Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

search engine by freefind

hit counter

It is seldom recognised by ordinary Christians that many doctrines touted by the Church as essential to salvation are nothing more than metaphors or images elaborated and heightened to a great degree. Some such metaphors remain useful to this day - although often in a restricted sense. Others are redundant. The redemption metaphor survives - but only as a somewhat archaic remnant.

Traditional Christian teachings have always attempted to preserve continuity between the past and the present. As a result, concepts still used today have often either changed in meaning, or are out of use entirely.

To understand the idea of redemption, it's useful to examine the doctrine before considering what it might mean to us today. It appears to be an idea which has lost its punch.

Its use in the New Testament is complex. First, a Greek word often translated as "redeem" relates to buying something at the shops - that is, the "market place" in pre-modern times (though Roman and Greek cities often had the ancient equivalent of shopping malls). It occurs 25 times, mostly with its usual commercial meaning, but five times it describes the buying of Christians by God through Jesus.

Second, another Greek word (also often translated as "redeem") relates to buying the freedom of a slave (as in Mark 10.45 and Matthew 20.28). Some English versions use the term "set free" in place of "redeem". 

The idea of paying compensation for a person or group who had one way or another broken the rules or mortally offended God has its roots in the Hebrew Bible. The Book of Isaiah, for example, talks about God having given three African kingdoms to the Babylonian king Cyrus in exchange for the people of Israel's release and return to Palestine (Isaiah 43.3). 

Paul also uses the concept. In his Letter to the Galatians he talks of human beings having been "slaves of the ruling spirits of the universe". But Jesus came to "redeem those who were under the [Hebrew] Law, so that we might become God's sons" - perhaps a reference to freed slaves who were sometimes adopted by wealthy Romans.

The idea that God through Jesus of Nazareth somehow paid a price for the sins of humanity has been developed by the Church over centuries. From its early days as a useful and expressive metaphor to express the meaning of Jesus to early Christians, redemption is now a central concept in the complex teaching usually known as the atonement. 

According to this, sin breaks our relationship with God. Jesus brought about an "at-one-ment" with God by dying on the cross. In the Greek and Roman worlds, there was a strong idea of the absolute or perfect order of which our existence is a finite and imperfect rendering. Jesus was from that perfect order - that is, from God. He took on our human nature and, according to early Christians, reversed the process through which Adam had condemned the world to suffering, weakness and death.

The famous Medieval scholar Anselm (1033-1109) explained that God had to put right the state of sinful disorder amongst humans. No person could make amends for human disobedience, so God's son endured death to satisfy God's honour and achieve forgiveness for all. This has become known as the satisfaction  version of the atonement teaching. Reformers later adopted the penal substitution version of redemption by which Jesus took on himself the punishment by death deserved by humanity, but undeserved by him.

The word "redeem" is today often associated with an item temporarily pawned for ready cash. It's also a term used in the world of finance, usually referring to settling a debt or an outstanding transaction. These are not particularly compelling images.

So familiar are the words "redemption" and "ransom" and "salvation" to well-taught Christians that the atonement teaching underpinned by the terms is almost always taken for granted and seldom questioned. Those who do question it are frequently labelled heretical.

One such, probably representative of many who think like him, is John Spong, a retired Anglican bishop. He writes that

The entire corpus of the Bible traditionally has been read and interpreted in such a way as to undergird this particular understanding of Jesus as the rescuer. [1]

He regards traditional arguments for atonement as increasingly difficult for even dedicated Christians to commit to.

First, he wonders how attractive is a God who requires the sacrifice of his son for any reason at all. The sacrifice of one's life might be entirely commendable if freely given. But if given as a condition, it becomes unacceptable to Spong.

Second, the Church substituted for a literal Fall the teaching that we are all alienated by our very nature from God. The Fall, once taken as literally true by Christians, now becomes a parable about the way we are, a "story" about original sin. As a result, we are all burdened by a burden of inherited guilt which we don't deserve. Moreover, it goes against the spirit of God's sweeping acceptance of all which Jesus lived out.

Spong concludes:

We human beings do not live in sin. We are not born in sin. We do not need to have the stain of original sin washed away ... A savior who restores to us our pre-fallen status is therefore pre-Darwinian superstition and post-Darwinian nonsense.

Spong is perhaps a more extreme example of reaction against a traditional teaching which is no longer considered useful. A E McGrath remarks that  it is now increasingly

... seen as cumbersome and unhelpful by many modern Christian writers across the entire spectrum of theological viewpoints ... The term "soteriology" (from the Greek soteria, "salvation) is increasingly used [instead] ... [2]

The notion of redemption has been torn apart and reassembled in various forms for centuries now by thinkers such as John Locke (Reasonableness of Christianity (1695), Joseph Butler (Analogy of Religion 1736), Friedrich Schleiermacher (On Religion 1799), Karl Barth (Church Dogmatics 1932) and many others.

What has seldom been fully admitted is that redemption is, in essence, a metaphor. It may be tempting to say "only a metaphor" - but the fact is that metaphors make up much of how we communicate about the world. So the question is not so much, "Should metaphors be used to express ideas about God?" as "Is this metaphor still useful in the 21st century?"

Two points are relevant here:

  1. The first is that metaphors are not either right or wrong, but useful or not as the case may be. The mental pictures or comparisons which are invoked by the words "redemption" or "ransom" or "salvation" (which form a family of metaphors relating to the life of Jesus) can still be used if they evoke a response in anyone.

  2. A problem arises for many Christians and others, however, when these and other metaphors are made into absolutes. In other words, as soon as they are touted as matters of personal commitment linked to penalties (such as banishment from the Christian fellowship or even eternal punishment) their validity is completely compromised.

I think it is now widely recognised - and has been for centuries, if not millennia - that the word "God" denotes "that which cannot be known or described" but from which the universe issues. It is a word empty of meaning until we give it meaning.

Much of the current argument about Theism is based on the false premise that when we talk about God as "he" or "she" we are attributing real personality to "that which cannot be known". But to address God as a person is, as I see it, only to say that you or I find it useful and rewarding to relate to God in this way. The Deist, in contrast, maintains that he or she finds it more personally useful and rewarding to relate to God through experience of the universe - that is, through God's creation.

Thus even the word "person" is a metaphor when applied to God. It is an image or likeness we use in order to help us relate to "that which can't be known". As so many mystics have insisted, the only response we get from this "person" is silence - and yet the silence somehow communicates to us and we to it (him or her).

Lloyd Geering puts it like this:

The content we put into the God-symbol is over to us. What our ancient forbears did unconsciously, we now have to do for ourselves quite aware that we are doing it. This is basically what it means to be religious in the world of the future. [3]

Many now react badly to the redemption metaphor. How is it possible, they ask, for a loving God to inflict suffering and death on anyone just to assuage a sense of outrage at human willfulness? In other words, they are protesting at a God-symbol or metaphor which portrays "that which cannot be known" as this sort of person. 

The idea that God should be thought of a one who demands reparation has for very many people now given way to a God who freely accepts any and all regardless. 

A reservation remains that each of us is free not to relate to God in any way, or to relate to God in a hostile or otherwise negative fashion. Thus the word "God" can be filled with "That which doesn't exist" or "A person who is vindictive and should be resisted" - or a host of other metaphors. It's hard to imagine how a God who is thought of as allowing us freedom of choice can also force anyone to use a positive metaphor.

In summary: The metaphor of redemption remains perfectly valid to those who find it useful. If you or I need to think of Jesus as someone who, as it were, paid a price for us, then fair enough. The continuing power of the metaphor is, I think, perfectly demonstrated in C S Lewis' The Lion, the Witch and he Wardrobe.

But for ever-increasing numbers of people, many of them used to a sense of personal autonomy, the redemption metaphor is no longer useful. If you and I are to a greater or lesser degree in charge of our lives, and if our societies are based upon inclusiveness and consensus, then it's not useful to think in the archaic terms of this particular doctrine.

[1] Why Christianity Must Change Or Die, HarperSanFrancisco, 1999
[2] Christian Theology, Blackwell, 1994
[3] Address to a Unitarian Universalist gathering in Christchurch, New Zealand, Easter, 1998

[Home] [Back]