As I was making my arduous drive home the other day, I was listening to our local feed of Air1, the "positive alternative." Often, Air1 has various Christian speakers, leaders, and artists record short, 30-second lessons in Christian theology and biblical interpretation. More often than not, these lessons are theologically uncritical and philosophically obtuse platitudes that only perpetuate the theological wasteland of American religiosity. This particular day did not disappoint. KJ-52, a Christian rap artist and regular contributor to Air1's segments, came on air to offer his take on the atonement. Not surprisingly, he conjured the tried and true story of the train conductor.

As the story goes, there was a man whose job was to make sure that the "switch"on a set of train tracks was appropriately thrown to prevent passing trains from smashing into each other. On one particular day, the man brought his son to work with him and told him to stay close to the booth. On schedule, two trains approached the switch, and the man prepared to throw the lever. As he was preparing to do this, however, he looked up and realized–with horror–that his son was playing on the train tracks. If he left to save his son, he would not be able to operate the switch at the appropriate time and the two trains would collide, killing hundreds of people. With tears blurring his eyes, the man faithfully performed his job, turning away as the successfully switched trains mutilated his son, never realizing that their safe passage resulted in the death of the man's son. As the moral of the story goes, God's love is such that God, like the man in the story, loved humanity so much that he was willing to sacrifice his son to save people.

On a sentimental level, this metaphor "works." When effectively told, it communicates a powerful emotion, for who could not empathize with the man's loss! Growing up, I remember hearing this story told at numerous camps, youth retreats, and Sunday school classes. At the time, I accepted it uncritically as an appropriate description of the atonement and God's love in the cross of Christ. However, as I reflect upon this metaphor from my childhood, I realize that there is quite sinister side to it.

The first deficiency that I see in this metaphor concerns the relationship of Father and Son. In the metaphor, Christ is represented as a mindless child. Here, there is no sense of the biblical picture of Christ's resolve to remain obedient to the will of God, even to the point of death. Rather, Christ's death in the metaphor is presented as something extracted almost accidentally from him, as if death was the final "blindside" of God's will against Christ. Quite to the contrary, the biblical record shows that Christ is fully aware that his faithfulness to the will of the Father will result in death, for "surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem!" (Luke 13:33).

Secondly, the problem of sin is completely artificial. In the metaphor, humanity is not represented as being saved from something unnatural or contrary to the will of God. No, the trains are simply doing what trains are meant to do, and God (pictured in the man) is facilitating such action by throwing the switch. Contrary to this picture, the biblical record and the testimony of the church throughout history represents that humanity's sinfulness is something entirely contrary to the will of God. It is an alienating force that severs the human/divine relationship irrevocably. Humanity, in its sinfulness, is left helpless, slaves to the forces of non-existence and self-destruction. This reality is completely lost in the metaphor, and the salvation of humanity is simply an artificial rescue from a series of unfortunate events.

Finally, and most devious of all, is the fact that not only is the problem of sin artificial, but more accurately it is created by the disobedience of Christ. If the had not disobeyed his father, he would not have walked onto the tracks. And if he had never walked onto the tracks, there would be no need for the salvation. Therefore, the "sacrifice" which occurs in the not out of necessity or related to humanity's helplessness. Rather, it is exclusively centered upon the ineptitude of the father to maintain control over his son and upon the disobedience of the son to the father's explicit instructions. In this way, while the problem (the collision of the trains) is solved by the sacrifice of the son, the problem itself was caused by the son. Therefore, if this is a metaphor of the atonement, one can only conclude that God is merely fixing the mess that Christ has made by allowing him to reap the consequences of his own disobedience.

Obviously, the dictum that metaphors can only "go" so far must be kept in mind. However, the value of a metaphor lies precisely in its ability to relate generally to the issue being descriptively explored. In this sense, this common "metaphor" of atonement fails, not simply because it cannot be "stretched" very far, but more importantly because it does not encapsulate the necessary beginning assumptions which are crucial to embarking upon any discussion of the relationship of the Father, Son, the cross and humanity in the atonement. "Metaphors" such as the one described above do not meet these primal requisites and should, therefore, be rejected by critically thinking people everywhere. This is primarily important because "metaphors such as the story critiqued above are utilized in the theological formation of young minds. If the foundation of atonement thinking is dysfunctional, there is little hope that any subsequent reasoning will lead to a fruitful understanding.