Why is atonement needed?

My friend Robin blogged about Brian McLaren’s books, writing an almost throw-away line wondering why the crucifixion is such a big deal, much more so than the resurrection, it seems. I jumped on that in the comments, and a wonderfully rich discussion exploded about the atonement. Now I find that Tony Jones is starting a series on original sin, which has some overlap in this area as well.

First, “atonement” is a theological word that has been highly and diversely developed in the history of the church. At its root level, it looks at how and in what way Christ heals humanity’s broken relationship with God, so that once again we can be “at one” with God. The thoughtful comments to Robin’s post, from a very diverse group of people, have occupied a lot of cycles in my brain over the last several days. So much so, that I probably have to spread this out over several posts.

I think the place I want to start is in the context of the wider Quaker family (I may branch later into atheist/agnostic, but not yet). Marshall Massey pointed out, very accurately in my opinion, that atonement issues are right at the heart of our past and present divisions as Friends. Then, corollary issues immediately arise: what weight and authority we give to the Old and New Testaments, our view of human nature, our view of the character of God, etc.

As an evangelical Friend reading comments from liberal or unprogrammed Quakers, my eyes have once again been opened to how often our differing assumptions can cause us to miss each other completely. From childhood, I’ve accepted that human beings’ actions cause a rift between ourselves and God that needs healing. I’ve accepted it like the air I breathe, without a whole lot of questioning why or even noticing it. Many of us in our circles assume this idea so much, that we jump right in to the question of how atonement works, before we’ve ever established a basis or case for why atonement might be necessary.

The default evangelical answer is to say, “Well, it’s in the bible.” Which it is, as I’ll make the case in another post. But how might I give evidence to someone for whom the bible is NOT authoritative, how might I give evidence from other aspects of life that a breach between humanity and God truly does exist, and therefore needs to be healed? That is what has been short-circuiting brain cells for the last few days.

Here’s the best case I’ve been able to make up to this point, for why a break in our relationship with God must exist, and why atonement is necessary.

My observation of the world is that true evil exists. Not just misguidedness, not just mistakes, not just lapses in judgment or bad habits or failure to do my best. True evil exists, and we see it in the form of horrific human choices. I see it (as do a myriad of others) on a global and societal scale, in oppression, in slavery, in genocide, in the holocaust, in war, in sexual abuse and prejudice and manipulation. I see it on a personal scale, sitting over coffee with people I know and care about who share the choices they’ve made to act out sexually, or to steal, or to abuse a loved one, choices that wound them and their relationships, choices that they cannot explain to me or to themselves. “How did I do this? How did I make this choice?”

Can you hear me say that I believe true evil exists, and that every person I’ve met has succumbed in varying degrees to choosing evil, and that it is a different issue entirely than whether humans are inherently good or evil? I’ll overstate and say I don’t care whether we are inherently good or evil: what matters to me, what troubles me, is that myself and every person I know at times chooses against our desires and our intentions, and does evil that harms ourselves and others. We are powerless to always choose the good, regardless of our desires or intentions. That is building block number one, but it still does not explain why those actions cause a rift between us and God.

Quakers have always believed in a Divine Seed, a Spark, the Light Within which empowers us to live holy lives and to act justly for our brothers and sisters in the world. Central to our faith is a real Deity who can and does interact with us as humans, empowering us to do good in the world. (Sidenote: I realize here I am leaving aside non-theist Friends and agnostics/atheists. I apologize.) All of us Quakers, across the divides, believe that the Divine Presence is available to every human being on the planet, universally.

My understanding of the anthropology and theology of liberal Friends would lead me to this conclusion: liberal Friends believe that perfection could come to individuals and to humanity if everyone attended to the Light or Seed within. Everyone is on a level playing field; no detriment or demerit of the soul has to be overcome. The presence of God is something which can help, enrich, empower and improve our lives, and the absence of God simply means less good is achieved in us and in our world.

I personally have great difficulty reconciling that view with the world that I see. How did the 20th century, the bloodiest, most horrific century on record, occur if the improvement of individuals and the human race were easily “chooseable” by humanity? That would seem to raise questions about the power of this Deity we say we serve. On the anthropology level, how does my friend, who knows and listens to God, commit adultery that my friend did not believe was right? That kind of choice should not be possible if there is no detriment of the soul to overcome. Either God wasn’t strong enough, or something internal blocked my friend from choosing what my friend wanted to choose.

So there is building block number 2: the presence and the accessibility of God, itself universal, does not universally lead to the abolishment of evil. There must be something blocking, hindering, stopping, inhibiting the work of God in humanity, otherwise utopia would have been achieved. (To paraphrase something I read somewhere, the liberal dream of humanity building a better world died at Auschwitz.)

When I or my family are “wronged” in some way, there is a personal offence, an indignation, a pain that must be addressed. If, as Friends believe, the Light is more than philosophical “good”, but the embodiment of “good” who wants to interact and speak relationally to our condition…would there not be a question of offense or indignation or “wronged-ness” on the part of that relational Deity? This is the best I can do to achieve QED outside of the scriptural witness. If there is a Deity who embodies goodness and justice, universally available to all humanity, and yet there is continual choosing of evil by humanity (even with the possibility and power of doing good available through the Deity), there must be both something blocking humanity from choosing that good, and a woundedness and a rift in the relationship between the Deity and humanity must exist.

My wife Elaine may have summed it up best in a question: “What, then, was the condition that George Fox spoke about, when he said ‘There is one, even Christ Jesus, who can speak to thy condition?’”

(See also an older post, “Why I identify as a Christ-centered Quaker”. Next up: the biblical witness to the need for atonement, with corollaries on how I read and view the scriptures.)

8 thoughts on “Why is atonement needed?

  1. The last liberal Quaker gathering I was at I participated in a “who are we?” kind of exercise where someone would call out a belief statement and we were all to move to one side or another depending on whether we strongly agreed, disagreed, or didn’t have a strong opinion (middle of the room’ers).

    The statement came up “I believe in the existence of evil.” One half of the participants rushed to the side of the room–evil flat out doesn’t exist–while the other half kind of muddled about in the middle. There was me and one or two statistically-insignificant Friends on the evil-exists side. I wasn’t surprised there was a range, but it did surprise me that the basic existence of evil was so completely fringe in this liberal Quaker room.

    I’m at the point where I can’t understand a vision of either Christianity or Quakerism that doesn’t include evil and that doesn’t include some sort of concept of “The Tempter.” I don’t go down too far down the theology road to identify these. It’s more an experiential belief: I’ve seen really good people do really bad things and justify them with a whitewash of good intentions. The existence of a tempting principle is the clearest way to explain how seemingly any good principle or talent can be twisted into wrongness. The more we grow into holiness, the more crafty the Tempter is in thwarting forward motion. Unless we’re on guard we’re going to get caught up and our best intentions will be for naught and our good causes will spin their wheels in futility.


  2. Thank you, Martin. Wow. How do the “evil doesn’t exist” Friends describe what is happening in Darfur? Human trafficking? Do they distinguish between “injustice” and “evil” in some way? I just honestly have trouble even understanding.


  3. Gregg

    Thanks so much for posting this explanation. Raised a liberal Friend, I became a Christian. I continue in NPYM, hoping to present Christ to independent Quakers. Your sensitivity to those of us who aren’t evangelical and don’t get it is unique, refreshing and very helpful.

    I experience evil as existing. But does it divide us from God so that some price must be paid to reconcile us? Can’t He reach us, even as we sin? Does His Seed die within us, or does John’s promise (John 1:3-5) continue no matter our condition? The image of a Father who holds my sin against me until He’s satisfied isn’t one I’ve understood yet.

    So I’ve yet to understand that atonement is necessary. I shift my attention and Christ is there–present and still helping me. I get it that life with Christ is abundant and blessed, but I’m not particularly threatened by sin or it’s penalties.

    But maybe I’m missing (or ignoring) something very basic.


  4. Hello Jay,

    I’m glad it was helpful and refreshing. And I think your questions are good ones. I admit, it is difficult to make a case outside of scripture for the divide between God and myself. Now…your specific statements are ones I will deal with in later posts. But the quick version is, I’m less inclined to have a view of atonement where God “must” pay something or do something. I’m more inclined to see in the bible a revelation of a God who chooses to do everything possible to heal the rift by God’s own sacrifice, and centering that in Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.

    Put differently, your objections as I read them are against a specific view of atonement (penal substitutionary)…they don’t necessarily have to be objections against the issue that there is something between us and God that must in some way be repaired.


  5. Hi, Greg! I’m glad you find the time to write out your thoughts and continue the discussion.

    I was entirely with you until I got to paragraph 10 — the one that begins, “My understanding of the anthropology and theology of liberal Friends….” At that point I have to interject and say, the anthropology and theology you describe in this paragraph is, as I understand it, that of Robert Barclay as well, and of early Friends generally, and of the present-day Conservative Friends tradition.

    Let me tackle that tenth paragraph point by point, if I may.

    The early Friends certainly acknowledged the fallenness of the natural human being, to the point of buying into the Augustinian-Lutheran-Calvinist (but not Biblical) doctrine of the total depravity of humankind. (Barclay, Apology, Prop. IV.) But they equated the inward Guide with the historical Christ, granting it an equal saving power, which is why they affirmed that even Turks and Jews can be saved by fidelity to the Guide. In support of this, they were given to quoting what John said in his Gospel, verse 1:9, about “the light that enlighteneth every man”. “This Light,” wrote Barclay (Prop. V), “…is it, which reproves the sin of all individuals, and would work out the salvation of all, if not resisted; nor is it less universal than the seed of sin…; ‘for as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.” Thus Barclay said, in his own phrasing, the first thing you attribute to liberal Friends, “that perfection could come to individuals and to humanity if everyone attended to the Light or Seed within.

    The early Friends also, following Paul, acknowledged that this light may work upon and through people even where people do not recognize it clearly. Paul wrote in Romans 2:14 of how the Gentiles “do by nature the things contained in the law”, and Isaac Penington commented on this verse that it must be because the Gentiles “were partakers of another nature than the old corrupt nature”; he added, that I John 3:7 and I John 2:29 supported the same understanding. (Penington, A Treatise Concerning God’s Teachings, and Christ’s Law… [ca. 1671].) Barclay wrote (Prop. VI) of how “even … those who are necessarily excluded from the benefit of this knowledge [of Christ’s death and sufferings] by some inevitable accident … may be made partakers of the mystery of his death … if they suffer his Seed and Light (enlightening their hearts) to take place; in which Light, communion with the Father and Son is enjoyed … by whose inward and secret touches they feel themselves turned from the evil to the good, and learn to do to others as they would be done by….” (Emphasis in the original.) This would seem to confirm that the early Friends believed the second thing you attribute to liberal Friends: that “everyone is on a level playing field…“; and indeed we may compare the repeated testimony of Scripture, that God does not play favorites. (Deuteronomy 10:17ff.; Job 34:19; Ben Sira 35:12; Romans 2:5-11; etc.)

    It doesn’t appear to me that the early Friends believed in an “absence of God” (they were orthodox in their belief that God is omnipresent), but certainly they understood that the absence of an overt decision to be faithful to the Guide did not mean that God could no longer “achieve good” through some person. Luke records that a disbelieving Pharisee fed Christ at a banquet, where Christ preached and taught (Luke 11:37-54); did that Pharisee accomplish no good by nourishing Christ? When the early Friends spoke of the Light, or inward Guide, to people of the world, they mostly spoke of how it reproves the evil that we do; “the first way of meeting with the Spirit of God, is as a convincer of sin,” as Penington put it in his essay The Way of Life and Death Made Manifest and Set Before Men… (1658). This focus on the Light as a revealer was to be expected, given the early Friends’ belief in the Calvinist doctrine of the total depravity of humankind. But the early Friends also, at times, spoke of how the Light leads the still-unsaved people of the world to do right, and to do to others as they would be done to themselves. We find such statements in James Nayler’s booklet The Power and Glory of the Lord Shining out of the North or the Day of the Lord Dawning (1653), and also in William Penn’s Primitive Christianity Revived in the Faith and Practice of the People Called Quakers (1696), Chapter VI §3, where he offers his comments on Romans 2:7-16.

    One of the most interesting testimonies to this effect is the one given by “an aged woman of Long Lane, Borough (London) to Isaac Pickerill, ca. 1720”, concerning her conversion to Quakerism: she records “how I was convinced. I was a young lass at that time in Dorsetshire, when George Fox came into that country; and he having appointed a meeting to which the people generally flocked, I went among the rest; and in going along the road, this query arose in my mind: ‘What is it that condemns me when I do evil, and justifies me when I do well? What is it?’ In this state I went to the meeting, which was large. George Fox rose with these words: ‘Who art thou that queries in thy mind, What is it I feel which condemneth me when I do evil, and justifieth me when I do well? I will tell thee. Lo! He that formed the mountains and created the winds, and declared unto man what are his thoughts, that meketh the morning darkness and treadeth upon the high places of the earth; the Lord, the Lord of Hosts is his name. It is He, by his Spirit, that condemneth thee for evil, and justifieth thee when thou dost well. Keep under its dictates, and He will be thy preserver to the end.'” Note this statement, which she attributes to Fox, that the inward Guide “justifieth [thee] when [thou dost] well”: this gives credit to the yet-unconverted hearer for doing occasional good while still in a fallen state.

    So here, too, in the teachings of such as Nayler, Penn, and Fox, we find that the early Friends believed what you attribute to liberal Friends, that “the absence of God [so to speak] simply means less good is achieved in us and in our world.

    I would ask you to ponder this well: that you have distinguished your views in this paragraph and the next, not just from liberal Friends, but from the original Quakerism.

    And at least here in my own Conservative yearly meeting, Iowa (Conservative), I think every traditional Conservative Friend would affirm my points in the paragraphs above.

    I would guess that the real point you were seeking to make about liberal Friends was that they tend to fall into the Pelagian heresy, of thinking that a fallen person can do good without divine assistance. And I’d agree that they do fall into this way of thinking.

    But on the other hand, I would personally opine that the liberal Friends seem to have done a bit better than most of the rest of us at recognizing the inherent weakness in the Augustinian/Lutheran/Calvinist counter-position, the doctrine of total depravity. (And here I recognize that I depart from Conservative Quaker orthodoxy.) The weakness of the doctrine of total depravity is, of course, that it is not a perfectly faithful restatement of the Bible’s laments at the ubiquity of human fallenness; rather, it is a caricature, a carrying of the thing to an extreme: a reductio ad absurdum of an important spiritual truth. In my personal, and in this case quite humble, opinion, the cause of Truth would have prospered better if this reductio had never been committed to print — if Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and the early and traditional Friends after them, had instead simply recognized that the fallenness of humankind leads to a condition of confusion and weakness in which the ordinary person gives in to wrongful inclinations again and again.

    The liberal skepticism of the doctrine of total depravity is thus, in my opinion, a defensible skepticism, as long as it is not carried to the counter-counter-absurdity of believing that most of us do good most of the time without any need of God’s assistance. But unfortunately, liberal Friends generally do seem to me to fall into that counter-counter-absurdity.

    I have more that I’d like to say about what you’ve written here. But I’ve already written quite enough!


  6. Marshall, I’ve been digesting your comment (in between a busy time) since you wrote it. You are articulate and knowledgeable, and I found your post helpful to me. Some brief thoughts of my own:

    “Absence of God” was a sloppy phrase on my part. I certainly do not believe that God is ever absent. “Absence of attention to God” or “Absence of obedience to God” would have been better.

    I must work harder in subsequent posts at expressing myself, because I am not arguing for total depravity. I do not want to distinguish myself from early Quakers and advocate for total depravity. I think what I am arguing for is a heartier acknowledgment of sin and a greater recognition of the difficulty of “attending to the light.” The universal presence of the saving light of Christ (which I affirm) is not universally accepted or “lived into” by humanity.

    My view of injustice and evil in the world requires me to account for it. I cannot account for it by a lack of power or desire on the part of God, otherwise my entire system of belief crashes in on itself. It therefore must rest in humanity.

    My view of the biblical account requires me to account for the theme of separation between God and humanity. I happen to think that can be affirmed without also affirming total depravity…and that’s where your comment about Pelagianism fit well.

    I wish I had more time to write these thoughts. I think I’ll work now on the next post.


  7. I understand, Greg. These are matters of enormous complexity. They make my poor head hurt sometimes.

    I also agree that no honest explanation of the wrongs we do to one another can simply dump the blame on some failing in God. Of course, within the Western tradition, the debate has historically centered not on the question of whether God is to blame, but on the question of to what extent the blame rests on Adam, Eve, & the serpent, and to what extent it rests on ourselves. But in the present age, you can’t just talk about original sin and total depravity (no matter whether you’re for those doctrines or against them), you also have to take into account what the sciences have to say. And the sciences — evolution, sociobiology, psychology — make the issue harder, not easier, to settle.

    I’m all for what you’re trying to accomplish, including the heartier acknowledgment of sin and the greater recognition of the difficulty of attending to the Light!


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