During the Christmas season, naturally I think about Christ, even though I’m a Baha’i – after all, Baha’is love and revere Jesus Christ:
Through the Love of God, Christ was sent into the world with His inspiring example of a perfect life of self-sacrifice and devotion, bringing to men the message of Eternal Life. – Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 83.
A few days ago, I met three members of the Church of Christ at a local Starbucks. Since two of these folks were African Americans, I asked: “Do you mean the Church of God in Christ?” – an historically black church. “No!” they replied, “ours is a mixed church,” meaning a racially integrated one. So I then asked, “Who was your founder?” Their answer: Alexander Campbell (1788–1866).
They wondered what I believed, and I told them about the prophet and founder of the Baha’i Faith, Baha’u’llah. As expected, they asked several questions as to what Baha’is believe about Christ: “Do Baha’is also believe that Christ died for our sins?” This led to a brief discussion of the atonement. They were very interested when I told them about the multiple competing theories of the atonement in Christianity, past and present.
For lots of Christians, atonement makes individual spiritual transformation and reconciliation with God possible. Many Christians view Christ’s profound suffering on the cross as a cosmic and climactic event, whereby Christ’s death and resurrection brought about redemption and salvation from sin.
The noted Christian theologian Robert J. Daly, S.J., Emeritus Professor of Theology at Boston College, frames the problems posed by traditional Christian doctrines of Christ’s atonement by stating his “awareness that much of what Christians have traditionally thought of as Christian sacrifice or as atonement theology is, in fact, inauthentically Christian.” He wrote that “many Christians do indeed need to be ’saved from sacrifice’,” and, indeed, ’Saved from Atonement’.” – Images of God and the Imitation of God: Problems with Atonement,” Theological Studies, Vol. 68, No. 1, p. 38.
While offering some key insights, Professor Daly does not offer complete solutions – but his notion of being “saved from atonement” intrigued me.
Baha’u’llah, in the following passage, not only glorifies Christ, but offers a new vision of Christ’s atonement that solves the traditional problems with the Christian doctrine:
Know thou that when the Son of Man [Christ] yielded up His breath to God, the whole creation wept with a great weeping. By sacrificing Himself, however, a fresh capacity was infused into all created things. Its evidences, as witnessed in all the peoples of the earth, are now manifest before thee. The deepest wisdom which the sages have uttered, the profoundest learning which any mind hath unfolded, the arts which the ablest hands have produced, the influence exerted by the most potent of rulers, are but manifestations of the quickening power released by His transcendent, His all-pervasive, and resplendent Spirit.
We testify that when He came into the world, He shed the splendor of His glory upon all created things. Through Him the leper recovered from the leprosy of perversity and ignorance. Through Him, the unchaste and wayward were healed. Through His power, born of Almighty God, the eyes of the blind were opened, and the soul of the sinner sanctified. …
We bear witness that through the power of the Word of God every leper was cleansed, every sickness was healed, every human infirmity was banished. He it is Who purified the world. Blessed is the man who, with a face beaming with light, hath turned towards Him. – Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, pp. 85-86.
In other words, Christ’s death upon the cross was indeed a sacrifice, but not one of penal substitution or vicarious satisfaction by way of “paying back” the debt of our sins, to God.
From a Baha’i perspective, then, Christ’s sacrifice released a great transformative force and energy into the world, empowering some of the discoveries of science, impelling significant advances in knowledge, and inspiring some of the masterpieces of art, by and through “the quickening power released by His transcendent, His all-pervasive, and resplendent Spirit.”
Here, Christ’s crucifixion upon the cross, and its redemptive atonement, had great and far-reaching social as well as individual consequences. Baha’u’llah’s new explanation of Christ’s atonement features a socially significant “theory of civilization,” because it outlines the way the prophets of God influence human progress.
Just as the sacrifice of Jesus Christ unleashed this morally leavening and civilizing influence, Baha’u’llah has taken this work begun by Jesus yet further and farther, by having unleashed what now may be thought of as the very spirit of the age. Baha’u’llah carries on Christ’s transformative work in this day and age, as Abdu’l-Baha clearly explained:
God sent all His Prophets into the world with one aim, to sow in the hearts of men love and goodwill, and for this great purpose they were willing to suffer and to die. All the sacred Books were written to lead and direct man into the ways of love and unity … – Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 106.
The Cause of Baha’u’llah is the same as the Cause of Christ. It is the same Temple and the same Foundation. Both of these are spiritual springtimes and seasons of the soul-refreshing awakening and the cause of the renovation of the life of mankind. The spring of this year is the same as the spring of last year. The origins and ends are the same. The sun of today is the sun of yesterday. In the coming of Christ, the divine teachings were given in accordance with the infancy of the human race. The teachings of Baha’u’llah have the same basic principles, but are according to the stage of the maturity of the world and the requirements of this illumined age. – Abdu’l-Baha, Baha’i World Faith, p. 400.
The Baha’i atonement paradigm emphasizes individual and social transformation, spiritually inspired, guided, and empowered by the teachings and the spirit of all the great messengers of God.
This Baha’i paradigm of salvation, both individual and social, must be studied in its own terms, and on its own merits, independent of Christian theology. I hope, by writing about these issues, to stimulate further discussion in an ongoing Baha’i-Christian interfaith dialogue, where the primary goal is to find common ground, and to achieve what the Baha’i philosopher Roland Faber calls “transreligious identity.”