As a kid growing up in a Christian culture, the fear of hell and the wrath of God scared the bejesus out of me! Deathly afraid of Satan, the idea of “salvation” took its hold on my primitive belief system.
Of course, I knew no other. Religious pluralism was a foreign concept to me at the time, and anything and everything “interfaith” was completely outside of my vocabulary and experience. Years later, in high school, we studied great American literature, including Jonathan Edwards’s famous (or infamous) 18th-century fire-and-brimstone sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God.” This passage I will never forget:
The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours. – “Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God,” by the Rev. Jonathan Edwards, July 8th, 1741.
Jonathan Edwards’s dreadful picture of a wrathful God distorted biblical metaphors used to describe God’s moral indignation and seeming outrage over human sin. The problem with such notions? They contain anthropomorphic misconceptions of God, and they depict God’s wrath as motivated and driven by a demand or requirement of retributive justice, as opposed to restorative justice or distributive justice. According to some traditional Christian views, sins can only be forgiven by Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, with the result that some atonement theories represent a rather violent Deity. This retrograde view of God, questioned and roundly criticized by many, has also contributed to the rejection of religion by millions of thinking people.
Christ’s atonement, a Biblical doctrine, has resulted in many interpretations throughout the various denominations of Christianity. In the words of St. Paul: “And not only so, but we also joy in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have now received the atonement.” – Romans 5:11. Some conservative Christian theologians claim that atonement ultimately functioned as some kind of payoff, with Christ offering his life as a sacrifice so God wouldn’t angrily punish all humanity for its sins.
In this “penal substitution theory” of atonement, Christ’s death averts God’s wrath. Otherwise, the penalty for sin, according to the predominant evangelical view, is death – so with Christ’s atonement, he paid the penalty of death for our collective sins. Yet human nature, as “fallen” and sinful, is left much the same as before, except for those who are spiritually and morally transformed by Christ.
A number of Christian theologians have recommended that the time has come to totally rethink the strange logic of this penal substitution concept, the prevalent view among Protestants, especially evangelicals. This doctrine is bound up with the related doctrine of “original sin,” which the Baha’i teachings completely reject:
When the holy breaths of Christ and the sanctified lights of the Most Great Luminary were spread abroad, human realities – that is, those souls who turned towards the Word of God and partook of His manifold grace – were saved from this attachment and sin, were granted eternal life, were delivered from the chains of bondage, and entered the realm of freedom. They were purged of earthly vices and endowed with heavenly virtues. This is the meaning of Christ’s words that I gave My blood for the life of the world [John 6:51]. That is, I chose to bear all these trials, afflictions, and calamities, even the most great martyrdom, to attain this ultimate objective and to ensure the remission of sins – that is, the detachment of spirits from the material world and their attraction to the divine realm – that souls may arise who will be the very essence of guidance and the manifestations of the perfections of the Kingdom on high.
Note that if these words were taken literally, as imagined by the people of the Book [i.e., Jews and Christians], it would be sheer injustice and absolute predestination. If Adam sinned in approaching the forbidden tree, what then was the sin of glorious Abraham, the Friend of God, and the error of Moses, Who conversed with God? What was the offence of Noah the Prophet and the transgression of truth-speaking Joseph? What was the fault of the Prophets of God and the failure of John the Chaste? Would divine justice have suffered these luminous Manifestations to endure, by reason of Adam’s sin, the torment of hell until such time as Christ should come and by His sacrifice rescue them from the nethermost fire? Such a notion is beyond the pale of every rule and principle, and no rational person can ever accept it.
Rather, the meaning is that which was already mentioned: Adam is the spirit of Adam and Eve His self; the tree is the material world and the serpent is attachment to it. This attachment, which is sin, has been transmitted to the descendants of Adam. Through the breaths of holiness, Christ rescued souls from this attachment and delivered them from this sin. – Abdu’l-Baha, Some Answered Questions, newly revised edition, pp. 140–141.
In the next essay in this series, we’ll discuss the Baha’i concept of atonement as both individual and social transformation.