Atonement: A Sermon by Rev. Gail Seavey


a sermon given on 9 April 2006 by Reverend Gail Seavey of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Nashville, Tennessee.


Reading: from the “Treatise on the Atonement’ by Hosea Ballou

Hosea Ballou spelled out the definitive Universalist theology for the 19th century overturning the tables in the Temple of Orthodox Christianity. The aim, of Hosea Ballou was to demonstrate, by the application of reason and examination of the Scriptures, the falsity of three ideas: “That sin is infinite, and that it deserves an infinite punishment; that the law transgressed is infinite, and inflicts an infinite penalty; and that the great Jehovah took on himself a natural body of flesh and blood, and actually suffered death on a cross, to satisfy his infinite justice and thereby save his creatures from endless misery…

The Doctrine of Atonement – the belief that the great Jehovah was offended with his creature to that degree, that nothing but the death of Christ, or the endless misery of mankind, could appease his anger, is an idea that has done more injury to the Christian religion than the writings of all its opposers for many centuries…”.

With these words Ballou turned the Doctrine of Atonement upside down stating that it is not God that needed to open his heart to humanity, its is humanity that needs to open its heart to love. “Viewing (people) in this state of un-reconciliation to God and holiness, it appears evidently necessary that (people) should receive an atonement productive of a renewal of love to (their) Maker. Without atonement, God could never be seen as…is; all lovely without exception and loving, without partiality.”


My older son called to tell me that he is finishing his college career by writing a senior essay on horror films and Christianity. Caleb is a fan, student and writer of horror movies and gothic literature, so I wasn’t surprised he was writing about horror. His work in this area has helped him creatively integrate child hood experiences of terror and trauma, including two murders of people close to him. However, I couldn’t help but ask my Buddhatarian son, “What do you know about Christianity?” He replied, “Just what I’ve seen in the movies. It’s very scary.’ So it was no surprise when he called a few weeks later and asked, “What’s this thing about Christianity and the redemptive power of suffering and death?”

Caleb, raised a UU, had never really taken in the orthodox Doctrine on Atonement, the belief that Jesus suffered and died to redeem a sinful humanity from damnation. More than one of his Sunday School teachers planning for Easter came to me in indignation, “I just can’t teach the idea that God sacrificed his own son. That’s like promoting child abuse!” Those teachers were more Universalist than they knew. Their disgust at a doctrine that they had learned elsewhere was the same feeling that motivated the Universalist heresy and our break from Christian orthodoxy. I am annually reminded by such reactions that how we interpret the story of Easter is not some distant intellectual pursuit. It matters profoundly now, in how we respond to the tragic elements in our lives. Easter demands that we ask what destroys us body and soul and what saves us.

The orthodox theological story that some of us heard in the Catholic and Protestant churches of our youth goes like this. Once upon a time God created Adam and Eve and placed them in a perfect world. They disobey God and he demands that they pay for that sin by lives of suffering: pain, hard work and death. Each person born since has inherited their sin. God is torn between love and justice, his desire to both forgive and punish human kind. To resolve this tension, He sends his only son Jesus into the world to pay the ultimate price that humanity owes, to bear the punishment that all of humanity deserves.

This interpretation of several Bible stories evolved over centuries as theologians struggled with the questions, “Why do we all suffer and die? Why do bad things, like the worst kind of torture and death, happen to good people, even to people as saintly as Jesus?” For instance, The Biblical Letter of First Peter was most likely written at the time Nero, the emperor of Rome who was persecuting the first Christians. “For what credit is it, if when you do wrong and are beaten for it you take it patiently? But if when you do right and suffer for it you take it patiently, you have God’s approval. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps…Rejoice in so far as you share in Christ’s sufferings.” The idea that Christ suffered for humanity, leaving good people the example of martyrdom arose from the daily climate of fear and trauma.

Anselm of Canterbury set the stage for ‘substitutionary atonement theology’ in the 12th century in the context of organizing early Crusades. He taught that people (like Jesus or a crusader) could sacrifice their own life for someone else’s (like God’s or a sinful relative’s) honor. John Calvin developed this idea 400 years later by stressing God’s anger and punishment. In his ‘Institutes’ Calvin wrote, “Not only was Christ’s body given as the price of our redemption, but he paid a greater and more excellent price in suffering in spirit the terrible torments of a condemned and forsaken man…He bore the weight of divine severity since he was ‘stricken and afflicted’ by God’s hand and experienced all the sign of a wrathful and avenging God.”

These theologians interpreted Jesus’ prayer on the cross as a struggle against his assignment to be a substitute. ‘Father, let this cup pass from me.’ But, unlike the disobedient Adam and Eve, Jesus then obeyed his Father crying out, ‘Let thy will, not mine, be done.’ These theologians end their new take on an old story by interpreting the resurrection as the sign of God’s reversal of the punishment of death with the possibility of life after death.

But even as this story was evolving, other theologians cried out in protest. In the 13th century Abelard questioned it in his ‘Exposition on the Epistle to the Romans’ in words that could have come out of one of our own Sunday school teachers’ mouths. ‘Who will forgive God for the sin of killing his own child? How cruel and wicked it seems that anyone should demand the blood of an innocent person as the price for anything, or that it should in any way please him that an innocent man should be slain – still less that God should consider the death of his son so agreeable that by it he should be reconciled to the whole world!”

I doubt that the American Universalist theologian Hosea Ballou ever read Abelard’s words. He had only 3 years of school and was untrained in theology. When he studied the Bible with the eyes of a free man living in the flush of a new American democracy, he could not imagine a God so cruel as to require suffering from any of his children. He saw a benevolent God who wanted nothing but happiness for human kind. He taught that it was humanity who misunderstood God when they painted him as vengeful or angry. Ballou stressed that it was human kind that had problems with anger and could be vengeful and cruel. Such behavior was sinful and brought people nothing but misery. Jesus showed very human ways to overcome sin by his loving behavior, not by his painful death.

Ballou did not believe in the Doctrine of Atonement. He did not believe that God had closed his heart to humanity because they sinned. God did not need anyone to sacrifice themselves to atone for sin and open God’s heart. Ballou’s God was pure, unconditional love. The only hearts that were closed were human hearts. Ballou taught that it is human beings that need to let go of their hard hearts and cruel behaviors, it is human beings that need to turn toward God and Atone, to become At-one with Love. Love redeems us – buys us back from our misery, saves us for happiness. Ballou turned the Doctrine of Atonement upside down.

This Universalist Doctrine is meaningful to us today, whether or not we call Love “God” or “compassion”, whether or not we call Jesus ‘The One Path to God’ or “one of many teachers”.

Love redeems us, sacrifice does not. We are saved by the lessons of Jesus’ life, not his death on the cross. The Doctrine of Atonement taught that self-sacrifice was the highest kind of love. In the name of holy sacrifice, people have offered themselves to be tortured by parents or killed by abusive partners. But Jesus taught us to Love God with all our heart and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Ballou took seriously the part about loving ourselves. He wrote, “A person acting for his or her own happiness, if he or she seek it in the heavenly system of universal benevolence, knowing that his or her own happiness is connected with the happiness of his or her fellow men, which induces him or her to do justly and to deal mercifully with all people, he or she is no more selfish than he or she ought to be.” Many of us willingly sacrifice our time and energy for those we love but it is not redeeming to sacrifice our very body and soul. Self love can be a seed of redemption.

Love redeems us, suffering does not. The way of the cross taught that suffering made us at-one with God. In the name of holy suffering, for instance, people have told grieving parents that ‘It was God’s will that your child was killed, someday you will see the good that will come from it.’ But Jesus taught, “Blessed are those who mourn.” We can remain at-one with the spirit of love when we keep our hearts open even as we grieve. I think everyone’s heart shuts down for a while when faced with loss, especially loss that is sudden, cruel or violent. To open our heart again feels very painful. Only love can save us. Some of us, like Jesus, eventually feel Universal Love hold us in our pain, but we may need our neighbors to hold it for us till we can open to love again. It is often very hard to sit with pure pain without trying to fix it or justify it. How often have we run from the pain of someone we care for? I wonder if the Doctrine of Atonement was a direct result of early Christians’ inability to keep their own hearts open in face of the trauma of Jesus’ terrible death. Holding pure suffering with an open heart can be a seed of redemption.

Love redeems us, martyrdom does not. The Doctrine of Atonement justifies Jesus’ death by saying it was God’s will. But Jesus was executed by an oppressive Empire using the most heinous torture reserved for people who were enemies of the state. Jesus probably became an enemy of the state when he overturned the tables at the temple, one of Rome’s favorite urban renewal projects at the time. But his torture did not lessen oppression. His surrender did not change the hearts of his torturers. His death did not bend the world towards justice. No, his nonviolent resistance to the evil acts of oppressive people moved the world towards justice, in spite of his death. The ability of some of his followers to open their broken hearts and heal from the trauma changed the hearts of some oppressors, in spite of violence. Resisting evil with an open heart can be a seed of redemption.

Today begins the Christian Holy Week. We join our orthodox neighbors by celebrating a great teacher who taught us to love God, our neighbors and ourselves. He resisted evil and challenged his followers to do the same. During the week we may remember that teacher’s last meal with those he loved, his betrayal, agony, execution and death. This story may help some of us open our hearts to love as we remember personal losses, betrayals, agonies and injustices that we have suffered. May such memories remind us as well that we are heretics who have found a better way to interpret a great story. For we are not redeemed by sacrifice, by suffering, nor by evil. We are saved in spite of them. We are saved by love.


Atonement, Redefined by Hosea Ballou

by Marlene J. Geary
Chair, Sunday Services Committee
Unitarian Universalist Society: East
Manchester, CT, USA

Hosea Ballou, an influential 19th century Universalist preacher, redefined the Christian doctrine of atonement in his book A Treatise on Atonement. Ballou came from our back yard, a man of the central hill country in New England: southern New Hampshire and Vermont and western Massachusetts. He was raised a Calvinist Baptist and in his teens he became exposed to the concepts of Universalism and Unitarianism being preached in the pulpits of the time.

Atonement in this case would mean amends or reparation for an injury or a wrong that’s been committed. Strict Christian doctrine on atonement stated that Jesus was the source of expiation of the sins of humanity: his death satisfied divine justice and appeased the Christian God. This God was disillusioned and angry, but Jesus’s death managed to fix that by absorbing humanity’s sins and restoring the relationship of God to the world.

It wasn’t up to humanity to feel better about God; it was about God feeling better about us. And seeing as how only Jesus could do that, there wasn’t much hope for humanity. Combined with the doctrine of Calvinist predeterminism, Protestant Christian life was pretty harsh, stern and severe. You were either definitely going to burn in Hell, or if you weren’t going to Hell, chances were God hated you for your weaknesses anyway. I suppose it’s no small wonder that other ways of interpreting a relationship with God started developing, including a migration away from the concept of God altogether.

The Shift

Hosea Ballou took issue with this doctrine of atonement, reflecting this theological shift in Christian thinking. He took the idea of a God of infinite love and ran with it. He said that a God of infinite love could never have been offended by humanity. Ballou said that instead of appeasing an angry God, we have the task at hand of figuring out how to reconcile ourselves with a loving God, especially given our human shortcomings. We have to figure out how to love God again, he said, especially because all God wants is love and salvation for everyone.

Ballou felt that people would naturally gravitate toward a life of love and good works if they felt it brought them closer in synchronization with their universal infinite notion of God.

What This Means for Us

My interpretation of Ballou, then, says that we are called to grow ever closer to that notion of universal love. The practice of atonement, then, brings us in sync with that universal love by addressing actions that may have caused harm or injury. Atonement, then, might be said to be an act of love.

As Unitarian Universalists, we are asked to consider the concept of the universal, interdependent web of all existence – some may include a concept of God or gods in their interpretation, some may not. When we contemplate making atonement for an injury or wrong that we have caused, we are considering our effect upon one locus of the web. But, our belief in the interdependent connections of existence lead us to the idea that our efforts at atonement affect the entire web, not just one point. How does this play into the role of atonement in your life?

Questions to Consider

What place does “love” as an abstract concept or an attribute of the divine have in your personal theology? How does it affect the way you approach atonement? Do you resent practicing atonement, expecting resentment in return? Do you approach making amends as if the world is an endless source of light and love? What is your core purpose for atoning for your actions? Do you practice atonement in order to feel closer to your God or gods? Do you practice atonement in order to feel closer to other people?