The Season of Relief

Essay by Rev. Gretta Vosper on 20 April 2017 13 Comments

The calendars we give and receive as Christmas gifts – Sudoku-a-Day desk tear-offs, or expensive, hang-on-the-wall art photography – don’t pay much heed to the Christian calendar aside from noting its two largest festivals – Christmas and Easter – and helping retailers take advantage of a few minor ones – Valentine’s, St. Patrick’s, and Hallowe’en. Denominational church calendars fill in more of the blanks, but we all know that the year we follow starts on the first of January, a bleak and dreary date in the northern hemisphere and a riot of colour and beauty in the southern. I don’t know anyone who hangs up a calendar that starts the first day of Advent and marks their year in the way Christians once did long ago. Of course, I don’t know any monks. Perhaps they do.

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How does the death of Jesus 2000 years ago save me? What is the substitutionary doctrine of the atonement?


Dear Andrea,

Thanks for this challenging question! The standard definition of substitutionary atonement is that Jesus, as God’s son, fully human and fully divine, took the sin and corruption permeating the world upon himself and was sacrificed on the cross like a lamb on the altar. He did this as a radical act of divine intervention to rescue the world from darkness.

If you go hunting in the Bible for the explanation I just gave, you won’t really find it there. It is an amalgamation of many different statements and stories from the sacred texts of the Christian and Jewish traditions. Actually one of the best places to read and thoroughly understand the Christian concept of substitutionary atonement, ironically, is John Bunyan’s 17th-century work Pilgrim’s Progress, or the children’s version, Dangerous Journey, as abridged by Oliver Hunkin in 1985. A man named Christian embarks on a journey to remove a terrible burden, which only leaves him after the following encounter as recounted in Dangerous Journey:

At the foot of a hill, he passed an open tomb. Then up again, upon a little knoll, he found himself beneath a wayside cross. And as its shadow fell across him, so suddenly the burden, slipping from his shoulders, fell from off his back. It tumbled down the hill, it tumbled into the mouth of the tomb. It was never seen again.

The vision continues from there, but it’s important to see that this idea of atonement is not due to the work of the person but is envisioned as a gift freely given to those who seek it. All Christian had to do was set out on his journey, and once he did, the relief from his burden came almost as a surprise—an unforeseen event. Christian’s journey is not even close to finished at this point in the narrative, as he still has to make his way to the heavenly city without returning to the old life with the old burdens (sin), but it is clear that the moment of freedom was not the result of his own actions.

When I was a teenager attending a Pentecostal church, one of our youth ministers created a vivid “choose your own adventure” game based on this and the works of C. S. Lewis to help instill the message in our young minds. Do I believe in this anymore? Well, no. I hate that it requires God to be so rigid and punishing, an old-world being that demands an old-world sacrifice in blood. Also, I think it fundamentally misunderstands corruption. Decay is a natural element of creation. Decay is an underpinning of life. We literally are born out of the destruction of what came before us, carrying with us the energy of the past lives of other entities, both living and nonliving. I think our biggest mistake (like the Apostle Paul) is in collapsing moral corruption with physical corruption. That’s a necessary assumption of atonement theology, and I can’t go along with it.

What I do believe and will carry forward from this childhood belief I held, is that we can find relief from our burdens in this life. We do not have to cling to and carry our vices and our failures as burdens with us into every new relationship and situation. We can carry them in other ways, such as a commitment to do better next time, but we don’t have to remain shackled. And sometimes, amazingly and wonderfully, we are unshackled by free acts of love done on our behalf by others. If we can be that person for someone else, too, we should.

~ Cassandra Farrin


Bishop John Shelby Spong Revisited

Insights from Finland


Finland is a beautiful country, bounded on the west by Scandinavia, the east by Russia, the north by the Arctic Circle and the south by the Baltic Sea. Its five million ethnically diverse people include Laplanders, central Europeans and Russians. The Finnish language is closely related to the language of Hungary. Historically Finland has been a pawn, passing back and forth between the ancient kingdoms of Sweden and Russia. As a relatively new independent state, it has always been a social democracy. Women now serve this EU member state as prime minister, president and chief justice.

I had a chance to visit Finland this past month. It was exciting for me for two reasons. First, Finland has always projected a favorable image. It was extolled as “the only nation in the world that repaid its World War I loans,” and it won my boyish admiration when its brave army, whose soldiers fought on skis in white camouflaged uniforms designed to blend into the snow, held off the army of the Soviet Union in 1939.

Second this trip to Finland offered me an opportunity to test a proposition that I had long suspected about the vitality of the Christian Church. Part of the Church’s propaganda about itself is that it seeks unity in obedience to Jesus’ high priestly prayer recorded in the 17th chapter of John’s Gospel, “that they all may be one as you, Father, and I are one.” However, my reading of Church History suggests that when the church is monolithic it spawns things like the Inquisition that sought to remove any non-conformist idea. Heretics were burned at the stake to preserve the myth of unity.
When that monolithic power was broken in the Reformation the first effect was a century of religious wars as Protestants and Catholics tried to recover their dream of religious unity by imposing a single religious system, their own, on all people whether they wanted it or not. A willingness to tolerate diversity was quite impossible with each side claiming to be the “only true Church of God.” Given the wide range of human personalities, tastes, cultures and life styles, I always wondered why there could not be multiple paths by which people could walk into the mystery of God. My reading of history also suggested to me that wherever the Christian Church spoke with a single voice it became less vital, less alive and more corrupt. I had earlier had an opportunity to test this proposition in the monochromatic Roman Catholic country of Belgium. Now Finland was going to offer me the opportunity to test that premise in a monochromatic Protestant country.

Observing Christianity’s decline, especially in the West, it seems to me that this decline is most pronounced in those nations where there are no competing voices.

At the invitation of a Roman Catholic monastic, I went to Belgium last year to meet with his order, to lecture at the University of Ghent and to have conversations with teachers on a theological faculty where Roman Catholic priests were trained.

In Belgium the Roman Catholic Church is dominant to the point of exclusivity. So powerful is its Catholic identity that religion was the principle reason that the Netherlands and Belgium became separate nations in the 19th century. Belgium could unify its Dutch speaking Catholic constituency with its French speaking Catholic constituency far more easily than the nation could combine Dutch-speaking Catholics with Dutch-speaking Protestants. What I found, however, in this religiously uniform nation was a dying church. The four churches nearest to the University of Ghent, that had once been vital and filled, were today almost empty and their congregations quite elderly. Few priests remain to serve even these small numbers. The average age of the priests and nuns in Belgium has moved above 70. The theological college, where I met with faculty who trained future priests, had not graduated a single ordinand since 1998. At that moment there was not a candidate for ordination in the entire pipeline. The theological faculty was thus, for all practical purposes, unemployed, though they continued to draw their stipends from the State. By every measure the Christian Church in Belgium was dying and the depression among its leaders was palpable. The rest of Europe revealed a similar picture in other monolithic Roman Catholic nations.

Germany, on the other hand, divided generally between the Roman Catholic South and the Protestant North, has in the last century produced world-class theologians and biblical scholars such as Rudolf Bultmann, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Paul Tillich, Emil Bruner and Hans Kung. The Netherlands has tension between its Protestant and Catholic constituencies and traditionally has encouraged freethinking and debate. The Vatican keeps trying to suppress this rebellious quality expressed in such people as radical New Testament Catholic Scholar Edward Schillebeekx, who though actually a citizen of Belgium enjoys the protection of the more open Dutch Catholic Church. The United Kingdom has religious divisions that are real with Presbyterian Scotland, Anglican England and the religious tensions in Northern Ireland, where Protestants seeks to remain on the island that Catholics believe belongs to them. Yet within England, even with its established Church, there is a vibrant Roman Catholic and Free Church presence, to say nothing of growing numbers within the immigrant population, who are adherents of Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism. Charles, the Prince of Wales, created an enormous public debate several years ago when he announced that as king he hoped to be “the defender of faiths not the defender of The Faith.” I think it is fair to say that Christianity is more vital in these nations where religious pluralism exists than it is in Belgium where religion is uniform and monolithic.

So Finland which claims a 96 per cent identity with Lutheranism, intrigued me. Does being a monolithic Protestant country make a difference? If the same problem that I saw in Belgium is also present in Finland, would it not say something negative about religious uniformity, no matter what the dominant religion is?

Finnish Lutheran leaders told me that the Lutheran Church of Finland is in a serious decline. Less than 4% of Finland’s citizens ever darken the church doors. That 4%, I was later told, included worshippers who attended weddings, funerals and baptisms, reducing the Sunday worshippers to something closer to 1%. The Lutheran Bishops were portrayed to me as managers of a declining institution. With one notable exception, their primary concern, I was told, was preserving the unity of their decreasing membership. That still observant core reflected a rather conservative fundamentalist attitude, and were greatly disturbed at the prospect that someone might actually challenge their presuppositions and think outside the box of their particular dogmatism.

I discovered that merely my presence, plus the fact that I had been invited to address something called “Church Days,” an annual event of the Lutheran Church of Finland, was a source of great controversy in the religious press weeks before my arrival. I was amazed first, that I was even known and, secondly, that I was considered controversial and threatening to the religious status quo. None of my books had yet been translated into Finnish, yet before my plane had landed, the debate was real. The result was intense media coverage, including a twenty-minute interview on Finland’s version of “Good Morning America” or similar programs in England, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. When I addressed the Lutheran “Church Days” audience, it was three times the usual gathering. The Sunday morning church attendance where I preached was far larger than usual. Tension obviously creates vitality and interest. Controversy is not destructive, it is a life sign. That was my learning.

The primary difference between the dying monolithic Catholicism of Belgium and the dying monolithic Protestantism of Finland was not that one was less dead than the other. On that score there was little difference. It was rather that in Protestant Finland, which was less autocratic and less punitive of deviation, it was demonstrably easier to challenge a moribund hierarchy in a Protestant setting than it is in a Catholic setting. There is in the Protestant system less ability to stifle discussion or to penalize those who want to chart a different vision.

In Belgium I found a defeated theological faculty who appeared to have no options. They complained of powerlessness but did nothing. In Finland I found a feisty group of minority voices unwilling to watch their faith die without a struggle and people whose vision for a revitalized, engaged Lutheran church would not allow their silence.

My conclusions thus challenge the common wisdom of church people. Dominance is not a virtue. Unity is not a desirable goal. Competitive voices for Christ are a sign of hope that give rise to visions that will challenge old stereotypes. The quest for unity is revealed as little more than an institutional power game. It is not a sign of life. Controversy is a necessary gateway into growth. Diversity is resisted only when security and not truth has become the unconscious goal of entrenched religious systems.

What wonderful insights to be gained from a brief visit to beautiful Finland.

~John Shelby Spong
Originally published June 11, 2003