Reconstructing God

I have been taken to task for not addressing the issue of life after death, before moving on from deconstructing the Christian faith to reconstructing it, but there is a reason for this. While talk of God is speculative, we have at least an experience of the numinous which we look to understand and define, but with ideas of life after death, we have no more than hopes, fears and dogma. We, obviously, have no experience of life after death, at best we have hints and intimations, yet all too often Christianity is completely focussed on and coloured by its beliefs about the issue, so that, for instance, salvation is about securing a place in heaven and the impulse to act righteously is motivated by the hope of reward or the fear of punishment, rather than doing good for goodness’ sake. So, yes, there needs to be such a discussion, the place for it is in a footnote, not in the main body of theology, and so we shall turn to it later.

So, if we are to begin the process of reconstruction, we need to begin with God, and we need to begin where we ended our previous treatment of the matter, standing in the footprints of the first humans, gazing out at the infinity of space, and sensing with them, the presence of the wholly other.


The first thing to note is that the Bible was the creation of a community and the images of God that occur in it are also the creation of that community. It was a particular community that placed God into the Bible and it did so by locating God in its developing collection of folktales, legends, sagas, novellas and myths, in various guises as the main character, because those who conceived the Bible in the first place, made God the primary actor in the story of how they themselves came to be. God is then, an objective reality, the wholly other which we discover in encounter and we then invent images in order to express what we experience in that encounter. We discover God in our experience of the world—not through miracles, not through sudden revelations from mountaintops, not in disembodied voices or incarnated in a human being, but in the everyday experience of the other’s presence in our lives, in our history and in the natural world. But simply to discover the other raises problems: how do we know that what we encounter is God? Why do we identify whatever it is we experience as God? How do we link this personal experience of what we term God to the God of our community’s historical experience? It is at this point that we recognise that all of our images of God are metaphors.  What the Bible, and indeed the writings of the Church Fathers, theologians and mystics, present us with is a range of metaphors: God as a king, a judge, a shepherd, a lover, a parent (and sometimes even as a tyrant). This God can be pleased or angered, and can cry, rejoice, or punish. This “personhood” of God portrays God as a rich, fascinating, and very human character, sometimes God is even portrayed as speaking in the first person: because we are devoted to God, God will deliver us, will keep us safe, when we call upon God, God will answer us; will be with us in distress, will rescue us, honour us, let us live to a ripe old age and show us his salvation. (Ps 91:14–16) In practice the Bible and the Christian tradition is a treasury of metaphors, enabling us to see the unseen, hear the unheard, and grasp the ungraspable. When we come to our experience with a particular metaphor of God in mind, such as our lover, it our shepherd, or our parent, we tend to experience God as what the metaphor encapsulates – often to such a degree that we forget that  it is a metaphor, and so God becomes literally, almost objectively, lover, friend, judge, king, mourner, tyrant or lawgiver, as pleased, or angry, or punitive, or any of the many other characterizations of God which we find in the Bible and which resonate with us as individuals.  The question we then have to ask ourselves is this: where did this treasury of metaphors come from? Where did our ancestors find the various characterizations of God that they then wove into the fabric of the biblical texts and so made part of our lives?


The answer must be that they emerged because our ancestors looked at the most immediate source of information about what God must be like. That is, they looked inside themselves (or at one another) and what they saw there, the totality of their human experience, was how they envisaged the “other”, the numen to be. God emerges as a person, with all of the characteristics of a person and with all of the accomplishments, failings, ups and downs, and tensions that accompany a person’s life, because that is how they experienced others – we still do the same thing in attempting to understand animal behaviour, frequently attributing to them emotions, motives and rationalisations from our own experience which seem to fit their responses, circumstances and actions. So, the numen is perceived to be as we are, not because it is, but because that is the human default for understanding that which is seperate to us and stands out as a Thou to our I. Where else could these human images have come from if not from the self-awareness that our ancestors had of themselves as human beings? Did our ancestors invent God? Was God a product of their rich imaginations? Is God no more than fiction? No, it is far more likely that they lived with an experience of the other, of the numen, of God, as a presence in their day-to-day lives and in their attempts to understand what the world was and what human life meant. In that experience, they came across this multifaceted God, which they then incorporated into their thinking and into their texts. There is no question, then, of the subjective quality of all human thinking about God. There is no underestimating the revolutionary nature of this gradual awareness of the true nature of all religious claims. It requires pluralism—not only among different human beings who have different and equally subjective experiences of God that lead to different images, different metaphors, but also among the many and often contradictory, shifting images of God that occur in our texts. The Bible was canonized, which means that the text as it was received became fixed and authoritative, but it is in fact the product of different communities at different times composed by different individuals, each recording their own particular experience of God and the metaphors of God that emerge from these experiences. So it is pluralistic, not only in terms of the  community, but also in the way in which God was conceived by various communities in their specific contexts.

Once we accept that this is so then, along with subjectivity, comes the understanding that all religious and theological claims have to be understood as provisional. Nothing is objective, true, or fixed forever. We can read the Bible as a story of the evolution of these images of God because none of the images is ever completely constant. The God of the Genesis myths and legends, for example, is very different from the God of the prophets. Whether a warrior, a king, a consoling mother, or a judge, these different images are all equally provisional in the sense that they apply to certain aspects of our life experiences. The metaphor fortifies or canonizes each of these images. The creation of these images is potentially a rich and diverse process but is also one which is subjective, provisional, elaborate and changing and this is healthy, it is only when that process is co-opted by specific religions whose hierarchies act, not simply as a mediating channel of the divine, but the final arbiter of which metaphors are appropriate and which are proscribed and, therefore, of what is a valid experience of the other and what is not.

Feurbach was wrong to suggest that we create a synthetic God in our own image, that God, as such, has no objective reality, but religion most definitely acts as a filter, if not a strait jacket, stifling the individual’s authentic experience of God. That experience is always deeply personal and individual and while we may not create God, what we bring with us to our encounter with God certainly colours what we experience of God in that encounter. If we are open, tolerant, generous and loving, we are unlikely to find condemnation from a narrow, prescriptive and judgmental God. Similarly, if we are cold, legalistic and judgmental as individuals, we are highly unlikely experience lavish, nurturing, unconditional love in our encounter with God.

Whether in metaphor or in myth, theology is contingent on our experience of that which it seeks to describe. If the metaphor works, use it. If the myth speaks to you, retain it. If not, then discard it for there are no sacred cows.


The the word “repentance” is the English word chosen to translate the Greek word “μετανοέω”, it is an unhappy translation because it is intrinsically linked in the Protestant mind with the Johannine metaphor of being “born again” and in the Catholic mind with “doing penance”. Both of which are equally plausible and yet are equally wrong, making huge and unwarranted assumptions in the process. The term actually derives from two Greek words μετᾰ- (meta alongside, beside, over and above, which, when used as a prefix indicates change as in “metamorphosis” to transform – μετά + μορφοω = “I form” ie “I change my form”) and the word  νοέω (noéō, “to perceive with the eyes, to observe, to see”), the word literally means “I change my mind when I see the broader picture.” What our understanding of atonement requires, is that we see the broader picture, that we look again and see afresh.

Most Christians—Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant—do not realize that the mainstream understanding of Jesus’ death as a sacrifice, whether to pay a ransom or debt, or to satisfy God’s outraged sense of honour or dignity, or to engage in forensic imputation (an archaic accounting term for moving money from one person’s account to that of another) of righteousness by penal substitution, were not the only models of atonement in earlier times, and, therefore, do not need to be so today. In fact by the time of John Duns Scotus, who held the chair of theology, as professor, at both Oxford and, later, Cologne universities, there was a lively debate. Duns Scotus did not question God’s redemptive work in Jesus, but did question both “what” had happened and “how” it had been achieved. He was not convinced either by the logic of the theories, or by the bombastic imagery with with they were presented. He was well aware of the Biblical basis for the them, the imagery of ransom money, debt repayment, the redemption of goods held in pawn, blood sacrifice, and even images of divine vengeance, but saw them for the metaphors they were. He saw too, their limitations, in making God’s action a reaction to human sin instead of a completely free initiative out of love. For Scotus, God was in charge of history, not human beings and certainly not human sin. He acknowledged that sacrificial metaphors would be seen as vitally necessary to a legalistic mind steeped in the concepts of retributive justice and uncomfortable with the idea of forgiveness, but for him, Jesus came to change all of that. That is the meaning of Grace, that “mercy triumphs over judgement” Jas 2:13 and Lk 6:37).

It is also the teaching of Judaism, drawn from the Hebrew Bible. In the Talmud tractate on Rosh Hashanah, it states that the books of account are opened on Rosh Hashanah, and the fate of the unrighteous, the righteous, and those in between are recorded. The names of the righteous are immediately inscribed in the book of life and they are sealed “to live”, others are allowed 10 days’ respite, with the book of judgments hanging in the balance, waiting for all to repent, before being “sealed” on Yom Kippur, thereby allowing everyone time to reflect, to feel remorse for their sins and to become righteous, the assumption being that everyone was sealed for life.)

Scotus’ theology was radically committed to protecting both the perfect freedom of God to act as he pleases, and the necessary free will of the individual. Choice is absolutely free on God’s part, and God is not in any way constrained by any external law or principle. Scotus, felt the persuasive power of such verses as Eph 1:3–6; 10–11 and Col 1:15–20, which appealed to his philosophical and aesthetic sense, more than did the crude metaphors of sacrifice and payment. These two epistles portray Jesus as the “first image in the mind of God”. Jesus, Scotus said, was not “necessary” to solve any problem posed by human sin, he was rather the gracious declaration of the primordial truth that God is for us and has been since before the creation of the cosmos. On this model, the Incarnation gives us the living “icon of the invisible God” (Col 1:15), who is the template for everything else (1:16) and who reconciles all things in himself (1:17). As the template for his followers, he is the pattern and what he does, they must copy. Jesus is God’s preemptive statement to humanity about the flow of history and of the individual’s responsibility to make informed choices and to live righteously. This runs counter to every other view of atonement, in which Jesus’ life and teaching is, strictly speaking, unnecessary as all that really matters is his crucifixion. Instead, Scotus emphasises that the atonement is God showing us that we are not required to do anything to earn forgiveness, nor did God have to do anything to make forgiveness possible, but rather it was God opening our eyes to the fact that love is God’s essence and that God is for humankind, so that we, in turn may incarnate that love and be for others.  For Scotus the anonymous writer of Ephesians got it right, this was  “so God can point to us in all future ages as examples of the incredible wealth of his grace and kindness toward us, as shown in all he has done for us … it is a gift from God, not a reward for the good things we have done … , for we are God’s masterpiece, recreated in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago.” (Eph 2:7–10). Jesus is thus, not an afterthought, but God’s original intention, both the medium and the message that God is love and God is for us. This is, most dramatically demonstrated in the crucifixion, not because Jesus had to be sacrificed (his crucifixion was, rather, because his life and teaching ran counter to the interests of those in power so that they decided to kill him), but that, even when faced with torture and a brutal death, that love would not compromise. In that most gruesome of events, we learn to trust God’s love for us. Self-giving love evokes love in return. The writer of 1 John put it this way, “let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love and God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atonement … since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us” (4:6-12).

Mainstream Christianity has so emphasized the idea of paying a debt in order to be forgiven, has been so caught up with the minutiea of an imagined transaction in which, through the substitution of Christ for us, his righteousness is somehow credited to us and our unrighteousness to him, enabling God thereby to forgive us, rather that demonstrating his transforming love, that it has ended up with a small, mean-minded God who is petty, vindictive, violent, implacably hostile and subject to supposed external laws of offended justice, and who deliberately and with premeditation, slaughters his son to solve the problem of human sin, making sin the motive for redemption instead of love, and extreme violence it’s only solution. The reality for Scotus was diametrically opposed to that: Jesus’ life and death reveal both the falsity and the absurdity of the very idea, let alone the necessity of, “sacrificial” religion. Jesus did not come to change the mind of God about human beings, he came, rather, to change the mind of human beings about God, which grounds Christianity in love and freedom and creates a highly coherent and winsome religion, consonant with the teaching and example of the historical Jesus (see Matt 9:13). Something which woos and coaxes and draws people toward lives marked by inner depth, reconciliation and healing. On this model nothing changed at the crucifixion of Jesus, but our eyes were opened to the reality so we could experience μετανοια.

If we set aside the mythic imagery, this is surely a model of atonement with which Progressive Christians may work. That at the core of life in the universe, we have free will and with it the responsibility to choose to do well, to live righteously and that when we fail to do so we are not condemned, but need to pick ourselves up and start over. That living well is living in such a way as to incarnate agape love and to act in the best interests of others, particularly those who are more vulnerable: the powerless, the poor and the marginalised in society, not to their despite. That we have in the life and teaching of the historical Jesus, an example of that radical, indiscriminate and empowering love and in him, the revelation of the reality that that which is beyond our comprehension, yet which confronts us in our experience, the numen, the soul of the universe, God if you will, is for us, nurturing us, enabling us, encouraging us and giving us hope.


The Exemplar or Moral Influence Model

Each of the theories of the atonement we have considered fail because they distort and compromise the idea of God which is foundational to mainstream Christianity, that of Classical Theism. In the case of the almost universally popular model, penal substitution, which has become synonymous with Reformed Christianity, Evangelicalism and Fundamentslism and which is found increasingly in Roman Catholicism, it is a theory which transforms God into an implacable, violent, irascible, monster, premeditating the murder of his son, creating humans with an inability to choose to do good, demonstrating partiality in electing some to salvation and others to reprobation purely by divine fiat, and disproportionately condemning the reprobate to eternal, conscious torment in hell for sins committed in their brief lifetimes.

The God of Classical Theism, as we have previously seen, is plagued by inconsistencies abd fails to stand up under close scrutiny. The idea of an omnipotent, omniscient, wholly good, personal being is incoherent and so is thoroughly discredited. Were it not, the models of atonement, which those who believe in such a being propose, would surely render this God incapable of being loved and unfit to be worshipped. There is, however, another model, one which avoids the pitfall of making God complicit in evil and which is much more consonant with the explicit witness of the Hebrew Bible (our Old Testament) and with Judaism. It still relies, in its classical expression, on both the literalisation of mythic language and on the crucifixion of Jesus, though it need not do so. It is to this, largely ignored and almost universally maligned model that we now turn: The Exemplar or Moral Influence Model. It almost fails to appear on first sight to be a model of atonement, so inured are we by thinking of atonement in terms of blood sacrifice and the propitiation of a wrathful deity. However, the meaning of the word קפר (kippur) is not appeasement, but reconciliation; atonement is at-one-ment.

The tiny handful of theologians who developed this theory include, Robert Pullan (1080-1147), an English theologian, who was notable for having refused the offer to be made a bishop, preferring to devote himself instead to the study of philosophy; his French contemporary, Peter Abelard (1079-1142); the pre-eminent philosopher and theologian of the twelfth century; the Scotsman, John Duns Scotus (1266-1308), Franciscan friar, university professor, philosopher, and theologian, one of the three most important philosophers of Western Europe in the High Middle Ages; and his illustrious student, the English philosopher-theologian, William of Occam (1285-1349), widely regarded as the most influential philosopher of the 14th century. They were critical of the conclusions of such as Anselm and Aquinas and maintained that atonement was not dependent on such things as the incarnation – God necessarily becoming a human being for the salvation of humankind; that humankind required redemption; that humankind could not be redeemed without satisfaction being made to God; or that the only way to obtain satisfaction was by Jesus’ death by torture on the cross.

In “Executing God”, Sharon L. Baker provides a concise summary of the Exemplar theory: “We sinned and separated ourselves from God’s love. Because of sin, we lost sight of how to live according to God’s will. But God sent Jesus to demonstrate God’s love and to give us an example of how we should live. Jesus served as a perfect example by fully revealing God’s love to us. By dying on the cross, Jesus demonstrated the extravagance of divine grace and the lengths to which God will go in order to redeem us. When we look upon the cross of Christ and see God’s incredible love for us, we desire union with that love. Our desire acts as an invitation to the Holy Spirit who then infuses us, fills us, and empowers us. Through the Holy Spirit, God pours the divine love into our hearts (Rom 5:5) and by doing so, justifies us and saves us by forgiving our sin. Because of the power of God’s Spirit, we then live our redeemed lives in imitation of God’s love revealed in Jesus.”

Even for mainstream Christians this model has significant strengths, its sole weakness for them is that it is subjective, rather than objective, however, unless one believes in the God of classical theism, any model is ultimately going to be subjective, other models only appearing to be objective through their use of literalised mythic language and psychodrama.

The strengths of this model are many and lie in the fact that it focuses on the life and teaching as well as the death of Jesus, rather than exclusively on his crucifixion; it highlights God’s love instead of assuming that God is retributive by nature; it does not suggest that God is in need of any kind of satisfaction to appease his offended honour; it presents God as forgiving sins unconditionally out of love, thereby highlighting grace; it provides an exemplar for how the believer should live, making ethics more central than do other models; it emphasizes the work of the Spirit in making this model operative in the life of the individual; and it focuses on how the believer is moved to love for, and reconciliation with, both God and other people.


Penal Substitution

The model that has been most prominent within Protestant Christiatnity since the Reformation and still grips Fundamentalists and  Evangelicals, is the concept of penal substitution. The model began to be developed well before the Reformation in the writings of Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), who held that Jesus’ life and death were offered as a sacrifice to the Father which was accepted as sufficient satisfaction for the sin of humankind. However, it was with the Reformation and the writings of John Calvin (1509-1564) that the model was refined.

Calvin’s God was a stern and wrathful judge. Calvin declared that the sacrifice of Christ was deliberately orchestrated by God from before creation, let alone the sin of Adam, in order to satisfy the cosmic demands of retributive justice. Calvin formalized and popularized penal substitution, making it the cornerstone of his theology. His thinking reflected the growing focus of his time on criminal law and the punishment of the guilty. Seen through this lens, God was the strict avenger of sin. In the 19th century, the Hodges, Charles and Archibald Alexander, father and son, and later BB Warfield, who between them, dominated theology at Princeton from 1851 to 1902, added their weight to the theory, thus making it the trademark of evangelicalism.

The penal theory states that Jesus dying on the cross suffered the penalty for humankind’s sins. It is derived from the idea that divine forgiveness must satisfy divine justice, that is, that God is neither willing nor able to simply forgive sin without first requiring full satisfaction for it. It further states that God gave his son, the incarnate Christ, to suffer the death, punishment and curse due to fallen humanity as the penalty for human sin. Jesus fulfilled the demands of justice, not for unrelated third parties, but for those identified with him. As one Evangelical put it, “when Christ suffered on the cross, the full measure of the wrath of God was poured out upon him so that the Father was satisfied. In the process, the spiritual suffering of Christ was infinite as God turned his back on his son, who became at that point, the very embodiment of sin. God, in order to redeem sinful human beings punished his son for the sin of humankind, as only God the son could bear the infinite wrath of God the Father.”

One of the objections to this theory is that it justifies extreme violence on the part of God to achieve his purpose, which Steve Chalke characterised as “cosmic child abuse”. Evangelicals counter this by saying that, in that Jesus was himself God, it was God taking the punishment upon himself rather than putting it on someone else.

Another objection runs tangentially from the idea that Jesus fulfills the demands of justice for those identified with him. For while there are those who maintain that anyone who chooses to identify with Christ is atoned for, just as there are some who maintain that the effects of Christ’s atonement are universally applicable, Calvin opted for a third alternative, a position which is generally referred to as “limited atonement”.

Limited atonement is concerned with God’s original plan in sending Christ into the world to die on the cross. Was it God’s intention to send his son to die on the cross to make salvation possible for everyone, but with the possibility that his death would be effective for no one? In other words, did God simply send Christ to the cross to make salvation possible, or was redemption of specific sinners the eternal plan of God, a plan perfectly conceived and perfectly executed so that the will of God to save his elect was accomplished by the atoning work of Christ.

For Reformed Christians who follow the teaching of Calvin this does not mean that a limit is placed on the value (or merit) of the atonement of Jesus Christ. They maintain that the atoning work of Christ is sufficient for everyone (that is, its meritorious value is sufficient to cover the sins of all people) but it was God’s will that the atonement should only effectively redeem those and only those who were chosen from all eternity and given to Christ by the Father. “Particular redemption” is often considered a more favorable term, because the point of the doctrine is not to limit the mercy of God, but to make clear that Jesus did not die for every sinner on the earth, only for his particular people. Calvinists argue that this is why, in John 6, Jesus is recorded as saying that he came to save those whom the Father had given to him, and why in Matthew (1:21) Jesus is recorded as saying that he died for his people, and in John (15:13) he is recorded as saying that he died for his friends. To say that this doctrine is contentious would be an understatement.

Clearly the theory is of great comfort to those who believe themselves to be the elect and thus, saved, but there are six significant problems with it. Firstly, it makes God subject to a standard of law and justice external to and higher than himself. God cannot choose to simply forgive because this higher law demands that sin be punished and God cannot get around this reality, God cannot choose to simply forgive even if he wants to. Secondly, it requires that the debt of sin must be paid before forgiveness may occur. Yet once a debt is fully paid no forgiveness is required. Thirdly, it maintains that the only way to pay the debt of sin is by punishment because somehow that satisfies God’s wrath which would require us to see God’s essential nature as basically retributive and vindictive rather than restorative, that for God retribution triumphs over mercy negating the assertion that God is love. Fourthly, it makes of God a monster, not merely complicit in evil, but it’s author, since he premeditates the crucifixion of his son from before the creation of the cosmos and brings it about in time. Fifthly, it nullifies the life, work and teachings of the historical Jesus all of which are reduced to little more than a footnote to his real purpose, which was to provide himself as an atoning sacrifice. Finally, unless the obscenity of limited atonement is correct and Christ suffered only for the God’s “elect,” it would mean that God punishes the same sin twice: first when he lays it on Jesus and then again, when he holds the unrepentant sinner guilty of it and punishes them for all eternity.


The Satisfaction Model

The medieval philosopher and theologian, Anselm of Bec, who was Archbishop of Canterbury between 1033 – 1109, published his views on the atonement in 1098, in his book, Cur Deus Homo (Why Did God Become Human?). He proposed what became known as the “satisfaction” theory, a model which he drew from medieval feudal society. Anselm found  the commonly accepted christus victor theory which had been around for a thousand years of Christian history no longer communicated the gospel clearly to his contemporaries. He also felt it granted too much power and authority to the Devil.

The satisfaction atonement theory can best be understood when seen in light of the historical context in which it emerged. The dominant social structure of the time was the feudal system; a carefully managed series of reciprocal obligations. Lords living in castles offered protection to villagers (vassals) and kept the community in order by maintaining justice and the rights of the people. In return, vassals honoured their lords by paying homage in words, deeds and the payment of money or goods. On the religious scene, it was a time in which penance was practiced as a way of obtaining forgiveness for sins committed.

Although Anselm may not have been conscious of it, he framed his theological beliefs about atonement according to the worldview of his culture and contemporary church experience. So the hypotheses of the satisfaction atonement theory are quite predictable: God, the Lord, provided a perfectly balanced world for humans to inhabit. Yet, by disobeying God, humans offended his honour and sent the universe spinning out of kilter. In order to escape punishment in hell, humans must “satisfy” the debt due God’s offended honour which will allow God to restore order to the universe. However the problem is that an offense against an infinite God can never be paid by a finite person; it had to be paid by another infinite person – which would need to be God himself. That is why God sent the God-man, Jesus, to suffer and die in order to provide satisfaction to God and restore his honour, although Anselm insisted that the divine part of Jesus was spared the suffering. What makes this theory operative is that this “excess penance” is then transferred to all who believe this narrative and the need for punishment is eliminated.

There are some positive things to be said about this theory. Anselm succeeded in explaining to his contemporaries what Jesus accomplished on the cross using images easily intelligible to them. Furthermore, this theory deals with sin in an objective way and on a cosmic level by offering a psychologically plausible way of confronting the problem and in doing so it appeals to common human perceptions of right and wrong, guilt and innocence, and punishment and pardon.

However, there are some significant weaknesses in the satisfaction atonement theory as well. One is that, while it can be argued that Anselm’s theory portrays God in a more positive light, it was but a short step to move from the Lord whose honour was offended to the stern and wrathful judge intent on punishing sin reinforcing the idea of an angry, demanding God. But there are other, more significant problems with the satisfaction atonement theory itself. The first is that it makes God subservient to laws of the universe external to God which require satisfaction to be demand and that in a violent manner. Virtually all of Anselm’s images are drawn from his culture and little attempt is made to synchronize them with biblical language. Two texts frequently used to defend this model are Rom. 3:21-26 and Heb. 9: 7-12. However, close scrutiny of these texts reveals that the focus is on the process of cleansing or purification of sin, there is no hint of satisfaction rhetoric present.

The second significant problem is that it presents a non-biblical quid pro quo dynamic; we sinned and offended God, so now God must make us suffer in return. This concept is completely antithetical to the historical Jesus’ teachings about how forgiveness works. Once a debt is paid and the books are balanced, what is there to forgive?

The third major problem is that by focusing so intently on dealing with the debt of sin, there is little emphasis given to the impact of a restored relationship and what impact that will have on relationships with others. For Anselm, redemption is all about gaining freedom from indebtedness, whereas the New Testament concept of redemption is about gaining freedom from one’s slavery to sin; once freed from sin we become servants of God. The theory, in this way, privileges the concept of retributive justice over restorative justice.

Finally, it makes God complicit with evil. According to this view God needed the violent death of an innocent person, so he ordained it and saw it through. However in the process he uses evil men with their evil devices.
As in the later, penal model, this theory alienates one person of the Trinity from another in the process of restoring honour. This is an example of the illogical notion of a kingdom divided against itself.

More than a millennium after Jesus’ death, Anselm’s satisfaction model of atonement opened the door to a second millennium dominated by the obscene thought of divine punishment for human sin as the only way to avoid eternal damnation in hell. A perception of atonement operative for many Christians even today.


The Christus Victor Model

In the 2nd century CE a different perspective on the atonement began to develop, one which later came to be known as the “Christus victor” atonement theory.

The Church at the time lived in tension with the dominant social structure of the Roman Empire due to its claim that Jesus, as the Christ, rather than Caesar, was Lord (κυριος = kurios, the one to whom a piece of property (especially a slave) belongs and who has the sole power to dispose of or use of it as they choose). This resulted in major tensions between the church and contemporary power structures. This was a struggle which the Church, drawing on Platonic dualism (which tended to see human reality as a constant battle between good and evil forces) projected onto the wide screen of the universe, portraying Jesus (as the Christ) as the champion who defeated the enemy on behalf of hapless humans.

The classic version of the theory, sometimes referred to as the re-capitulation theory, was developed by Irenaeus (130-202 CE). He held that, while by nature mortal, humans had been granted immortality by God. However, through the fall of Adam, humans had reverted back to being mortals and in the process the devil had claimed them as his possession. Jesus’ mission was then, to reclaim humanity; to undo the effects of the sin of Adam. On this midel, in order to accomplish this objective, he needed to become human through the incarnation and so begin the process of systematically reclaiming or “re-capitulating” humanity. Naturally the devil resisted this process and in the ensuing “cosmic” battle Jesus becomes a casualty. However, in his resurrection, Christ becomes the “victor”, liberating humanity.

In a sense this is still the ransom model, but by recasting it as an epic struggle, it avoids the grubbiness of duping the devil through a trick or paying him a ransom to redeem enslaved humans from his ownership.

It should be noted, however, that, while most early Christian writers held to one form of the Ransom/Christus Victor theory, they did not consider this the only way to speak about the saving work of Christ but used other metaphors as well.

The model has some significant strengths, especially compared to later theories that emerged in the second millennium:

First, it addresses the issue of sin objectively on both a personal and corporate level and through the use of myth moves humanity from a state of captivity to sin to one of liberation from it. Second, it acknowledges the existence and reality of evil without suggesting that it is in every instance the fault of human beings: some things are simply evil by their nature. Finally, it achieves this without a hint of Christ having to appease a wrathful God in order to do so.

However, the model does have significant weaknesses. Through its use of mythic language and imagery, it posits the existence of yet another personal being alongside God, one with almost infinite power with whom God must contend. If this is seem as pure psych-drama this is problematic enough, but it leaves the door open to being taken literally and it is a door through which the overwhelming majority of Christians have passed over the millennia. This, in turn, then creates the possibility of the believe evading the responsibility for their actions in yielding to their evil impulse, with the excuse that they were overwhelmed by the devil and acted under his conpulsion. The third weakness with this model is that the concepts of grace and forgiveness are overshadowed by the story of the cosmic battle between God and the devil. Finally, the model requires the violent death of Jesus to accomplish the liberation of humanity.

By the 6th century CE the rhetoric of “Christus victor”, began to wane, largely one suspects because, by that time, the Church was no longer caught up in the struggle with the power structures in society, but was identified with them, so that the imagery of a cosmic battle between good and evil no longer had the resonace it once had.


The issues of sin (original and personal), guilt, repentance and forgiveness lead us to consider the idea of “atonement. The New Testament’s radical departure from the consistent teaching of the Old Testament (the Hebrew Bible and hence, that of Judaism today) is that this required the death of Jesus. Sin and atonement form the heart of Paul’s preaching, the theology of the Christ cult as it developed into proto-orthodoxy, and of contemporary orthodox Christian thinking. Despite these ideas resting on shakey foundations which we have already rejected (God understood as an omnipotent, omniscient, personal being and Jesus as the physical incarnation of this God, a hybrid God-Man), we need to understand the idea as it developed and consider its weaknesses before proposing s viable alternative.

In each of the models that Christian orthodoxy has proposed, there is a commonality which their gross and wooden literalism share, which surely must be questioned by any thinking person with any moral sensitivity which is that the God they reveal is constrained by events and consequences outside of their control. The God they posit is one who is either reactive and taken by surprise by the possibility of sin or is cynically and callously proactive in creating a cosmos in which sin is deliberately factored in. The first undermines that God’s omniscience to the extent that it credits the lack of foresight we would expect of the average 5 year old at play, the second undermines that God’s goodness to the extent that it reveals the indifferent morality of a psychopath, pulling the wings off flies to observe the results. Either way this God is compromised. More significantly though, the God that these models reveal, is willing to resort to extreme violence to achieve their ends.

1. The Ransom Model

For about nine hundred years from the time of Irenaeus and Origen up until the time of Anselm, the ransom theory was popular among the church fathers. According to this theory Jesus’ death was a sacrifice which served as a “ransom” (λυτρόν = lutron, the price of freeing a slave) to deliver man from the bondage to Satan and from the corruption and death that were the necessary consequences of sin. The Church fathers tended to interpret Jesus’ ransom saying (Mk 10:45) very literally to mean that he made a payment in exchange for which human beings were set free from their bondage.

This interpretation naturally raised the question as to whom the ransom was paid. The obvious answer to this question seemed to be the devil – Satan – because it was the devil who held men in bondage (2 Tim 2:25-26). In 1 John (5:19) we find a very sweeping statement: “We know that we are of God, and the whole world is in the power of the evil one.” According to this theory, God grants the desire and ability to repent and to come to know the truth, and then provides the means by which they may escape from the shackles of the devil, by whom they were enslaved through Adam’s fall. The means of escape provided by God is his agreement to surrender his son (Jesus as the Christ) to Satan’s power in exchange for the human beings that he held captive.

Not all of the Church fathers agreed with this theory, however. Gregory Nazianzus, for example, was sharply critical of it. He was unwilling to concede that Satan was the one to whom atonement was directed. However the majority of the church fathers agreed with Origen who wrote,
“To whom gave he his life ‘a ransom for many’? It cannot have been to God. Was it not then to the evil one? For he held us until the ransom for us, even the soul of Jesus, was paid to him, being deceived into thinking that he could be its lord, and not seeing that he could not bear the torment of holding it.”

As Origen’s statement revealed, the fathers typically thought of this arrangement between God and Satan as a very clever trick on God’s part (the idea behind CS Lewis’ “deep magic” in “The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe”). God tricked Satan into making this exchange, as, in his essence as the second person of the Trinity, the Christ could not possibly have been held captive by Satan, but in his incarnation as Jesus, he appeared to be just as weak and vulnerable as any other human being. It was, according to this theory, only after the captives had been freed by Satan that Christ revealed his full divine power by rising from the dead and breaking the bonds of death and hell and thus escaping from Satan’s power.

Gregory of Nyssa gives the following very colourful analogy to illustrate how God cleverly deceived Satan. “In order to secure that the ransom in our behalf might be easily accepted by him who required it, the Deity was hidden under the veil of our nature, that so, as with ravenous fish, the hook of the Deity might be gulped down along with the bait of flesh.”

Interestingly, despite the fact that, according to this theory, the devil was misled by the incarnation, there was a widespread conviction that the incarnation and death of Christ were not actually necessary for the redemption of humankind, rather God chose to achieve our liberation from Satan’s power by Christ’s death and ransom payment, he was not constrained  to do so. St. Augustine wrote, “they are fools who say the wisdom of God could not otherwise free men than by taking human nature, and being born of a woman, and suffering all that he did at the hands of sinners.”

The reason the church fathers  developed believed this to be true is that they  focussed primarily on how God overcame the consequences of sin (death, corruption and the bondage of the will), rather than on the fact of sin. They maintained that God’s omnipotence meant that God could deal with the consequences without an atonement as such and, therefore, Christ’s death was not essential. God’s justice did not require this, it was simply God’s arbitrary choice to take on human nature in Jesus as an appropriate way to deal with human mortality.

In saying this the Church fathers, especially the Greek-speaking fathers, tended to shift the emphasis away from Christ’s death to his incarnation as the principal means of overcoming human sin and mortality. By taking on a human nature himself Christ redeemed our nature and brought healing,  immortality and eternal life to our nature. So Christ’s death was the climax to his life. This emphasis continues in Eastern Orthodoxy today. It’s great weaknesses, however, are that it portrays not only God as a personal being, but also assumes an equally real devil with whom God is involved in a life and death struggle for the eternal destiny of humankind, and a ready willingness, and an apparent indifference, to the sacrifice of Jesus as no more than a pawn in a cosmic game of chess.



For traditional Christianity, both Catholic and Protestant, human beings are fallen, enslaved to sin, their wills in bondage, unable to choose righteousness and, therefore, in need of salvation. This is not the picture we see in the Hebrew Bible (our Old Testament), nor is it part of Jewish theology. Judaism has always held that we do not need that sort of salvation, on the contrary, as we have seen, the Torah presents righteousness and sin as matters of free choice (Genesis 4:7), albeit with consequences, although these are temporal, rather than eternal.  The Torah does not teach, or even mention, that we are “born in sin”. Just the opposite. We have the ability to choose. We have both the free will to choose and the responsibility to choose wisely. If we choose to do what is right, what is good, we are righteous. The Christian dogma that no one can be righteous in the eyes of God is completely contradictory to the teaching of the Torah and not borne out elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, indeed Third Isaiah was able to say of Israel, “All your nation is righteous, they will inherit the earth eternally; the shoot that I have planted, the work of my hands, something to be proud of” (Isaiah 60:21). Similarly in First Isaiah we find these words, “open the gates, so that the righteous nation that keeps the faith may enter” (Isaiah 26:2). For the Jew, if they keep the Law (Torah), they are righteous. The prophets warned the people of the consequences of failing to keep the Law frequently. They castigated them, often calling them wicked when they did not obey the Law, but the consequences of this wickedness were always temporal: national weakness, defeat, social decay, destruction and exile and for the Jew, salvation was from such things as these. It included such ideas as: rescue from the nation’s enemies; restoration of the nation and its symbols (such as the temple and temple worship); a state of “shalom” (wholeness, peace and harmony) among people; the inauguration of the age to come (the Messianic age); the free enjoyment of their own land; and the inauguration of a new covenant between Israel and God. For the Jews of the first century, it also included being rescued from Roman dominion, which they believed would occur after they suffered (a purification process) for past breaches of their covenant with God. (See Deuteronomy 4:32, Isaiah 40:1-2, Jerermiah 31:27-40, Ezekiel 18; 36:24-28, and Hosea 14:2.) Although God, in the Torah, taught the sanctification of the individual, they were expected to function together (spiritually) and be accountable to one another.


Salvation too, was a corporate, national matter, never an individual matter. For the individual, it was a case of remorse, repentance and restoration here and now, not salvation from future judgment. The problem for Christians is that we misunderstand the whole concept of righteousness, because we fail to understand it on the Bible’s own terms. We consider righteousness to mean never sinning, but while the Hebrew Bible makes it clear that this is something which it is impossible to attain (“There is no person on earth so righteous that he does only good and never sins” (Eccl. 7:20)), sinlessness is not the Biblical definition of righteousness. Indeed, it is almost the opposite of what it means, Biblically, to be righteous.   What it means to be a righteous person is explained in Proverbs (24:16): “The righteous fall even seven times and still get up, but the wicked stumble in evil.” In the Hebrew Bible, being righteous does not mean that one never sins, but that after we sin we, repent, and try again and keep on trying. Job 33:23-24 is instructive:

23 אִם־יֵ֤שׁ עָלָ֨יו׀ מַלְאָ֗ךְ מֵלִ֗יץ אֶחָ֥ד מִנִּי־אָ֑לֶף לְהַגִּ֖יד לְאָדָ֣ם יָשְׁרֽוֹ׃

24 וַיְחֻנֶּ֗נּוּ וַיֹּ֗אמֶר פְּ֭דָעֵהוּ מֵרֶ֥דֶת שָׁ֗חַת מָצָ֥אתִי כֹֽפֶר׃

“If there is only one in a thousand, who can vouch for a person’s uprightness; then God is gracious and says, ‘Redeem him from going down to the pit for I have found a ransom.’ “

Righteousness in the Hebrew Bible and in Jewish thought is an expectation, unrighteousness is an aberration which must be corrected through repentance. However, once the individual has repented, that is the end of the matter, they are no longer “wicked”, but “righteous”, and that  not through some complex process of forensic imputation of Christ’s righteousness, as in Pauline theology, but because God is gracious and always ready to forgive. “Even when I have told the wicked that he will die, but then he repents, and he does justice and righteousness; he returns the collateral when he is supposed to, he repays what he stole, he begins to live by the Laws of Life, and does not do evil, he will live, and he will not die. All the sins that he committed will not be held against him, for he has begun to do judgment and righteousness; he shall surely live” (Ezekiel 33:14-16). This is why, despite their all too human failures, David (1 Kings 11:34; 1 Kings 18:14), Moses and Abraham were considered to be righteous (indeed, despite the adultery with Bathsheba and the conspiracy to murder her husband, Uriah, every subsequent king of Judah was measured by the standard of David). That was the understanding of righteousness in the Judaism of the Second Temple, it was the understanding of the historical Jesus. When the rich young ruler came to Jesus, claiming to have kept the Law (Matthew 19:16–30; Mark 10:17–31 and Luke 18:18–30), Jesus did not correct him, he gave him one more thing to do and was saddened when the man walked away.


However, when we then turn to the New Testament we find a totally different picture. “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household” (Acts 16:31). “He has saved us and called us to a holy life not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace” (2 Timothy 1:9). “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9) “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:16). “So Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him (Hebrews 9:28). “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). “Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life” (1 John 5:12). “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18). Again and again it is made clear that salvation is solely and exclusively through faith in Christ and the merits of his death on the cross. Further, that salvation is from the eternal consequences of God’s judgment and is not linked to the Christian’s present experience in this life. Even so, the Christian’s salvation is entirely contingent on their ongoing faith: “For if after they have escaped the pollutions of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, they are again entangled therein, and overcome, the latter end is worse with them than the beginning. For it would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than, after they have known it, to turn from the holy commandment delivered unto them” (2 Peter 2:20-21).

Although each of the writers of the New Testament has something to say about salvation, Paul was the clearest and most thorough-going in developing what is meant by it. In doing so he developed the most fundamental of Christian doctrines, that of justification by faith. The Greek verb for justify (δικαίω = dikaio) means to “declare righteous”; its background was legal. It reflected the judicial verdict that a convicted criminal had paid his or her fine or served his or her sentence and thus was now free to leave the court in which the justification had been pronounced. For Paul the result of Jesus’ death on behalf of sinful human beings who put their faith in Him is to have their fine paid and their sentence served so that they are free to enjoy eternal life.

Paul was passionate about this. In other respects he could endorse morally neutral practices for the sake of bringing as many as possible to salvation (1 Cor. 9:19–23), but when he believed the principle of justification by faith to be threatened by those who would replace it with what he termed “works-righteousness”, he was virulent in his denunciation. This doctrine was the keystone of the theology of the Christ-cult, the group which in time became the proto-orthodox. In Galatians (1:8) he wrote, “even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let that person be eternally condemned”. Any attempt to portray the means of salvation in terms of obedience to laws or ordinances, Paul believed, so perverted and compromised the gospel. In this he utterly repudiated the teaching of Judaism and the Hebrew Bible.

Paul developed his ideas further in 1 Corinthians (chapters 1–4, abd 15) where he focussed on the Crucifixion and the Resurrection as the heart of Christ’s work for humanity and in 2 Corinthians (5:11–21) where he portrays reconciliation (the replacement of hostility and alienation with friendship) as the central act of God in Christ for humanity. However, Paul’s most systematic treatment of his doctrine of salvation, in which he presents the the plight of humankind and its remedy, is in his epistle to the Romans. Here he spells out in detail the fact that all humans have rebelled against God through sin, that none is able to escape from God’s condemnation (Rom. 1:18–3:20), and that this disaster required God to become a human being in order to provide the atoning sacrifice to affect their “redemption” (the purchase of a slave’s freedom), since only one who was both fully divine and fully human could accomplish this (Rom. 3:21–31). Jesus, in this model, was the incarnation of God and, therefore, it is faith in what he achieved on the cross that brings humans back into right relationship with God and with that, achieves for the believer, eternal life.

There could not be a more complete rejection of the Biblical concepts of righteousness and salvation than this and with it the movement that was to become Christianity, violently severed itself from its roots in Judaism and from the historical Jesus. For the orthodox Christian, salvation was, and remains, a terrifyingly serious matter.


In orthodox Christian thought, human beings are enslaved to sin through the effects of original sin, there is no free will. Humans sin because they are sinners. However, according to the Bible sin is an act of rebellion, rather than an intrinsic state of being.

The Bible actually teaches that as a result of Adam’s sin, humankind was given an inclination to do evil, as we saw previously. This inclination is described in Genesis, “The inclination of man’s heart is evil from his youth.”  (Gen. 8:21). An inclination is a pull or a drive acting upon soneone, but it is not that person. The inclination does not make the person a sinner, nor are they in a constant state of sin. Rather, that inclination, as a temptation to do wrong, endows that person with the free will to choose and the ability to choose good over evil. That is point of  Deuteronomy 30:15: “I have placed life and death before you, blessing and the curse. So choose life in order that you may live.” The ability to exercise the free will to resist the evil impulse is not just wishful thinking, it is a directive. Genesis 4:7, which mentions sin by name for the very first time in the Bible states, “Sin is crouching at the door; and it desires you, but you are able to rule over it.”  If sin were irresistible so that no one could overcome the impulse to do wrong this would be the logical place for the God to say so. However, this passage teaches that although it is inevitable that we will experience the inclination (temptation if you prefer) to sin, we clearly have an inner ability to overcome the temptation. In the myth of Cain and Abel from which this verse is taken, God is characterised as assuring us that this is so. The constant theme of the Hebrew Bible, which underlies the teaching of the historical Jesus, is exemplified by the Psalmist (37:27) is that humans should “turn from evil and do good.”

That humans often do give in to the impulse to do wrong, and therefore sin, is a simple fact of life. It is their choice, not something that they are bound to do (it is the obscenity of Calvinism that it, on the one hand has it that humans are enslaved to sin and unable by their own efforts to do anything other that sin, and on the other hand to insist that they are deserving of God’s wrath for acting accordingly). However, when the individual does act on that impulse, there remains the possibility of repentance.


The Hebrew word for repentance is Tshuvah – (תשובה) which literally means “to return” (to God) regretting and rejecting the sin we chose (Isaiah 55:7) “Let the wicked forsake his way and let him return to the Lord.”  It is something the individual has to do, just as it was the individual that chose to sin. We see the same thing stated elsewhere: “When a wicked man turns away from his wickedness which he has committed and practices justice and righteousness, he will save his life”  (Ezekiel 18:27), while the Book of Chronicles says, “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”  2 Chronicles 7:14


There are two common misconceptions regarding the teaching of the Hebrew Bible amongst Christians. The first, based, it has to be said, on passages in the New Testament (particularly such as Hebrews 9:22) that without a blood sacrifice there can be no forgiveness of sin. While there is absolutely no mention of blood in the verses quoted above, the fact is that the Hebrew Bible does command blood sacrifices, although under a very narrow and specific set of circumstances, and then solely as a means of motivating sincere repentance. In the Hebrew Bible sacrifices were required primarily for certain unintentional sins: “If a person sins unintentionally in any of the things which the Lord has commanded not to be done… he must present to God an unblemished bull.” (Lev. 4:1) For the Jew, an example of an unintentional sin would be violating the Sabbath
because they mistakenly thought it was a weekday, or, accidently eating a forbidden food while thinking it was permissible. The clear teaching of such as Hebrews 9:22 (“in fact, the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness”) is that a blood sacrifice is always necessary for atonement, is actually completely wrong. In addition to referring to unintentional sins, the limited nature of blood sacrifices can also be seen in Leviticus 5:13 which directs a poor penitent, who could not afford an animal offering, to offer a meal (flour) offering in its place. The reason why unintentional sins, rather than intentional sins, were singled out for sacrifices was because when something is done accidentally it is commonly excused and its seriousness is minimized. The process of bringing a sacrifice focused attention on the seriousness of sin even when it was unintentional. An animal was offered to remind the penitent that they had been careless with their own “animal passions” and the requirement that the animal needed to be examined to ensure that it was unblemished, encouraged the penitent contemplate their own blemishes. By taking the animal’s life, the penitent was forcefully  reminded of the severity of sin. Animal sacrifices were a means to a specific end, not a panacea. The Hebrew scriptures make it clear that God desires a sincere and changed person, and not rote sacrifices: “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and contrite heart”  (Ps. 51:22);
“The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination to the Lord, but the prayer of the upright is His delight” (Prov. 15:8); “I desire kindness and not sacrifices, the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.”  (Hos. 6:6)
“Doing charity than sacrifice.” 
and justice is more acceptable to the Lord” (Prov. 21:3). Almost all sins committed intentionally required only sincere repentance without an animal sacrifice, because when someone sins intentionally, they know they are doing wrong. So that when the sinner repents, they do so because they cannot delude themselves into thinking it was not serious. This is confirmed by Ezekiel 18:27: “When the wicked man turns away from his wickedness that he has committed, and does that which is lawful and right, he shall save his soul alive.” God is seen by the Jew, to be just and merciful and not to torment humans or make it difficult to repent. This is demonstrated repeatedly throughout the Hebrew Bible: “We do not present our supplications before you because of our righteousness, but because of your abundant mercy” (Dan. 9:18); “Return to Me and I shall return to you” (Mal. 3:7); “God will redeem my soul from the power of Sheol, for He will receive me.” 
(Ps. 49:15); “Israel shall be saved by the Lord, and not ashamed or confounded to all eternity.” (Isa. 45:17). The fact that blood sacrifices were not universally required for atonement for sin, clearly undermined the typology that equates the crucifixion with the forgiveness of sin.


The second common mistake made by orthodox Christians is based on a statement from the Talmud which is taken out of context: “The death of the righteous atones” (Talmud – Moed Katan 28a). This is a rabbinical statement, rather than a quotation from the Hebrew Bible (though it is often mistaken for Psalm 116:15) and underpins the concept of Jesus’ death as being a substitutionary atonement. It is common in Evangelical apologetics to find the idea set out as follows:

“By shedding His blood on the cross, Jesus took the punishment we deserve and offered us His righteousness. When we trust Christ for our salvation, essentially we are making a trade. By faith, we trade our sin and its accompanying death penalty for His righteousness and life. Christ died on the cross as our substitute. Without Him, we would suffer the death penalty for our own sins.

The writer to the Hebrews puts it this way: “And according to the Law, one may almost say, all things are cleansed with blood, and without shedding of blood there is no forgiveness”. For God to forgive our sins, His judgment had to be satisfied and that required the shedding of blood.

Some object, “Shedding blood seems so barbaric. Is it really necessary? Why doesn’t God simply forgive us?” Because God is holy, He must judge sin. Would a just and righteous judge let evil go unpunished? At the cross, God poured out His judgment on His Son, satisfying His wrath and making it possible for Him to forgive us. That’s why Jesus shed His blood for your sins, my sins, and the sins of the whole world. God unleashed His wrath on His Son so that we might be spared that awful fate. This is the central message of the cross and the reason for our hope.”

From  ‘How Does the Death of Jesus Save Me? Published by Insight for Living Ministries.

However, in the totality of rabbinical literature this only pertains to two specific situations and cannot be generalised. The first, is the alleviation of a Divine punishment decreed upon the Jewish people as a whole. The story of the sin of Achan in Joshua chapter 7 demonstrates that as the result of one person’s sin the entire Jewish people were judged as a collective consequence, as the Jewish people are compared to a unified body (in much the same way as the Church is regarded as the body of Christ). The second situation is the converse of the first, whereby innocent individuals can absorb a portion of the communal punishment. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 39a), in reference to Ezekiel chapter 4, makes it clear that the suffering of the righteous refers to atonement that “washes away” a portion of the punishment of exile. This is supported by the fact that the actual meaning
of the Hebrew word for atonement (כפרה = kaporah) is “covering” or “cleansing.” The essential point is that atonement obtained by death or suffering only removes communal punishment and not available for an individual’s sin. In Jewish thought, every individual has the personal responsibility to repent directly to God for their own sins (“The son will not bear the punishment for the father’s iniquity, nor will the father bear the punishment for the son’s iniquity … the wickedness of the wicked will be upon himself.” Ezek 18:20). Furthermore, it nowhere in the Hebrew Bible does it say that a person needs to believe in the righteous person, or even to be aware of the righteous person’s suffering, in order to benefit from it. Clearly what was happening in the developing theology of the Christ cult, through the preaching and writing of Paul and others, was divorced from the Hebrew scriptures and, equally, therefore from the teaching of the historical Jesus.



As we continue the process of deconstructing Christian theology, and before we turn to reconstructing it, we come to consider the heart of the matter. The fact of sin.

Ask the average, traditional, Christian what lies at the heart of Christianity and they will, perhaps, identify that God is love, although generally this love is, at best, a tough love, viewed through the lens of judgment and condemnation; they may identify the ministry of Jesus, although, as we have seen, the chasm that exists between the historical Jesus and that of the Christ myth, is enormous; they may even identify the love command, exemplifying it with the story Jesus told of the “Good” Samaritan. But lying behind all of these, and brought to the fore in Christian preaching and in the epistles of Paul, is the dreadful fact of sin. Sin disfigured God’s good creation, God condescends to love us and, therefore, that love is gracious because sin creates a barrier between the sinner and God, and it was sin that necessitated the death of Jesus as the one, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, while we were yet sinners. Sin looms large over the entire landscape of Christianity.

I well remember my first sin – yes, it made that much of an impression on me – even though I must have been around 5 years old. My dad was out and I was exploring, looking in drawers and cupboards, out of sheer curiosity, when I found a bar of chocolate that he had put away to enjoy later. I could not resist and took a square and then another, and then, realising that no matter how I tried to re-wrap it, I would be found out, I ate it all. My dad’s reaction took me by surprise instead of smacking me, as my mum would have done, he knelt in front of his armchair, tears running down his cheeks and, pleading the merits of Christ’s death on Calvary and his blood shed for me, praying that God would forgive me. I really had not realised that it was that big a deal, but I was left in no doubt. If mine had been the only sin ever, Jesus would have had to die to save me from hell.


It sounds unbelievably extreme, but that was the faith I was reared in. And, leaving aside all the other trappings, that was the message of Paul and remains the core of orthodox Christianity. The dogged resistance to the categorisation of Genesis 1-11 as myth, especially Genesis 1-3, lies in the Evangelicals’ recognition that not only is the Bible as God’s word at stake, but so too are the doctrines of creation, the fall and sin, and redemption and so the battle lines are drawn. The odd thing is, that while Paul would possibly have understood what is going on, it is quite likely that the historical Jesus would have been bemused by it. The story of “The Fall” was not viewed in Judaism in that way, just as it is not viewed that way by Eastern Orthodoxy even today (indeed it is more likely to be seen as a fall upwards towards responsibility and choice) it is, in fact, a peculiarly Western idea, and, while it would be wrong to imply that sin is unimportant in Judaism, it is equally wrong to imply that it is so big a deal that God had to sacrifice Jesus either.

The story of “The Fall” in Genesis 3, the act of sin which led to the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden, is held to support the doctrine that humans were created perfect and without sin and were placed by God in the Garden of Eden, where they found their needs provided for. Humans, it is held, could have continued in this innocent state and never have experienced guilt or death had they not disobeyed the specific command to not to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Expelled from Eden under God’s curse because of their disobedience, Adam and Eve were doomed to a life of labour and pain which would lead, eventually, to death. Happiness, innocence, and deathlessness were forever forfeited. In their fall  all of their descendants were included and none was exempt from sin and death.

This theological construct which assumes the historicity of the account, is believed to find corroboration in the many similar stories in other cultures. Among these stories, the Zoroastrian origins myth of Yima, the first man, is strikingly similar. Having committed a sin, he is expelled from paradise into the power of the serpent, which brings about his death. In a later version of this same myth the first pair, Masha and Mashyana, eat forbidden fruit at the instigation of a lying spirit. Leaving aside the fact that humans actually evolved from apes over a period of some six million years, rather than appearing, fully formed, in Eden, that death was a fact of life from its first occurrance in the primordial soup some 4.1 billion years ago, and that there is, in point of fact, no proof of a physical or moral fall in the development of homo sapiens, but rather that the reverse, on the whole, is more evident, the clear links with myths of origin in other cultures, rather than corroborating the facticity of that in Genesis, are more likely to point to cultural appropriation. Indeed, the story in Genesis seems to be an adaptation of the Assyro-Babylonian creation myths. Although a parallel to the Biblical account of the temptation has not been found in the tablets, two human figures, with a serpent behind them, stretching out their hands toward the fruit of a tree, are depicted on a Babylonian cylinder which substantially predates the Biblical text.

However, the real problem with the story of “The Fall” as a keystone of Christian theology is that it is never appealed to in the Old Testament either as an historical event or as supporting a theological construction of the nature and origin of sin. The Garden of Eden is not even referred to in any writing before the post-exilic prophets (Ezek. 28:13; 31:9; and Isa. 51:3), but even in these no reference is found to the Fall. The fall of humanity, as a theological concept, begins to appear only in very late writings such as 2 Esdras 3:7 (written in Hebrew around 100 C.E., composed in reaction to the Roman destruction of Jerusalem). Even then, the concept referred to a shortening of human lifespan which it saw (2 Esdras 3:9) as having come to an end with the Flood, when a generation of pious people emerged with Noah.


Not only is the idea of “the Fall” Christian, rather than Jewish, but  the idea of “original sin” (the idea that humans are hopelessly lost in a state of sin in which they have been held captive since the Fall, and, as a result, are powerless to follow the path of obedience and righteousness by their own free will) is not only unknown to the Jewish Scriptures, but is actually antithetical to the core principles of both the Torah and the prophets of Israel. In fact, the Torah condemns the very idea that humans are unable to freely choose good over evil, life over death. This is not a hidden or ambiguous message, but on the contrary, is proclaimed in Moses’ sermon at the end of his life. As he stands before the entire nation, he condemns the idea that the human condition is utterly hopeless, declaring that it is humans alone who can and must merit their own salvation, excoriating the idea that obedience to God is “too difficult or far off”, rather than having been placed within their reach (Deuteronomy 30:10-24):

“… you will have to obey him and keep all his laws that are written in this book of his teachings. You will have to turn to him with all your heart. The command that I am giving you today is not too difficult or beyond your reach. It is not up in the sky. You do not have to ask, ‘Who will go up and bring it down for us, so that we can hear it and obey it?’ Nor is it on the other side of the ocean. You do not have to ask, ‘Who will go across the ocean and bring it to us, so that we may hear it and obey it?’ No, it is here with you. You know it and can quote it, so now obey it.”

This passage, in which Moses is presented as speaking on God’s behalf in establishing a covenant with the Jewish people who are about to enter the Promised Land, underpins the message and ministry of all Israel’s prophets, who repeatedly call the nation back to faithfulness to this covenant relationship, turns Paul’s insistence, and that of Augustine and the later Church, regarding total depravity, on its head. The message of Jesus, a Jewish reformer, Cynic sage and charismatic healer, from within the tradition, won a measure of hearing and tentative support before the disaster of 70 CE, while the powerful preaching of Paul and others in the Christ cult in Antioch and the Mediterranean world, appealed more to gentiles, than to Jews. Paul seems to have made it his practice to have always begun a new mission by preaching in the local synagogue, but he was forced to continue it in the public square or in private homes. It was a message which did not ring true for many Jews, although some may have shared his pessimism and frustration at their perceived inability to live a righteous life. Certainly Paul himself, like Luther during his years as a monk, seems to have suffered, even after his Damascus road conversion, with a sense of unworthiness and despair of self (Romans 7:19), despite boasting of his Jewish credentials, and this undoubtedly shaped his theology. What is harder to explain, or justify, however, is his manipulation of the text of the Hebrew Bible.

If we consider Romans 10:8, for example, where Paul asserts that he is quoting directly from Scripture (Deut. 30:14), we find that he inexplicably stops short of the Torah’s vital conclusion and erases the remaining words of the verse. In Romans Paul writes, “But what does it say? ‘The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart’ (that is, the word of faith which we preach)”, the whole point of Deut. 30:14, however, is lost with the suppression of the words “that you may do it, because they would completely undermine his theology as it had developed, and yet, Paul, by quoting passages in this way, was able  to create the illusion that his message conformed to the principles of the Torah and that those who maintained otherwise were wilfully ignorant. Yet the message that human beings have the ability to live a righteous life, acceptable to God is found even at the very beginning, in Genesis 4:6-7, immediately after the expulsion from Eden, when God challenges Cain: “If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? If, though, you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you shall master it.”

For the Jews, sin is an awful thing, causing a breach between human beings and God and nothing of what is noted above is said to make light of it, however it does challenge the idea of total depravity which is something alien to the Hebrew Bible, and yet fundamental to the Christ cult as it developed after the teaching and example of the historical Jesus was lost sight of.

For Judaism, human beings were not essentially sinful, not born with the burden of sin committed by an ancestor, nor indeed tainted by it. Instead, sin was seen as the result of human inclinations. The word “sin” literally means something that goes astray. It is a term used in archery when the arrow has missed its target, it is a straying from the correct path, from what is good and straight and true, but is something that may be corrected;  human beings may be forgiven for their failures and so be rid of their guilt. The early stories in Genesis teach that “from the time they are young their thoughts (יצר = yetzer) are evil” (Gen. 8:21). This is the source of the rabbinic concept of the yetzer, human instincts and inclinations, which is similar to the Freudian concept of the id. The rabbis spoke of the good inclination (יצר הא טב = yetzer ha‑tov), and the evil inclination (יצר הא רע = yetzer ha‑ra) but the yetzer hara is not a demonic force or even a depraved human will, but rather simply the human misuse of things the physical body needs to survive. Thus, the need for food becomes gluttony due to the yetzer hara and the need for procreation becomes lust, and so on. The underlying principle is that each person is born with both a good and an evil inclination. Possessing an evil inclination is not regarded as bad nor abnormal, the problem occurs when someone makes a choice to gratify this evil inclination. Jews acknowledged the power of these two opposing inclinations, pulling a person to act either in a sinful or a righteous way, but believed that, in the final analysis, it is the individual who decides how he or she is to act. The yetzer, these thoughts and impulses, is controllable and even when someone yields to them and sins, forgiveness is always available to them. God is portrayed as a God of mercy and forgiveness. In revealing God’s nature to Moses, God emphasises forgiviness and mercy, “carrying sin” and extending loving-kindness far beyond the extent of punishment, revealing God’s essence as not only His absolute Being, but His essential and fundamental mercy. It is not surprising that the passage in which these attributes of God are detailed (Exod. 34:6‑7) forms part of the Jewish liturgy of forgiveness for the High Holy Days. God is believed to give respite to the sinner, not meting out punishment at once, but granting them the opportunity to repent and thus to be rid of the power of the evil inclination. This is the message of the Selichot prayers, the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy which God is believed to have revealed to Moses for Israel to use whenever they needed to appeal for divine compassion (Exod. 32:10). According to the Talmud, Moses felt that, following the incident with the golden calf, Israel’s sin was so serious that there was no possibility of intercession on their behalf and, at this low point in their life as a nation, God appeared to Moses and revealed the attributes to him, saying: “Whenever Israel sins, let them recite this in its proper order and I will forgive them. ‘The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.’ ” (34:6-7).

This then, is the understanding of sin and forgiveness which underpins the teaching of the historical Jesus and that of the prophets before him. An understanding which rests on the ideas of personal responsibility, free will, and a desire to live a guilt free life out of love, rather than fear.

The Jewish perspective on sin is that the individual should keep short accounts with God and avail themselves of the opportunity God gives to repent and be forgiven, nevertheless there remains a backstop in the form of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Although this has grown in significance since the destruction of the temple, it was nevertheless still vitally significant for personal, corporate and national sins in Biblical times too. The overarching theme of Yom Kippur is one of repentance. During the festival of all thoughts are focussed on this and the day revolves around the theme of communal repentance for sins committed during the past year, in order that both the community and the individual be inscribed by God in the Book of Life for the coming year.

Sin and forgiveness are serious and significant matters in Judaism, but as one Jewish writer put it, “sin is not a person, it’s an event, and that event happened yesterday. Yesterday ended last night, and today is a new day.”