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Thursday, September 9, 2010

Mark Heim's Indictments Against the Traditional Doctrine of the Atonement

S. Mark Heim is the Samuel Abbot Professor of Christian Theology at Andover Newton Theological School in Newton, MA. He has written a provocative book on the atonement entitled: Saved from Sacrifice: A Theology of the Cross [2006]. In the book he offers a new perspective on the atonement utilizing the theories of Rene Girard. I will discuss his theory in a later post. For now, I am interested in his 5 indictments against the traditional doctrine of the atonement (He believes that all of the traditional theories of the atonement share the same indictments).

1. Its main feature, a bloody sacrifice, is foreign and repulsive in our culture.

First, such doctrine always trades in the language of sacrifice. Increasing numbers of people find this language empty, literally unintelligible, or actively offensive. The first time I visited the Kali temple in Calcutta, I literally stepped in pools of blood from a sacrificed goat. I felt revulstion, and yet I saw the irony in that reaction. I have attended worship services all my life in which people talked and sang about blood shed for me. I never walked away with any on my shoes before. If I was comfortable with the abstract idea, why did I shrink from the reality? (p. 23).

While the concept of ritual blood sacrifice was part of the culture of the ancient world, it is foreign to us, especially those of us in the Western civilized world.

It is no more natural for people in our society to regard Christ as a sin ofering who removes our guilt than for them to consider sacrificing oxen on an altar in the neighborhood playground to keep their children safe (p. 23).

2. It leads to anti-Semitism.

Second, few can be unaware that the cross has been the keystone of Christian anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism. ... If atonement theology requires a divine victim, it may endow the supposed villains of the piece with an almost supernatural evil ... Beleif in the atonement stands indicted for linking Christian salvation with demonization of Jews (p. 24).

3. It is not unique in ancient mythologies.
A third charge stems from the fact that our knowledge of world religions and mythology puts Jesus' death in an unavoidably comparative context. The Gospels attribute unique significance to the cross. Yet since the rise of modern anthropology, we know that tales of dying and rising gods are a common feature across human cultures. How could there be something special about this tale alone, when we know of Osiris, the myths of the corn kings, and so many other stories? Only Christian nearsightedness can stare fixedly at just one cross while standing in a forest of others (p. 24).

4. It presents a troubling portrait of God.

Fourth, traditional interpretations of the crucifixion are criticized for moral failings, especially in the picture they paint of God. The specific ways Christians have understood the cross often involve transactional analogies of substitution, ransom, or satisfaction. [...] Such categories explain Jesus' death, but in such a way as to pose further troubling questions. If a debt is owed to God, why can't God simply forgive it, as Jesus apparenlty counsels others to do? If God is ransoming us from other powers, why does God have to submit to their terms? If this is God's wise and compassionate plan for salvation, why does it require such violence? [...] We can hardly imagine God demanding the suffering and death of one innocent as the condition of mercy toward guilty others
(p. 25).

5. It glorifies suffering and encourages a victim mentality.
Fifth, a rising chorus charges that Christian ideas of atonement foster toxic psychological and social effects. [...] In exalting Christ's death, do we not glorify innocent suffering and encourage people to passively accept roles as surrogate sufferers for others, "in imitation of Christ"? What earthly despot would not be glad to have the weak and oppressed adopt this as their spiritual ideal? By making the cross God's recipe for salvation, do we validate violence as a divine way of doing business? A theology that has the heavenly Father punish his innocent Son to redeem the world looks uncomfortably to some like a charter for child abuse, with an innocent son sent to bear the wrath of a "heavenly father" to make things right for the entire extended family.

[...] Whether we are thinking of society as a whole or as individuals, this indictment states that the cross should carry a label: this religious image may be harmful to your health
(pp. 25-26).

These indictments, Heim says,
assert no minor flaw in Christianity, but a consistent fault line in the whole foundation that runs from distorted views of God to spiritual guilt fixation to sacrificial bloodshed to anti-Semitic persceution to arrogant ignorance of world mythology. All of this adds up to a fatally skewed faith, revolving around a central narrative based on sacred violence and the glorification of innocent suffering (p. 27).

Wow, Heim does not "pull any punches" in his criticisms of traditional atonement theory. I agree with him in his indictments but in contrast to him, I find the traditional doctrine of the atonement to be part of the warp and woof of Christianity. To try to remove the doctrine or replace it with his Girardian version, is to destroy the essence of historic Christianity.


  1. When I began to question my faith I found the whole concept of communion unpleasant. Eating the body drinking the blood??? Thanks for your excellent posts.

  2. Hi there! Here's a couple of posts about other views of salvation that you might find interesting. A Quaker view (that it's an internal transformation); and an Eastern Orthodox view (Christus Victor theology).

  3. I studied under Mark Heim at Andover. I found documents from the early Christian community (1-3rd Century) that interpreted the symbols of bread and wine in this way: like grains we are gathered into one loaf. The wine is for celebration of God's grace through Jesus Christ. It is a happy moment. The Jewish Seder also sees wine as a happy occasion. However, what did Jesus indicate at the last supper? That suffering will occur, but happiness will overcome it.

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