How Redemption and Atonement Theology Harms Our Relationships
Jesus paid it all
All to Him I owe
Sin had caused a crimson stain
He washed it white as snow.
The theology of redemption captured in the ol’ time gospels.
Defined as “An act of redeeming or atoning for a fault or mistake,” or “The action of regaining or gaining possession of something in exchange for payment or clearing a debt.”
Specific to Christianity, the definition is “the action of saving or being saved from sin, error, or evil.”
That theology was drilled into us as children. Jesus died on the cross to save us whether you wanted it or not. Through no act of our own, God saved the world through the sacrifice of Jesus’ blood.
“You’re welcome, you ungrateful little brat of a spoiled world. You’d think there’d be more gratitude than that.”
Because, as the Christian sees it, the entirety of creation owes an immense debt of gratitude to Jesus, who suffered and died on the cross because without it, we were born sinners and sinners we’d always be.
To prove we are grateful, the Christian also practices atonement by confessing we are sinners then thanking Jesus for suffering and dying on that cross for lowly sinners such as we.
In this context, redemption is received even though we didn’t ask for it because, well God did it. Atonement is then offered to prove that we are worthy of that which we didn’t ask for. Ask anyone who begins to struggle with this concept that a loving God is somehow to be reconciled to a God who’d willingly inflict horrible violence on someone because “He loved the world,” and that world was deserving of death if Jesus had been sent to die, and wow how much He loved us to kill His son, and….
It literally can go on in your head like that for days, until you just settle on “our ways are not God’s ways” and get on with your Christian life as best you can.
As Rev. Dr. Jeffrey Frantz writes in an article for Progressive Christianity, “It would be hard to measure the hurtful guilt and pain this teaching has caused God-fearing Christians over the years.”
Plainly put, it can mess with your head.
Rev. Frantz explains in that article that atonement theology, the belief that we are sinners who needed the sacrifice of Jesus in order to be redeemed, arose from the Jewish celebration of Yom Kippur, or Day of Atonement.
Let’s put this plain as well—there is a pattern within Christianity of appropriating holidays and seasonal celebrations to blur the lines of established teachings and rituals, and atonement theology is one of them.
Plucking the creation stories from Genesis and reading them through a literal lens as if they literally happened, the early Christians around the 4th century established the beginning of original sin began with Eve and the apple.
Of course, blame it on a woman.
As a metaphor, the story of Adam and Eve describes the entirety of humanity’s awakening to the concept of good and evil. However, when read literally, the story cements Christianity’s teachings in a patriarchal structure that continues through to today.
And none of it is necessary, and it can be argued effectively that it isn’t even scriptural. “The Bible never refers to Adam’s disobedience as a Fall. Again, it is a story; it is not history,” Frantz writes.
So why, here in the 21st century, has redemption become so entrenched into modern evangelical Christian theology that even Christian contemporary artists rock out to songs of redemption, literally:
“A song of redemption
Came forth on the cross
You said it is finished
It’s written in blood
You gave us a new name
We’re daughters and sons
Now we are raising
This song to respond” *
Christians are obsessed with blood.
Again, it messes with your mind.
Christians who believe in redemption demand that it is so integral to faith that without it, you cannot call yourself a Christian. They double down with this notion—believe it or get kicked out of the “real” Christian club.
In other words, many of us got kicked out a long time ago—and we’re grateful for it. Being freed from the belief that someone had to suffer an unimaginable tragic death by crucifixion so you can be covered in the blood of that sacrifice is liberating.
Being freed from believing that I am to express my gratitude for that sacrifice by continually lamenting my innate, despicable propensity to sin—because by nature that’s just what I am—is life-changing.
And just so we’re clear here, there is no “real” Christian club, and there is no one specific denomination that has the authority to gatekeep Christianity. Many of us left willingly because not only of atonement theology but because of those who weaponized it.
We’re taught Jesus died, we should be grateful for it, and we should repeatedly express gratitude for His sacrifice.
Like literally, over and over again for the rest of our lives.
Never ceasing and ever mindful that we lowly sinners were undeserving.
Okay, enough already. We get it.
Except for many of us, “getting it” simply means we understand what you believe. We’re just no longer going to be subjected to this suffocating ideology.
In other words—you be you. Believe what you want, but for me it no longer makes sense.
You can’t tell me that the Bible teaches eternal gratitude for a blood sacrifice in the form of a human death by torture while also teaching me that I should give without expecting anything in return.
Seriously—google it. It’s there in all kinds of articles titled things like “21 verses about helping others without recognition.”
Um, isn’t that redemption?
If I pay the debt of another by offering money to them, then I’m offering redemption. Yet in that context I’m to expect nothing in return.
Circling back to the rise of Christianity in the 3rd and 4th century when it was officially declared the religion of the Roman Empire, redemption theology would have served this strong patriarchal structure well.
Be grateful to God for you have been redeemed.
Be grateful to the Emperor for all the good that is bestowed upon you as citizens of Rome.
It’s inarguable that as Christianity spread, Christian theology became a weapon of the powerful, and the powerful were hell-bent on protecting the patriarchy.
As I prepared to write this, I did what I always do. I researched articles and looked up modern day definitions for words. Redemption had a second description that belongs in this story as I bring it to a close:
“the action of regaining or gaining possession of something in exchange for payment, or clearing a debt.”
Interestingly, underneath that definition was this example of redemption used in this context:
"the peasants found the terms of redemption unattractive".
Even Webster seems to know that redemption has a dark and powerful underside that forces compliance when it isn’t welcomed and gratitude when it isn’t deserved.
Compliance and gratitude are earned when the relationship between two people is mutually beneficial.
Not one forced upon another.
Somewhat of an Epilogue:
This was the writing I didn’t know I needed when I began writing at 2 a.m.
I owe nothing to a theology that teaches that a human sacrifice was needed for me because I arrived here full of sin.
Redemption that demands forced gratitude is not redemption—it is patriarchy.
Gratitude is freely given when love and compassion are freely offered.
Love and compassion come with no expectation of recognition, making redemption an act of service, not a weapon of oppression.
It’s 3:30 now and I’ve been liberated from redemption.
*Song of Redemption by Phil KingPhil King
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