Bill Bennett Et Al

Column by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 21 May 2003 0 Comments
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How does the death of Jesus 2000 years ago save me? What is the substitutionary doctrine of the atonement?


Your question lies at the heart of what I believe is the need for a radical reformation in Christian thought. The substitutionary doctrine of the atonement makes several pre-suppositions - 1) People were created good, whole and perfect. 2) The human race fell into sin through an act of disobedience and from this fall they are not able to save themselves. 3) God had to become the rescuer so God chose Abraham, gave the law, sent the prophets and finally, when all of these rescue operations failed, had to take on the role of the savior personally. Jesus was the form, which the divine rescue took. The Cross was the place where the price of this fall was paid. The Cross was said to be timeless. Through the Eucharist (in Catholic Christianity) or through the experience of "accepting Jesus as my personal Savior" in the Protestant tradition, every believer can appropriate the fact that God substituted Jesus for each of us and laid the punishment for our sins on him. So the phrase, "Jesus died for my sins," has become a sort of Christian mantra.

In a number of varieties this theory became the doctrine of the atonement which simply means to be made "at one" with God. Most people do not grasp the fact that the roots of this

Doctrine are in Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, when a lamb was slain for the sins of the people and the blood of this lamb was sprinkled on the people as a cleansing agent. When Christians refer to Jesus as the Lamb of God "who takes away the sins of the world," they are using Yom Kippur language.

This doctrine has serious problems and I believe must be rejected in the New Reformation that is upon us.

Let me enumerate those problems quickly:

  1. What kind of God is it who requires a sacrifice and a blood offering before this God can forgive?
  2. What kind of God is it who delights in human sacrifice?
  3. Was there ever a time when human beings were perfect and fell into sin? Since Charles Darwin's understanding of evolution emerged in the 19th century, we have come to see life as having evolved from a single cell to Homo sapiens over a 4 1/2 - 5 billion year time frame. Where is the 'fall' in that process?
  4. Does human evil arise from a fall that never happened metaphorically? Or is evil a manifestation of the baggage of our evolutionary fight for survival that made human life radically self-centered in the struggle to stay alive?
  5. Must salvation take the form of a rescue from our sins or can it be portrayed as the empowerment to evolve into a new humanity, that will somehow learn to live for others?

I believe we need to start with a new definition of human life and then move on to re-think the person and work of the Christ. Unless that occurs, I do not believe that these traditional but still primitive ideas will be able to sustain the Christian faith in the 21st century.

P.S. If you want a fuller exposition on these themes see the chapter entitled, "Jesus Died for My Sins, An Idea That Has to Go," in my book A NEW CHRISTIANITY FOR A NEW WORLD.

John Shelby Spong




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