JESUS: SAVIOR OR SYMBOL?

© Jared Anderson 2011

This essay will reconcile three seemingly paradoxical points: I love the doctrine of Atonement. I have difficulty believing in it literally. My (dis)belief does not remove the power of the Atonement from my life. What Atonement Means to Me I love the idea of Jesus as Atoning Savior. I love the idea of an actualized perfected, loving God Brother who chose of his own will to take upon himself everything in us short of perfection. I love the idea of One Being who gives us all strength and who, after working an Atonement out of time, lives all of our lives and deaths. I love the idea of this Dying and Rising God who binds us all together through blood, love, and covenants. I love the idea that our strength is both ours and his. We are all one Being, and he unites us. I love the idea of a perfectly compassionate Savior, someone who literally understands everything anyone has ever gone through. I love the idea of allowing our old selves to die and our new selves to live. I am grateful for peace and transformation that can come from pondering these ideas. And I love the man Jesus. I love his courage to "live as if the Kingdom has already come". I admire him for restructuring society into a new Family, for teaching that the best way to live a life of holiness is to love God and care for each other. The interpretation of the Atonement that makes most sense to me is that in Gethsemane and on the cross Jesus, out of time, 1 lived all of our lives and deaths. He IS us. The powerful aspect of this is that *we are still in Gethsemane*. It is like this < where Gethsemane is the point on the left and all of time is the space on the right. Because we are living through the Grace of the Savior (he is "lending us breath", Mosiah 2:21), when we sin we make him sin, as Paul explains. So through this process Jesus makes all of us
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Taking the scriptures about the Atonement literally requires that Jesus’ sacrifice transcend time. If He suffered the pains of every man, woman, and child as 2 Ne. 9:21 teaches, obviously the time spent in Gethsemane and on the cross would be inadequate. Elder Tad Callister explores this issue in Infinite Atonement, pp. 147-150, drawing on the idea that time exists only for humans (D&C 38:2; D&C 130:7; Alma 40:8). I believe that the concept of Jesus “lending us breath” (Mosiah 2:21) and the Participationist model of us living in Christ mesh well with the idea I have put forth of Jesus experiencing all of our lives and deaths.

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One, or perhaps we are already one, but just estranged (Quantum Physics and other science backs up this idea that we are all connected). So as part of the Organism that is all of us, Jesus takes into himself Death and Hell, digests everything short of perfection, metabolizes it. He becomes all of us and in saving, purifying, and perfecting himself, he saves and perfects all of us, to the degree that we access his Atonement. In the Mormon view of progression toward Godhood, I can also see how an Atonement would provide a crucial step in becoming an all-knowing, all-loving God. If you had to pick between a God who had empathy for all things in the universe and one without, which would you choose? I would like to take the time to share some of my favorite descriptions of the Atonement from the scriptures and other sources: “I am come that they may have life, and have it in overflowing abundance” (John 10:10) I love this passage. Humanism and Christianity intersect with this verse; the quest for an “overflowing” life is one we all share. “Having ascended into heaven, having the bowels of mercy; being filled with compassion towards the children of men; standing betwixt them and justice; having broken the bands of death, taken upon himself their iniquity and their transgressions, having redeemed them, and satisfied the demands of justice.” (Mosiah 15:9). This imagery of this verse is so powerful. It is easy to imagine all the penalties of sin, death and hell hurtling toward us, and then Jesus stands in the way, taking upon himself everything short of perfection, suffering all consequences so that for us those consequences need not be permanent. I have also imagined Jesus standing before God the Father and claiming responsibility for all of the greatest sins of humanity: “I abused that child” “I killed those people” “I take all responsibility, all the penalties”. I imagined his sensitive, perfect soul feeling torment more than any of us ever could bear, so that we could achieve peace. “And he shall go forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind; and this that the word might be fulfilled which saith he will take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people. And he will take upon him death, that he may loose the bands of death which bind his people; and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities. Now the Spirit knoweth all things; nevertheless the Son of God suffereth according to the flesh that he might take upon him

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the sins of his people, that he might blot out their transgressions according to the power of his deliverance.” (Alma 7:12-13) Empathy is one of the most precious resources in life, in large part because the cost is so high. We cannot genuinely say “I know how you feel” unless we have experienced something similar, otherwise our words prove counterfeit. Thus how appealing to have a perfection of empathy in one being? I resonate with the idea that even though the Spirit is omniscient, there needs to be another step, the acquisition of visceral empathy that can come only from experiencing what all living beings have experienced. I am sensitive to and grateful for the countless individuals who have been comforted by the thought that even if no one can understand what they are going through, Jesus can. “And thus he shall bring salvation to all those who shall believe on his name; this being the intent of this last sacrifice, to bring about the bowels of mercy, which overpowereth justice, and bringeth about means unto men that they may have faith unto repentance. “And thus mercy can satisfy the demands of justice, and encircles them in the arms of safety, while he that exercises no faith unto repentance is exposed to the whole law of the demands of justice; therefore only unto him that has faith unto repentance is brought about the great and eternal plan of redemption.” (Alma 34:15-16) I love the imagery of mercy “encircling us in the arms of safety”, contrasted by being “exposed to the whole law of the demands of justice”. I am big on hugs, so the cosmic hugs of mercy sound very nice. And of course, we need to appeal to C. S. Lewis, his descriptions of Jesus’ mission both profound and powerful: "One may think of a diver, first reducing himself to nakedness, then glancing in mid-air, then gone with a splash, vanishing rushing down through green and warm water into black and cold water, down through increasing pressure into the deathlike region of ooze and slime and old decay; then up again, back to colour and light, his lungs almost bursting, till suddenly he breaks the surface again, holding in his hand the dripping, precious thing he went down to recover. He and it are both coloured now that they have come up into the light: down below, where it lay colorless in the dark, he lost his color too" (Miracles, chap. 14). This allegory struck me as soon as I read it. I love the idea of God stripping away his divinity, leaving his realm and status of warmth and light and glory and diving down, down, down into mortality and weakness, farther down into sin and depravity, death and hell, to scoop up from the midst of that septic morass a precious human soul, to lift it up with him and returning home to love, light, and perfection. I also deeply resonate with his reflections on human transformation and actualization:
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“Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right, and stopping the leaks in the roof, and so on: you knew that those jobs needed doing and you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably, and does not seem to make sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of– throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were going to be made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself.” “The very first step is to try to forget about the self altogether. Your real, new self (which is Christ’s and also yours, and yours just because it is His) will not come as long as you are looking for it. It will come when you are looking for Him. Does that sound strange? The same principle holds, you know, for more everyday matters. Even in social life, you will never make a good impression on other people until you stop thinking about what sort of impression you are making. Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring a two pence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it. The principle runs through all life from top to bottom. Give up yourself, and you will find your real self. Lose your life and you will save it. Submit to death, death of your ambitions and favourite wishes every day and death of your whole body in the end: submit with every fibre of your being, and you will find eternal life. Keep back nothing. Nothing that you have not given away will be really yours. Nothing in you that has not died will ever be raised from the dead. Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. But look for Christ and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in.” (Chapter 11, “The New Men”) “For mere improvement is not redemption, though redemption always improves people even here and now and will, in the end, improve them to a degree we cannot yet imagine. God became man to turn creatures into sons: not simply to produce better men of the old kind but to produce a new kind of man. It is not like teaching a horse to jump better and better but like turning a horse into a winged creature. Of course, once it has got its wings, it will soar over fences which could never have been jumped and thus beat the natural horse at its own game. But there may be a period, while the wings are just beginning to grow, when it cannot do so: and at that stage the lumps on the shoulders—no one could tell by looking at them that they are going to be wings—may even give it an awkward appearance.” (Chapter 10, “Nice People or New Men”) These descriptions have helped me during difficult times in my life. It is a reminder that God’s top priority is not our comfort, but our transformation. Of course, we need to be

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honest and acknowledge that these quotes about transformation do not really involve Christ, unless you presuppose that all transformation toward divine nature occurs through Christ. One of my favorite books about the Atonement is James Ferrell’s The Peacegiver. One of the most powerful messages I have come across is that because we are one, we should respond to hurt with nurturing. When part of our own bodies hurts us, we don’t respond by punishing it… we treat it even more gently and carefully. So too when our loved ones hurt us we should love them more, rather than retaliating in a way that will cause only more pain. I also appreciated Ferrell’s description of what I call the “Houdini explanation” of the Atonement: “In order to redeem us from the chains of sin, the Savior had to take upon himself all of the chains that bind us to sin—in the words of Paul, to be ‘in all points tempted like as we are’. He had to shoulder ‘the burden of the combined weight of the sins of the world’—to our sinful desires, our predispositions and addictions toward sin, our darkened hearts. The scriptures declare that he suffered as well as everything that might lead us to sin—our ‘pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind’—so that ‘he might blot out [our] transgressions according to the power of his deliverance.’ It was as Paul said” He ‘who knew no sin’ was ‘made to be sin for us.’ With all of this sinfulness heaped upon him, he then had to withstand the unimaginable onslaught of the entire power and fury of the forces of hell, and do so, as Paul described further, ‘yet [remaining] without sin’”. As I said earlier, I find very powerful and appealing the idea that one cosmic, perfected being condescended to become all of us, to take upon Himself all of our shortcomings and sins, our failings and failures, our aches and anguish. 2 There are forces preventing us from actualizing and perfecting ourselves—my favorite definition of the Fall is that humans are lazy and selfish by nature. I can see how it would help to have God become all of us, and then by perfecting himself allows all of us to overcome our imperfections, working through us as we strive to better ourselves. And bracketing my ambivalent views of Jesus for a moment, I very much resonate with the idea of Atonement. Estrangement and reconciliation play central roles in the drama of our lives. We constantly fall short in reaching ideals, and seek to actualize ourselves, to shrink the gap between present and potential. We neglect relationships, hurt each other. We are so much more connected than we imagine, both with each other and the world around us. How great a need there is to bring the separated and severed back together

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Interestingly, I think that this requires Jesus to transcend the limitations of gender, to effectively become male and female. The alternative is that there is an unknown female Savior figure.

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into relationships of love, to unite, to make At-One. This Atonement, I believe in, fervently. I embrace any force that increases unity and oneness. What I have a hard time Believing I have tried to express my love for the idea of the Atonement of Jesus Christ, but I have a hard time accepting its literal reality. The problems I have believing in the Atonement literally are theological, ethical, historical, and personal. Above, I described the “Participationist Model” of Atonement, the idea that through the Atonement and our acceptance of that Atonement we become part of Christ. I can resonate with that. What I have a problem with is the “Judicial Model”, expressed in the ubiquitous “Jesus died for our sins” or “Jesus paid for our sins”. Here is the crux of my problem: Who received payment? I don’t like the formulation “Jesus died for our sins”, mostly because I don’t think there is some cosmic force preventing us from overcoming our sins without the blood atonement and death of a God. Jesus paid for our sins, but to WHOM or WHAT? Alma 42 has some of my favorite doctrines (like the idea of Gods who limit themselves), and there Alma explains that the Atonement was necessary so God could be both just and merciful. The explanation is quite beautiful: “Therefore, according to justice, the plan of redemption could not be brought about, only on conditions of repentance of men in this probationary state, yea, this preparatory state; for except it were for these conditions, mercy could not take effect except it should destroy the work of justice. Now the work of justice could not be destroyed; if so, God would cease to be God…And now, the plan of mercy could not be brought about except an atonement should be made; therefore God himself atoneth for the sins of the world, to bring about the plan of mercy, to appease the demands of justice, that God might be a perfect, just God, and a merciful God also.” (Alma 42:13, 15) The idea of “God himself” atoning for our sins avoids the ethical difficulties of God sending his Son to do the same. Granted, the idea Joseph taught that the Father also wrought an atonement provides another solution. But either way, this sacrifice of either Father or Son is distasteful. If human sacrifice is bad, is divine sacrifice any better? The idea that God would sacrifice his son is horrifying and repulsive. Why on earth (or heaven) would that be necessary? So God needs to be both just and merciful. I get that. But does that justice really require death? Yes, I understand that spiritual death involves the separation from God, and that when we sin we separate ourselves from God. But what is preventing him from just forgiving us? Or, why is sincere repentance, including restitution, not adequate?

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I am not at all arguing that there are no consequences for sin. Of course there are. When we act against our better knowledge, hurt ourselves or others, there are consequences. We should feel that regret, learn from our mistakes, and improve. Also, since we are not aware of all the consequences of our actions and it is a natural inclination to spin reality in a way advantageous to ourselves, many of us will not allow ourselves to feel the full weight of guilt (of course, plenty among us suffer from the opposite problem, taking on undeserved guilt. But cultural conditioning contributes greatly to that problem). Thus accepting full responsibility, including the portion from which we naturally shield ourselves, also makes sense. But what is preventing God for forgiving us of our sins once we have gone through the steps of repentance? When we recognize our flaws and mistakes, feel true sorrow for them, do our best to make reparations, and yearn for transformation, seeking to rise above those flaws… what remains? Yes, there are plenty of mistakes that we cannot make right. But can’t God have Grace and Compassion and Mercy without the death of Jesus? What parent would refuse to embrace her child in her arms after that child had done everything possible to make right a mistake, unless a third party intervened? Thinking of stories such as Packer’s “The Mediator” that so many saw in seminary… we relate because this is how the world works, but that isn’t even how finances are SUPPOSED to work! The idea of debt is that you borrow money and then that money allows you to make enough to pay it off YOURSELF. The financial world would be a disaster if built into it was the idea of having a third party constantly stepping in (feel free to insert snarky comment about bailouts here). I think another issue for me is that we do in fact suffer for our own sins. Isn’t that a standard part of repentance? We need to feel remorse for our sins, which is another way of saying we need to suffer for our sins. Yes, sometimes the cost is higher than we can pay, and I think in some cases for the good of all the penalty for the worst sins must be death. But is there a cosmic demand beyond that suffering or removal? And if it is not possible for mercy to “rob justice”, can mercy and love and compassion perhaps appease justice? Does forgiveness reduce the need for suffering for sin, or at least provide a point at which suffering can end? And once we suffer for our sins, why is there a need for someone else to suffer? It seems to me like there is an additional penalty we have no evidence for, and Jesus saves us from that. In other words, though we have suffered for our sins here, the standard line goes, unless we accept Jesus we will suffer again/more in hell forever. Granted, Mormonism’s version is softer, but still parallel. I have already said, I like the idea that Christ suffers with us, granting us the ability to do so and making that suffering efficacious, but now we are getting into an area where it works whether or not Jesus is literally Savior.

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Taking these theological and ethical issues into consideration, it seems to me more likely that the meaning of Jesus’ death was a case of inventing a problem to fit an unavoidable reality. Historically it is easy to reconstruct how followers of Jesus would have worked backward to come up with this theology—Jesus was dead despite what they would wish true, so they had to come up with a theological explanation. Scholars of the Passion Narrative have suggested that the idea of the Atonement was not even present in the very earliest explanation of Jesus’ death. It seems that he very earliest formulation was Jesus died “according to the scriptures” (see 1 Cor. 15:4, Luke 24:17), that is, according to God’s plan. They needed to know that Jesus’ death had a purpose, that it didn’t take God by surprise. A reasonable reconstruction is that Jesus and his followers believed that the Kingdom of God was coming in their lifetimes, and soon in those lifetimes… any moment now really (see Mark 9:1, 14:62, and 1 Thess. 4:15). When Jesus died instead of ushering the new era as God’s special servant, his disciples were dumbfounded. How could they make sense of this? 3 They scanned their holy texts, searching for servants of God who suffered and died. And they found them then applied those texts to their fallen Jesus, reinterpreting what it meant to be Messiah. Paul actually shares his train of thought in Gal. 3:13-14… He had thought that Jesus was cursed, because the law says that anyone “hanged on a tree” is cursed (Deut 21:23). But God’s revelation of Jesus to Paul proved that Jesus was chosen of God, which means that he must not be cursed for himself, but that “became a curse for us”. Death as vicarious sacrifice was an important part of Jewish religion, thus would be a reasonable interpretation of the unexpected death of one believed to be the Messiah. 4 Once Jesus’ death became the solution, the one and only path to God (because if the death of God’s Son was Plan A, there could not possibly be any Plan B!), Christians needed to emphasize the problem. Thus we get the emphasis on the fall of man, the idea that humans are depraved and lost and hopeless without the saving power of Christ—an idea I happen to find very disempowering and distasteful. Yes, we are naturally selfish and lazy. But we also have the roots of love and altruism within us. I love the idea that we are children of God, and I think we can realize that divine potential, whether or not Jesus really died for our sins.
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Readers of the New Testament don’t discern the problem because the texts as we have them, especially the gospels, have a long history of transmission and composition. Luke 24 contains some echoes of the early distress, however. No pre-Christian Messianic passage claimed that the Messiah would suffer and die. The scriptures such as Ps. 22 and Isaiah 53 that do bear language of vicarious sacrifice were not applied to the Messiah by Jews. In short, Christians radically changed the meaning of Messiah to make Jesus fit the description.

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I want to state clearly that though these details factor into my beliefs, I nevertheless think the evidence allows for faith in Jesus as Savior. Numerous scholars adhere to both rigorous academic method and devotion to the Christ. One could explain the differing portrayals of Jesus by suggesting that Jesus’ followers did not understand his true mission until after his death (which would make sense given the Messianic expectations of the time), but after his resurrection they came to understand the true significance of their Savior, including his Atoning sacrifice. In any case, I love Jesus and admire his message, the man who courageously and radically restructured the meaning of family and society. He taught that holiness is less a matter of ritual purity and priestly practices than loving God and the members of the human family. Thus scholarship can explain how the earliest followers of Jesus came to understand his death as vicarious sacrifice for our sins. One important observation needs to be made about how Jesus is used in popular culture: The popular conception of Jesus simply is not in the gospel; it does not match the Jesus of history. The progression of interpretation has taken the apocalyptic prophet of Galilee who taught to live the Jewish law through love, and added and added and transformed until he is the sinless God and Savior, the Paragon of perfection, worthy to ask “What Would Jesus Do?” We know what he would say and do not from reading the gospels, but because we know Jesus is perfectly good, and therefore whatever is good is Jesus. Theologically speaking, it is possible that the Eternal Jesus is precisely this, but we should still be aware of what ideas come from what layer of tradition; what portrait of Jesus comes from the Gospel of Mark and which comes from a Lewis or Lucado. Though I have had quite dramatic experiences with God, I have not felt the same personal connection with Jesus. Even when I believed more literally I never had a “saved by Jesus” experience. I would be open to having such a witness, and would take it seriously. Savior and Symbol I have explained how though I love the idea of the Atonement and can find meaning in it, for historical, ethical, and historical reasons I don’t believe in it literally. Now, to my titular point: Here is the key however: Ultimately, it doesn’t make a difference whether or not Jesus is currently the Living Christ, because we have no access to him outside our own perceptions. Believers will balk at this idea, because Jesus feels so real to them. Their relationship with Jesus ranks among the most important in their lives. Jesus is everything to them, they say.
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They could not do anything without him. He is the center of their lives, the “author and finisher of their faith”. And do you know what? I take that very seriously. I believe the believers. I am deeply respectful of these world views. Because perceptions are reality, period. Because I believe in spirituality, I believe others’ accounts of spiritual experiences. I hold deep respect for the billions of personal experiences that testify of Jesus as Savior. Jesus *has* saved numerous lives. He has comforted those close to giving up and brought peace to those wracked with guilt and despair. Even if beliefs are anchored in only symbol rather than reality, those beliefs bear real consequences, in many cases positive. I would never want to diminish those experiences so important to so many. At the same time, I think it is important to remind ourselves that we on our own cannot transcend our own situatedness. Just because we feel or believe a certain way does not mean that everyone needs to. As much as we would like to, we cannot project our own perceptions onto reality. Our beliefs and perceptions and feelings do not map perfectly onto external reality; we experience only the intersection of the symbol and our own experiences, nothing more. Further, though our feelings are real to us and should be respected, we need to apply the same criteria and respect for the feelings and beliefs of others. I should clarify what I mean by “perceptions”. Obviously, we have different types of perceptions: 1) our perception of the outside world, 2) our conclusions about the data our senses take in, and 3) our subjective, emotional experiences. Category 1 can be confirmed through the perceptions of others; this “intersubjectivity” plays a key role in the scientific and academic method. Category 2 can mislead us (the sun looks like it rotates around the earth, for example) but is open to correction. Category 3 is what I am speaking of when I say we only have access to our perceptions of Jesus as savior. This “personal reality” influences our decisions, and thus has real consequences. I would submit it is by these consequences that such subjective perceptions can be judged. “By their fruits you shall know them”. The idea of Jesus Christ as Savior, the symbol of Savior, plays a powerful role in the divine drama that takes place not necessarily on the cosmic context, but within the stage of our souls. We each take the role of Sinner and Savior—we fall short and feel guilt, but we also have the ability to forgive ourselves, to move on, learn from our mistakes and use them as stepping stones toward our perfection. We tap into the nobler, wiser, best parts of ourselves. Thus I take the opportunity during the sacrament to reflect on the mistakes I have made, feel remorse, and resolve to do better in the coming week. Though I do not believe in the Atonement literally, I apply it in my life. Let me provide one illustration of how the idea of Savior can be literally lifesaving, even if Jesus as Savior proved not to be literal. One of the secret truths of life, one we don’t learn
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except through often excruciating lessons, is that we are stronger than we think we are. We are better than we think we are. We can love more, endure more, and rise above challenges more than we believe we can. When we tell someone this in their most difficult moments, “You can do it! Even though you think you can’t, you can do it!” it may or may not work. For some it will, for some it won’t. But the idea of an external help can be tremendously beneficial in these instances for some. Some who would not believe they have the power to rise above can cling to the idea of a loving Savior outside themselves, helping and strengthening them, allowing them to endure and love and grow beyond what they thought possible. And after they have made it on the other side of the trial, I think most would acknowledge that whatever the source of that strength, whether Self or Savior, it was beneficial and needed. I have expressed my views on the Atonement as clearly as possible. I should add that though these are my careful beliefs at the moment, I am open to changing my position. I am open to the idea of Jesus being the literal Savior. If I die and meet Jesus will fall at his feet and worship him with gratitude and joy I understand that many believers will interpret my approach as both falling short and looking beyond the mark. My question to you is, Can my nuanced beliefs change reality? If Jesus is truly, literally Savior of us all, nothing that I or anyone believes can change that literal reality. For some of us, cherishing the symbolic meaning of Jesus' Atonement is the most we can presently do. And I can't help but think that has to be enough. Isn't living the Atonement more important than believing it literally? Will not Jesus also say to his agnostic children, "Well done my good and faithful servants"? Perhaps if he said "Blessed are those who do not see but believe", an equally great expression of love would be "Blessed are those who struggle to believe, but still live in faith". If Jesus is really our Savior, then would not he rather people appreciate and apply a symbolic understanding of his mission than reject it entirely? That way when they die and meet Jesus they will have served him and accepted his sacrifice and been transformed thereby, even though they were not able to accept the literal reality until it was demonstrated to them in the afterlife. Thus Jesus is Symbol and Savior, and it works in our lives either way.

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