A PLAIN GUIDE TO ...
It is seldom recognised by ordinary Christians that
many doctrines touted by the Church as essential to salvation are
nothing more than metaphors or images elaborated and heightened to a
great degree. Some such metaphors remain useful to this day - although
often in a restricted sense. Others are redundant. The redemption
metaphor survives - but only as a somewhat archaic remnant.
Traditional Christian teachings
have always attempted to preserve continuity between the past and the
present. As a result, concepts still used today have often either
changed in meaning, or are out of use entirely.
To understand the idea of redemption, it's useful to examine the doctrine
before considering what it might mean to us today. It appears to be an
idea which has lost its punch.
Its use in the New
Testament is complex. First, a Greek word often translated as "redeem"
relates to buying something at the shops - that is, the "market place" in
pre-modern times (though Roman and Greek cities often had the ancient
equivalent of shopping malls). It occurs 25 times, mostly with its usual
commercial meaning, but five times it describes the buying of Christians
by God through Jesus.
Second, another Greek word
(also often translated as "redeem") relates to buying the freedom of a
slave (as in Mark 10.45 and Matthew 20.28). Some English versions use the
term "set free" in place of "redeem".
The idea of
paying compensation for a person or group who had one way or another
broken the rules or mortally offended God has its roots in the Hebrew
Bible. The Book of Isaiah, for example, talks about God having given three
African kingdoms to the Babylonian king Cyrus in exchange for the people
of Israel's release and return to Palestine (Isaiah 43.3).
Paul also uses the concept. In his Letter to the Galatians he talks of
human beings having been "slaves of the ruling spirits of the universe".
But Jesus came to "redeem those who were under the [Hebrew] Law, so that
we might become God's sons" - perhaps a reference to freed slaves who were
sometimes adopted by wealthy Romans.
The idea that God through
Jesus of Nazareth somehow paid a price for the sins of humanity has been
developed by the Church over centuries. From its early days as a useful
and expressive metaphor to express the meaning of Jesus to early
Christians, redemption is now a central concept in the complex teaching
usually known as the atonement.
According to this, sin breaks our
relationship with God. Jesus brought about an "at-one-ment" with God by
dying on the cross. In the Greek and Roman worlds, there was a strong idea
of the absolute or perfect order of which our existence is a finite and
imperfect rendering. Jesus was from that perfect order - that is, from
God. He took on our human nature and, according to early Christians,
reversed the process through which Adam had condemned the world to
suffering, weakness and death.
The famous Medieval scholar Anselm
(1033-1109) explained that God had to put right the state of sinful
disorder amongst humans. No person could make amends for human
disobedience, so God's son endured death to satisfy God's honour and
achieve forgiveness for all. This has become known as the satisfaction
version of the atonement teaching. Reformers later adopted the penal
substitution version of redemption by which Jesus took on himself the
punishment by death deserved by humanity, but undeserved by him.
The word "redeem" is today often associated with an item temporarily
pawned for ready cash. It's also a term used in the world of finance,
usually referring to settling a debt or an outstanding transaction. These
are not particularly compelling images.
So familiar are the words
"redemption" and "ransom" and "salvation" to well-taught Christians that
the atonement teaching underpinned by the terms is almost always taken for
granted and seldom questioned. Those who do question it are frequently
One such, probably representative of many who think
like him, is John Spong, a retired Anglican bishop. He writes that
The entire corpus of the Bible traditionally has been read and
interpreted in such a way as to undergird this particular
understanding of Jesus as the rescuer. 
He regards traditional arguments for atonement as increasingly
difficult for even dedicated Christians to commit to.
wonders how attractive is a God who requires the sacrifice of his son for
any reason at all. The sacrifice of one's life might be entirely
commendable if freely given. But if given as a condition, it becomes
unacceptable to Spong.
Second, the Church substituted for a literal Fall
the teaching that we are all alienated by our very nature from God. The
Fall, once taken as literally true by Christians, now becomes a parable
about the way we are, a "story" about original sin. As a result, we are
all burdened by a burden of inherited guilt which we don't deserve.
Moreover, it goes against the spirit of God's sweeping acceptance of all
which Jesus lived out.
We human beings do not live in sin. We are not born in sin. We do
not need to have the stain of original sin washed away ... A savior
who restores to us our pre-fallen status is therefore pre-Darwinian
superstition and post-Darwinian nonsense.
Spong is perhaps a more extreme example of reaction against a
traditional teaching which is no longer considered useful. A E McGrath
remarks that it is now increasingly
... seen as cumbersome and unhelpful by many modern Christian
writers across the entire spectrum of theological viewpoints ... The
term "soteriology" (from the Greek soteria, "salvation) is
increasingly used [instead] ... 
The notion of redemption has been torn apart and reassembled in
various forms for centuries now by thinkers such as John Locke (Reasonableness
of Christianity (1695), Joseph Butler (Analogy of Religion
1736), Friedrich Schleiermacher (On Religion 1799), Karl Barth (Church
Dogmatics 1932) and many others.
What has seldom been fully
admitted is that redemption is, in essence, a metaphor. It may be tempting
to say "only a metaphor" - but the fact is that metaphors make up much of
how we communicate about the world. So the question is not so much,
"Should metaphors be used to express ideas about God?" as "Is this
metaphor still useful in the 21st century?"
Two points are relevant
The first is that metaphors are not either right or wrong, but
useful or not as the case may be. The mental pictures or comparisons
which are invoked by the words "redemption" or "ransom" or "salvation"
(which form a family of metaphors relating to the life of Jesus) can
still be used if they evoke a response in anyone.
A problem arises for many Christians and others, however, when
these and other metaphors are made into absolutes. In other words, as
soon as they are touted as matters of personal commitment linked to
penalties (such as banishment from the Christian fellowship or even
eternal punishment) their validity is completely compromised.
I think it is now widely recognised - and has been for centuries, if
not millennia - that the word "God" denotes "that which cannot be known
or described" but from which the universe issues. It is a word empty of
meaning until we give it meaning.
Much of the current argument
about Theism is based on the false premise that when we talk about God as
"he" or "she" we are attributing
real personality to "that which cannot be known". But to address
God as a person is, as I see it, only to say that you or I find it useful
and rewarding to relate to God in this way. The Deist, in contrast,
maintains that he or she finds it more personally useful and rewarding to
relate to God through experience of the universe - that is, through God's
Thus even the word "person" is a metaphor when applied to
God. It is an image or likeness we use in order to help us relate to "that
which can't be known". As so many mystics have insisted, the only response
we get from this "person" is silence - and yet the silence somehow
communicates to us and we to it (him or her).
Lloyd Geering puts it
The content we put into the God-symbol is over to us. What our
ancient forbears did unconsciously, we now have to do for ourselves
quite aware that we are doing it. This is basically what it means
to be religious in the world of the future. 
Many now react badly to the redemption metaphor. How is it possible,
they ask, for a loving God to inflict suffering and death on anyone just
to assuage a sense of outrage at human willfulness? In other words, they
are protesting at a God-symbol or metaphor which portrays "that which
cannot be known" as this sort of person.
The idea that God should be
thought of a one who demands reparation has for very many people now given
way to a God who freely accepts any and all regardless.
remains that each of us is free not to relate to God in any way, or to
relate to God in a hostile or otherwise negative fashion. Thus the word
"God" can be filled with "That which doesn't exist" or "A person who is
vindictive and should be resisted" - or a host of other metaphors. It's
hard to imagine how a God who is thought of as allowing us freedom of
choice can also force anyone to use a positive metaphor.
In summary: The
metaphor of redemption remains perfectly valid to those who find it
useful. If you or I need to think of Jesus as someone who, as it were,
paid a price for us, then fair enough. The continuing power of the
metaphor is, I think, perfectly demonstrated in C S Lewis' The Lion,
the Witch and he Wardrobe.
But for ever-increasing numbers of
people, many of them used to a sense of personal autonomy, the redemption
metaphor is no longer useful. If you and I are to a greater or lesser
degree in charge of our lives, and if our societies are based upon
inclusiveness and consensus, then it's not useful to think in the archaic
terms of this particular doctrine.
 Why Christianity Must Change Or Die,
 Christian Theology, Blackwell, 1994
 Address to a Unitarian Universalist gathering in Christchurch, New
Zealand, Easter, 1998