I want to propose a new soteriology.*
Well, not so new. The systematic concept I am advocating has lurked in the background of Christian thought for centuries, but has been eclipsed by the doctrine of substitutionary atonement, a theory that relies on blood being shed for wrath or ransom.
* Soteriology: a (systematic) concept or doctrine of salvation; concept of how divinity and humanity accomplish unity; the manner in which peace is reached between God and humankind.
Substitutionary atonement is the soteriology that emphasizes the death of Jesus on the cross as the primary event that accomplished peace and unity between humanity and divinity. It is based on the concept of propitiation, the idea that humankind has offended God and must find a way to appease God. In the ancient world, the dominant assumption was that propitiation was accomplished through sacrifice–an offering of crops in the temple, a burnt offering, or a blood offering. Substitutionary atonement, therefore, meant that Jesus took the place of the sacrificial animal, and in doing so paid an ultimate sacrifice that made any further sacrifice obsolete, for the debt of humankind was paid in full forever.
One way to characterize this is that humanity has offended divinity. Humanity must propitiate this offense, but is too weak to do so. God, unable or unwilling to simply forgive the debt or improve humanity’s moral powers, must inflict the wrath of justice upon someone. Ordinary sacrifices are inadequate to accomplish salvation for all humanity, so God’s own son, Jesus, descends into mortal form. He interposes himself between the wrathful God and tainted humanity, thus Jesus shields humanity and also fulfills the payment of God’s wrath. God, having finally expressed his righteous wrath, is appeased.
The problem with wrath theory is that this concept places God in the role of an abusive father lashing out in rage, it places humanity as the child hiding in the corner too young to understand, and thus it places Jesus in-between as the codependent mother who baits and bears the father’s beating to deliver the children from direct harm but is helpless to deliver the children to a safe house where the danger is absent. It is impossible to reconcile this theory with a God who personifies unconditional love, or even true justice. With a God like this, God’s virtue is surpassed by the virtue of his creation if even one human being can live generously without exacting wrathful retribution on a debtor. Several such examples come to mind.
Another characterization of substitutionary atonement introduces a third party: somehow God has yielded custody of humanity’s fate to Satan, another spiritual being whose chief role is to interfere, obstruct, and oppose. Humanity, in succumbing to sin, has become the hostage of Satan. To deliver humanity, sin must be propitiated, but humanity cannot accomplish this on its own because humanity is too weak and too easily led into temptation. God recognizes divine intervention is the only way and therefore descends into mortal form, fully God and fully human, in order to die. In his death God, in the person of Jesus, tricks Satan into shedding sinless blood, divine blood, that expunges the bondage of sin and delivers humanity back into God’s custody forever.
The problem with ransom theory is that this concept makes God an incompetent fool. How can a God of all power and wisdom, who created the spiritual and physical universe, and ordered their ways, be so foolish as to get locked into contract with a lesser power (nevermind why he created an adversary in the first place, that’s for another essay) and so powerless as to be unable to nullify it? This theory hinges on the event of God ceding possession of his most beloved creatures to the worst possible master, as well as the event of God having to deceive Satan in order to exploit some loophole. The tale of a subdeity who is some kind of cosmic snatcher of innocent humans makes for dramatic preaching, but it’s terrible theology because it lessens God’s divine power and places him in conflict with other cosmic beings who actually threaten his status.
Any soteriology lays the course to its own eschatology, the concept of what happens at the end of time. In the soteriology of substitutionary atonement, whether that’s wrath or ransom, we are led to a final judgment day where God sits on the throne and evaluates his creatures. When they are determined to be justified, they may inherit God’s eternal heavenly kingdom and live there forever with a cruel, unmerciful, and foolish deity. Of course, the double-destination theory presents the happy option of eternal torture in hell to make heaven with this deity seem more appealing.
No More Substitution.
Pursuing my critique to its conclusion, I dismiss the concept of substitution. Sacrifice was an ancient practice that survived by being appropriated into the religion of God–appropriated by fallible humans doing their best to express their experience of God, albeit in imperfect ways. Sacrifice is obsolete, outdated, outmoded, moot, violent, and no longer excusable. Therefore, I believe God in the person of Jesus did not come to be a sacrifice for the sake of propitiating God’s wrath or settling a celestial dispute. Jesus was a sacrifice inasmuch as he practiced nonviolence and endured the punishment of human wrath, offering his body as the canvas for our brutality because humanity is bloodthirsty and violent. As we look upon his passion, we see how great our need is for shalom. Christ’s death on the cross reflects not the generosity of God but the depravity of human ways. Left to our own devices, we murder innocents, we murder prophets, and we even murder divinity.
No More Atonement.
I also dismiss the concept of atonement. I believe there is no divine ledger tallying my sins and your sins, no fines owed prior to entry into God’s kingdom. Even if we were so indebted to God, do we really think we could pay it or that our murdering God-in-flesh would cancel that debt? Atonement is a nice thing to have done; it may feel good to have been atoned for by a loving Other. But the concept of atonement is modeled for sacrifice, and on its own does not adequately describe the relationship between humankind and God.
Salvation and Sin.
The word salvation is problematic for me, and I am replacing it. If we are not being saved from God’s wrath, or saved from Satan’s grasp, what are we being saved from? Answer: sin. We often hear about sin in a phenomenological sense: there are sins (singular and plural), actions and events that break God’s law. What I want to emphasize is a slightly different understanding of sin, not as phenomenological, but as a condition. Sin is a condition, the state of brokenness that characterizes a world in which free will exists. Free will means that everywhere there are acts of violence, greed, degradation, and oppression. God created the world, instilled in us the knowledge of good and evil (what I call moral capability), and gave us the world to govern as we will. Sin means that our stewardship of planet Earth and our fellow creatures, human and animal, has broken harmony with the perfect wisdom of our Creator.
I am replacing the word salvation with the word shalom, or with the English words unity and peace. Perhaps you are familiar with the word shalom. It’s a Hebrew often translated as “peace” but it means so much more than the state of not being in conflict. The peace of shalom includes that satisfying feeling of having resolved dispute, the intimacy of a distance now bridged, and the good taste of a shared meal that celebrates, remembers, and anticipates the peace that has been built and will continue to grow. Unity and peace strong enough to apply even to the relationship between God and humankind.
The soteriology I have come to believe is founded upon the Nativity. God’s incarnation in human form, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, accomplished (salvific) unity and peace between humankind and God. The word nativity, in its common sense means the process or circumstance of being born, a birth event, or a birth story. We call the story of Christ’s birth the Nativity story. But I want to use this word Nativity in a higher form, a concept as strong and symbolically evocative as the Cross in representing the old paradigm of substitutionary atonement.
The incarnation of God as a human at the Nativity is the chief salvific event of the Christian faith. In the Nativity, God accomplishes the whole soteriological work through his blood–not the blood of a cruel and gruesome execution, but the blood of being born. By the blood of birth God entered the human family and forever joined the families of earth and heaven together. No amount of bloodshed could accomplish peace with God like the kinship created in the Nativity. God our heavenly father, and Christ our brother.
This soteriology leads us to a different concept of the end of time than the other paradigm. With the Nativity, we look forward to the end of time, when the age of the Earth and cosmos shall pass into a new era where we live in the celestial realm as we have lived in the mortal realm. God has been born into the world of humankind. With the human and divine families thus bonded in the blood of kinship, we are drawn toward the vision of a God who at the Last Day brings humankind into his house as heirs, safe and beloved, bringing the whole cycle of creation and sanctification to completion as humanity at last is born into the world of God and the celestial family.
God, Our Ancestor
Frequently in the Torah we find God speaking to humans, making promises that he will make them a great nation–meaning he will make their descendants numerous. Abraham was saved, in a sense, by the birth of his son Isaac. Isaac was saved, in a sense, by the birth of his sons Jacob and Esau, who cared for him in his old age. Jacob was saved, in a sense, by one of his younger sons, Joseph. Joseph, manager of Egypt’s granaries and food stores during a famine. Joseph, whose family grew into a small nation, impoverished by slavery in Egypt, was saved by his descendant Moses, who rescued Joseph’s house from the hand of Pharaoh. So too, God the Child of Man, saved us by bringing us all into the fold of God’s New Family. By entering human flesh in its weakest form, God sanctified and created it anew, renewing it for the New Kingdom. In being born to our lineage, God makes us his own great nation–not a nation of the earthly realm, but a nation to inhabit the everlasting realm of heaven.
God, Our Child
A name makes a child a person. Names erect a flowering trellis of meaning around a child that shapes their life and identity. The family surname ties the child to all who have come before and all who will follow in their family tree. The first name you sign on documents, middle name that pays homage to some value your parents attach to you, pet name, contracted name, Christian name (following old baptismal naming practices), and the FIRST MIDDLE LAST name (that your mother only uses when you’re in trouble) shapes you as much as the geography of your hometown or the way your hand uniquely interprets the letters you learn in primary school. A name like Martin Luther can lay a mantle of sacred duty to a child like Martin Luther King Jr., who lived not only with the 16th century reformer’s name to bear, but also as bearing his father’s own name. The names of famous water-crossers and holy wanderers like Jonah, Noah, and Moses lay their stories upon a child’s life. Let us now turn to the names given to the holy child.
“She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
The name Jesus is translated through Greek and Latin from the Hebrew name Joshua. The root words of the name mean something like “saving cry.” Joshua was the leader who succeeded Moses and led the people of Israel out of the wilderness and into the promised land. The holy child was the new Joshua, who saves his people from their wandering way, and leads them into a holy kingdom where there is no want, where the law is love itself, and where sickness, injustice, and death will be no more. Just as the name Joshua comes from Hebrew words that mean “saving cry,” the name Jesus is itself a prayer for God’s deliverance. Deliver us.
“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,”
which means, “God is with us.”
The name Emmanuel (sometimes written Immanuel) means “God with us.” Emmanuel is the name declared by the prophet Isaiah, during a time of great turmoil, that God would not abandon his people to chaos and death, but would be with them. The name Emmanuel points us to the hope for peace and unity with God. More than a hope, through the Nativity it is the emerging reality of union between divinity and humanity. It is a prayer for restoration of peace with God, a prayer for restoration of unity with God. God with us, God is with us, God be with us.
Why propose a different soteriology than what we have conventionally accepted? Substitutionary atonement has been normal, even normative depending on what your relationship to church authority is, but to me it is a disgrace that Nativity occupies such a low status in the church’s theology. I am especially speaking to the theology of American evangelicalism, which I was raised in before crossing over into the Episcopal Church. For too long, we have taken the birth for granted, or as a necessary step on a road to suffering that we have normalized for far too long. If we can rationalize the suffering and execution of God-with-us, doesn’t this also make it easier for us to rationalize the suffering of those around us–those who hunger, whose who are poor, and those who have colored skin? Doesn’t it push us to spiritualize rather than correct the suffering of our brothers and sisters? But the Nativity compels us to see God-with-us as brother and gasp in horror at the execution of the holy child, and thereby to see others as kin and to take seriously their sufferings. The Nativity forces us to see that in the crucifixion Christ reveals our deviance, but the Resurrection triumphs over the power of the grave that we created. Death is a gate all mortals must walk through, but death is also a tool we have used quite effectively. However, the Resurrection overwhelms our power to inflict death; it reverses it and shows us that through the power of God we might reverse the gears of violence and the machinations of injustice.
What I have argued is for a reframing of the Cross as a bitter revelation of humanity’s sin, the chief sin foreshadowed by the story of the Garden of Eden’s despoiling. Between the twin tent poles of Nativity and Resurrection, the Cross is the low point where the rain gathers into a lamentable pool of reflection. But underneath the tent, the tent of Christ’s life and ministry, Nativity and Resurrection bear the pool’s weight and create for us a shelter and an abode where God bids us come and dine with him.
To Live into Nativity
In the cycle of the church year, we first enter Advent. Advent teaches us to acknowledge the state of brokenness the world is in, and to anticipate Christ’s second coming on the Last Day. Christmas, the feast of the Nativity, celebrates our shalom with God, and anticipates our birth into the celestial realm as he was born into ours. Epiphany and the season after Epiphany teach us to recognize the work and face of Christ all around us, in our neighbors, and in the acts of selfless love that reveal Christ’s new order and new kingdom. Lent, the season from Ash Wednesday through Holy Saturday, draws us to reflect with humility upon our participation in the brokenness of the world (sin) and actively look for ways to emulate instead the wholeness of God’s kingdom. Easter, the feast of the Resurrection, and its great fifty days celebrate the power of God to overcome sin. Pentecost and Trinity Sunday celebrate the gift of God’s Spirit, and teach us to seek the Spirit’s power as we take our place in bringing the order of God’s kingdom into fruition on earth. Finally, the feast of All Saints, celebrates and commemorates those who have gone before us–those saints who have set examples for us to follow in the work of Christ–and we look forward to the day when we will join them in the celestial realm, to live into that new birth which God is even now beginning to work out in us.