Saturday, April 19, 2014

A Nearly Jargon-Free Easter Reflection Against "Substitutionary Atonement"

Easter isn't easy for someone who doesn't believe in what theologians call "substitutionary atonement." Most Easter-related festivities ("Holy Week") tend to focus on this concept. To cut to the chase and through the jargon, I neither think Jesus died for my sins nor do think Jesus had to die an untimely death.

To continue with simplicity: I disagree with the parts of the Bible that support substitutionary atonement (emphasis on "parts of the Bible," because the Bible does not portray one unifying worldview--"biblical theology" is a myth). I think a God who requires death before forgiveness is a sadistic God. How many times in the Bible does God forgive sins without death (or, for that matter, without a profession of faith)? Consider the story of Jonah for merely one example. Yes, I know my "Romans Road"; Paul says "for the wages of sin is death." Jesus's death does not prevent me from physical death, and if I am going to believe in a God, I am going to believe in one powerful and loving enough that this God is not bound by some wild notion that every sin is reasonably punishable by death.

Although my Easter experiences are continually bombarded with the inculcation of this oppressive belief, I still love the significance of this holiday. Jesus's death is still holy: he was a martyr for his countercultural "Judaism" that, at times, threatened the oppressive Roman regime and its opulence that was constructed on the backs of the poor. (I place "Judaism" in scare quotes, because Jesus's nationality and ethnicity were so wrapped up in his experience of his religion that they were inseparable and not really contained but how we understand Judaism, religion, or faith today. But neither does Judaism, faith, religion, or Israelite-ness really do it justice. However, I do want to emphasize the continuity between Jesus and modern-day Judaism.) That sort of practice and dedication is just  as admirable, as the crucifixion is heinous. The cross reminds me of the evils of capitalism, cultural tyranny and the price of true justice.

Ah, but the price of true (social) justice is also its reward. Jesus died, but then there is the symbol of resurrection. Jesus lives on through those who follow his example. He is not dead, but alive in all movements for good. It would have been better if Jesus had died a natural death, but his untimely death will not be left in vain.

Substitutionary atonement was one way the Jewish and Gentile followers of Jesus could understand the death of Jesus. It is not the only way. One can also see Jesus's death as an injustice, and his resurrection as a call to be the resurrection: to continue social justice at all costs. And for that reason, I celebrate Easter and say with may others across the world, regardless of what they mean by the litany:

He is risen.
He is risen, indeed.