“Sandlin’s Jesus isn’t much different from a Gandhi or a Nelson Mandela, great leaders who inspired people to suffer and die for the sake of others, but he cannot take your sins away.” – Michael Bird
It would seem that I owe my sparring partner, Michael Bird, in this “Head to Head” series a “thank you” note or something. I mean, I realize that quote was meant as a jab, but I am honestly flattered. I believe we are all on different paths, seeking the same thing which we frequently name “God.”
From time to time, we get lucky enough to see the face of Christ in others. Sometimes it’s folks like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and sometimes it’s the lady in line at the coffee shop who pre-paid for your cup of coffee. From time to time I even wonder if that’s not part of what “life eternal” looks like.
In part, Bird intends the quote to discredit my argument by pointing to its lack of connection to Christian tradition.
Ultimately, that seems to be the rationale behind his rebuttal as well: We have to believe in the atonement because it’s part of our faith tradition. (A simple way to recognize the significance of tradition as part of his rational is to look at what he says about hymns in his conclusion).
Ultimately (and possibly surprisingly to some people), the whole question of atonement is tied up very tightly with the question of Hell.
Think about it: if there is no Hell, there’s nothing to save us from – no sacrifice or payment is required.
As I and many others have written, in the Bible, Hell is a very loose concept and not really talked about all that much. The only scripture Jesus had, the Old Testament (which is about 60% of the Bible), doesn’t mention Hell at all, only Sheol – the place that all the dead go. As I say in my article on Hell:
Jesus talks about gehenna and hades (as in the Greek god of the underworld). The New Testament also mentions tartaros, but only once in II Timothy… While they all do have similarities to Hell as we have come to think of it (thank you Dante), they are not the same as Hell.
Just for fun, here is a really quick background on those words. Hades and Sheol are places of the dead – all the dead, good and bad. Gehenna is the burning trash dump outside of Jerusalem. And tartaros is the place that fallen angels go (now, I like you and all…but you’re no angel and neither am I).
So, as far as I am concerned (and borrowing a bit from Seinfield’s Soup Nazi), “No Hell for you!”
Our modern construct of Hell is really just a bastardization of Dante’s Hell sprinkled lightly with some biblical text.
It is just as difficult for me to believe that a loving God would resort to the violence of killing Jesus on a cross as it is to believe that a loving God would create and eternally condemn people to a fire pit of Hell in response to them screwing up for a handful of decades on Earth.
I’m sticking with: God is Love. (1 John 4:8)
So, to hell with Hell.
And that leaves no room, or need, for atonement.