Jesus for the Non-Religious, Part I

Column by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 15 February 2006 0 Comments
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Overcoming the widespread Christian belief that "Jesus
died for my sins" seems an insurmountable challenge!
Preachers, liturgical rites, hymns and religious
education curricula continue to reinforce "atonement
theology/theories." Would you do a series on
"atonement theology/theories" - their origins,
rationale, continued justification, etc.? Personally
and pastorally, "atonement" thinking creates a mire of
destructive results and I, for one, would well
appreciate your cogent analysis of how we might best
approach this.


Thank you for your letter and its challenge. There
is no doubt that atonement/sacrifice theology
constitutes a deep burden that weighs down the
Christian faith today. I work on this subject
constantly. It is a major theme in two of my books,
Why Christianity Must Change or Die and A New
Christianity for a New World. I am still engaged in
this study as I begin to work on a new book scheduled
for publication in 2007 and tentatively entitled,
Jesus for the Non-Religious.

Atonement theology, however, involves far more than a
salvation doctrine. It brings into question the
theistic understanding of God and even the morality of
God. This theology assumes that God is an external
Being who invades the world to heal the fallen
creation. It also assumes that this God enters this
fallen world in the person of the Son to pay the price
of human evil on the cross. It was the central theme
in Mel Gibson's motion picture; "The Passion of the
Christ" which might have been dramatically compelling
but it represented a barbaric, sado-masochistic, badly
dated and terribly distorted biblical and theological

All atonement theories root in a sense of human
alienation and with it a sense of human powerlessness.
"Without Thee we can do nothing good!" So we develop
legends about the God who does for us what we cannot
do for ourselves. For Christianity, I am convinced
that our basic atonement theology finds its taproot
not in the story of the cross but in the liturgy of
the synagogue, especially Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day
of Atonement. In the Yom Kippur liturgy an innocent
lamb was slain and the people were symbolically
cleansed by the saving blood of this sacrificed Lamb
of God. Jesus was similarly portrayed as the new Lamb
of God. As we Christians tell the story of Jesus"
dying for our sins in doctrine, hymns and liturgy, we
quite unknowingly turn God into an ogre, a deity who
practices child sacrifice and a guilt-producing
figure, who tells us that our sinfulness is the cause
of the death of Jesus. God did it to him instead of
to us who deserved it. Somehow that is supposed to
make it both antiseptic and worthwhile. It doesn't. I
think we can and must break the power of these images.
Just the fact that you are sensitive to it and
offended by it is a start.

Consciousness is rising on this issue all over the
Church, and as it does, Christianity will either
change or die. There is no alternative. I vote for
change, obviously you do too.

John Shelby Spong

New Book From Bishop Spong Available Now!

Exposing the Bible's Texts of Hate to Reveal the God of Love
"The Sins of Scripture challenges Christians to look beyond the myths of their faith into the heart of the matter."




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