In Christian theology salvation tends to refer to God’s intent to restore that which has been broken in the world, including the earth and the creatures that inhabit it. The doctrine of salvation has a robust Christological interior. Soteriology (lit. “the study of salvation”) primarily centers around the “life, death, resurrection and exaltation of Christ in relation to human salvation.” Because of my chronic health problems, particular imposed soteriologies have caused me and my faith the most trauma. What I am interested in is the ‘implicacy’ of the doctrine of salvation in systems of meaning and power that ultimately disavow those in similar positions of vulnerability. One of the primary ways this gets played out is in the construction and exhortation of atonement theologies as modes of theodicy and meaning-making—that is, as theories designed to explain the existence of evil and make sense of the human predicament. I want to argue that insofar as atonement theologies function as defense mechanisms against facing systems of oppression, adherents are implicated in the idolatry of an antichrist.
Let us begin by defining the “dominant Western view of the atonement” and its relation to salvation. Leanne van Dyk articulates that in this view “the death of the beloved Son is the substituted punishment for the accumulated total of human sin. … Punishment, [therefore,] is rooted in the divine economy.” This theory essentially frames the incarnation of Jesus as an “anthropomorphic reaction to human sin.” The death of Jesus, then, is the event which satisfies the wrath of God and makes possible the ability for sinful humanity to inherit holy salvation. Such sin-based theology is so enraptured in a Christ that redeems human sin that it tends to place redemptive value on the suffering of others, and, at its worst, forces the justification of such suffering. For most of my young adult life, this theology was the bedrock of my Christian faith.
Growing up in the Evangelical Church, my understanding of the doctrine of salvation was primarily informed by a scripturally dislocated John 3:16. Hence, the concept of salvation was inextricably linked to a certain interpretation of the crucifixion and a redemptive grace that was imparted to all who professed belief in the divinity of Christ. We ended up drawing the Godhead into an egoic longing for “retribution, judicial resolution and punishment.” This theology implicitly assumed God the Father to be fundamentally wrathful, dangerous, and subject to supposed cosmic laws of offended justice, and yet this God was spoken of as fundamentally interventionist in nature. However, in the elementary stages of my faith this boded well for me and my young mind that longed for a majestic Zeus-like God who had control over the dealings of the world.
We may ask, “What is disavowed in the dance between theological predications of atonement and Western cultural logic?” With such an individual, ahistorical, legalistic, mathematical formula-based theology being the center of many dominant notions of the Gospel, to what extent does this notion of salvation “[mask], even [legitimate], the violence which is such a painful characteristic of our society?” Dr. J. Kameron Carter argues that the inability to confess America as a genocidal society built off of slavery keeps the doctrine of salvation implicated in the idolatry of whiteness. He describes whiteness as “a practice of government, of population management and in this way of sovereignty.” He poses a striking polemical question, albeit indirectly, in conversation with Dyk: How does whiteness as a brutalizing practice of sovereignty intersect and inform the dominant Western view of the atonement? Carter reveals that whiteness has aided and abetted imperialist images of God that have been received in the Church as normative. He calls this “the reduction of the sacred to a brutalizing property-concept.” We ended up with a rather primitive notion of God who exists outside the realm of creation judging the world from afar.
When my health began to erode in 2006, this interventionist (and monarchical) deity—the one who enabled Jesus to heal the sick (cf. Matt 8:3, 8:13, 8:16), to give sight to the blind (cf. John 9:6-7), and to exorcise people of demons (cf. Luke 8:26-33) was apparently, for reasons unknown, apathetic to my suffering, to the countless prayers I prayed, and to every hand that was laid on me for my healing. This began to render the Crucified Christ a meaningless, even harmful, metaphor for me. I began to see that because atonement theologies so strongly emphasized the redemptive blessing of Jesus’ blood, the wounds of others almost inherently became glorified centers of meaning leaving them to grieve their pain in isolation. I longed for an alternative theology and still do.
Substitutionary atonement makes room for the perpetuation of individual and corporate systems of oppression under the guise that “all is paid for and eschatologically secured in Christ.” Slavoj Žižek says new age Asiatic thought has become the underlying ideology of postmodern post-industrial capitalism because it allows people to participate in a system that’s still rooted in domination and aggression while maintaining this inner sense of detachment. Though I do not claim to know how to approach the doctrine of salvation in a way that fully honors the experience of suffering people, I fear that framing the Crucified Christ in terms of atonement is the Christian equivalent of the white bourgeoisie appropriation of simplified Eastern philosophy. The notion of salvation in the dominant Western view of the atonement is so caught up in the restorative reality of the eschaton that social activism is practically rendered futile. But what if the crucifixion was not about changing the mind of God about humanity, but about transforming humanity’s monarchical conception of the divine? What if being ‘saved’ was never about accessing God’s kingdom through gaining the forgiveness of God, but about being freed to live in a new way? Perhaps, then, we are saved not to escape this world, but to help transform it.