The Merciful Christ by Juan Martinez Montanez

Some Christians cast Crucifixion in new light
Idea of blood sacrifice repulses new breed who see Christ as a martyr

Written by Susan Hogan-Albach, ©The Dallas Morning News
Used by permission of The Holland Sentinel Online

His students are studying to be ministers and theologians.  They've committed their lives to following Jesus' teachings.

But more and more, some reject the usual Christian talk about Jesus' death.

They don't consider Jesus a ransom for sin.  They shudder at hymns glorifying the "power of the blood."  They cringe at calling the day Jesus died Good Friday.

They say a God who requires human sacrifice sounds mean and vindictive.  It doesn't mesh with their idea of a God who loves and forgives.

That's what Philip Lyndon Reynolds is increasingly up against as a theology professor at the United Methodist Candler School of Theology in Atlanta.

Theologians around the country tell the very same story.

It's a challenge pastors face, too, as Easter approaches.

Belief that God's only son died for the sins of humanity permeates Christian teaching.  Good Friday, though a day focused on crucifixion, is called "good" because of what Christians believe Jesus' death accomplished: their redemption.

But placing so much emphasis on Jesus' death overshadows the message he proclaimed while he lived, say those troubled by atonement theology.  It makes the crucifixion all about appeasing an angry God, they say.

"People don't think God needs to punish sin to forgive," said Scot McKnight, a biblical scholar at North Park University in Chicago, an Evangelical Covenant school.  He, too, has heard the complaints.  "Some find it repulsive that one person could die for another," he said.  "This is a modern distaste for atonement."

Christians who wince at atonement theology prefer to talk about Jesus as a martyr for his faith, and his death as a heroic sacrifice.  He's the fullest expression of God's love, they say, and the ultimate manifestation of God on Earth.

These Christians defy easy labeling.  They're young and old, conservative and liberal, and cross denominational lines.  Their thinking is still a minority viewpoint, though no longer simmering only on the fringes of church life.

"People don't think of it as scandalous to reject atonement theology any more," said The Rev. Michael Driscoll, a liturgical theologian at the University of Notre Dame.

Even Roman Catholics are playing down the transactional overtones of atonement theology, he said.  But the theology is still evident in the Mass.  Priests call Jesus "the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world."

Reynolds said his students don't relish thwarting Christian tradition.

"The problem is finding an account of Jesus' death that makes sense to them in a theological way," he said.

It's a growing 21st-century challenge, he said.

A key reason is that blood sacrifices are not part of American culture, McKnight said.  People associate them with primitive societies, and not their day-to-day relationship with God.

"For many people, there is no 'power in the blood,'" he said.  "It's just outside the modern orbit.  They have to be taught about blood sacrifice.  At first, it strikes them as ghastly."

Flipping through the pages of the Bible doesn't lend quick solutions.  Christians won't find any verse in which Jesus explicitly claims to die for their sins, though he comes close.

"That wasn't the language Jesus used," McKnight said.  "His language was not about individuals getting their sins forgiven so that they could get to heaven."

Jesus talked about the Kingdom of God - - a concept broader than heaven and related to the fulfillment of Old Testament expectations.  He spoke of the kingdom with past, present and future overtones, scholars say.

But atonement theology didn't just drop from the sky.

It's there, in the gospels and letters of the New Testament.  These books provide the first glimpses of how early Christians understood Jesus' death.

Romans 3:25 states: Through his blood, God made him the means of expiation for all who believe.

I Peter 2:24 is stronger: In his own body, he brought your sins to the cross.

The entire Letter to the Hebrews is riddled with sacrificial language about Jesus.  The gospels, too, are packed with talk of Jesus' dying so others can have life.

"This sounds gory, but the Bible is a bloody book," McKnight said.  "It's very clear in the New Testament that Jesus' death was understood as a sacrifice and his blood was understood as atoning."

Christians who dismiss atonement theology don't give great weight to these passages.  They seem them as theology, not history, and note that they were written several years after Jesus' death - - points few scholars dispute.

"The only texts we have are written from the stance of the Christian faith," said Jaime Clark-Soles, a New Testament scholar at the Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, and an American Baptist minister.

During her years as a student at Yale, she said, some classmates complained that atonement was theologically "grisly."  Too much blood and gore, they said.

But she didn't flinch.

"The salvific death of Jesus is pretty central to Christian theology and people in the pews," she said.  "If you read the New Testament, especially the gospels, you get atonement."

Other views

Reynold's students are turning to the past for an alternative view.

They're finding it in a theory put forth by Peter Abelard in the Middle Ages.  Rather than a sacrifice for sin, he said that Jesus was a role model whose suffering was exemplary.

Christ on the Cross by Diego Velazquez

Some Bible scholars today also assert that Jesus died primarily as a martyr for his beliefs.  One of them is Duane Friesen, who teaches at Bethel College, a Mennonite school in North Newton, Kansas.

He argues that Jesus died for the message he proclaimed on behalf of the poor and marginalized.  Jesus stood against the kingdoms of this world on behalf of the Kingdom of God, he said.

"The salvation he brings is a transformation of the social order," he said.  "But atonement theology makes Jesus' death all about changing God's attitude toward us, so we can get to heaven."

Lanny Mullins disagrees.  If Jesus didn't atone for sin, then his death is meaningless, said the associate minister of the Skillman Road Church of Christ in Dallas.

He also takes issue with those who characterize atonement theory as some sort of cosmic child abuse.  His views reflect the dominant Christian viewpoint on atonement. 

"Death is always a gruesome act," he said.  "But we have sinful blood coursing through our veins.  A pure sacrifice had to be given to God.  Christ's blood is pure."

Atonement theology is rooted in three theories from the early church.  Most modern thinking is a mixture of these theories:

Ransom theory: Jesus' death was a ransom paid to release humanity from Satan's grip.  This view was the most prevalent until the Middle Ages.

Satisfaction theory: Jesus embraced death to make amends for the offenses of humanity and, in doing so, satisfied God's honor.  This theory was popularized in Middle Ages by Anselm of Cantebury's treatise, Cur Deus Homo ("Why God Became Man").

Sacrificial theory: Jesus is the unblemished lamb sacrificed for the sin of humanity.  This theory draws on views of animal sacrifice as a sin offering to God found in the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament.

The modern problem with atonement, writes Catholic theologian Gerald O'Collins, is that some churches have taken the theories to extremes never intended.  In doing so, they make Jesus' death seem a response to God's anger rather than to human cruelty.

"While sometimes speaking of the divine anger, the New Testament never associates that anger with Christ's suffering and death," said O'Collins, who teaches at the Gregorian University in Rome.

Jesus died on a criminal's cross, which is fitting because capital punishment theory most closely resembles atonement theory today, according to Arthur Dewey, who teaches theology at Xavier University in Cincinnati.

"Atonement theory basically considers people expendable for the good of society," he said.  "This notion of sacrifice was embedded in the culture that Jesus lived."

The Gospel of Mark (10:45) suggests that Jesus understood his death as a "ransom for many."  In Mark 14:24, Jesus said, This is my blood, the blood of the covenant, to be poured out on behalf of many.

Even so, many scholars shy from speculating about whether Jesus anticipated his death or what meaning he attached to it.

"People read between the lines of the gospels," said Daryl Schmidt, a historian at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth.  "But Jesus never wrote anything, so we can't know what he was really thinking."

But McKnight suspects that how Jesus understood his death may be significant to understanding his mission.  It's a question historical scholars have largely ignored, he said.

"To me, it's a pity," he said, "because it creates an incredible imbalance that all New Testament atonement theology comes from early Christianity and nothing from Jesus."

Jesus spent the last days of his life in Jerusalem, according to the gospels.  There's an ominous tone to the writing, signaling the tragedy about to befall him.

Paula Fredriksen, a historian of ancient Christianity, doesn't think Jesus expected to be arrested.  When taken to the high priest, he asked why he was being questioned since he'd always taught openly rather than in secret (John 18:21).

"His disciples act very shocked, demoralized and unprepared," said the Boston University professor.  "That implies to me that Jesus' arrest came as a shock to him."

Marcus Borg, who teaches at Oregon State University and writes best-selling books on Jesus, said the gospels show Jesus not only speaking of his death, but insisting that it had to happen.

But Borg doubts that Jesus understood his death as atoning.  He says Jesus probably knew that he risked execution if he continued teaching and aggravating the religious authorities in Jerusalem.

"He may well have known that his journey to Jerusalem could end in his death," Borg, an Episcopalian, writes in "The Meaning of Jesus."

"But that is very different from saying that he saw his death as central to his purpose."

McKnight said that Jesus entered Jerusalem knowing he was going to die and that his death had a larger, saving purpose.

"Otherwise, he would have high-tailed it back to Galilee," he said.  "Jesus had to have believed that his death was the way God was going to redeem his people."

Dewey said the gospels don't reflect a single viewpoint on how early Christians interpreted Jesus' death.  The Q sayings, which many scholars say that Matthew, Mark and Luke used to write their narratives, portray Christians as more interested in Jesus' vision of the Kingdom of God than in atonement.

"Christians then, like Christians today, had different ways of making sense of Jesus' death," he said.

"Atonement theory is one way of saying God is somehow present in that death."



Subject Gallery

The Merciful Christ by Juan Martínez Montáñez.  c. 1603, Polychromed wood, Cathedral, Seville.  Scan courtesty of The Web Gallery of Art.  Used by permission of Emil Kren.
The Web Gallery of Art -

Some Christians cast Crucifixion in new light: Idea of blood sacrifice repulses new breed who see Christ as a martyr, written by Susan Hogan-Albach, ©The Dallas Morning News.  Used by permission of The Holland Sentinel Online.  Web posted Friday, April 13, 2001.  Article may not be reproduced without the written permission of The Holland Sentinel Online -

Christ on the Cross by Diego Velaquez.  c.1632, Oil, 250 x 170 cm, Museo del Prado, Madrid. Scan courtesy of Mark Harden's Artchive.  Used by permission of Mark Harden.  The Artchive -

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