Atonement – God is not a dick

The deaths of the Maccabean Martyrs are described at some length in the book of 2 Maccabees. Antiochus Epiphanus (Epiphanus, a self-given title, meaning something close to “God with us”, and a tyrant who eclipsed anything the Romans were doing as at the early years of the first century) persecuted the Jews very generally, and a lot of martyrs are recorded as being killed for not being prepared to abandon various of the Mosaic commandments, frequently those forbidding contact with pigs. Seven in particular (together with their mother and teacher) are remembered especially. In the somewhat later 4 Maccabees the writer takes things a step further:-

“When he was now burned to his very bones and about to expire, he lifted up his eyes to God and said, “You know, O God, that though I might have saved myself, I am dying in burning torments for the sake of the law. Be merciful to your people, and let our punishment suffice for them. Make my blood their purification, and take my life in exchange for theirs.”  (4 Maccabees 6:26-29)

The tyrant [Antiochus IV] was punished, and the homeland purified—they having become, as it were, a ransom for the sin of our nation. And through the blood of those devout ones and their death as an atoning sacrifice, divine Providence preserved Israel that previously had been mistreated. (4 Maccabees 17:21-22)

Therefore those who gave over their bodies in suffering for the sake of religion were not only admired by mortals, but also were deemed worthy to share in a divine inheritance. Because of them the nation gained peace …” (4 Maccabees 18:3-4)

4 Maccabees dates from either the 1st century BCE or the 1st century CE, probably early. It is, therefore, reasonable to assume that the writers of the New Testament knew not only the story (the Maccabean restoration had already given rise to the Jewish feast of Hanukkah) but also this interpretation. It is also the only event recognised within Judaism in which humans are killed and this is considered an atonement.

As a result, when  I read the NT writers and see any mention of “atonement”, my initial assumption is that they are referring to the template of atonement set out in 4 Maccabees. This does not seem to occur to anyone around me, though. The Maccabean martyrs have, it seems, been virtually completely forgotten in the protestant West (they are actually venerated as martyrs in the Orthodox and Catholic churches, particularly the former).

It is, of course, an integral part of the story of Maccabees that following the martyrdoms, things improved immeasurably for the Jewish population. History does seem to indicate that this was mostly due to the revolt of the Maccabees, which eventually forced on Antiochus the grant of some self-rule, which led to the eventual restoration of an independent state. Against this background, it is easy to see how some of Jesus’ followers would have seen him as a new Judas Maccabeus rather than a new Eleazar, and expected a revolt, but the template of Eleazar, the widow and her seven sons was still there.

It seems to me that with this background, there is no real need for other atonement theories. Granted, the text as it is might be some support for an exemplary atonement (Abelard), fits reasonably with Girardian end-of-scapegoat thinking and could readily have a Christus Victor interpretation added. It also contains the words “ransom” and “for the sin of the nation”, and thus is not completely inconsistent with the fairly early “ransom” theory, sharing the problem that it is unspecific who the ransom is paid to – though a naive reading might indicate that it is paid to Antiochus (and one might equally argue that Jesus’s death was “paid to” Caesar). The early proponents of the theory considered the debt due to Satan…

There is no suggestion of Anselm’s concept of assuaging an insult to God’s honour, nor yet of paying to God the (infinite) price of disobedience through sin in a Lutheran penal substitution manner. I note in passing that while the other concepts are somewhat enhanced by a resurrection, satisfaction and penal substitution are if anything undermined – it would seem, naively, that a death which is only temporary is of considerably less worth than a death which is permanent.

There is also no suggestion that God “provided” the Maccabean martyrs to enable him to forgive in circumstances in which he could somehow not otherwise bring himself to display his primary characteristics of love and mercy (markedly failing in the process to display omnipotence). That, I suspect, is entirely the fault of some infelicitous wording by Paul in Romans 3:25: “God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood–to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished–“.

I note the variety of translations here. “Set forth”, “purposed”, “preordained”, “publicly displayed”, “proposed”, “presented”. It is clear that the various translators have had some challenges in finding an adequate term for the Greek “proetheto”, which has the literal meaning of “before-placed”. So God placed this event before us as an atonement, did he? That does not, I think, mean that his primary purpose for Jesus’ entire life was that he be a sacrifice, even a willing one. In part, at least, I would think that this is strongly suggested by the fact also relayed to us by Paul that Jesus was divinised on his resurrection, just as in 4 Macc. 18…

If that were not sufficient argument, however, note the words “He did this to demonstrate his righteousness”. The purpose is explicit; God wished to show US that he was righteous, that so great a self-sacrifice could not be left without a corresponding action of God’s, namely acceptance of the atonement (and, I would suggest, resurrection and elevation of Jesus). This, of course, clearly has to be “recieved by faith”, as there is no evidence that God treats the death in this way apart from the apostle’s word and, perhaps, the resurrection (although that could potentially have some other cause).

In my thinking, it also has to be “received by faith” as that is how the psychological mechanism works which permits us to feel better about ourselves when some member of our group acts heroically or when our leader does something commendable (the latter, sadly, being in somewhat short supply these days). The inverse, of course, also operates – I am invariably embarrassed when hearing of the idiocies or bigotries of other Christians, just as the Muslims of my acquaintance are embarrassed by the actions of ISIS.

I do, on occasion, note that Penal Substitutionary Atonement (which seems the only concept of atonement which my church understands, along with most evangelical and conservative Christians in the West) is actually the only one of the atonement theories which has real power to effect that psychological mechanism in a group of people notably including many in recovery from addiction and many with serious criminal records. This is unfortunate; I would, absent that, be suggesting that we wipe all mention of PSA from our theology books, our rituals, our speech and our thinking.

Why? Because, in the inimitable words of Tripp Fuller of Homebrewed Christianity, God is not a dick. The god-concept which is required for either satisfaction or PSA is of an unmerciful, legalistic, self-righteous prig. It bears absolutely no resemblance to the God I experience and worship.

But it does look a lot like Antiochus Epiphanus, who, if we follow through the logic of the “ransom” theory, was functioning as the embodiment of Satan.

The new pharisees?

Jesus is presented throughout the gospels as a healer, but some of his most controversial healings (such as those in Luke 5:20 and Luke 7:48) involve him stating that someone’s sins are forgiven.

Now, my scientific rationalist head tells me that this is a wonderful way of healing an illness which is psychosomatic. As can be seen in, for instance, John 9:3, the thinking of the day, at least among the religious conservatives, was that any ailment was a divine punishment for some transgression, either of the individual or his forbears. This can be seen at length in the book of Job, where Job’s friends go to great lengths to try to work out how Job absolutely must have deserved all the ills with which he was being showered; of course, in the last portion of the book God is seen very explicitly to tell his friends that they are mistaken. However, Job goes against the grain of much of the Hebrew scriptures (as do Ezekiel 18  and substantial portions of Ecclesiastes, for instance Ecc. 8:14 in which the wicked prosper and the good suffer). It is hardly surprising that some of the conservatives of the day ignored these few scriptures in favour of a philosophy whereby you got only what you deserved.

Thus, if an illness were to some extent psychosomatic, with the sufferer convinced that they were being punished for some sin, being told their sins were forgiven could produce an immediate cure. At least, it could if it were believed. Jesus must have spoken with colossal authority and charisma in order for this to work.

Of course, we have little difficulty in accepting that Jesus must have spoken in just this manner, and can remember that he was said not to have performed healings when he went home to Nazareth (Mark 6:4) – it is always more difficult speaking with authority to people who remember you as a child!

However, this was met with howls of protest from the religious conservatives (labelled Scribes and Pharisees in the gospels, although it would be a mistake to consider that this conservative attitude actually typified the Pharisees of the day, still less those of later times), ostensibly because only God had the power to forgive sins. To my mind, however, the protest stemmed from the privilege of the conservatives, who were well off and respected, and saw their position as justified by their exemplary character. What could be more threatening to them than to be told that their wealth and social position was not justified by relieving the suffering of those on whom they smugly looked down?

And yet, this was a thread running through Jesus’ entire ministry. The first were to be last and the last first, the preferred companions were publicans and sinners, even the occasional prostitute or adultress, who were more worthy of heaven than the overtly religious.

Christian theology has tried repeatedly to get a grip on this principle, and has regularly failed. Conventionally, we are justified through faith alone rather than works (although James reminds us that faith without works is dead), but for the most part this has come to mean that we much have the correct intellectual appreciation of how we are, in fact, smugly justified (i.e. we must adhere to a creed or another statement of faith). And, of course, our works show that for all to appreciate…

Which leads me to contemplating the case of Rob Bell. Rob is a hugely gifted communicator, who became a “star” by founding and growing to mecachurch status the Mars Hill congregation in Grandville, Michigan, being much sought after as a visiting preacher and teacher. His “Covered in the Dust of the Rabbi” talk illustrates this . He could preach a two hour sermon to me any day (as reference to the videos I link to here and below indicates he’s very able at), and I doubt I’d look at my watch once. I pointed a Jewish friend of mine at that talk a while ago, and he responded with “boy, is he charismatic!”. Granted, he is not really a theologian, and as I agreed with my friend, the image he paints in that talk is almost certainly not authentic to the period in which Jesus was teaching, as the system of pupils of Rabbis didn’t really develop in the form he talks of until significantly later, so far as documents can reveal. However, the message of the talk is not in the slightest impaired by the fact that it probably isn’t actually historically accurate.

Incidentally, it’s probably worth pointing out that Rob may well be naturally gifted and turbo-charged by the Holy Spirit, but he also puts a huge amount of work into his craft, as another set of videos shows.

Over the last two or three years, however, Rob has been regularly vilified by the evangelical establishment for whom he was once a shining star. The reason, originally, was his book “Love Wins”, in which he has the temerity to suggest that God might actually be powerful and loving enough to not condemn significant numbers of people to endless torment. (I don’t necessarily recommend the book for reading, as it isn’t theologically rigorous and reads like one of Rob’s talks – it would be better read aloud – but there is an audiobook).

Since then, he’s compounded the felony by suggesting that homosexuality is not, in fact, a sin over and above all other sins (which is a picture I tend to get from many evangelical commentators) but an expression of one person’s love for another which should be at the very least accepted. This too is beyond the pale, as we clearly need a new category of publicans and sinners on whom to look down.

This regular condemnation has recently had a resurgence, as Rob now has a prime-time programme on Oprah’s TV network in the
States. As the link I include indicates, whereas most evangelical preachers would cut off their left arm for such an opportunity in (relatively) mainstream TV, rather than the “preaching to the choir” outlets of the regular televangelists, the fact that it is Rob who is doing this is just unacceptable.

I think I see a parallel here (although Rob would probably be uncomfortable at favourable comparison with Jesus). “Love Wins” is actually saying that everyone’s sins will be forgiven (if, indeed, they aren’t already), and his stance on homosexuality is reminiscent of Jesus’ in relation to (for instance) tax collectors. The religious conservatives are again up in arms when a charismatic and authoritative preacher suggests that God’s grace, God’s forgiveness, extends to everyone, and not just the elect few. In this case the complaints are from the increasingly Calvinistic spokesmen for “evangelistic Christianity” rather than the gospel’s “Scribes and Pharisees”.

The Pharisees, it seems, will always be with us, much like the poor.

The impossible God

Jason Michaeli at Tamed Cynic has just put up a post entitled “Liberalism’s Dogmatic Wasting Disease: God Does Not Change, God Does Not Suffer, and God Is Not Affected (By You)”.

Quoting David Bentley Hart, he states that God has three particular qualities, saying:-

“Apatheia: the attribute of God, held by the ancients, in which God, as perfect within himself and possessing all possibilities as actualities, is unaffected by objects outside of himself.

Impassible: the ancient doctrine that God, as perfect within himself and possessing all possibilities as actualities, does not suffer due to the actions of another.

Immutable: the ancient belief that God, as eternal and existing outside of creation, does not change.

So then…God does not change- not ever- and God is not changed- by us.”

His target, it seems to me, is not Liberalism as such, but very much all of the Process theologians and to a significant extent followers of Jurgen Moltmann (writer of “The Crucified God” inter alia). Liberalism, after all, merely demands that you do not take scripture as literal when it doesn’t have to be, that you seek to place it in its historical context and genre and that you accept that it is not necessarily the last word, but displays a progression which can still be progressing today; it is not actually necessary that you abandon these three ideas about God. I don’t know if he’s ever read Caputo, but Caputo’s “weak call” God would be so foreign to this concept as to attract even more force of words than appears in that article…

But he has a point that since the second century, Christian theologians have been deeply immersed in Platonic philosophy, and until relatively recently theology was done against that background. He has a considerable tradition behind him.

So, where does that leave those of us to stand who think that God is characterised by love, or who look to a relationship with God?

Well, nowhere. You can’t have apathetic love, and you can’t have a relationship with someone who is totally unaffected by you. You might as well suggest that Alpha Centauri loves you, or that you have a personal relationship with gravity. Or vice versa. Granted, in the case of gravity you are at least affected by it, but it is a vastly impersonal force – and that, I suggest, is what the “ancients” were getting at with their description of these qualities of God. You can see Alpha Centauri (given a decent telescope) which isn’t the case for gravity, which indeed might take that out of the running as a simile, but it is similarly extremely far removed from you. That was another quality of God on which the “ancients” were keen.

Who were these “ancients? The short answer is, Plato and his successors in Greek philosophy. Not, however, Abraham and his successors in Hebrew story; their experience was not of an impassible, distant, apathetic God, though on occasion ( for instance in some of the Psalms) they say things which might be interpreted as impassibility or immutability. However, the Hebrew scriptures also tell us of a God who sometimes changes his mind (on occasion, as with for one example Moses, or another Abraham, as a result of human argument), a God who cares deeply for his people, and a God who in the very early part of Genesis can be surprised by his creation. Also, of course, God is seen throughout the Hebrew scriptures as getting angry at the antics of his people, and if that isn’t “being changed”, I don’t know what is.

Then we have the New Testament, and Jesus (the image of the invisible God) who lives with the disciples, feels for the disciples, is frequently exasperated by them and almost always exasperated by the religiously smug. And who dies, enduring an exceptionally painful death. Not, according to the Philosophers, being affected, suffering or being changed… assuming, that is, that there is anything in the statement in Colossians 1:15.

To be fair, there is a touch of this going on in the Fourth Gospel. I’m pretty confident from comparing that gospel, and in particular the first chapter, with the work of Philo of Alexandria, that the writer was “thinking Greek”, and particularly thinking Greek philosophy. Philo was a Greek-speaking Jewish philosopher and theologian of the first half of the first century, notable for an attempted harmonisation of Platonic philosophy with the Hebrew Scriptures. Judaism of the time may have accepted Philo (he was a noted leader in Alexandria), but subsequently has more or less disavowed him as being the next best thing to Christian – and, indeed, some Church Fathers tried to paint Philo as having been a very early Christian, which he was almost certainly not.  In moving in a different direction from Philo, they were reacting against a Greek (“Hellenising”) influence which Judaism had been feeling for a long time, and which perhaps was best countered in the successful Maccabean revolt which managed to re-establish an independent Israel for a relatively short time just before the birth of Christ. Indeed, it was not until the middle ages when Judaism started playing with Greek philosophy again, in the writings of Moses Maimonedes. Other than the Fourth Gospel, the New Testament writers do not, to my mind, see God as thoroughly the God of the Philosophers, even the pseudo-Pauline writer of Colossians.

Taking scripture generally, therefore, what I see is not a picture of the God of the Philosophers. In fact, that God ends up barely, if at all, distinguishable from the God of the Deists. I don’t think Plato and Scripture can be successfully harmonised (actually, I don’t think Plato can be harmonised with reality, but that’s another story). Rev. Michaeli sees a grandeur in that God; I don’t, I see that God as being reduced to a power of nature.

The God I see in scripture, the God I experience, is not Deist, is not Platonic, is not apathetic, impassible and immutable, he is involved, caring, feeling, loving, responding – in other words, like the Jesus who was his image. To me, in truth, a picture of an apathetic God is a pathetic picture, not so much impassible as impossible.

And no, I can’t come up with something for “immutable” which doesn’t stretch the language too far for comfort. Suggestions warmly appreciated!

Have you understood nothing?

There is an article in New Scientist by a couple of eminent professors, one of Hebrew Bible and one of New Testament, dealing with a variety of leaders of Christian groups who ascribe the Ebola epidemic to a divine punishment.

I have absolutely no time for people who do this, and still less for people who do it and then fail to render assistance to those who are suffering because “it is God’s will”. I agree with everything the writers say, in fact.

But I am surprised that neither of them marshals specific arguments from the traditions they teach. Where, for instance, is the reference to the book of Job (by either of them) in which, inter alia, Job is afflicted with a number of diseases through absolutely no fault of his own, and his “friends” who suggest that this is divine punishment for him secretly having been a bad lad are roundly criticised by God? Where is the reference by Candida Moss to John 9:3, in which Jesus says “neither this man nor his parents sinned” in response to his disciples asking why a man had been born blind?

I rather suspect the authors of the Fourth Gospel of having minimised the acerbity of Jesus’ comment here; this was, after all, someone who consorted with all the kinds of people whom the ilk of leaders who make these remarks regard as “undeserving”, i.e. with agents of a foreign invader, members of despised religions, extorters of taxes, prostitutes and other sinners, and who healed profligately and in circumstances distinctly frowned on by the religious authorities of the day. He was quite commonly acerbic with those religious leaders, and (particularly in Mark) not terribly polite to his disciples when they failed to understand things (Peter being told “get thee behind me, Satan” springs to mind).

I can easily insert words which the Jesus of my understanding may have said and which have been left out here, such as “have you understood NOTHING?”

And that is pretty much my response to any leader describing himself as Christian who makes such crass remarks.

Dissenting is dangerous.