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Some believers challenge doctrines of atonement

Saturday, February 28, 2004

Not all Christians think Jesus died to atone for sin.
For some, the controversy is over who killed Jesus.
But for others, it's why he died -- whether his death was necessary to atone for the sins of humanity.
Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" raises questions other than anti-Semitism for some Christians. At issue is whether the death of Jesus was necessary to reconcile the world to God -- a view no longer sacrosanct in some circles.
The movie, reflecting the deeply held views of its director, answers affirmatively on the side of traditional Christianity. But in churches and religious schools, some believers are raising doubts.
"It doesn't make sense to me that God would need to be satisfied by sending his son to be killed," said Kip Taylor, a religion major at Texas Christian University. "That's a vengeful God, and not a God I want to worship."
For most Christians, Jesus' death has long been considered the fulfillment of Scripture -- entirely sacrificial, virtuous and redemptive.
"It's the central point of what Christians believe," Gibson told ABC's "Primetime."
But it's a belief being questioned like never before by some mainline Protestants, particularly the historical peace churches and liberal theologians.
"My death is no more important than my birth or every day in between. Why should it be any different with Jesus?" said Kelly Webb, after a class on the Gospels at TCU. "If all that mattered was his death, why did he spend three years teaching and preaching?"
Scriptural references
The Gospel of Mark (10:45) states unequivocally that Jesus died "as a ransom for many"; 1 Peter 2:24 says, "In his own body, he brought your sins to the cross."
And the letter to the Hebrews is filled with sacrificial language about Jesus.
Paul's letters have been the primary biblical basis for asserting that Jesus died as a ransom for human sin. But modern scholarship tools now allow Christians to see other views in the sacred texts.
"Historically, the church has homogenized all the voices in Scripture and made them fit this understanding of God," said Dr. Elizabeth Johnson of Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Ga.
A specialist on Paul, she believes his sacrificial references are misinterpreted.
"It's not that God is mad and Jesus takes the licks for us," she said. "Paul's much more interested in what it means to say that Jesus' death changes the structures of the universe, brings in a new creation and makes life out of death."
Some biblical passages portray Jesus as an innocent man who didn't deserve his fate, scholars say. But others verses suggest his death was foretold from the beginning -- that he had a God-given mission to die.
"Mel Gibson comes down on the side that says crucifixion was a necessary part of God's plan for salvation," said Dr. Adele Reinhartz, a New Testament scholar from Canada whose forthcoming book, "Jesus of Hollywood," is due out this summer.
Implications for doctrine
If Jesus didn't die for sin, the ramifications are enormous for Christians. The church's doctrine of original sin is called into question. So, too, are the meaning of redemption, salvation and Jesus' mission on earth.
"It's just bad theology to say God had to kill his son as a payback for sin," said Dr. Sandra Schneiders, a New Testament scholar at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif. "It makes God sound bloodthirsty."
Perhaps, she said, redemption is found in Jesus' teachings about the kingdom of God. Maybe he came to Earth to show humanity how to live -- to feed the hungry, give shelter to the homeless, to stand in solidarity with the marginalized. Or maybe he died simply for his unpopular, even subversive beliefs rather than for the sin of the world.
That kind of thinking goes against classical atonement theology.
"It's our belief that by the sin of the first people, original sin, that the gates were closed to us, to eternal life, and that his sacrifice as a redeemer of all mankind was to open the gates to all of us again," Gibson told "Primetime."
Historical beliefs
That viewpoint dominated the early centuries of the church, when the primary statements of faith were written. The Nicene and Apostles' creeds punctuate beliefs in the virgin birth, the Crucifixion and the Resurrection -- but say nothing about Jesus' teachings.
The most popular atonement theologies combined aspects of the ransom theory (Jesus' death freed humanity from Satan's hold), the satisfaction theory (Jesus' death makes amends for humanity's sin) and sacrificial theory (Jesus' death is the ultimate sin offering to God).
"Atonement theologies say our connection to God is through Jesus' suffering," said the Rev. Flora Keshgegian, a theologian at the Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Texas. "Others have wanted to stress that connection is through Jesus' humanity."
Churches usually stress that the life, death and Resurrection must be understood together. That's because without the Resurrection, the cross is meaningless, said the Rev. Dick Davis, pastor of Peace Mennonite Church in Dallas.
"What brings salvation is that God says the cross is not the end of the story," he said.