Atonement vs. the Kingdom

Can we take a minute to look at the gospel of atonement that the Western evangelical church has been proclaiming for so long?

In its most basic form, this message goes something like this: “Christ died to save us from our sins, so that we would have everlasting life in heaven after we die.”  Or some iteration of this.

The troubles with this are multiple.

To begin, “Christ died.”  Well, yes.  But there are two main problems with this as the foundation of our gospel.  First, this tends to trivialize Jesus’ life.  What was it that Jesus was actually doing for the three years or so prior to his crucifixion?  What was all that teaching about?  Why do any of the miracles?  In other words, why would Mark write chapters 1-14, if all he really wanted to do was tell us that Christ died in chapter 15?

Second, Jesus’ death, it seems to me, isn’t even the remarkable part about the gospel.  It was the resurrection that changed everything!  Jesus’ death, really, was only interesting, from one perspective, in that he died an innocent man.  Rising from the grave, though.  Now there’s something worth talking about!

“To save us from our sins.”  This, too, is true.  In fact, it’s lifted straight from Matthew 1:21, where an angel of the Lord tells Joseph that Mary’s son “will save his people from their sins.”

Really, I have no issue with this statement.  Jesus did actually come to save his people from their sins and, by extension, all those who would later place their hope and trust in him.  But I do often wonder if we have a different understanding from Jesus’ context of what this idea means.  What, exactly, did the first century Jews and early church believe it meant to be “saved?”  More on this in a moment.

“Everlasting life.”  This, too, is a phrase that comes straight from the Bible, yet probably carried different meaning for the original audience than it does for most of us.  John’s Gospel is littered with the phrase, the most memorable coming from John 3:16.  “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (NIV).

More literally John’s beloved phrase is “life of the age” (zoen aionion).  The interpretations on this are varied, but I think it more likely that John is tapping into a common Jewish Messianic understanding that God would one day usher into their reality a new age.  This new age would be dominated by the rule and reign of God and His Messiah over the people of God, as opposed to Israel being ruled by some foreign pagan power like Rome or the Greeks or the Persians.

(Dallas Willard also has an interesting interpretation here, that dovetails nicely with the one above.  His thought is that Jesus offers those around him the opportunity to join in the eternal life of God here and now.)

That leads us to this last bit, the going-to-heaven-when-we-die piece.  While I do believe that the people of God will find themselves in heaven upon their death (this seems to be Paul’s expectation in Philippians 1:23), I do not believe that getting people into heaven was the primary goal of Christ.

Realistically, this is where the chasm stretches between an atonement gospel and a kingdom gospel.  While the atonement gospel views the flow of God’s work as God coming to earth in Christ in order to bring humanity back to heaven, a kingdom gospel sees a person’s journey to heaven as a minor interruption in the majority flow, which is consistently heaven to earth.

Let me put it another way.  For the gospel of the kingdom, God’s goal has always been (and continues to be) modeled in the Lord’s Prayer, that God’s will be done here on earth.  The goal is not to get the people of earth into heaven, but to get heaven into the earth in fullness.

The implications of this shift in mindset are myriad, and I hope to sketch some out the next couple of days.

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