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Lenses on Good Friday: anxiety, shame, and guilt

18 April 2019

Fraser Watts explores how emotion shapes reactions to theories of the atonement


Burden, by Honoré Daumier (1850-1853)

Burden, by Honoré Daumier (1850-1853)

IN HIS influential book The True Wilderness, Harry Williams suggested that having a grasp of academic theology was like owning a house. In order for it to have value, we needed to enter the house and make it our home.

He sought a shift in emphasis from an intellectual understanding of the Christian faith to a focus on how Christian truths move and change us.

I think that this is especially true when we come to an understanding of the cross and resurrection. Much work has been done on what to believe. In comparison, very little attention has given to how we believe these things, and how our beliefs affect us. To understand that, Christians need to make use of psychology.

At this point, I need to guard against misunderstandings. I am not suggesting that we “reduce” belief in the cross and resurrection to a matter of psychology. I hold a radically objectivist view of the difference that the cross and resurrection made to the whole of humanity. I believe that Jesus’s actions would have changed humanity, regardless of whether anyone realised that.

I also think, however, that the impact of what Jesus did can be heightened by what sense people make of it as individuals. We need both perspectives.


TO START at the objective, universal level, Christians have always believed that the death of Jesus had far-reaching consequences, and they have tried various ways of explaining how that was achieved (Features, 29 March 2018). New models can be helpful alongside older ones, and I want to suggest that photosynthesis provides a useful metaphor.

Photosynthesis is the process by which plants convert light into energy that they can use to live; it involves absorbing carbon dioxide from the environment and emitting oxygen. Joseph Priestley found that, if a candle was lit in an airtight container, the flame was soon extinguished; a mouse died if it was put in an airtight container in which a candle had burned out.

He also found, however, that if a plant was placed inside the airtight container, the mouse was able to live. The plant restored the “injured” air by absorbing carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen.

By analogy, the moral and spiritual air that humans breathe has become injured by the release of too much fear and hatred. On the cross, Jesus absorbed the fear and hatred that was misdirected towards him, resulting in his crucifixion. He converted it into love and compassion that healed the moral and spiritual atmosphere. In a similar way, plants absorb the carbon dioxide that poisons the atmosphere and release the oxygen that restores it.

Another, more psychological model, pitched at the same universal, objective level, but more descriptive than metaphorical, suggests that what Jesus did through the cross and resurrection marked a turning-point in the evolution of consciousness.

The old animistic sense of God’s speaking to humanity through nature had largely faded by the time of Jesus. Jesus immersed himself in humanity and creation in a way that embedded the spirit within humanity. So, rather than spirit speaking to us through nature, as in animism, humans have a new capacity to look at nature with spirit-imbued eyes. Owen Barfield is one of the most effective advocates of this view, as Mark Vernon explains in A Secret History of Christianity (Christian Alternative, 2019).

As I see it, what Jesus does changes things for all people, everywhere, regardless of knowledge or faith. That is what is meant by his creating a “new Adam”. I want to focus, however, on how people make sense of all this.


I AM influenced here by an insightful article, “Anxiety, Shame and Guilt in the Atonement”, by Paul Pruyser (1916-1987), a Dutch-American clinical psychologist and psychologist of religion, based at the Menninger Clinic in the United States.

Pruyser’s insight was that different ways of understanding the atonement spoke to different kinds of people. The explanation that seemed most compelling to a particular person would depend on his or her predominant emotions — whether their outlook was characterised mainly by anxiety, shame, or guilt.

The distinction between shame and guilt is especially important: guilt is a response to bad things that we have done; shame is more focused on a general feeling of personal inadequacy.

As Pruyser sees it, satisfaction theories that see Jesus offering himself in place of humanity as a sacrifice for human sin will appeal to people whose main emotional focus is on guilt. Jesus lifts the burden of guilt off people’s backs, as depicted by John Bunyan in The Pilgrim’s Progress.

On the other hand, seeing Jesus on the cross as an example of sacrificial love (“Love so amazing, so divine”) will appeal to people whose main focus is on shame: people who are aware of the gap between how they wish to be and how they are, and who see Jesus as bridging that gap in an exemplary way.

The debate about whether to emphasise satisfaction or moral-example theories often seems to be a purely theological one that divides conservative and liberal Christians. Pruyser suggests that it may be largely a matter of psychology.


IT IS helpful to bring a historical perspective into this. It is widely recognised that some periods of time have a predominant focus on guilt, and others have a focus on shame. Which approach to the atonement features most strongly in a particular era will be determined by this. Ours is generally thought to be mainly a shame period; so, approaches to the atonement that speak to shame are likely to enjoy more purchase than those that speak to guilt.

The Church is well-practised at proclaiming forgiveness to those who feel burdened by guilt, both in its preaching and in its sacramental ministry. It is, perhaps, less adept in reassuring those who are burdened by a sense of shame and personal inadequacy that they are lifted up and restored to wholeness by God’s love.

Pruyser thought that people whose main focus was on anxiety would connect best with ransom theories of the atonement. It seems to me, however, that victory theories assuage anxiety even more powerfully. We live in an anxious age when things seem out of control; we are beset by many problems that seem almost insoluble. It is very appealing to see Jesus as having defeated the dark forces of sin and evil.

The challenge with such victory theories, of course, is in finding a convincing eschatology that acknowledges that Christ won a victory on the cross, even though things are still difficult on the ground. Victory theories of the atonement hold cross and resurrection together more effectively than the alternatives; that seems to me to be one of their big strengths.


I SUSPECT that, for many people, Easter does not mean much at a psychological level. It probably moves people less deeply than Christmas, with its themes of light shining in darkness. The problem arises partly from a kind of splitting between cross and resurrection, with Good Friday all gloom, and Easter all celebration. Liturgically, it is the Easter vigil that connects the two, but vigil services are often not well attended.

Easter can speak powerfully to anxiety, but it also speaks to loss. The Easter story, as the Gospels tell it (especially John), gets going slowly. At first, there is confusion and fear in the male disciples, and Mary is in grief for the loss of Jesus. She becomes aware of the resurrection through tear-filled eyes.

The disciples are reassured only on Easter evening, when, holed-up out of fear, they are greeted in peace by the risen Jesus. Those feeling loss will identify with Mary; those living in anxiety will identify with the disciples. Sadly, in many Easter services, both anxiety and loss are drowned out in a rather frothy and premature sense of celebration.


ONE of the key issues raised by this psychological approach is whether we should be content with people just opting for the theory of atonement which most appeals to them. That can become highly relativistic. To his credit, Pruyser saw this problem clearly. Although he thought that it was inevitable that people would go first for the approach to the atonement which spoke to them personally, he also hoped that, in time, they would see value in other approaches.

If things go well, moving on to a broader understanding of Christian doctrine goes alongside a healthy psychological development. The journeys towards doctrinal and personal wholeness can go hand in hand, each supporting the other in a kind of co-evolution.

People often latch on to forms of Christianity that keep them entrenched in their problems and limitations: for example, guilt-prone Christians adhere to forms of Christianity that maintain their guilt. We all need to move towards being broader and more balanced people, with a broad and balanced understanding of our faith. The two go together.


The Revd Dr Fraser Watts, formerly Reader in Theology and Science at the University of Cambridge, is now Visiting Professor of Psychology of Religion at the University of Lincoln. His recent book Living Deeply: A psychological and spiritual journey is published by Lutterworth Press at £15.

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