Understanding The Christian Roots of My Political Depression

Column by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 8 September 2004 0 Comments
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What do you mean when you say that "Atonement Theology" will kill the Church?


It would be more accurate to characterize me as saying that the "substitutionary view of the atonement" will kill the Church, but it is fair to say that I am not enamored with any view of the atonement, and least of all with the substitutionary theory. All atonement theories are grounded ultimately in some view of human beings as fallen, the victims of "original sin" from which they are powerless to deliver themselves. The Jesus story is told in terms of a divine rescue and as typically proclaimed, it suggests that Jesus on the cross paid the price that God required to overcome the sin of the world into which human disobedience had plunged us. From this view comes the Christian mantra repeated endlessly through the ages: "Jesus died for my sins."

I find the God who is portrayed in these images to be violent, demonic, and even sadistic. Why would God require a human sacrifice and a blood offering before God would be willing to forgive? How does Jesus' death satisfy God's offended righteousness? How does Jesus' death overcome your sins and my sins and our alienation? I think that is a sick theology and I do not care how traditional it is.

Atonement theology also assumes, that since we are fallen people, there had to be a time when we were not fallen. That is the theme in the Garden of Eden story. That is not my understanding of the origin of human life. I am a post-Darwinian. I believe life emerged through a long, perhaps four billion year, evolutionary pattern. I see nothing that suggests that we are "fallen sinners," who need to be rescued. I see everything that convinces me that we are still incomplete human beings who need to be empowered to become more fully human. I see the call of Christ not in terms of rescuing the fallen sinner but as giving us the power to become something more than we have ever been before. Atonement is, therefore, not the word that I would use. Empowerment is.

A new way to look at the meaning of salvation, a way that will transcend the limits of atonement is, I believe, the necessary prerequisite to enable the Christian faith to live in tomorrow's world.

-- John Shelby Spong




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