Browsing Tag

atonement theory

Theology

for Thanos so loved the world

Note: lots of spoilers for Avengers: Infinity War

I saw Avengers: Infinity War a few weeks ago and have been ruminating on it ever since. I enjoyed watching it and am doubly excited now for Captain Marvel after what we saw on Fury’s souped-up space pager. There were a few elements that frustrated me a touch – you can’t love someone and murder them at the same time, whoever designed the Soul Stone “test” is obviously a monster—but on the whole I … liked it. I think. If I still like it next summer will depend a lot on what they do with the Snapture in Avengers 4.

I abandoned all pretense of separating the “secular” and the “sacred” back in my undergraduate days, and in the last couple of years I’ve become intentional about blending pop culture into my theological conversations. Lord of the Rings, A Wrinkle in Time, Wheel of Time, Mistborn … they’ve all given me tools and metaphors to chew on theological ideas.

When I saw Black Panther in February, I talked the ear off of anyone who would listen about the resurrection motif the film uses and how it relates to Black liberation theology, especially how Kelly Brown Douglas articulated the meaning of the Resurrection in Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God. What Black Panther had to say about resurrection was beautiful and incredibly meaningful, and I thought about it a lot over the Easter season. What if my Christian understanding of Christ’s resurrection looked more like what we saw in Black Panther, and less like what I’ve been handed by a European tradition enmeshed in misogyny and white supremacy?

But back to Infinity War and theology. Last week, a good friend of mine shared a meme that reads:

“For Thanos so loved the universe that he sacrificed his only daughter to save half of the universe.” ~ Avengers 3:16

It made me stop in my tracks with how piercingly accurate it is, and how thoroughly it eviscerates the common evangelical approach to understanding the Cross. I abandoned penal substitionary atonement theory years ago, and the reasons why are encapsulated almost perfectly in that meme.

Thanos is the villain of Avengers: Infinity War, one of the biggest “Big Bads” in Marvel comic history; he’s the despicable monster every single franchise in the MCU has been preparing us for. I’ve been curious to see how the MCU was going to adapt Thanos’ story ever since the “to challenge them is to court death” line from the mid-credits Avengers scene. Infinity War finally gave us the full explanation: Thanos is on a mission to save the world—he “kills and tortures and calls it mercy,” as Gamora put it. He goes from planet to planet, slaughtering half of its population and decimating its infrastructure, because he believes that every single sentient species in the galaxy is destined to annihilate itself by draining a finite set of resources. That’s taking too long, though, so he finds an faster way: get all the Infinity Stones so that he can eliminate half of the universe’s resource-consuming population with a “snap” of his fingers.

In the film we learn that Gamora discovered the location of one of the Infinity Stones, and Thanos … persuades … her to tell him where it is. Once they get to that planet, Thanos is told by a ghost-like figure that he has to sacrifice what he loves most in order to acquire the Soul Stone. Long story short, he throws Gamora over a cliff but feels really bad about it. It’s just the sacrifice he has to make to save the world.

That’s what penal substitionary atonement theory is. That’s what most American Christians believe about the Cross—their belief systems casts God in the same villainous role as Thanos.

In penal substitutionary atonement theory, all sentient species – in evangelicalism’s case, homo sapiens—are destined not for mere annihilation, but for eternal conscious torment. This is the only possible outcome for the decision two people made in our ancient history—God told our precursors what would happen if they consumed a certain resource, but they did it anyway. According to many Christians, God doomed us all to an eternity of conscious torment because of the sin we’ve inherited from Adam.

There’s an echo of that in Infinity War—Thanos shows a sub-set of the Avengers what his home planet, Titan, looked like when it was a paradise, like Eden. He warned his people of what would happen if their lust for the “fruit” of unrestrained consumption went unchecked—they would “certainly die”—and he was right. Titan ignored him, and his paradise was destroyed. He believes this will happen everywhere, on every planet … unless he saves them by electing some to survive in a New Paradise that he creates. He’s even more merciful than the American evangelical god if you think about it—he’s going to save half of everyone in the universe. American evangelical theology teaches that “straight is the gate, and narrow is the way, and few there be that find it.” The number of earth’s population who have ever been saved from the flames of Hell is far less than half.

There’s a gaping hole in both Thanos’ plan and penal substitionary atonement theory. Thanos and God are predestining everyone in the universe to death—or worse, eternal conscious torment, being tortured forever in a lake of fire—when with all their power they could choose another option if they wanted to. With all the Stones in the Gauntlet, granting Thanos the ability to shape the entire universe however he sees fit, he could double the universe’s resources. He could give every planet a renewable energy source capable of meeting any conceivable need. He holds the power and life and death in his hands, and he’s deliberately choosing death.

The same is true of penal substitionary atonement theory’s god. He could have decided that Adam and Eve were responsible for their own sin and that their descendants wouldn’t inherit their repercussions. But he didn’t. He could have decided against punishing Adam and Eve, along with the rest of us, with Hell. But he didn’t. He could have decided to simply forgive everyone’s Inherited Sin that he saddled us with in the first place. But he didn’t. He could have made Jesus’ sacrifice enough for everyone instead of Electing only a cosmic handful—or without requiring a Sinner’s Prayer from a scattered few.

But he didn’t.

In evangelicalism, Jesus’s death on the Cross is framed as the greatest act of love and sacrifice that has ever occurred in the history of the universe. Without Jesus dying for our sins, God would supposedly be forced to let everyone burn forever.

I’m sure Thanos felt the same way about throwing Gamora over a cliff.

Image belongs to Marvel Studios
Social Issues

the Crucifixion and #NeverTrump: what the Cross teaches us about politics

In case you’ve missed it, Trump is the presumptive GOP nominee for president after Cruz withdrew from the race yesterday. The news kept me up last night, mostly because my emotional state resembles something like Edvard Munch’s The Scream. Handsome and I have been watching a WWII documentary recently, and the episodes describing the political movements that brought Hitler and Mussolini into power left us in dumbstruck horror. I know comparing Trump to Hitler at this point is basically passé, but it doesn’t change the fact that the comparison works for a reason.

While I’m relieved that the theocratic Dominionist-Reconstructionist fundamentalist is out of the race, I’m still terrified of a Trump candidacy and the possibility of his presidency. His campaign has already incited horrific violence against black and queer and female bodies, and I believe it’s only going to get worse. God forbid he’s elected.

As his candidacy has grown more and more successful, winning primaries by ever-wider margins, I’ve looked around at my fellow citizenry and despaired. I honestly thought we were better than him– that sure, maybe some of us were just that bigoted and racist– but certainly not enough of us to get him nominated. Watching this has been a brutal corrective and I’m far more cynical about America than I was back in September.

Aside from his hatred, lewdness, and blatant dishonesty, aside from the fact that he’s advocated for torture and war crimes and directed a miasmic bombardment at women, Trump is the representation of Empire made flesh. He is, quite literally, an anti-Christ in the sense that he stands in direct opposition to everything Jesus Christ taught us to do.

  • Trump tells us that we must fear and hate our enemies. Jesus tells us not only to love and forgive them, but to radically resist oppression through turning the other cheek, to carry the Roman conqueror’s pack not one mile, but two.
  • Trump tells us to ostracize or exile those who look different, to barricade them behind a wall. Jesus tells us that all people are our neighbors, and that our example is the Good Samaritan who sacrificially brought aid to a stranger.
  • Trump calls on us to enact abominations against women and children. Jesus says that anyone who hurts a child deserves to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around his neck.

I understand what he’s appealing to. He is a tool of Empire– he is slavering and rapacious, greedy for power, for control, for prestige, for wealth, for domination. It doesn’t surprise me that when he says “Make America Great Again” he’s pulling on the fear and lust that dwells in all our hearts. We don’t want to feel threatened. We want to feel secure. And, worse than that, we are a nation built on the principle that white men deserve land ownership, deserve enfranchisement, deserve gainful employment– and these white men were quite willing for hundreds of years to enrich themselves off the fact that they literally owned women and didn’t even recognize black people as human beings fully endowed with the imago dei.

Trump is conjuring an image of America for white men where they can have all of that again– all that power, all that wealth, because they deserve it for no other reason than an accident of birth. If they serve Empire, they’ll be rewarded by the restoration of their power.

Jesus asks us to walk a different path than this.

He said that whoever wants to be his disciple must take up their cross and follow him (Mt 16:24, Lk 9:23, Mk. 8:34). It’s clear that he was speaking metaphorically, but I think that over time we’ve lost the bluntness, the absolute starkness, of the imagery he chose for this teaching. Today we think of “bearing our cross” as a form of drudgery– it carries similar cultural weight as putting your nose to the grindstone, and has a feeling of daily wear-and-tear. Our “cross” takes on various forms, usually none of them all that weighty. Fulfilling your obligations as a parent. Chronic illness. A narcissistic employer.

We’ve lost it partly because we abandoned public executions like the crucifixion; today, as despicable as it is that we still execute people, we tolerate it because we culturally accept the lie that lethal injection is somehow humane. We don’t have the absolute brutality of crucifixion as a part of our public consciousness– it’s not something we associate with our government as a daily reminder of their authority and what they will do to us if we try to subvert their power (at least, not if we’re white). We don’t have to move about our day with crucifixion as a constant threat.

The people Jesus was speaking to, though, they did. They knew that if they put one toe out of line, that’s where they could be– hanging on a Roman cross, enduring Roman humiliations, bearing Roman torture. Jesus’ call to discipleship demands that we face that risk, that we stand in the face of Empire and say No!–no, I would rather die a horrible, agonizing death than serve the Empire and Mammon.

Handsome and I were talking about the evangelical notion that the Cross is the pinnacle of God’s love for us– like how Joshua Harris said, that “God’s perfect love for a fallen world is more clearly seen in the death of His Son.” As I argued in response, under the penal substitutionary atonement theory, this doesn’t hold true– but in some theological positions, it could. Handsome argued how God loved us enough, wanted to be with us enough to become Emmanuel, to face what they knew was coming. He said that there was something important enough to teach us that they left heaven and put on a body and walked among us… even knowing that he’d be crucified.

I think that’s true, regardless of what Atonement Theory convinces you most. Setting aside the Atonement for the moment, I think it’s important to concentrate on the “pre-Easter Jesus,” as Marcus Borg puts it. Forgetting all the theological implications for the moment, what does the Cross mean? What does it mean that Jesus suffered this form of death: an execution by the state for treason and sedition?

Like all mythical stories (and, before you clutch your pearls, mythical doesn’t mean untrue), the story of the Cross has a multiplicity of meanings and Truths tied up in it. What it means can change, can flicker, and that is one of the glorious beauties of myth. Today, as Trump ascends to the throne of the Republican party, I think that one of the things that the Cross is meant to teach us is this: we are to resist Empire with all our hearts, souls, strength, and minds. Empire is a siren’s song, luring us in with promises of security and wellness, but those are not our priorities as Christians. In fact, being a follower of Christ means that we’re willing to risk being hung on a tree right beside him because we refuse to bow to our oppressors. We will not give in to white supremacy, or misogyny, or the belief that we have the right to slaughter countless innocents because their communities oppose our nation– either through active war or passively refusing to take in the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

I believe that’s what it means for us today to take up our cross and follow him. Are we going to do it?

Photograph by Brian
Theology

parable of the tenants

detroit

I grew up believing that the only way of viewing the act of the Cross was through what I now know is called “penal substitution atonement theory.” The day I discovered that there are other atonement theories . . . well, it’s fascinating. Today’s guest post, from a friend, explores an approach to the Atonement that doesn’t rely on penal substitution, satisfaction, or ransom theory– some of the more historically popular theories.

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I grew up Reformed, and the default teaching was penal substitution as our central understanding of the cross. “The cross is God’s response to man’s nature.” It’s straightforward, it’s simple, and it’s reflected in a lot of our hymns and doctrinal understandings.

In reading the gospels, though, I’ve been thinking about other ways of looking at it, wondering if there are other understandings that could be useful.

The parable of the wicked tenants (Mark 12) is one such example. The meaning of the parable is rather obvious, of course: the tenants are the Jewish leaders, the servants sent by the owner of the vineyard are the prophets, the son is Jesus, and so on. Because the point has more to do with the replacement of the Jewish order, we wouldn’t necessarily expect to have penal substitution worked into the mix. Nonetheless, it got me thinking. Why can’t this parable teach us something about the cross as well?

One thing that bothers me is how easily we skip over some of Jesus’s final words: “Father, forgive them; they know not what they do.” If the people who crucified Jesus were merely pawns in the Father’s judgment of sin, then this statement is almost a bygone conclusion. Obviously they don’t know what they’re doing; they aren’t really the ones doing it, so it’s natural that Jesus would want to forgive. I think maybe it’s more than that.

Penal substitution says, “The cross is God’s response to man’s nature.” But with the parable of the tenants and similar passages, couldn’t we also say, “The cross is man’s response to God’s nature?” That doesn’t seem so far out. Jesus showed us divine nature, so we killed him, because that’s our response to what’s pure and good: we hate it.

If I may propose a parable of my own….

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There once was a wise man who served as the mayor of a city. He was fair and just, and the people of the city were glad he was their mayor.

In the city, there was a young man who the mayor employed as a janitor to help keep the city hall clean. The young man had a problem, though: he was a drug addict.

The young man ran up a huge debt with drug dealers in the city. Desperate, he went to the mayor and confessed, asking to borrow money and promising to go to rehab. Though the mayor knew who the drug dealers were and was fully capable of stopping them directly, he agreed to loan the young man the money.

The young man paid off his debt to the drug lords and went to rehab as promised, but he soon left. The mayor invited the young man over for drinks at his house, encouraging him to stay clean. But before too long, he regressed. In less than six months, he had already racked up tens of thousands of dollars in debt and the drug dealers were harassing him daily.

The cycle repeated. He went to the mayor, begged for a loan and promised to stay clean. But when the consequences disappeared, so did his impulse to follow through. Still, the mayor kept loaning him money each time he asked, knowing full well that it wouldn’t be paid back.

Even in the middle of each cycle, the young man wondered why the mayor didn’t simply bust the dealers. It wouldn’t be hard, and it would solve the problem, wouldn’t it? Of course, he didn’t realize that his repeated return to drugs answered the question. The problem wasn’t the drugs; the problem was his addiction to them.

Each time, the cycle got worse. Greedy, the drug dealers began placing a bounty on the young man’s head every time he ran up a tab, knowing that it would make the money come faster and faster. Finally, after running up a particularly large debt, the dealers simply kidnapped the young man outright.

When the young man called the mayor to beg him for money once again, the mayor refused for the first time. “No, this has gone on long enough. This time I’m sending my son. He’ll take care of the dealers.”

The young man felt a surge of hope. The mayor’s son was head detective at the city police station and had personally busted many notorious dealers. The addict was certain that the son would come in guns blazing and rescue him, getting rid of the drug lords for good.

The dealers didn’t think it would happen. “He’s bluffing. No way he cares enough about you to send in the big guns.” They were certain it was all a bluff right up until the moment that they heard gunfire outside. Moments later, the doors flew open and the mayor’s son walked in.

Cowed, the dealers hung back. Surely they had bitten off more than they could deal with this time. They were in deep trouble now.

The mayor’s son pulled up a chair and sat down with the young man. “Listen. I’m here to put an end to this once and for all. You can’t keep going back over and over and over again; you’re just going to end up killing yourself. My father doesn’t care about the money you owe him. My men have this place surrounded; all you have to do is come with me.”

The young man was ecstatic. This was what he had been waiting for! Finally, these thugs were going to get what was coming to them. It was all about to be over.

The mayor’s son continued. “My father’s house has a lot of room; we want you to come back with me and live there. We’ll get you cleaned up, we’ll help you through withdrawals. You’ll be safe, and you’ll never have to look at or see drugs ever again.”

The addict’s face began to change. Getting out of his mess? Great news. Seeing the drug dealers get busted? Awesome. But the rest of it….he wasn’t so sure.

The drug dealers noticed this. They also noticed that the mayor’s son wasn’t carrying a gun, wasn’t wearing a ballistic vest. He was just an ordinary man.

The son was still talking, but the addict wasn’t listening any more. He hadn’t had any drugs in a while and he was starting to feel shaky. Did he really want this? He wanted to escape his predicament, but getting clean for good….not so much. But if he didn’t get out now, they would kill him.

One of the dealers saw his chance. Grabbing the mayor’s son by the back of the neck, he threw him onto the ground and aimed a gun at his head. “Who’s the big detective now, huh? You’re not so tough without all your guys, are you?”

Another dealer grabbed the young man. Grinning, he pushed a gun into his hand. “It’s either him or you, boy. Somebody has got to die. Who will it be?”

The young man realized he was pointing a gun at the son. What was he doing? But something else rose up inside him….anger. The mayor and his son — they were so perfect, like they were so far above him, like there was something wrong with him. Who did they think they were, anyway? It was fine when the mayor was just bailing him out….but coming in and telling him that he had to get clean once and for all? He was seething.

“Do it,” whispered the dealer. “Do it, and your debt is gone. You’ll never owe us many again; we’ll give you all the drugs you want. We’ll even set you up to deal a little bit yourself. You’ll be one of us. Just pull the trigger.”

The son didn’t say anything. He waited to see what the young man would do.

The addict began to curse, railing angrily. “Who do you think you are? You think that just because you’re important you can come in here and tell me what to do, how to live my life. You’re not so great. Screw you! Screw you and your fancy house and your perfect life and everything else about you. You know what? It’s my life, and I’ll do what I want!”

The young man pulled the trigger again and again, watching the son’s body buck as the bullets tore through his chest. The slide locked open as the last round was ejected.

Blood was trickling out of the son’s mouth as he took one ragged breath. “I….forgive you.” Then his eyes rolled back in his head and he slumped back.

Something snapped inside the young man’s head. What….why? Why would he say that? He was on the other side now. Didn’t this prove that he wanted nothing to do with the mayor or his son? But if he was really on the side of the drug dealers now, why would the son have forgiven him? And why did he feel so…wrong?

The dealers missed it completely. They laughed, taking the gun back and clapping the addict on the back racously. One of them kicked the son’s body into the corner and began dousing it in gasoline. “Let’s get out of here, man! Burn this place to the ground!”

The young man ran.

He didn’t know where he was running. He didn’t even realize that he was running until the cold night air hit him, rushing into his lungs like ice water. But he kept running, running as hard and as fast as he could. Anything to get away from that Man who had said, “I forgive you.”

He realized he was weeping as he ran, his lungs aching as sobs wracked his frame. Suddenly, he could run no more, and he fell to his knees as he continued to weep.

A pair of headlights appeared around a bend ahead of him. The car drove closer….then stopped. The driver door opened.

To the young man’s horror, he realized it was the mayor walking toward him. In the glare of the headlights, he realized his hands were red with blood. It must have splattered up from the son’s body, he realized.

“No, no — stay away from me!” The young man was terrified.

“I sent my son,” said the mayor. “Did you follow him?”

“Just leave me alone,” stammered the young man. “You don’t know what I did.”

The mayor looked down at the young man. He saw his son’s blood on the addict’s hands, the tears on his cheeks, heard the hoarse, ragged sound of his breath.

“Yes, I know what you did. And I forgive you too.”

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Editors note: For more on atonement theory, I highly recommend Morgan Guyton’s post at Mercy, not Sacrifice, and Sarah Moon’s on “The Cross and Radical Activism.”