Book Review: ‘A Better Atonement’ by Tony Jones

Confession: I don’t care much for theology.

That would seem to be a problem, given I’m getting a degree in history and theology, but my problem is not so much the study of God (the strict definition of the word) but how hard those who know a lot about theology make it for the rest of us.

Sometimes when I read the Homebrewed Christianity blog or listen to their podcasts, or when Daniel Kirk quotes at length from Karl Barth, or when Richard Beck gets deep into the weeds with William Stringfellow, my head starts to hurt. I don’t think I’m an unintelligent person, but it seems the best theologians wind their thoughts into sentences of unimaginable length, using inaccessible words and phrases almost as a sign of how theological they’re being. I don’t care for that kind of writing, and I don’t think it does a service to the study of theology – which, granted, is a fairly complex subject.

So I am very much appreciative of Tony Jones’ short e-book, A Better Atonement: Beyond the Depraved Doctrine of Original Sin. In it, Tony tackles a complicated subject – atonement – and makes it easy to understand.

Jones breaks his argument into three parts – an argument against the doctrine of Original Sin, an interlude in which he defends the historicity of Jesus’ miracles and resurrection, and an overview of alternatives to the dominant theory of penal substitutionary atonement (PSA).

The value in Jones’ book lies in the final chapter, his overview and analysis of the various atonement theories. He runs through eight of them then concludes with his own. This section is clearly written and easy to understand, which is a refreshing break from typical theology writing. Close behind it is the interlude and its defense of Jesus’ actual bodily resurrection. This might not be fair to the more liberal among us, but this section gives Jones an immense amount of credibility as he questions the dominant atonement tradition of the modern church. Let’s face it: It’s not terribly surprising for someone who rejects the physical resurrection of Christ – the oldest, most central doctrine to orthodox Christianity – to question a newer, less central doctrine. But Jones is a passionate and eloquent defender of the resurrection and the miracles of Jesus, which gives what he has to say about the work being done through those miracles, through that resurrection and through the crucifixion added weight.

Where A Better Atonement disappoints, however, is in the first section, the argument against Original Sin. Essentially Jones relies on two points: Jesus’ silence on the issue and the nonexistence of a literal Adam and Eve. Those aren’t necessarily bad points – and Jones seems to have a downright good one when he notes Jesus’ outright rejection of the notion of inherited sin in John 9 – but they are undermined in part by sloppy writing (numerous typos and awkward phrasing) and in part by the feeling that Jones is rushing through this part so he can get to the stuff he really cares about.

Most frustrating, Jones argues the story of Adam and Eve is a paradigmatic one – in other words, it’s written to tell the story of the choice we each make, not provide an etiological explanation for sin and death. That’s a fine theory, and I believe it contains much truth, but Jones makes no effort to support it beyond stating what he clearly feels to be obvious: that Adam and Eve did not literally exist.

The problem is that Paul clearly thinks they did and, not only that, he clearly thinks Adam let sin into the world (Romans 5). Now letting sin into the world is different from passing sin down to future generations genetically, but Jones doesn’t really make any effort to elaborate on why we should view those things differently. After all, Paul writes: “Just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all.” That sounds an awful lot like Original Sin to me.

And to his credit, Jones acknowledges this. How does he respond?

It seems that part of our interpretation of this passage in Romans hinges on exactly how we interpret and understand Genesis 2-3. … If one believes that there is some kind of spiritual nature that is passed from mother (or father) to child by a biological process, as Paul likely believed, then this passage will be taken one way. If, however, one does not believe that the taint of Adam’s sin is genetic but is instead an archetypical account of the human condition, then it will be taken another way.

That’s it! Jones never breaks down why we should believe either of these choices, yet Paul seems to be arguing for the latter interpretation, and if we take the Bible seriously, we have to start out with the weight in favor of Paul’s assumptions unless we have good evidence to think otherwise. Jones never provides that evidence, so we’re left wondering why we should question Original Sin at all even though it’s called a “depraved doctrine” in the book’s very title.

I understand Jones was not out to create a treatise about how we should interpret Genesis 2-3 and Romans 5 (Peter Enns’ The Evolution of Adam has that covered already anyway), but he needed to do a better job; I came away from this section without any clarity about why I should reject the doctrine of Original Sin, as he clearly would like me to do.

Much clearer was Jones’ defense of the miracles and resurrection of Jesus, as well as his treatment of why those things were necessary. I especially liked this passage:

Especially in the healing miracles, Jesus touched the people who had been condemned as “unclean,” and thus unworthy of Temple worship – a woman with an issue of blood, blind men, lepers, paraplegics, a crazed demoniac – and cleansed them. He upset the order of things by bringing the people who had been marginalized – and now you can include tax collectors and whores – by the dominant religion of his time and place and making them “right” with God again. …

Jesus’ resurrection confirms al of his teachings about the Kingdom and all of the miraculous headings with which he is credited, for it is the ultimate signifier of the new, eschatological age. …

I think it’s important that Jesus healed real people of real maladies. The inauguration of a new age would be rather impotent if Jesus wasn’t able to heal an actual, physical, historical woman who had suffered for years from non-stop menstrual flow, thus disqualifying her from Temple worship. Yes, she was real, and her blood was real, and her healing really meant that she could join with God’s people and experience temple worship.

Why is that important? Because I’m a real person. Because the people to whom I have ministered in Jesus’ name are real persons. We’re not hypotheses, fables or legends. And we need real healing, all of us. … Thus, since the resurrection of Jesus is his defeat of death, evil and grief, it’s important to me that it really happened. Without a resurrected Jesus, Christianity is impotent.

Jones then moves into atonement theories, adroitly noting that each came to light in response to the context and culture of its origins. I won’t labor over each of the theories Jones summarizes and analyzes here – buy the book (just $2.99!) – but this is easily the most enjoyable and educational part of the book.

It’s possible to read this book and still believe in penal substitutionary atonement – but I would argue it’s impossible to read it and come away thinking any of us really understands or could ever know fully what God was up to when he let himself be killed on the cross. There’s a definite feeling of blind people grasping the elephant. Each atonement theory is an attempt to describe the whole beast based on our understanding of just a portion.

Jones says he advocates for “a pastiche approach,” in which pieces of all of the theories accurately describe the mechanism of atonement – “I’d like us to embrace them all, realizing their shortcomings.” Indeed, reading his book, in which each theory has firm biblical support, I don’t know how we could come to any other conclusion.

Nevertheless, Jones has his own theory, but I won’t spoil the surprise. You’ll have to read it for yourself. It’s compelling, and –not surprising – it fits with his well-stated view of the crucifixion and resurrection.

If you struggle with traditional interpretations of the cross, or if you’re tired of the angry, vengeful God presented by preachers who don’t seem to realize the “cosmic child abuse” they are crediting to him (to use Steve Chalke’s infamous phrase), I highly recommend this book. If you’re just curious about other ways to interpret the most important event in the history of the world, I also highly recommend this book.

I think you’ll find it, as I did, easy to read, easy to understand and perhaps a little bit humbling to realize that none of us, after 2,000 years, has yet to get a full grasp of Jesus’ incredible sacrifice.


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