For many years, a modern-day parable has been circulating (based on a true story by some referents) about a father who takes his son to work one day where he is a bridge operator for a railway, and due to a mishap, has to choose between saving his son caught in the gears of the bridge operations, or pulling the lever to allow unsuspecting train riders to cross safely, only to sacrifice his son in the process.
QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION:
Does this modern-day parable accurately reflect the “Christian” belief of salvation? Or, put in more technical language, does it honestly depict substitutionary atonement theology?
Should this continually be the kind of theology to dominate our outreach anyway? Are there nuances that we ought to be careful of?
When I asked a few friends what they thought, I got a range of responses. My favorite was, “F that. I’d save my kid.” Crass, but honest, and I think important for the discussion as it can highlight the depth of what the atonement is meant to mean.
There are some clear problems with matching the Christian tradition with the story. 1, Jesus was a willing sacrifice, not an unsuspected “accidental” victim of circumstance. 2, Salvation, according to traditional soteriology (salvation doctrine), requires a conscious, fully aware acceptance of the substitution. And with that, does this kind of parable also suggest a kind of universalism, that all are saved whether they know it or not? The most obvious problem is that all analogies are insufficient, and are ultimately pictures and emotive stories that help us to grasp ideas and theologies in a deeper and more visceral way.
But to answer the question, does this accurately reflect Christian salvation, the answer is YES. BUT, I would add, just because it is Christian, does not necessarily mean it is Biblical.
I’ve been wrestling with our era in the areas of faith and culture. Hindus, Christians, Muslims, Jews, and Buddhists, (to name the major religions in order of size) all adhere to key “non-negotiable” doctrines of faith. For Hindus, “Karma.” For Christians, “the Incarnation.” For Muslims, “there is one god and Muhammad his prophet.” For Buddhists, “Nirvana.” Yet, in each of those religions, there are always those segments of the adherent populace who hold to nuanced forms of those beliefs that, if really historically honest, really don’t match up to what the original author intended in some of the statements. Because I am of the Christian tradition, I can only speak more authoritatively to it, hence the movie “Most,” and these reflections that follow.
This tension, at least in Christian circles, is becoming more and more amplified as we seek to discover, once again, the original message of Jesus. Countless books, articles, lectures, etc. are being produced faster than we can consume, that are exhorting Christians to take a good hard look at the traditions that we’ve held on to for so long, and be willing to ask the difficult question, “Is what we believe what Jesus actually taught?”
I’m reminded of the exchange of Jesus in Mark 7 where the Pharisees are asking why some of Jesus’ disciples are non-adherent to the traditions of the elders. Jesus’ reply,
Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.” (Is.29:18) You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men. 
There are some problems with “Most,” especially when held up against the scrutiny of historical and Biblical criticism. In addition to what was mentioned above, the sacrifice of Jesus, perhaps was not “substitutionary” as many have so often believed, but was rather prophetic and inaugural. The John 3:16 passage is being read in new ways to mean that salvation of the world would not come through a “ticket” kind of redemption, and a “trading places,” but rather, to show the world how to live in the realities, and to follow suit, and by that following one will be “saved” from the terrors and plights of this fallen existence.
There is far too much to work through for a post of this kind, but suffice to say, in answering question number two, Should this kind of theology dominate our outreach? the answer is, PERHAPS. Now that I look at the question, I think I would rephrase it. To the question, Should this kind theology be included in our outreach, I think the answer is YES.
Let’s just be honest. What we believe in modern Christian theology has been, for a long while, nuanced (and I mean that distinctly from the word “different” or “divergent”) from what Jesus actually taught, and what was actually heard in the minds and hearts of the people that first followed. All of what we believe today is a grasping at that original intent, but ultimately falls short due to the very nature of historical and theological work, and the evolution of the cultures in which the “Gospel” is introduced and perpetuated. So, to deny a segment of the Christian population from experiencing a deeper, more profound sense of atonement through this modern-day parable is to deny them a rich spiritual experience, AND the possibility of others being touched by this same kind of experience, irregardless of how accurate it may or may not be to true Biblical theology.
At the same time, this cannot be the only expression of atonement theology, and there must be room for other diverse expressions of salvation within the Christian story. It behooves all of us, no matter what strain of faith we come from, to work hard at keeping a loose hold on our theologies, not because they are wrong, but because we can end up “holding on to the traditions of men” so tightly, that we never get to fully embrace (and be embraced by) the fullness of God’s truth.
In other words, it’s not only the world that needs redemption, but our theologies as well if the world is to truly be redeemed. We ought then to recognize that there may be descendants of our theologies that do need to be sacrificed in order for many unsuspecting peoples to truly live the life God intended. And for that, we must abandon my friend’s reply that so many staunchly religious people and theologians hold on to: “F that, I’m saving my theology.”
 Mark 7:6-8