The Psychology of Christianity: Part 10, "Was Crucified."

We continue to work through, psychologically and theologically, the Christological sections of the Apostles' Creed. We've considered two of the four doctrines I set out to review: The Imitation of Christ (Jesus as "Lord" and "Judge") and the Incarnation ("born of the Virgin Mary"). In this post we take up the doctrine of the atonement: "Was crucified."

There is little doubt that the early Christians viewed the death of Jesus in sacrificial terms, mainly through the Hebrew Day of Atonement. According to Leviticus 16 the High Priest would slaughter a goat as a "sin offering" and then sprinkle the blood on the Mercy Seat, the cover of the Ark of the Covenant. The word for "Mercy Seat" comes from the Hebrew kapporeth which means "cover." The notion of "cover" is twofold, being both a literal cover and also the place where the sins of Israel were "covered" over.

The Hebrew kapporeth comes down to us as hilasterion in the New Testament Greek. Hilasterion is the word that is translated as "atonement." Hilasterion has many shades of meaning. Two of the most common meanings are propitiation and expiation. Propitiation refers to making something propitious: something that was an object of wrath or judgment is now considered in a favorable light. Often this is accomplished via appeasement. Expiation refers to making amends or the compensation for a wrong done.

All in all then, hilasterion has two shades of meaning: Appeasement to make something favorable (propitiation) and making amends for a wrong done (expiation). No single word in English captures both of these meanings. "Reconciliation" comes close, but William Tyndale coined the word "atonement" to create a theological term in English that could capture the shades of meaning inherent in hilasterion and kapporeth. Some scholars have contended that "atonement" may be the only significant theological term that is of English origin.

As many of you know, there is great debate about the doctrine of atonement. Again, it seems clear in the New Testament that the early church did view Jesus' death sacrificially. The modern debate swirls around the theology one believes is sitting behind the New Testament metaphor of sacrifice. How, exactly, does Jesus' death function as "atonement"? For example, one need not posit a wrathful God requiring blood sacrifice to be "appeased." In fact, for the first thousand years of the church the sacrifice of Jesus was seen as appeasing the forces of evil rather than God. Further, in the New Testament era the word hilasterion also had liberative connotations. Consider the close parallels between Maccabees 4 17.20-22 and Romans 3.24-26

Romans 3.23-26
...for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement [hilasterion], through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished—he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.

Maccabees 4 17.20-22

These, then, who have been consecrated for the sake of God, are honored not only with this honor, but also by the fact that because of them our enemies did not rule over our nation, the tyrant was punished and the homeland purified--they having become, as it were, a ransom for the sin of our nation. And through the blood of those devout ones and their death as an atoning sacrifice [hilasterion], divine Providence preserved Israel that previously had been mistreated.
The Maccabees were a group of Jewish rebels who were successful in freeing parts of occupied Israel. Many were martyrs. In short, the Maccabees were liberating freedom fighters, many dying as heroic martyrs. These martyrs were a "sacrifice" that purified Israel, but there is no wrathful God demanding these sacrifices to be "appeased." Jesus' death can be seen in a similar light, a martyr's death that purifies humanity via a liberation from the forces of evil. No vengeful God is needed.

Regardless, many people do, evangelicals in particular, believe in what is called penal substitutionary atonement. This is the view that humans, due to their sinfulness, stand under a "death sentence" before a holy God of justice. Jesus takes on this penalty, dying in our place. This "substitution" (Jesus' life traded for my own) makes atonement, bringing peace between God and the person.

In the chapter I wrote I noted the curious psychology involved with penal substitutionary atonement. Specifically, its a potent mix of guilt and gratitude. Which, I think, is why penal substitutionary atonement has such broad appeal. You swing from deep guilt ("I am personally responsible for the death of Jesus.") to deep gratitude ("But Jesus died for me."). It's this whiplash swing of emotions that sets up some of the sadomasochistic indulgences surrounding the cross of Jesus. That is, the more pain Jesus suffers due to my sinfulness the greater the subsequent catharsis of gratitude. The more pain Jesus suffers is all the more pain I've been spared. And if Jesus suffered enormously my relief at avoiding this fate is so much the greater. This is the psychological engine behind a movie like The Passion of the Christ, the emotional escalation of guilt and gratitude which grows more and more intense the more that Jesus suffers.

It's kind of like a theological narcotic. The greater the dose the more intense your high which makes you want more and more.

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25 thoughts on “The Psychology of Christianity: Part 10, "Was Crucified."”

  1. I think you have suggested that human psychology always evaluates things by an "us" and "Them" mentality, as this is how we understand ourselves, and make ourselves "better" than another.

    Making distinctions is necessary for identification, but most times, a discriminating "tastes" is not chosen, but an emotionally reactive one. There are always reasons why we behave the way we do, but most times, we behave by "rote mindlessness", or a "herd mentality".

    It is not wrong to be biased, as bias determines what we choose as an important value. It is just wrong if we use that "prejuidice" to pre-determine our judgments about another, before they have an opportunity to evaluate their own biases.

    One can generalize, but be aware that generalizations are sometimes not specifications, when it comes to another human being.

    Religion is useful for expiation of such "rote mindlessness", or 'herdishness", because we can all be guilty of such behavior at times. None of us are beyond the need to be aware of ourselves.

    Atonement or reconcilliation are words that mean unifying differences. Such differences are affirmed when there is an acknowledgement that no one has all the answers, but as we seek to resolve differences, it is important to be aware of where our non-negotiables are and why. Otherwise, we can give no persuasive argument as to why our choice is any better than another.

  2. The scape-goat is the symbol of those that are outside "our camp" and these die as alienated foreign bodies that would taint our identification factors. When one recognizes or identifies with the scapegoat then they have psychologically placed their guilt upon the "scapegoated Christ"...

    Our democracy/Republic understands and embraces diversity, as diversity is the unity we seek....understanding such a culture doesn't determine or prescribe how one should understand the transcendent....but it does prescribe how one should live one's life as a law abiding citizen....

  3. thanks for the breakdown on hilasterion. very interesting. when it comes to the Cross we must consider the connection to Passover as an important clue. "The blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are; and when I see the blood, I will pass over you." (exodus 12.13) perhaps the blood-thirsty God caricature goes to far in one direction, but the liberating martyr may go too far in the other. i don't know the answer, but the metaphor should be considered in terms of Passover as well.

  4. Great post. Stendhal's "Introspective Conscious of the West" was a huge step toward the New Perspective view that has challenged the assumptions of penal substitution--a psychological insight provided by a biblical scholar. Needless to say, more substantial psychological reflection has been needed for a long while. Thanks.

  5. While reading this post, a glaring omission in penal substitutionary atonement smacked me in the face. The main idea behind PSA is that Jesus suffered so I don't have to, but Jesus blatantly states that if we want to follow him we MUST be willing to suffer as he suffered. Granted, PSA is talking about suffering as punishment and Jesus as self-sacrifice. Still, it seems to me that PSA smacks pretty hard against the words of Christ. Jesus' suffering is not a way to get me out of something (punishment/suffering), but a way of bringing me into something (being punished by evil as Jesus was/suffering for the sake of others).

  6. The Church has a lot to loose if people are not suffering for the "sake of others". This is a punitive stage of moral development.
    The Church stands "over" the individual's conscience to espoinge or cleanse it.

    Moral development is also about justice in terms of valuing a Constitutional government, where both parties are acknowledged and have rights. Then there is no longer a dictator dictaing what one "must" or "should" do, but whether both parties are willing and able to co-operate. Co-operation means that the parties enter into an agreement that reveals what is expected or required. Both parties win in this scenario, as there is no one that needs to suffer.

  7. I would really appreciate it if you would tell me where Jesus is reported to have said "if we want to follow him we MUST be willing to suffer as he suffered."

  8. A fundamentalists view of identification is becoming like Jesus, in identification with his death and resurrection. His death is a means to annihlate "the flesh" (as the flesh is seen as evil, in and of itself), and "walk in newness of life", means that one is "empowered by the Holy Spirit" to imitate Jesus. "No one can be my disciple unless he denies himself and follows me"...discipleship means that one is willing to be crucified with Christ. Identification of "self" with "the other" (as Christ)...

    This way of "being in the world", does not respect "self" as a separate entity, because "self" is encased in communal and mythological identifications.

    We all identify with our groups of choice, as they represent the values we hold most dear. But, when, "a self" is not affimed or acknowledged within a group, then the leaders that lead the group are "shaping", or "forming" the "selves" that are within. The word that describes such a groupish mentality is "cult". This is needful at the stage of child development, but an adult needs to learn who they are without others telling them.

  9. Ummmmmm, just a guess, but "if any humyn being would come after me, let one deny oneself, pick up one's cross, and follow me" gets about as close as we need to get to cinch the case. Three out of three synoptic traditions attribute such an idea to Jesus.


  10. Along these lines someone like John Howard Yoder would point out that the consequences of the cross are "this-worldly." The cross was the punishment Rome gave to political dissidents. Christians, following Jesus, should expect the same treatment from The Powers of this Age. By "spiritualizing" the cross of Jesus, penal substitutionary atonement "de-politicizes" the cross, making it an ethereal, other-worldly event of little moral, political, or social consequence. It's just a private, "spiritual" transaction that happens inside my "heart" when I "accept Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior."

  11. Isn't Yoder an Anabaptist? Historicizing the text like this is a fundamental approach to faith. One's life is no value apart from "standing for truth", as identified as "other than this world"...or as Neibuhr would say "Christ against culture"....

    So, while you might suggest that a sprituatlization of the cross has little effect on the real world of politics, I beg to disagree with you. It has everything to do with how we identify ourselves, our realities, and how we see the world and all that is in it!

  12. "Standing for Truth" is standing for Scripture...sola scriptura...because all that we need is revealed in God's Word, as these seem to believe.

  13. Clearly, this idea seems to belongs to Jesus as you say. However, Your 'guess' would seem to be based on interpreting 'pick up one's cross' as a literal equivalent to the Roman crucifiction. For I think that is the suffering referenced in Bjhoosier's original comment. I am afraid that is an error that does not 'cinch the case.'

  14. There is no need in a free society to "bear the cross" in a political way, as free societies are tolerant toward religion. But, when religion impinges on the peace of a society, such as with Hamas, Hezbollah, and other radical Muslims, then free societies must deter such behavior. Sanctions, diplomacy to war have been means to gain or establish peace and balance radicals in their destroy tolerant societies...

  15. I read all of your posts and am truly in awe of your intellectual grasp of this subject as well as many others. Again, in this comment there is much that I can agree with. Now the BUT . . .

    I think there is a misunderstanding of what 'denying one's self and following me' has to do with. I don't think the Scriptures teach that flesh is inherently evil. What I see is the identification of a 'force' called 'sin' which has a stong hold on the 'flesh' of each living person. The unredeemed person has no ability to resist this force. The redeemed can; but, doesn't have to and in fact most that I know don't. It is the redeemed person who can consciously choose to deny what sin leads the flesh to do and do what God wishes them to do. There is no suffering involved in these transactions. The person who does not wish to lie because of the influence of the Holy Spirit is not giving up anything by not lying. None of this has the slightest resemblance to a cult leader taking over a person's essence or prevents a person from finding out who they are.

  16. I have scoured the Scriptures and I just can't find the passage that tells how to operate the rear windshield wipers on my new car. So, no, the Scriptures do not tell us all we need to know. Now, with regard to the truth about salvation (eternal life with God), that's there in full.

  17. David,
    I agree that "flesh" is not inherently evil. And as you have pointed out, it is what we do with the flesh that determines whether it is evil or not.

    You have identified with a certain teaching about "the redeemed", and how the redeemed are different from others. You suggest that it is only the redeemed that can "overcome sin". How do you know this to be true? Do you know any unredeemed people that cannot "help but sin"? But, more so, do you know any "unredeemed people" that have character that is admirable?

    You have chosen lying as the "sin of choice". Why is lying wrong? What value is there in lying? Is there any time where lying is the "better alternative" to truth-telling? Why or why not? Why do you think a person would choose to lie?

    In my personal opinion, lying breaks a bond of trust in a relationship. Therefore, lying is a sin against the relationship. But, if I work for the CIA, I must at times be mis-leading, if I am to be loyal to the USA. Is this wrong? I must choose whether to further the goals of the USA or not. I must make a value judgment about my greater values and responsibilities. We will not all agree about these things.

  18. Not everyone believes in eternal life, but we live in a free country where you can choose to believe, if you want.

  19. I'm quite sure you will agree that everything we all believe is our choice. And, yes, I am very glad that I live in a place where I can voice my choices no matter how 'weird' any other person may view them. However, are the choices based on truth or fiction? I guess we will have to wait to find out. If I am right, then I'll find out and be quite glad. If I am wrong, then you and I will never know that; for death is the end of both of our organisms.

  20. David,
    "Pascal's wager"? No, I'd rather believe in universalism if I chose to go down the road to theistic belief. Why does one have to believe in an after-life to enjoy life in the present. "Enjoy" is not a term that some Chritians, or moralists find "inappropriate"...Life has to be serious business, as it is the "Lord"s...

    And this is the "problem", if there is a God, that has made such diversity that it confounds the mind and senses, then why on earth do we think that we can understand every "dot and tittle"?

  21. Life is a profound gift that is reflected as much in a "secular painting" as in "holy scripture"...!

  22. Angie,

    "How do you know this to be true?"
    Scriture says so. Additionally, I was an atheist for over 40 years. I never had a problem with sin; it was a total non-issue. I just blithely kept on doing what seemed right to me and now looking back I can see that it was all sin. Today, I have a choice that I was not ever aware of previously. Sometimes, I ever choose rightly.

    "Do you know any unredeemed people that cannot "help but sin"?" All of them.

    "do you know any "unredeemed people" that have character that is admirable?" There are lots of unredeemed people who act admirably as far as I can see. Trouble is, they are continually sinning against God. What I think about them is, well, irrelevant.

    "Why is lying wrong?" Scripture says so.

    "What value is there in lying?" Lots! If you ask if that dress makes you look fat and I lie and say 'no' then our relationship is kept on an even keel. The problem is (as Jack Nicholson said in a 'Few Good Men') you just can't handle the truth. So, my lie helps you avoid unpleasantness. And, we all feel better. Problem is God says 'don't lie.'

    "Is there any time where lying is the "better alternative" to truth-telling?" No, as I hope I just explained.

    Even if I should work for the CIA, the goals of the USA do not trump God's view. If my job seems to require lying, then I have to find a better job. It's just a question of priorities. And, it is not really a question of furthering the goals of the USA. That just makes it sound 'noble.' It's not. It's lying. Believe it or not, it's sin.

  23. Angie,

    Doesn't a 'gift' imply a giver? Who gave you life? And, if you say your parents, well you know what the next question is, I am sure.

  24. Angie,

    "Pascal's wager?" Absolutely not!

    I'm fine with you choosing universalism; it's just not my choice. When I process the data I find that wrong. Closer to what I would have chosen for others; but, still wrong.

    "Why does one have to believe in an after-life to enjoy life in the present."
    I have no idea. I really enjoyed life before I had any concept of an after life. And, now, I really enjoy life and have no problem at all with the word. The idea that life has to be serious seems, well, a misunderstanding.

    I find the world and its diversity confounding as you do. I assure you that I do not understand every 'dot and tittle.' Yet, there is more than enough there for me to grasp a particular (and hopefully correct) understanding.

  25. Gift is the mystery of life and it is a process. What you suggest is acceptance by faith of the Church's use of philosophy.

    Lies are a fact of life. Nuff said. And those that prescribe to lying for the greater good, have their conscience salved for any human fall-out. There will be human fall-out anyway, in the political realm, so it seems it is justified....

    What I or anyone chooses to do with their life is their business and not a humanitarian "saint", a nosey moralist, an authoritarian dictator, or a "special revelational text"! Otherwise, we do not live in a free society. (Spinoza's god is a good one for defending determinism, but there are also other ways of understanding the "human", such as neuroscience, but to prescribe another's existence as a "product of" anything other than the individual's right to life and liberty, as he understands it, is highly questionable, if not manipulative).

    Authority is not found in an ancient text, but in the laws of our nation and the laws of nature. Before scripture was written in "common language", the Church authorities were in power. Canon law was what guided society. But, with the Reformation, Luther's educational reform became some "holy crusade" for "TRUTH" in fundamentalism.

    Political power always has philosophical foundations to its "view".

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