Atonement, Resurrection and Revelation

I want to thank all of you who have been recommending to me (and to all who read this blog) to read the work of James Alison. You were right. He's an amazing thinker. I've finished Raising Abel and am now in the middle of On Being Liked.

Here's a passage I read this morning about atonement theory from On Being Liked:

My second problem with atonement theory is the perception of God which it enjoins as normative. I mean this in two senses, one obvious, and one less obvious. The obvious sense is that it involves God and his Son in some sort of consensual form of S&M--one needing the abasement of the other in order to be satisfied, and the other loving the cruel will of his father. Or another way of saying the same thing, perhaps slightly less provocatively: there is no way that the theory could work without some element of retribution, which presupposes vengeance. Well, I wonder whether this could be shown, but I suspect that over the long haul this element of necessary retaliation, stubbornly held to by many who profess our faith, has done more to contribute to atheism among ordinary people than any number of clerical scandals, and that if being a believer means believing this, then it is better to be among the non-believers...

But it is the less obvious sense in which the perception of God that the theory enjoins is a problem, which I consider more important. I suggest that what the theory does is make a process of revelation impossible. For if we follow it, it makes out that Jesus' resurrection didn't reveal anything new at all. It merely accomplished a deal whereby someone who was remote and angry remained remote and angry, but created an exception for those lucky enough to be covered with the blood of his Son. Before, God was a hurricane, and now God is still a hurricane, but Jesus has revealed that there is an eye to the hurricane, and so long as you hang in there, in the eye, you won't be destroyed. But, I want to suggest, this is not the case: Jesus' resurrection did reveal something which was new--not new to God, but new to us. Jesus revealed that God had and has nothing at all to do with violence, or death, or the order of this world. These are our problems and mask our conceptions of God, of law and order and so forth. In fact, God loved us so much that God longs for us to be free from these things so as to live for ever, with God and each other, starting now.

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6 thoughts on “Atonement, Resurrection and Revelation”

  1. Wow, every time I visit, I'm surprised to find your posts so relevant with my life! You were recently blogging on Crossan's book at the same time I read it .. Now on atonement, as I read Joanne Carlson Brown and Rebecca Parker's work on atonement earlier today:

    I think I can say that it was the most important theological work I have read in my entire life ..

    Thank you,

  2. I am so glad you started reading James Alison. He is an amazing theologian, from whom I learn a lot. I am looking forward to your posts on his writings. Blessings,

  3. Martyn, what if Jesus' crucifixion was not something "designed" by God, and more, what if its ultimate meaning was not Atonement but something else?

    There was a time when animal sacrificing was a credible cultural expression, and in Jesus, God brilliantly enters into that expression: "If sacrificing your first born is the most powerful thing you can do to get ME on your side, then I'll sacrifice MY first born in order to convince you that I AM on your side."

    But what happens in our day when animal sacrifice not only lacks meaning, it feels utterly abhorrent to us as well? Can Jesus' life conduct a message as relevant to us in our day as it was in that first century's day?

    In other words, does Jesus' life convey something eternal or something merely temporal? And if it is eternal, is it conveying the message that God doesn't like His creation as the eternal truth? or is there another message that was always there, was always eternal and would require our developing the "ears to hear" to actually hear it?

    An analogy: When my 3 year old asks "Dad, what makes a car go?" I don't reveal to him the intricacies of thermodynamics and angular momentum; I properly mime turning the key and say something like "well, I just turn the key and the car goes bbbrrrooom!"

    Now if my child was 18 and still satisfied by such an answer, wouldn't we question whether something was seriously wrong with him?

    Does God EXPECT us to mature past Atonement understandings?

  4. Hi Jothco,
    I read this article you linked, and it pointed out things I'd never really seen before, such as the angels at the head and foot of the tomb being the real deal, instead of merely the carved angels on the ark. He also sort of flips the notion from "sinners in the hands of an angry God" to God in the hands of angry sinners, like Jesus' parable about the tenants of the vineyard who beat the servants and kill the son.

  5. As usual, you have some interesting ideas and insights - thanks for responding.
    An issue that strikes me from your words is that if we follow your ideas here then God didn't expect the people present during the time of Jesus to ever be able to make sense of him or his actions. That privilege would be left to people far further down the historical trail. If this is the case, then doesn't that leave us feeling just a little bit aloof, somehow better than those who've preceeded us? Oh, those poor first-century folk, did they really believe these child-like myths. It's what CS Lewis referred to as 'chronological snobbery', i.e. the belief that if it's old it must be wrong and that everything new is de facto true, modern and more real...
    Just some thoughts...

  6. Martyn, actually I have nothing but admiration for our first century siblings. And more, what excites me about the Christ Event is not just the fact that Jesus shows up, but that there were human beings longing to follow Him; especially when you consider that Jesus presented a world view that contradicted both cultural institutions in play: Roman Empire and Religion. This means that the people who followed Jesus were interested in something more than the security and esteem that institutions

    The question is, what about Jesus were our siblings interested in? What made Him unique? Not His miracles- there were other miracle workers in Jesus' day. I would offer that where Jesus stood apart was in His message, and His sense of God which people saw Him embody; Jesus' way stood in stark contrast to the way of Caesar and the way of Pharisees.

    So I laud our first century siblings for maximizing all that Jesus could mean to them.

    So what about us in our day, are we maximizing what the Christ Event means as much as our siblings did?

    I would say no. And this is where my analogy of the three year old needs clarification. The point to be made isn't that our siblings were like three year olds--they weren't. The point that I need to make stronger is the idea that there's something wrong happening when a young adult is satisfied with childhood answers, and also, is not asking adult sized questions.

    Through my analogy, the first followers of Jesus were asking adult sized questions. In contrast to Christian sects such as Creationist-Literalists or Evangelicals (I used to be both) who seem to me to be satisfied with and even fighting for something analogous to a three year old's world view--and way.

    There's more thinking to discuss in what I'm saying, but at least we can be clear that I'm not committing the chronological snobbery that you're right to be careful of.

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