Thursday, October 30, 2008


I have doubts about the Atonement.

These fall broadly into two main thought strands:
  1. What did Jesus actually achieve on the cross?
  2. Could anyone else have achieved this?
But first, just a quick recap on what 'atonement' actually means.

A*tone"ment\, n.
  1. (Literally, a setting at one.) Reconciliation; restoration of friendly relations; agreement; concord. [Archaic]
  2. Satisfaction or reparation made by giving an equivalent for an injury, or by doing of suffering that which will be received in satisfaction for an offense or injury; expiation; amends; -- with for. Specifically, in theology: The expiation of sin made by the obedience, personal suffering, and death of Christ.
Until I looked into this a few days ago, I hadn't realised that the English word 'atonement' was coined by William Tyndale when he was translating the bible, and couldn't find an existing word to fully convey the act by which sin was paid for and reconciliation with God was achieved.

So, it is claimed that Jesus's death on the cross somehow 'paid' for the damage due to sin and also restored the union between man and God which that sin had ruined. I think that's what most Protestant, Evangelical Christians mean by the word anyway.

Following on from the Levitical law and the concept of the flawless sacrifice, I can understand how it may be seen that as Jesus had lived a sinless earthly life, he was an appropriate sacrifice to pay for sin. But, I've recently come around to an understanding of Jesus's life as a picture of the perfect human life, that is the life he lived should actually be possible for other people to live out. In other words, it is possible (even if it might never have happened) that another human may have lived an entirely sinless life. I don't believe in original or inherited sin, so someone else could have done it. So the question is, could the other -theoretical- sinless human have died for the sins of the world?

Or is there some reason why a divine, sinless sacrifice was required?

Perhaps the plan was to wait for a sinless human to come along and atone for the sins of the world, but after a few thousand years of waiting, that hadn't happened and God had to step into the world and do it himself...? OK, so I don't believe that, but I don't really have any good reasons for that not being the case.

The NT makes it clear that the blood of animals can't atone for the sins of the world, so maybe the blood of a sinless man couldn't atone for it either. But why should the blood of a sinless God work then?

And what actually did Jesus's death do?

As I've said before, I can't buy the reasoning that it appeased God's righteous anger against us by satisfying His blood-lust. Or was it C.S. Lewis's Narnian explanation that when one who didn't deserve to die actually died, it broke the power of death?

Don't get me wrong, I believe that Jesus did manage to reconcile us to God by dying, but I'm just really unclear on why it worked or what was the mechanism...

Answers on a postcard please. (Or leave a comment, if you want.)

Monday, October 27, 2008

Lord, Saviour & Son of God

No, I'm not about to doubt that Jesus is any of these. So don't worry.

But I have been thinking of all the titles that Jesus is given in the New Testament, and I wonder if we really understand them in the way that the NT writers meant us to.

You see, everyone in the original readership of the gospels and the epistles was already familiar with concepts such as 'Lord' (kyrios), 'Saviour' (sōtēr) & 'Son of god' - Caesar was all of these!


Our contemporary understanding of the phrase 'Jesus is Lord' seems to be more or less equivalent to saying 'Jesus is God', that is, he is the ruler and creator of all things. Someone today can say that and it doesn't really have an impact on their life. Back when the NT was written though, the meaning was far more grounded, it meant 'Jesus is my master' and by declaring 'Jesus is Lord' people were more or less committing treason - in practice it meant 'Jesus is my master, Caesar is not'!

Romans 10v9: "...if you confess with your mouth, "Jesus is Lord," and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved."

These days, that verse has a very cerebral slant - all you have to do is say something (with your mouth) and believe something (in your head) and you will be saved (whatever that means, see below). But to the first century nobody would say 'Jesus is Lord' unless they had decided to change their lifestyle to follow Jesus. And the 'believe' (pisteuō) bit also implies action, not merely head-acknowledgement.


These days we kind of understand salvation in terms of Jesus saving us from the world - when we die we will get to go to heaven, or something like that. But the first century concept of salvation was very much salvation in the world. Caesar was the saviour in that he had established peace (the 'pax Romana') in all the Roman world. The Greek word sōtēr has three meanings, saviour, deliverer and preserver. So when we say that Jesus is saviour, we're talking about an ongoing preservation of us in the world as well as any future aspirations. He's saved us and delivered us from our sins, enabling us to live in the Kingdom now - when we're in the world. There's a nice turn of phrase in Acts (2v47, also in I Cor 1v18 and 2 Cor 2v15) which speaks of the believers as being those who are being saved. Its not a one-off event, but an ongoing process. (That thought takes me back to an old sermon that is well worth a listen).

Son of God

Just a wee comment in passing, but 'son of god' was not a particularly radical assertion in the ancient world. Many of the Greek, Roman and Egyptian heroes were sons of gods. Many of the Roman emperors were proclaimed to be gods after they died, so their sons were (by definition) sons of a god. But, of course, in Jewish circles that was a radical assertion. It was claimed that Jesus was the only Son of the only God.

But in all these things, those who wrote about Jesus were being subversive. They were presenting Jesus - on many levels - as the one who should replace Caesar in the lives of Christians. Most of the letters were written to churches in the Roman world, presumably full of people whose self-identity was bound up in being a Roman. Yet the call of the NT writers is to completely change your self-identity. In every way that folks back then relied on Rome or Caesar for identity, support, authority, etc., etc., the subtle message in the NT is that Christ replaces, supplants or completely over-rules in all instances.

I wonder what that looks like today?

Friday, October 17, 2008


Bear with me on this one, as its a real issue, not like some of my more speculative posts.

There is someone who I interact with on an occasional basis who is going through the transition from female to male. (S)he has already adopted a male name, dresses as a man and will eventually have gender reassignment surgery.

Not that (s)he's the church going type, but I wonder what the various different parts of the church would make of the situation. How would they relate?

You see, until recently she was a heterosexual female with identity issues - the sort of person that many churches would welcome with open arms. He's now going through the transition to being a homosexual male, someone who I imagine would not be half as welcome in most churches.

I'm not quite sure what to do (if anything). WWJD?

Friday, October 10, 2008

Our God is bigger than your god...

I went off on a bit of a rant in a comment on Chris's blog the other day. I feel a little bit bad about it. Sorry Chris.

But while that might not have been the best place to air this opinion, on reflection, I think I still have a point. I think that Christianity has been playing the "Our God's bigger than your god" game for so long that we now have an exaggerated and unrealistic view of our God.

I know that some of the readers of this blog will be thinking something along the lines of 'its impossible to have an exaggerated view of God, God is infinite...' at this point.

We've all (or many of us, at least) been taught - from an early age - that God is omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent and omnibenevolent, as well as being infinite. Most of us accept that teaching.

But I contend that this is:
  1. Not actually biblical, and
  2. Not consistent with our experience of reality
I've heard an awful lot of atheist arguments recently that assert that an omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent God cannot exist because [insert reasoning here]. Therefore God does not exist Q.E.D.

But at best, all that reasoning does is demonstrate that if there is a God, then he isn't all of the above. The atheists present the argument as black and white - either God is all those things or there is no God. The arguments allow no room for the possibility of (say) an omnibenevolent god, who is extremely (but not infinitely) powerful and knows an awful lot, possibly everything that has been or is currently, but not necessarily everything that will be. The arguments can't disprove that god.

I think that Christians are very good at exaggerating. God reveals himself as very strong, but we exaggerate him to be omnipotent. God demonstrates his ability to be with his people wherever they go, but we exaggerate this to omnipresence. God reveals his plans for future events and we exaggerate this to all-seeing-foreknowledge.

I've heard it said that many of the future prophecy statements in the bible are best understood in the sense of 'this is what I'm going to do in the future, and nothing you can do will prevent me from doing it' rather than 'this is what I have foreseen will happen'.

Just pause for a minute and consider, is the God you believe in actually consistent with the reality around you?

Philosophy of hell

I listened to an interesting interview the other day. Bruxy Cavey (from the Meeting House) was interviewing science-journalist, author and devout Catholic Denyse O'Leary about her latest book "The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul" [on]. Sounds like a very interesting book and I intend on reading it once it comes out in paperback.
But one of the things she said, which really caught my attention, was her reasoning that hell must be a real place. The reasoning went like this:
  1. We know the soul is immortal
  2. We know we have freewill
  3. Thus, it must be possible for someone to choose to have the worst eternity possible, therefore there must be a hell.
  4. Of course, it may be that nobody has ever gone there or ever will, but it must exist.
She was absolutely emphatic on this one and presented it as totally obvious and absolutely cut and dried.

Her reasoning seemed a bit simplistic to me. For a start, while I believe that we do indeed have freewill, I don't know that for certain. The belief can only be inferred from the bible, it isn't explicitly in there.

Furthermore, Jesus (in Matthew 10v28) says explicitly that there is one (assumed to be God) who can destroy the soul and body in hell. If the soul can be destroyed, it can't be immortal. Of course, Jesus asserts the existence of hell in this verse (and others) but the reasoning above can't be used to prove it.

Sunday, October 05, 2008