In a BBC Radio 4 show, Mr Jeffrey John, who is now Dean of St Albans, urges a revision of the traditional explanation, known as "penal substitution".Christian theology has taught that because humans have sinned, God sent Christ as a substitute to suffer and die in our place."In other words, Jesus took the rap and we got forgiven as long as we said we believed in him," says Mr John. "This is repulsive as well as nonsensical. It makes God sound like a psychopath. If a human behaved like this we'd say that they were a monster."Mr John argues that too many Christians go through their lives failing to realise that God is about "love and truth", not "wrath and punishment". He offers an alternative interpretation, suggesting that Christ was crucified so he could "share in the worst of grief and suffering that life can throw at us". (Daily Telegraph)
In the light of the above I was drawn to have another look at a book I read last year. That book is Marcus Borg’s, "The Heart of Christianity" (a real gem), in which he looks at among other things atonement theology. Borg is very clear that the traditional understanding of Jesus’ life and death as expressed in the signature phrase: "Jesus died for your sins" is not the only interpretation of Jesus life and death in the New Testament and that the theory only found mature formulation in the last 900 years. The principal problem Borg sees with this approach at the expense of all others seems to be two-fold:
1: If forgiveness is possible only for those who believe "Jesus died for our sins", then a rigorous following of this approach implies a limitation on God's power to forgive!
2: It gives no account of the historical reasons for Jesus' execution!
Borg suggests that "Jesus died for our sins" in the context of the day is not so much a literal description of God's purpose or Jesus' vocation but rather a subversion of the Temple sacrificial system and a declaration of radical grace. i.e. God in Jesus has already provided the sacrifice and thus taken care of what we think seperates us from God; we have access to God apart from the temple and its system of sacrifice. He actually describes it as 'Amazing Grace'
By way of illustration of the dangers of this singular understanding of Jesus life and death he goes on to quote another author, Barbara Ehrenreich, who was attending a tent revival meeting where the theme of the sermon was "Jesus on the Cross". As she listened she found herself thinking and here I quote as it is too good to paraphrase:
"It would be nice if someone would read this sad-eyed crowd the Sermon on the Mount, accompanied by a rousing commentary on income inequality and the need for a hike in the minimum wage. But Jesus makes his appearance here only as a corpse; the living man, the wine-guzzling vagrant and precocious socialist, is never once mentioned, nor anything he ever had to say. Christ crucified rules, and it may be that the true business of modern Christianity is to crucify him again and again so that he can never get a word out of his mouth. I would like to stay around for the speaking in tongues, should it occur, but the mosquitoes, worked into a frenzy by all this talk of His blood, are launching a full-scale attack. I get up to leave, timing my exit for when the preacher's metronomic head movements have him looking the other way, and walk out to search for my car, half expecting to find Jesus out there in the dark, gagged and tethered to a tent pole,"
I think the difficulty arises for us again and again when we insist on painting our faith using only a palette of 2 colours! I love Leonard Sweet's ability to express in a few words the richness of reality. In his recent “The Gospel according to Starbucks”, his description of Paradox as the "midwife of truth" is so provocative. He asks rhetorically where we ever got the notion that truth is "clear and singular" when it is better described as "misty and multiple". As for heresy, it is "choosing one truth to the exclusion of all other truths" where Truth is "when a body holds together its various parts in conversation and harmony".
In summary - Jeffrey John may have used very strong and perhaps irresponsible and sensationalist language in his playing down traditional atonement theology but he did present another quite valid dimension of Jesus' life and death. He is not saying anything which many Christians have not said and thought before and it may be that he has played into the hands of those who are actively looking for the chinks in the armour of a person who is more of an anathema to some because of his sexuality and not his theology (Or am I being cynical?). We do well to remember that the fullness of who Christ was and is cannot be contained by any of our theologies and can perhaps be best experienced by immersing ourselves in the paradox and complexities of faith which are of themselves food for our souls.