Chapter 13: What About the Atonement?

Dear Mr. Brown: Letters to a Person Perplexed about Religion
by Harry Emerson Fosdick

Chapter 13: What About the Atonement?

My dear Ted:

Your gracious letter, thanking me for my participation in your graduation exercises, was most welcome. I thoroughly enjoyed the occasion, especially the privilege of seeing you honored as valedictorian of your class. I am sure it was at your suggestion that I was invited to offer the prayer at the baccalaureate service, and I warmly appreciate your interest in having me present. And now, after a summer’s vacation, you are headed for postgraduate work in International Law. But I must say that the question you ask me in your letter lies far outside that field.

You write me that recently, at the invitation of a religiously conservative friend, you attended his church and heard a fundamentalist sermon on the atonement. You say that your trouble started with the first hymn:

He died that we might be forgiven,

He died to make us good,

That we might go at last to heaven,

Saved by His precious blood.

Then, you say, the preacher in a long discourse expounded the idea that man’s sin is justly answered by God’s wrath, and that the righteous wrath of God can be satisfied only by an infinite sacrifice which no human being can make -- only the Son of God himself, who by dying on Calvary made God’s forgiveness pos- sible. It all sounded so foreign to your normal ways of thinking that you decided to ask me what I thought about it -- a decision intensified by the final hymn:

There is a Fountain, filled with blood

Drawn from Emmanuel’s veins,

And sinners plung’d beneath its flood

Lose all their guilty stains.

Your question really involves the whole matter of the significance of Christ’s cross in Christian thought, and there is no possibility of exaggerating the importance of that. From a theologian like Mansberg saying, "That frightful drama on Golgotha, which forms the most significant chapter in the history of humanity," to a Unitarian like John Bowring writing,

In the cross of Christ I glory,

Towering o’er the wrecks of time,

Christians of every conceivable kind have found the cross the focal fact, most insistently challenging attention and demanding explanation. One reason for this is that the crucifixion of Jesus is an entirely unique event in the history of religion. No other founder of a great religion ever died a violent and voluntary death of self-sacrifice. Moses, at a ripe old age, died a natural death on Mount Nebo’s top, foreseeing Israel’s victorious assault on Canaan. Gotama Buddha, after eighty years of influential teaching, died surrounded by his favorite disciples. Confucius, over seventy years old, idolized by devoted adherents, passed away in peace, saying to himself, so runs the story,

The great mountain must crumble;

The strong beam must break;

And the wise man wither away like a plant.

Mohammed, reclining on the breast of his wife Ayesha, died when over sixty years of age, revered and victorious. Only Zoroaster died a violent death, slain along with many others by Turanian invaders of his nation, when he was seventy-seven years old. Of all the founders of religion only Jesus, after a brief ministry, in the full strength of his young manhood, betrayed, deserted, outcast by his own people, and mourned by a mere handful, deliberately chose a course of action whose end he foresaw, and was crucified between thieves. It was a death of voluntary self-sacrifice: "No one takes my life from me, but I lay it down of my own accord." The first reason for the centrality of the cross in Christian interest is evident: among all the founders of religion Jesus’ crucifixion is unique.

That this self-sacrificial death of Jesus demanded an explanation is obvious. As late as 300 A.D. Arnobius, expressing the consensus of pagan opinion, wrote about the Christians, "We are not angry with you because you worship the omnipotent God, but because you pay daily homage to a man . . . who was put to death in a way that is a disgrace even to the vile." Inevitably, from the beginning, Christians wrestled with one attempt after another to explain the cross. And naturally they had to use ways of thinking current in their time.

If you are to understand some of the things in that church service you attended, which shocked you, you must think yourself back into that ancient world where in every land the altars ran red with the blood of animal, and sometimes human, sacrifice. All primitive religions had their blood sacrifices, and about their reeking altars, which would have made some of us fall in a dead faint, myriads of people felt their relationship with the unseen world of spirits made safe and secure. The ancient Germans, for example, in time of famine first slew animals before the altar. If no relief came, men were sacrificed. If still there was no relief, the chieftain himself must give up his life. Don’t feel condescending toward them! Remember that our English words "bless" and "blood" come from the same stem, going back to the conviction of our Anglo-Saxon forefathers that there is no blessing without bloodshed. In Judaism also the system of animal sacrifices in the Temple ritual had been elaborate. Naturally they became one of the first analogies which the early Christians used to interpret Christ’s death. No wonder, therefore, that Paul exclaimed, "Christ, our paschal lamb, has been sacrificed," or that we read in the Epistle to the Hebrews, "He entered once for all into the Holy Place, taking not the blood of goats and calves but his own blood."

Must we, then, go on forever, using the analogy of bloody animal sacrifice to express our interpretation of Christ’s death? I answer emphatically, No! Here, once more, some clergymen confuse those whom they would persuade by using an obsolete, contemporaneously meaningless vocabulary. Let me try to state what seems to me the essence of the matter as simply as possible.

Whenever there is ignorance or sin, there is only one way out. Someone who does not have to do it, for the sake of those who do not deserve it, must voluntarily take on himself the burden of their need. That is the principle of vicarious sacrifice, and it is as deeply imbedded in the spiritual world as gravitation is in the physical world. In that sense "bless" and "blood" do come from the same stem. Father Damien went to the island of Molokai because lepers were there for whom no one was caring. At first he said in addressing them, "You who are lepers," but then the day came when for the first time he said, "We who are lepers." The very air, they say, became electric. So, he who had not needed to do it voluntarily had taken that upon himself. That is vicarious sacrifice, and on Calvary it was uniquely and marvelously exhibited.

There never has been any salvation in this world from any evil thing except through vicarious sacrifice. Someone who did not have to do it volunteered to shoulder another’s burden -- the well for the sick, the intelligent for the ignorant, the privileged for the unprivileged, the innocent for the guilty. Perhaps we would have made the world differently, but this is the way it is. A Chinese patient once said about a missionary doctor, "He took my sickness into his own heart." That is in essence the doctrine of the atonement. Don’t let the barricades of theological discussion, often substituting argumentative ingenuities for the vital significance of the matter, keep you from that deep and central truth about the meaning of vicarious sacrifice. "He took my sickness into his own heart" -- someone always has to do that, if there is to be any salvation: Wilberforce for the slaves, Florence Nightingale for the wounded, Jane Addams for the slums, Dr. Schweitzer for the sick in Lambarene, Christ for the world. This is the most powerful, spiritual, lifting force in man’s experience, and every decent, lovely, saving factor in our lives came from it. We had better believe in the cross.

Lord, Thou didst suffer more for me

Than all the hosts of land and sea.

So let me render back again

This millionth of Thy gift. Amen.

I take it that the way I have just put the matter is at least understandable. It states the meaning of Christ’s cross in familiar words. So, age after age, Christians, feeling the necessity of explaining Christ’s sacrificial death, have thought and spoken about it in the terms of their own generation. As the Eskimo houses his family in igloos of snow and ice because they are the materials at hand, while a dweller in the tropics uses bamboo and palmwood for the same reason, so different generations have enshrined their explanations of Christ’s death in terms of thinking peculiar to their times. The result we call theories of the atonement. Isn’t it a paradox that some of the most controversial words in Christian theology -- "Trinity" and "atonement," for example -- are not to be found in the New Testament? In the King James Version "atonement" occurs only once -- Romans 5: l l --but the revised versions correct that translation and use "reconciliation."

At any rate, what we call theories of the atonement have been many and varied. I must not undertake to give you a course in theology, but just to relieve your mind of any suspicion that there is one orthodox doctrine of the atonement, which a Christian is expected to accept, let me give you a sample or two.

The earliest Christian literature, deeply and gratefully impressed by the fact that "God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself," and that the cross was the indispensable factor in that reconciliation, did not at first theorize about how the death of Christ saved men. Analogies from current life were used: Christ’s death was a ransom, by which slaves of sin were freed from serfdom, or the paying of a debt, which released the debtor from his prison. But then the theologians began to speculate -- Origen, for example, in the third century. His theory was that man’s sin had put man in thralldom to Satan, so that Satan owned mankind. But Satan bargained with God that he would surrender his lordship over fallen man, if God would give him his Son in exchange. So Christ came to earth and was crucified, and man was set free, but the bargain turned out to be a "pious fraud" on God’s part, for by his resurrection from Sheol Christ escaped from Satan after all. Believe it or not, that theory of the atonement, in one form or another, was orthodox doctrine for centuries!

Then, in the eleventh century, Anselm came and started off on another tack. His thinking was thoroughly saturated with Roman legalism. "Every sin must be followed either by satisfaction or punishment"-- that was his basic principle. God to him was the infinite Feudal Lord. Every man, being the Lord’s vassal, owed him perfect obedience. For a man to sin is to defraud God of his due, and so by dishonoring the Infinite to acquire infinite guilt. But infinite guilt demands infinite punishment, in man’s case his eternal doom in hell. There is only one way out: the infinite price must be paid. Man, being finite, cannot do this, neither can anyone not human do it, for because the sin is human the reparation must be made by the human. Therefore, only the God-man, both deity and humanity, can make the necessary sacrifice. This Christ does in his death on Calvary. He pays the adequate ransom, not as in Origen’s theory to Satan, but to God.

Well, Ted, if you have survived these last two paragraphs, the rest of this letter should be easier going. That sermon you heard, as you must recognize, represented a watered-down version of Anselm’s theory. I share your revolt against that whole legalistic approach to the interpretation of the cross, Try fitting it into Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son, for example, and see what happens! The Prodigal has sinned against his father, and the father -- not a feudal lord but an honest-to-goodness father -- sees the returning son, penitent and ashamed, coming home from the far country. According to Anselm and his kind, can the father run and fall on the prodigal’s neck and kiss him? Oh, no! A legal reparation must first of all be made. There must be an elder brother, of another sort altogether from the one described in Jesus’ parable, who will volunteer to let himself be flogged to death, crucified, or what you will, after seeing which the father, his legal honor satisfied, can welcome the returning son. Can you imagine Jesus thinking in such terms as that? These legalistic theories of the atonement are in my judgment a theological disgrace.

So let us get back to our own way of stating the matter. We have as much right to think of Christ’s cross in terms understandable and reasonable in our time as men like Origen and Anselm had in their times. Christ’s death is part of his life; they both are of one piece, based on dedicated self-sacrifice for the good of others. He died as he lived, a savior. That his saviorhood is unique in its scope and impact is obvious, but the principle of it is not unique. We all can share it. Jesus himself said, "If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me." Paul prayed "that I may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death." Peter wrote, "Rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings." Indeed Paul even said, "I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church." Too many theories of the atonement assume that by one single high priestly act of self-sacrifice Christ saved the world. No! As Dr. John Baillie writes, "Too often the temptation of Christians has been, in the poignant words of a recent writer, to leave it all ‘to one great priestly act, one baptism, one cup of woe, though at the heart of all our worship are the words, Drink ye all of it.’" Christ’s life of saviorhood is to be continued in the vicarious sacrifice of his disciples’ lives.

Perhaps an illustration of the very opposite of vicarious sacrifice may help. George Jean Nathan, a New York drama critic, thus summed up his life’s philosophy: "To me, pleasure and my own personal happiness -- only infrequently collaborating with that of others -- are all I deem worth a hoot. . . . I have all that I can do to look out for my own happiness and welfare." That is essential Antichrist. Over against that is the principle of vicarious sacrifice. As Walt Whitman, working among the wounded in the Civil War, said, "I do not ask the wounded person how he feels. I myself become the wounded person." Without that quality of personal care and self-giving no salvation from any kind of evil ever visited the earth.

I hope that you are not afraid of that word "salvation." It may sound pious to you, but really it is the major concern of every important thing we do. What are schools and colleges for? Salvation from ignorance. Why hospitals and physicians? Salvation from disease. Why philanthropic agencies? Salvation from misery and poverty. Why art galleries and symphonies? Salvation from vulgarity. Why friendship? Salvation from loneliness. It is not preachers alone who say we need to be saved. Everyone with any sense in his head says it. We desperately need to be saved from war, from racial strife, from overpopulation, and so on and on; deepest of all we humans need salvation from those personal sins which defile character and make a Christian world impossible. What, then, does such salvation involve? It involves on the sinner’s part sincere repentance, and on someone else’s part love, mercy, forgiveness, and healing restoration. Someone, who does not have to do it, must voluntarily care enough to put himself in another’s place with pardon and saving help. So the New Testament says that Christ died, "the righteous for the unrighteous that he might bring us to God."

Were you to talk to that fundamentalist preacher, he doubtless would insist that you must believe in the "substitutionary" theory of atonement -- namely, that Jesus suffered as a substitute for us the punishment due us for our sins. But can you imagine a modern courtroom in a civilized country where an innocent man would be deliberately punished for another man’s crime? In ancient times that was common practice. Saul had slain Gibeonites, whom the Israelites had promised to spare, and David felt compelled to make things right with them. How did he do it? He handed over to the Gibeonites seven of Saul’s sons and grandsons, and they were hanged "on the mountain before the Lord." That was substitutionary atonement, and alas! it came a long way down in history in many a penal system. But now it is a precivilized barbarity; no secular court would tolerate the idea for a moment; only in certain belated theologies is it retained as an explanation of our Lord’s death.

I am hoping that this letter will save you from being even haunted by the specter of these legalistic penal theories of the atonement. Christ’s sacrificial life and death are too sacred to be so misrepresented. The cross is rightly the symbol of Christianity.

All the light of sacred story

Gathers round its head sublime.

As another put it, just as the scarlet thread runs through every rope of the British navy to mark it as the property of the Crown, so the mark of the cross is upon every doctrine of the faith to show that it belongs to him. But if you wish some human analogy to help you understand the meaning of the cross, turn not to a criminal court trial but to the family.

There was a boy whom we will call Philip, who disobeyed his father and had to be punished. He was sent up to the attic to spend the night. Ten o’clock came, eleven, midnight, and there was Philip in the attic, wide-eyed, obstinate, angry; and there was Philip’s father downstairs, also sleepless, thinking about his son. Then it occurred to him that there was something he could do which would reveal to the boy both his justice and his love. So he went up into the attic himself and climbed into bed with Philip. "My boy," he said, "I had to punish you. I had to. But that is not all there is to me, and I have come up to spend the night with you." That finished Philip. He could have stood his father’s justice-side and been obstinate, but he could not resist the mercy-side. So the cross has symbolized two sides of God, as though in this bed which we have made for ourselves with our sins, divine love came to spend the night with us.

How pitifully inadequate all our analogies are to explain what the ancients rightly called the mysterium crucis, the mystery of the cross! We face there one of the basic principles of creation, vicarious sacrifice: any salvation from human need dependent on someone, who does not have to do so, voluntarily caring enough to identify himself with the needy and give his sacrificial all for their help. That principle is surely at the very heart of Calvary’s meaning. But, the older I grow, the more I think that I understand the cross best when I stop trying to analyze it and just stand in awe before it. You were bothered by the hymns sung at that fundamentalist service. I agree, but here is a hymn which I can sing with the consent of all my faculties.

When I survey the wondrous cross

On which the Prince of glory died,

My richest gain I count but loss,

And pour contempt on all my pride

Were the whole realm of nature mine,

That were a present far too small;

Love so amazing, so divine,

Demands my soul, my life, my all.

Most cordially yours,