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To the Atonement Summit at Loma Linda


Here is an outline of what I would like to say to the Adventist scholars gathered for the Atonement Summit at Loma Linda:

1.     Discontent, distrust, and alienation were introduced to the universe by Lucifer’s malicious misrepresentation of God. That’s the first jarring note; that’s how the problem began.

2.     For God to set this problem right, God set out on a course of revelation: God would be revealed in Christ to prove Satan’s misrepresentation false.

3.     This means that the so-called ‘moral influence theory’ of the atonement does not capture God’s revelatory action in Christ. God’s aim was not to impress humans subjectively; it was to set the record straight objectively even if no one would be impressed. Cosmic conflict views of the atonement have been badly misrepresented on this point because it is not a ‘moral influence’ theory.

4.     Indeed, God’s revelation of Godself in Christ might not even work as moral influence because it does not seem like the right action. There should be soldiers and swat teams in our streets; there should be crusaders; there should be divine retribution. Instead, there is a lamb slaughtered, a victim of violence, and a ‘solution’ to the problem of evil that on first sight seems more a statement of the problem than a solution to it.

5.     A cosmic conflict view of the atonement does not take a milder measure of sin than the notion of ‘penal substitution.’ In the cosmic conflict view, the cross is a revelation to our dull senses of the pain sin has brought to the heart of God.

6.     The cosmic conflict view offers a benefit to ethics where ‘penal substitution’ has nothing or worse than nothing to offer. According to the cosmic conflict view, as goes the lamb so go those who follow the lamb. “If anyone is to be killed with the sword, with the sword, with the sword he will be killed” (Rev 13:9). Here, the narrator in Revelation exclaims, is a point where everyone should think long and hard about the meaning of pistis (Rev 13:10). To make my point clearer by way of example, consider this: Anselm of Canterbury presented what is perhaps the most developed view of ‘penal substitution’ to Pope Urban II precisely at the point when the first crusaders were wading knee-deep in blood and climbing over corpses in Jerusalem in an outpouring of violence that exceeded prior horrors in that city. If there could have been a remedy for this divinely inspired carnage, Anselm did not know what it was or didn’t care; if there could have been a remedy, it would not have been his theory of penal substitution.

7.     If anything can rescue the doctrine of penal substitution so as to make it a deserving notion in atonement theology, it will be the hugely corrective features in the cosmic conflict story. I am not sure whether the cosmic conflict account ought to spend its energies on fixing a paradigm so badly broken and so much a party to making God seem arbitrary, vengeful, and severe, but if anything can rescue the notion of penal substitution as viable theology, it will be the cosmic conflict story.

8.     Views of at-one-ment must have a context; they must resonate in the world in which we live. Ours is not the world after the Flood but the world after the Holocaust, not the world after decisive action against evil but absence of action. Which view of at-one-ment will resonate in this world? I say with my Lutheran clergy friends that it will not be the hallowed evangelical view of the atonement. If there is a resource for this challenge, it might be the story of the cosmic conflict, its view of horrors and super-human evil, and its story of how God defeats the cosmic foe. Perhaps even this won’t work, but at least cosmic conflict theology makes it a priority to understand the absence of divine action.

9.     The recent strides in Pauline studies, the breakthrough for apocalyptic and the notion of the faithfulness of Christ to mention just two, confound the doctrine of penal substitution but add legitimacy to the cosmic conflict story and richness to the musical score of cosmic conflict theology.      

10.  One more thought on this point: Luther’s theology of atonement is doctrine, and all scripture is either law or gospel. Only he or she who masters this distinction deserves to be called a theologian. But the cosmic conflict story suffocates in the straitjacket of doctrine; it must remain story. Luther’s insistence of law vs. gospel is contrived; human reality is more complex and so is the Bible.

11.  Despite efforts in the past to stigmatize cosmic conflict theology as liberal or as mere ‘moral influence’ there is nothing liberal about it, except, perhaps, that it is more tolerant of divergent views, recognizing as it must that God did not shut down divergent views in heaven even when they were malicious and false.

12.  The cosmic conflict story ends in an image of at-one-ment. “They shall see his face and his name shall be on their foreheads” (Rev 22:4). Thus ends the conflict over the character of God in the Bible. My friends in the Adventist theological communities may have other priorities, but I know what mine will be. And so they remain, the cosmic conflict story and the other eight views of the atonement, and greatest of these is the story of God revealed in Jesus. 


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