Atonement, the Prodigal Son and ‘Why So Serious?’

cross_2There is no doctrine so entrenched in Christianity as that of the Substitutionary Atonement (also known as ‘Vicarious Atonement’ or the ‘Penal Substitution Theory’). In simple terms, this is the teaching that, on the cross, God’s wrath against sinful humanity was absorbed by Jesus—that the payment for sin was made to God by Christ; that this blood sacrifice appeased a holy God and saves us from certain (eternal) condemnation/torment.

This is a major (or may I say MAJOR) theme in many Christian circles, more so amongst fundamentalists. When I was a student at a leading fundamentalist university, this was hammered home to us in every sermon, in most classes, in many prayer meetings. It was not ‘a’ but ‘THE’ central tenet of The Faith and demanded a serious analysis, on a regular basis, of one’s place in the overall scheme of sin and salvation.

And serious it was. One would be out of line to show a smile in a church service or during the singing of a hymn. People had been expelled at this university for daring to treat a song about Jesus in a ‘frivolous’ manner. (see the video that got two students expelled and a third a severe reprimand here.)

And so they sing solemnly, seriously, it seems with a burden that is weighing them down. (Have a look at these two videos of a ‘performance’ of a well-loved (fundamentalist) hymn here and here.)

Here are the words for those of you following along at home (the sheet music is here.):

His robes for mine: O wonderful exchange!
Clothed in my sin, Christ suffered ‘neath God’s rage.
Draped in His righteousness, I’m justified.
In Christ I live, for in my place He died.

Chorus:
I cling to Christ, and marvel at the cost:
Jesus forsaken, God estranged from God.
Bought by such love, my life is not my own.
My praise-my all-shall be for Christ alone.

His robes for mine: what cause have I for dread?
God’s daunting Law Christ mastered in my stead.
Faultless I stand with righteous works not mine,
Saved by my Lord’s vicarious death and life.

His robes for mine: God’s justice is appeased.
Jesus is crushed, and thus the Father’s pleased.
Christ drank God’s wrath on sin, then cried “‘Tis done!”
Sin’s wage is paid; propitiation won.

His robes for mine: such anguish none can know.
Christ, God’s beloved, condemned as though His foe.
He, as though I, accursed and left alone;
I, as though He, embraced and welcomed home!

(His Robes for Mine by Chris Anderson and Greg Habegger ©2008 ChurchWorksMedia.com All rights reserved.)

Here is an insight into Chris Anderson’s understanding that has prompted this composition:

“Verse 3 focuses on the grand doctrine of propitiation, the fact that God’s wrath was not merely deflected from us by Christ, but was rather absorbed by Him in our place. Jesus Christ bore the infinite wrath of God against sin, satisfying God’s wrath and enabling sinners to be forgiven—and justly so. Isaiah 53:10-11 describes it this way: God looks on the travail of Christ’s soul and is satisfied by it. His wrath has been exhausted on Christ. The doctrine of propitiation is taught Isaiah 53, Romans 3:25; 1 John 2:2 and 4:10, et al.” (source: http://blogs.mbu.edu/praisemen/songs/his-robes-for-mine-authors-thoughts)

I have a HUGE problem with the language used (and the theology implied) in this song: ‘Christ suffered ‘neath God’s rage,’ ‘Jesus is crushed, and thus the Father’s pleased,’ and ‘Jesus forsaken, God estranged from God’ among others.

But then I realise that this comes from that classic Biblical story:

A man who had two sons. One demanded his share of the inheritance and then went off and spent it, in a far country, on riotous and loose living. The father, enraged with a fiery anger against that son, took his brother and turned him over to the torturers and finally the executioner. Only when the elder brother had died, paying the penalty that the father demanded for the younger one’s disobedience, was the father able to open up his heart in love and welcome the younger son home and once again grant him the blessings of being a part of the family.

No, I don’t have that story in my Bible either. That, on so many levels, goes against my understanding of God. And if we understand Jesus to be the most accurate depiction we have of God in Scripture, then we must accept that God is loving and compassionate. He would forsake his own Son only as much as he would forsake us, his children. He would not demand a penalty to be paid vicariously any more than the father in the real parable would have demanded one son pay for the sin of another. That is a primitive view–a tribal understanding–of God rooted in a culture set in ancient history and grounded in stories handed down from generation to generation over fires and in marketplaces.

Many argue that this understanding of what took place at the cross is helpful to Christians in certain situations. Scot McKinght in his book A Community Called Atonement illustrates the many theories of atonement (Substitutionary Atonement being one) as being like a set of golf clubs where one club (say, a wedge) may be good for a particular situation (like, for example, if you land your ball in a sand trap), but not practical or helpful in others (as in driving). While this may be true in a metaphorical or illustrative sense (though this may be open to interpretation as well),  I don’t believe it is very helpful in explaining anything of the nature of God or God’s interaction with humanity.

The problem is that we have ‘Set the members of the Trinity against each other—as when the Son is described as the object of the Father’s wrath on the Cross. Others stretch the concept to charge that penal substitution language amounts to “divine child abuse”—where an angry, cosmic Father beats up his meek and helpless Son—hardly the biblical imagery of the relationship of the Father and the Son.’ (source: Christianity Today) God becomes a deity with a schizophrenic tendency or bipolar disorder (and, as we know, without proper medication, either one of these illnesses renders an individual quite unstable.)

Joking aside, if we accept that God is love—If we accept the story of the Prodigal Son to be an illustration of how that love works itself out in reality—then we must not be so hasty to take on the ‘traditional’ view of atonement as fact. Certainly, it can be argued, some of the New Testament authors seemed to believe this was so. But a look at Jesus and his revelation of who the Father is cannot be dismissed. Rather, it should be the cause of much joy, celebration and excitement: All are welcomed—sinners and saints, elder and younger brothers, tax-gatherers and Pharisees—not because Jesus satisfied an angry God, but that God has sought and found us and brought us into the embrace of love and grace.  Welcome home!

The ‘Best God Damned Version’ of the Bible? Really?

BGDVWhat one comes across online when one is casually browsing Amazon!

Steve Ebling is writing a version of the Holy Bible specifically aimed at atheists, agnostics and sceptics and has chosen to call his book Holy Bible: Best God Damned Version. While only one book has so far been released, its intent is clear: debunk and make fun of the Bible and those whose faith is in its authority and truth.

Out of curiosity, I had a look at this short volume and found it to be full of snark, ridicule, foul language and outright disdain for anyone who places the smallest amount of trust in the sacred text. It is not a translation. The author makes no apology for the fact that it is based on The Jerusalem Bible, simply because he thought the wording in Genesis was more akin to his interpretation of–or the way in which he wished to interpret–the Bible. I got through the first 4 chapters and realised that I was, in fact, wasting my time. While there is a place for sarcasm, criticism and frivolity, I don’t think I can take 66 books-worth of this type of ‘humour’ (although, from reading the introduction, I would dare say that the author had anything in mind but comedy.

I have to admit, I am surprised it took so long to attempt such a project and I admire Steve’s perseverance (assuming he does, in fact, finish this work.) I would doubt, however, that even the most ardent atheist would be able to endure several thousand pages of this type of writing. Perhaps a Reader’s Digest Condensed Version of the BGDV would be a less-tedious piece to endure. That said, this is clearly NOT the ‘Best God Damned Version’ out there.

There is an alternative (if you are an atheist, agnostic, sceptic, or just curious): The Skeptics Annotated Bible.SAB

This is authored by Steve Wells and is based on the King James Version which, as one reviewer calls it, is ‘The only Bible recognised by True Christianity(TM).’ (Personally, I would have liked to see a NRSV edition, but I’m sure copyright permission may be difficult to obtain given the proposed content and use of this book.)

This book is a serious and critical attempt to draw attention to discrepancies, contradictions, unscientific claims, incorrect information, and alleged character flaws of God and comes complete with a coded system in the notes to mark each category of claim. It also contains a detailed appendix containing cross-references based on themes found through the text (and hyperlinked, if you buy the Kindle version.) You can read more about this book and see some examples taken from the print version here.

This volume does make for interesting reading, though any person with a background in Bible-centric Evangelicalism will be easily able to dismiss a reasonable amount of what is said based on what is taught in most Bible-believing churches. It comes as no surprise that much of what is said challenges conventional Evangelical thought, especially if it is coupled with the double-punch belief in the inerrancy of Scripture and literal interpretation of the text.

Many in the Christian community would see such a book as a threat or a challenge to their faith and mission. I view it as a means to understanding more clearly the core purposes of our sacred text and how God’s people through the ages have understood God’s story. Those who share my perspective value the biblical text as not only a time-capsule of culture, law and divine revelation, but as a vessel for the message of God to be carried into this and future generations, albeit flawed by human agents and misunderstandings.

I am amused somewhat that so many of those who don’t believe in God seem to lump all Christians together as being literalists, naïve, and an having absolute faith in whatever their church expects them to accept. While there are many ‘brands’ of Christianity that make my skin crawl or seriously cause me to wish I could run as far away from them as possible, I still see Christianity as a multi-layered and multi-coloured faith tradition that allows room for dialogue and disagreement amongst theologians and the laity alike. It is to me a fluid and evolving understanding of faith and practice, and. generally, has a high regard for tradition, including the sacred text and the varied interpretations of that text through the millennia. This kind of faith won’t shrink from the hard questions nor the skeptic’s commentary, but will seek to respond in an informed and civil manner within the context of humility, grace and love. We are all imperfect and all have our areas of ignorance. We would do well to listen to and learn from each other, especially as we who claim the name of Christ seek to be true to what we understand to be God’s word.

Nobody Won

Bill-Nye-vs.-Ken-Ham-Debate_f_improf_645x254One would have to be living under a rock not to have heard about the much-publicised debate in the U.S. between Bill Nye (can I not resist adding, “The Science Guy” after that?) and Ken Ham (Answers in Genesis) held February 4th in Kentucky. Well, OK. If you don’t live in North America and you’re not either an Evangelical or Fundamentalist Christian, or an atheist, you possibly don’t have a clue what I’m talking about.

But, nonetheless, it happened. “Ham on Nye” as it has become known.

There are numerous clips on YouTube and well past hundreds of search results on Google that will show you anything you wish to know about this event.

But, for me, the sound bites say it all. The answer to the question, “What would it take to change your mind?” was, according to Nye: “A single piece of solid evidence.” According to Ham: Nothing. That’s right. Nothing. Since the Bible is obviously literally (according to Ham’s interpretation of it) fully accurate in Science and History, he needs no other evidence. Nothing will change his mind that the earth is less than 10,000 years old and created in 7 literal 24-hour days (albeit, several of those days did not have the time-telling benefit of the sun–go figure!).

How does he know the earth is less than 10,000 years old? He’s done his Math and added up the generations found in the Bible’s genealogies. This is what he calls the “historical science” method. Since his literal understanding of the Bible is correct in all matters historical, then so is his guess of the earth’s age.

And here’s where the debate is unwinnable: the basic underlying world-views of these two men couldn’t be further opposed to each other.

To those of fundamentalist ilk, Ham was the hero, standing for the truth, defending the faith, and holding fast to sound doctrine and a literal reading of Genesis 1 against the tide of the Satanic theory of evolution.

To atheists and more progressive Christians, Bill Nye won with his solid evidence and logic, his proven hypotheses and superior intellect. To the atheist, the foundation of Ken Ham’s argument was as shaky as that of a flooded beach: how could one trust a book written by men of an ancient tribal culture (see *Note) with the aim of proving their deity was superior to those in the lands around them? After all, every culture has its own creation myths.

To the more progressive Christian, while claiming the sacred text to be inspired by God, it is seen to be, still, as bearing the indelible imprint of humanity with all its tendencies to interpretation in the light of current culture and the desire to prove tribal superiority. Progressives care not so much about the “how” of the universe’s origin as much as the “why” and the “what does this mean for us now?” So, while this event aroused cursorily, it held no real sense of consequence.

In the days following, source after source declared Bill Nye as the hands-down winner (even Christianity Today’s poll showed a 9-1 lead). However, in my opinion, “Ham on Nye” proved to be a fizzer, a debate which was more of a publicity stunt to showcase Ham’s Creationist exhibit and the organisation he has created to promote his own views.

Surely the church has learned from its own dealings with scientists such as Galileo or Copernicus. Surely they cannot take as historical fact a creation account that was written from the perspective of a flat earth, a fixed ‘dome’ (or firmament) and a sun, moon and stars that orbited over and under this flat earth. But this variant of the Christian Religion still prefers to remain staunchly opposed to proven scientific theory and overwhelming evidence. Its adherents see no need for science and evidence except when it bolsters their own interpretations of the world. The simplistic answers to the complex questions of origins are comical and, as one blogger states, takes the Jesus Movement back ten steps in its respectability and relevance.

Unfortunately, the wide brush of dogmatism has splattered the rest of Christianity with its ignorance and stubborn refusal to consider the evidence thousands of earnest scientists have uncovered since the dark ages.

Nobody won. Unless, of course, we have learned that debating those who choose to remain in the dark ages is futile, in which case good sense has won the day.

____________

*Note: This is a huge flaw in reasoning that I see in many creationist writings: they assume the reader will accept “The Bible says” as authoritative evidence when, in fact, many would see ‘The Good Book’ as having no more authority than a Superman comic. Even when I accepted their teachings, I cringed every time I read their work because I knew it would carry absolutely no authority in the secular world. They are indeed preaching to the choir.