Proverbs 14:15 MSG
What if the story of the Prodigal Son went like this:
A man had two sons. The younger son demanded his inheritance from his father, left home, squandered it, and returned home, admitting to his father that he had sinned, and begging for forgiveness.
The father responded, “Even though, in my heart, I want to, I cannot just forgive you for what you have done. To simply forgive you would be to trivialize your sin. Paternal justice demands that you pay a penalty for your sins before I can forgive you and the penalty is death.”
The older brother spoke up, telling his father he would pay the penalty for his younger brother. The older brother worked day and night for the father until he died of exhaustion. With the death of the older son, the penalty of the younger son was paid, the father’s wrath was finally placated, and the father and surviving son lived happily ever after.
Even though the story doesn’t go like that, many, if not most Christians act as though it does. They believe in a doctrine called “blood atonement” which holds that human sin is so great that God either can’t or won’t forgive it without someone being given the death penalty. And the person God chooses to have executed is his perfectly innocent and perfectly obedient son, Jesus.
Further, these Christians hold that if you don’t agree with them that this doctrine is unquestionable, undeniable, divinely revealed truth, you aren’t a real Christian, you’re a heretic and you’re going to hell when you die.
Not long ago, two Christian writers suggested that blood atonement theology should be re-examined and, quite possibly, rejected. I think they make some good arguments.
Sharon L. Baker, professor of theology at Messiah College in Pennsylvania, makes her case in her new book, Executing God: Rethinking Everything You’ve Been Taught about Salvation and the Cross. Roger Wolsey is a United Methodist minister who directs the Wesley Foundation at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and he makes his case in a blog he writes for the religion web site, www.patheos.com.
This is a complicated issue, but here are just three of their many reasons for rethinking the whole notion of blood atonement:
First, if God is all loving and all powerful, then surely God is capable of redeeming human kind through love and grace alone. Why, then, does God choose to redeem humankind through violence, as blood atonement theology insists? And if violence is redemptive for God why is it not so for us?
Jesus says that redemption comes not through violence but through love, especially sacrificial love. The God Jesus teaches us about and calls us to emulate is a “compassionate, peace-loving God who abhors violence and wants human beings to live peaceful, loving lives.”
Secondly, the parables make this clear. In the story of the prodigal, the father, who clearly represents God, forgives and accepts his son lovingly, unconditionally, and sacrificially. The sacrifice is made by the father, not the sons.
Thirdly, blood atonement theology places all of its emphasis on belief in this one doctrine. All that is required for salvation is that we give intellectual ascent to this one proposition – that Jesus’ death on the cross and subsequent physical resurrection, three days later, “paid the price for my sins.”
Do whatever mental, intellectual, philosophical and theological gymnastics you have to do to agree with that one sentence about Jesus’ death and resurrection and you are saved for all eternity. Conveniently forgotten are the lessons Jesus taught us, especially in the Sermon on the Mount. Completely dismissed is the example he gave us by his own life, how he related to others, how he loved, taught, healed, fed and forgave generously, lavishly, and even extravagantly.
There’s lots more, of course, but the point is made, I think. When we put believing ahead of loving we have missed the whole point of the Good News.
You can “believe all things,” Paul reminds us in I Corinthians 13, but if you don’t live by love, all the belief in the world, correct or incorrect, doesn’t amount to a hill of beans.
Dean Feldmeyer is the author of 5 novels, 4 non-fiction books, three plays, and over 100 essays, articles, poems, and short stories, some of which can be found on this web site.