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Q & R: atonement

Here's the q:

Just curious, based on your understanding of what the gospel is (creating the kingdom of heaven on earth) how do you justify your rejection of the atonement based on what was said at the last supper noted in Matthew 26 below? And if the gospel is supposed to be “Good News” please tell me what your good news and can you prove to me through scriptures that your definition of the Gospel is correct?

26 While they were eating, Jesus took some bread, and [h]after a blessing, He broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is My body.” 27 And when He had taken a cup and given thanks, He gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; 28 for this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins. 29 But I say to you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father’s kingdom.

Here's the R:
First, thanks for this important question. Before responding, I must say that I would consider it sloppy and inaccurate to claim that I "reject the atonement." I'm not sure where you heard such a thing. To adequately address that claim, I'd need to know what you mean by "the atonement," since across church history the term has meant many different things. I might assume you mean one particular theory, known as "penal substitutionary atonement" theory. But then again, you may not. If by "atonement" you mean "reconciliation," then of course the claim is downright false: how could I reject the idea of being reconciled with God - and others, and creation? That's been the focus of my whole life and work as a pastor and as a writer and speaker. Far from rejecting the idea of reconciliation, I think it's central! Paul said that his whole ministry was a ministry of reconciliation, and I'd say the same thing ...

So please understand, I don't reject reconciliation - with God, self, neighbor, stranger, enemy, and all creation! However, with growing numbers of biblical scholars, leaders, and others, I do reject the claim that the gospel should be equated with or reduced to any single theory of atonement.

As I understand it, the gospel that Jesus proclaimed was this: "the kingdom (or reign, or commonwealth, or network, or sacred ecosystem, or ???) of God is at hand (available now, waiting for us to reach out and touch, or enter, or receive, or experience, or participate in)." It includes a call to repentance (radical rethinking of everything) and faith (confidence in Jesus), which naturally and inevitably lead to a life of following Jesus (learning his ways, imitating him, becoming transformed so as to reflect his character and embody his mission).

I don't know if this will prove anything to you, and I'm not big on proving things by proof-texting - but for starters, you could read Mark 1:14 to see why I understand the gospel in this way. Beyond that, as I understand it, the gospel proclaimed by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John was the story of Jesus - the whole story, not a theory about one part of the story. And the gospel proclaimed by Paul was the same ... the story of Jesus and the kingdom of God (see Acts 27:23-31).

Again, I hope it doesn't seem like nit-picking, but as someone pretty familiar with my work, I would never say I believe the gospel is "creating the kingdom of heaven on earth." That sounds like a totally human project, involving only human effort. When it comes to human effort alone, I think we humans, on our own, apart from God, have proven ourselves to be very good at creating wars, prejudice, environmental destruction, poverty, fear, hate, abuse, and so on ... but only God can create the kingdom of God, which is justice, joy, and peace in the Holy Spirit (Romans 14:17).

I've written about all this at length in several of my books, notably The Secret Message of Jesus, Everything Must Change, and A New Kind of Christianity. Also, I try to summarize several theories of atonement in my book The Story We Find Ourselves In, which you also might enjoy. Based on your question, I tend to think you haven't read any of my books yet, and so I hope you will, since I can go into far more depth there than I can in a blog post.

As for those precious and profound words from the Last Supper, they speak of many powerful things (body, blood, covenant, forgiveness), things which some interpreters would relate to this or that theory of atonement, but others would not. It's timely that you would raise this question with me, because one of the most important chapters in my upcoming book deals with both atonement and eucharist. You'll have to wait until September to read it, but I think it will be worth the wait - and if you're interested in my thinking, there's plenty to keep you busy (above) until then. (BTW, the [updated] title/subtitle will be Why did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road: Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World.) Thanks again for your question, and God bless!