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An alternative atonement theory

As Good Friday approaches, spiritual director Pat Coyle of Irish Jesuit Communications speaks to Miriam Gormally of Soulwaves Radio about what she perceives to be the serious inadequacies of the current and prevailing atonement theory linked to Jesus’ death on the cross. And she offers a different interpretation of the meaning of Jesus’ death based on her readings of various theologians and biblical scholars.

She recalls the deeply disturbing impact on her of being told as a child that ”Jesus died on the cross for my sins and if I’d been the only person in the world he would have still gone through all that to save me.”  She says that she could never accept the logical consequence of the belief that Jesus had to die for our sins as a sacrifice to appease the wrathful Father God. “It turns the Father into a bloodthirsty, vengeful being. I could never love a God like that. He would only fill you with fear.”

Turning to the Christ of the gospels she says it is clear that Jesus came to love and to serve. “His manifesto was one of life, not death – healing the sick, raising the dead, freeing prisoners,” she says, adding that Jesus way of dealing with sinners was to eat and drink with them, sharing with them the deep and compassionate heart of his beloved Father.

She says it was a source of great joy when, through her own reflection and reading, she discovered the alternative minority non-violent atonement theory of the Fransicians, a theory which has never been deemed heretical by the Chruch. Quoting Franciscan Richard Rohr she says, “Put simply, this theory says that Jesus did not come to change the mind of God about humanity, He came to change the mind of humanity about God.”

The change of vision that humanity is offered is one of a  scandalously merciful God. “My Father causes the sun to shine on the good and bad like”, she quotes, referencing the book Jesus: A historical approximation’ by biblical scholar José Pagola. She explains how Pagola notes that Jesus never theologised about his death. But He did make it abundantly clear why He had come –summed up in two words –to serve. Jesus never departed from that vision and mission, and that determination to be true to His Father led to His clash with the religious and political authorities and ultimately His death by crucifixion.

Pat Coyle believes that the truest atonement theory is that of at-one-ment. In the loving, self-emptying death of Jesus all human beings are united with God, in whose image and likeness they are made. In that light, Good Friday is indeed a ‘good’ day.