the divine right of kings against democratic freedoms, the institution of slavery, indifference about cruelty to animals, the suppression of civil rights, white supremacy, racism, religious exclusivism,  opposition to scientific progress, the burning of witches, and the state's enforcement of the Christian religion on the whole of society. The church didn't change its stance on any of these great issues because it got some revelation from God ahead of the rest of world. It can't even be claimed that the Christian religion led the world in any of these necessary humanitarian reforms. It was simply that a developing human consciousness throughout the world made these old Christian practices unacceptable.

This same development of human consciousness - expressing itself in the Enlightenment, in the age of science, in literary scholarship and historical criticism, in social progress and democratization - has forced us to rethink Christian theology. Just as the old Christian practices had to be called into question, so the old Christian theology must also be called into question. A more enlightened human consciousness and a more scientific world-view is bound to change the way we interpret a lot of things.

We must not get too carried away with any theological interpretation, because as we have already pointed out, no theological interpretation is provable one way or the other. Accepting these limits is just part of accepting the finite nature of the human condition. The reader may discount many or all of the  seven objections to the Christian doctrine of atonement that are listed above. But there is one body of evidence that has become impossible to brush aside. This is the evidence of the historical Jesus . The Christian doctrine of the atonement appears to be totally at odds,  totally incompatible with the Jesus of history. Apologists may argue all they like to show how the Christian teaching is logical, reasonable, defensible and consistent with what the Bible says, but the fact remains that the Jesus who died to make an atonement for human sin is not the Jesus of history.

This now appears to be the consensus of mainline Christian scholars engaged in the quest for the historical Jesus. 

Yet the Gandhis and the Jeffersons of this world had always recognized that the Jesus of Christian interpretation was not the Jesus of history. 

A good starting point to illustrate this disparity is the so-called Sermon on the Mount. Even if we allow for some embellishments or adaptations in Matthew's creative arrangement of the sayings of Jesus, the core teaching is unmistakably clear. He calls us to become like his Abba (dearest papa or daddy) Father by going beyond the justice of loving those who love us. In order to be the light of the world, he says, we must love and do good to those who hate and injure us. There is no pay-back or getting even in the Sermon on the Mount. The old priestly law code of "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" must be replaced with the justice of returning good for evil, giving generously without expecting to get anything back, and endlessly forgiving those who seem to wear out any more forgiveness. Do these things, he says, because this is what your Abba Father is like.

Jesus says nothing to even remotely suggest that his Abba Father does anything in the way of revenge, pay-back, getting even, or that his justice requires an atonement before he can forgive sin. His core aphorisms and parables indicate that God's justice is a scandalous generosity to good and bad alike, that in his heart he forgives and shows mercy even before we come to our senses and ask for it.

So in his story about the son who was a waster, he tells of a father who runs to meet the waster as he appears a long way off. The father has no thought for his own injured dignity, he abandons any concern about his own reputation (What will the neighbors or the rest of the family think?) and certainly he has no thought of any compensation or pay-back for the wasted years and the squandered inheritance. The waster's older brother was quite incensed by the scandal of his father's kind of justice. Forgiveness without making amends? Only a fatted calf killed and dressed for the celebration?

So Jesus talks about God's scandalous generosity in a way that shocks or even outrages his culture, especially when he proceeds to act it out in ways that defies all the canons of honor and shame - such as making no distinction between "clean"  and "unclean" people in his table fellowship Jesus clearly stands in the tradition of the OT prophets and exhibits their spirit. He quotes the prophets who say that God wants mercy rather than sacrifice. He cites the words of the prophets to show that justice means being merciful, forgiving and helping the weak. His gospel of the kingdom of God is all about being truly human in this world in the here and now. In this kingdom of divine justice, there is no place for revenge, reprisals, pay-back, atonement, and no need for the practice of anything that is commonly called religion. No wonder he got the same treatment from the powerful priestly elite as the OT prophets before him! No wonder the creeds and rituals of the hierarchical church buried the historical Jesus with its creeds and rituals!

There is something else which links Jesus to the OT prophets. The prophets did not build their theology of justice on the old creation myth, but on the liberation model of the Exodus. It was later Jewish apocalyptic that became pre-occupied with the myth of creation, the fall of man, and in the divine violence of an end-time intervention. This is the apocalyptic imagination that prevailed in the time of Jesus and Paul. But the prophets never though in terms of the creation myth, the fall of man, a God who withdrew his presence from this earth, or an apocalyptic kingdom yet to come. And neither did Jesus.

Jesus' teaching was like a new wine that was never meant to be put into the old wineskins - that is, the old world-views about the fall of man, an offended God withdrawing into his high heaven and shutting the gate, or a gulf between God and man that needed to be bridged by some act of retributive justice. In the teaching of Jesus, the world never fell out of divine favor, and God never left. He didn't need anyone to perform some act to unlock heaven's gate. Jesus destroyed the premises upon which all religion is built.

The Jesus of history who was put to death on charges of blasphemy and sedition is totally incompatible with the Christian Jesus who died as an atoning sacrifice for the sins of the world.

To be continued…


A Personal Footnote

I would not deny that the Christian teaching about the atoning death of Jesus has been helpful and meaningful for many people.  There was a time when it made sense to me and gave a lot meaning to my life. I have ministered to dying people with this gospel of the cross, and have seen how effective it can be in liberating them from the burden of guilt and the fear of death. I can charitably recognize, if only because I can extrapolate from my own experience, that if people are locked into a certain world-view (especially one that has a very legal framework) then the Christian remedy of atonement may very well be the best one for them. I would have no hesitation comforting a dying person with the remedy best suited to that person's world-view, and I would not be so inhuman as to try to change a person's world-view if I had any indications that the person was not ready for it.

Some of my old friends, especially those who say that they were once moved by my passionate advocacy of Pauline and Reformation theology, wonder how it can be that I no longer find such teaching satisfying or convincing. I want to assure these good folk that I am really the same person, moved by the same spirit, but I have moved on in my thinking, especially to where I have another world-view. From where I now sit in my journey, some of the old answers are no longer satisfying if only because they answer the wrong questions. Some of my old presuppositions and premises appear no longer valid. If, for instance, I abandon the starting point that man has fallen and something or someone has to bridge the gulf between man and God and open heaven's gate again, then a lot of other things have to change too. I now start on the premise that humans have developed by a long creative process (evolution), that God is not in one place more than he is in another that he never left this world, that he did not  visit this world in a once only excursion, that we don't have to wait for his apocalyptic return, that the on-going development of human consciousness shows the  leavening influence of God's spirit rather than the coercive intervention of a celestial dictator, that no one people in any place or in any religion are more favored than another or are able to break from the human pack, as it were, to be far in advance of the rest of humanity - as if God only talks to one group of people who are pathetically huddled together separate from the rest of the world. This means too that I must remain open to learn the truth from anybody of any cultural or religious background, for my human neighbor now becomes God's sole icon through which I can touch God or be touched by God.

When I became seven years of age, I could no longer believe in Santa Claus. In the same way, a long time ago I stopped imagining there was ever such a thing as a fiat creation and a fall of man, or a three story universe, or a God who was more in one place than another in his vast universe. All of us interpret everything according to our world-view. If a person has another world-view, he can never see things the way we do. That is why Christians generally cannot succeed in getting through to Moslems, Hindus, or Buddhists with the Christian message. Given their culture and world-view, it could never make any sense to them. That is why we need to have a spirit of charity, tolerance and acceptance of people that is not in the least qualified by their religious or cultural background.