This is the central doctrine of Christianity. It is also the one that I have the most severe disagreements and discomforts with. It comes from a very cruel Roman form of punishment and death penalty. Why did Christianity choose to make this event of Christ’s crucifixion and suffering the primary focus of it’s belief system and the symbol that Christians most identify themselves with?
The Bible’s atonement and sacrificial system is the answer. Throughout the Old and New Testaments, God requires cleanness in replacement of uncleanness regarding morality. The problem with this model is that it is founded on the idea of perfection. Human beings are finite, organic creatures. We have strong desires and needs and inherent competition with other people and the natural environment to supply and answer these conditions within us. Non-human animals behave consistently within this framework and Christians don’t challenge this as a defect in their makeup. Yet, human children are often viewed as clearly sinful (born this way) because they fight over territory (personal space) and possessions (personal property). I think this is a natural and morally-neutral behavior pattern that is needed in our development of individuality, self-preservation and self-awareness. God has made us this way, yet She/He has given us relatively little will power through which to make virtuous choices, even when we depend on deep spirituality (whether Christian or another type). For evidence of this, consider history’s most revered “saintly” people and note how flawed, inconsistent and short-sighted they still were (examples: Martin Luther King, Saint Francis of Assisi, Moses, John Calvin, Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, Socrates, Mother Theresa, Jonathan Edwards, Plato, Martin Luther, the Apostle Paul). Moral perfection is impossible and so it’s ridiculous for God to require it from us or else we suddenly and desperately need divine rescue from the inevitable path to hell. Because of the substantial weaknesses built into our functionality, it’s no wonder that we sin. If, as the Bible teaches, one sin by Adam and Eve sent the entire creation into disarray (and as a result, introduced the first physical/mental/emotional/spiritual sicknesses), how can anyone consider this a fair result? What did God reasonably expect?
I accept that legitimately volitional human failings and excessively selfish choices have exacerbated our struggles and moral unhealthiness over time as individuals and as a species, but I cannot put all of the blame on us. God must necessarily receive most of the responsibility due to the faulty design of His/Her creatures.
I do not think that humans are in need of salvation. God could repair/resolve our sin and physical problems without sacrifices. The amount of waste and pain that God has directly or indirectly caused to humans and animals by creating us with so many dark flaws is appalling. Having consequences to our actions, good or bad, healthy or unhealthy, is fair, but this process must be systematically arranged and operated by God in accurate ways. Grace from God can lighten the load even more, whether by God’s direct action in history or through the structures of nature built by God. I think that grace and love are the forces that largely motivate the good things about God and the good things about the universe (I believe there are also evil things about God and the universe, but I’ll have to discuss that in another piece of writing). However, if grace is defined as unmerited favor, as many Christians teach, then this does not require the existence of sin or the atonement system. God can therefore create, sustain, heal and forgive by grace and/or love alone, without having a “fall of humankind” from a state of perfection into a newly screwed up universe. Sin and evil, as they maintain a presence in the cosmos by pure potentiality and/or as the result of true human decision, do not need to cause God to respond with a sacrificial system to correct them. God, being all powerful in Her/His capacity to create in any number of inventive ways, can make a world like this.
Furthermore, if the afterlife, the new heavens and new earth, will provide for a full experience of all that God and humans could possibly desire, yet without pain/sorrow/sin, what is the purpose of this intermediate time period that we must endure now? The typical answers are that God knows best (whether or not His/Her ways make any sense to us, who are supposedly made in God’s image with a similar form of imagination and conscience) and/or that this life is a stage in our development that is hard in order to ensure true growth and transformation will be possible. But, do the ends justify the means? Is the punishment of hell for an infinite time period a fair result for any number of sins from a finite human lifetime? Does salvation into heaven by grace make up for all of the tremendous earthly losses humans experience? I have yet to hear any paradigm that makes all this plausible.