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December 8, 2005
The New Testament witness does not lay out a systematic theology of atonement – a clear explanation of why “in the purposes of God”1 the crucifixion happened and how it provided for the salvation of humans. Instead, a variety of metaphors such as ransom, redemption, sacrifice, or military victory are used in discussing the meaning of Jesus’ crucifixion. Undergirding all the metaphors is the actual narrative of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. The apostles knew Jesus had died a shameful death, and then God had miraculously resurrected him, bringing them new life and extending the possibility of new life to all the world. To bring this good news to others, they borrowed language from their scriptures and everyday life.
In the almost 2000 years since their time, the church has developed a variety of theories to more fully explain how the cross reconciles humans to God. Questions such as, “is the atonement directed God-ward, devil-ward, or human-ward?” have loomed large. However, today some of the theories that earlier generations found compelling and satisfying, seem inadequate, even ugly. In my own case, the theories that I became familiar with growing up attending a Presbyterian church were so unsatisfying that they played a role in my losing faith in God as a teenager. The picture of a God that somehow required the sacrificial death of his own son to be willing to forgive sin seemed to me monstrous. If God wanted to forgive us, why not simply do so? Why require the cruel death of his own son?
As I noted in an earlier paper on the divinity of Jesus, when I returned to belief in God in my late thirties, these sorts of questions continued to bother me. In my journey back to believe that Jesus Christ is Lord, I have continued to work at addressing the questions that once helped make the whole story inconceivable to me. Focusing on the oneness of Jesus and the Father was an important, early element in my accepting the idea that a good God could somehow allow the evil in the world, including the evil of the crucifixion. God came himself to be crucified and experience the evil of the world he created, so although allowing evil is still difficult for me to understand, I can trust that he understands and has judged this whole thing somehow worth all this pain, including his own.
However, this still left me with unanswered questions. In continuing to wrestle with why the crucifixion was necessary, it has been helpful to me to think about the horrific reality of evil (even though, of course, I am completely unable to understand its enormity.) As N. T. Wright states in his Lecture 3 on Evil and the Justice of God, “Theologies of the cross, of atonement, have not … grappled sufficiently with the larger problem of evil.”2 Earlier, in Lecture 1, Wright details some of the overwhelming evil of this century – the first world war, the holocaust, Hiroshima. He could have added many others. In addition, he highlights the fact that evil runs right through each of us. This is the point I would now like to emphasize. It is hard today to minimize the existence of evil, given the suicide bombings, ethnic cleansings, and dire poverty juxtaposed with extreme wealth, of which worldwide communication make us painfully aware. However, it is very easy to minimize our own evil.
In the sermon on the mount, Jesus says some startling things about evil. We have heard that murderers are liable to judgment, but now he tells us that if we are angry with our brother, we are liable to judgment. We have heard that adultery is a sin, but now he tells us that if we look at someone with lust, we have already committed adultery in our hearts. We have heard that we are entitled to an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, but now he tells us that we are not to resist an evildoer – we are even to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. In fact, we are to be perfect, as our heavenly Father is perfect.3
What is Jesus saying by giving us these difficult standards? Historically, I think the church has too easily dismissed the possibility that Jesus actually expects his followers to adhere to them through the indwelling Holy Spirit. Setting aside that issue, however, I think Jesus was also making a point about God’s view of sinfulness. God’s perfection, wholeness, beauty, justice, and righteousness are such that even the minor sins (by human standards) are deeply horrendous in his eyes. I may think that my impatience with my sister and consequent angry words over a trivial matter are not particularly significant. In fact, given our long and overall very positive relationship, I will probably not even think they warrant an apology – I will simply forget them. However, in God’s eyes those angry words, and the underlying self-centeredness and unrighteousness from which they spring, are vile and monstrous.
Does this mean that there is no difference between my angry words and murder? In this class, we have several times emphasized that there are degrees of sinfulness. This has been a way of avoiding the danger that, in speaking of the commonality of sin among humans, we will minimize the reality of evil – we will come to see the murderer or other “major” sinner as not so bad. It is difficult subconsciously not to reason something like: I and the murderer are similar, and I am not so bad; therefore the murderer is not so bad.
Even given this danger, however, I am a little uneasy with emphasizing the distinction between what might be called “major” and “minor” sins/sinners. The clear danger with this approach is that it becomes very easy to minimize our own sinfulness: “Yes, I am a sinner, but I am not committing the major sins.”
I believe that to be faithful to the teachings of Jesus we must hold together both positions. There are distinctions between sins on a human scale, and God is aware of these and takes account of them in his justice. At the same time, God’s righteousness is so infinitely beyond ours that all humans fall immeasurably short on God’s scale. A more accurate reasoning than the one given above is: I and the murderer are similar, and the murderer’s sin is vile; therefore I am vile, absent the saving work of Jesus Christ.4
This understanding of evil and sin helps me with the question I asked as a teenager, “If God wanted to forgive us, why not simply do so?” (I have also seen versions of this question asked often by unbelievers on the Internet.) While I worked at Covenant House, a homeless shelter for young adults, I had an experience through which I developed a personal metaphor for the atonement that essentially eliminated my own wrestling with atonement theories. The narrative out of which my view of atonement grew is as follows:
At the homeless shelter, I was case manager for ROP, a transitional living program for youth who held jobs and were working on educational plans. Youth at ROP shared small
apartments which they usually struggled to keep clean. Because the building had problems with bugs in the summer and mice in the winter, we tried a variety of methods to enforce cleanliness standards, including at one point strict rules that all dishes were to be washed up immediately after the meal in which they were used. One night shortly after we began our effort to enforce these rules, I noticed a youth’s kitchen that was very dirty following a dinner party. She assured me that she was about to do the dishes. However, about 12:30 am (my shift was scheduled to have ended at midnight) I re-visited her apartment and found her getting ready for bed and the dishes still piled near the sink. When I reminded her that she needed to clean the dishes before she went to bed, she replied, “But Ms. Shari, I have to get in bed right now. You know I’m starting a new job in the morning, and I’m supposed to be there at 6 am. Even as it is, I’m going to be really tired.”
Now I faced a dilemma. We were just beginning our strict rules, and I did not feel I could simply abandon them (particularly since they were not simply artificial rules – the youths’ failures to keep their apartments clean had the real consequences of mice and bugs.) Also, this youth had had plenty of opportunity to do the dishes earlier as well as to go to bed early enough so that she could easily get up for her new job. However, on the other side, she really was starting a new job in the morning, and she needed to make a good impression there (she had been fired from her previous job.) How was I to uphold our new rules while still getting her to bed as soon as possible and communicating to her that I cared for her? The
solution I reached was that I would do the dishes, and she would go to bed. I am not sure she received the message as I intended it, but I was trying to communicate both 1) I care for you and want you to succeed tomorrow; and 2) keeping the building clean is immensely important.
As I was doing the dishes near 1 am and she was snug in bed, I began to wonder why in the world I was doing this, and I suddenly saw the application to the atonement. In a very small way, my dilemma had mirrored God’s, and in the crucifixion, he was communicating both 1) I love you; and 2) evil is so horrifically vile that it deserves this consequence. (And like mine, his communication efforts, at least to date, appear to have mixed success. But in his case, we have the promise that someday they will succeed.)
I doubt this narrative will work for others as compellingly as it works for me, but because it was my own experience, it was a huge “aha” moment for me. What had before seemed an inexplicable, even ugly, requirement of God to be “satisfied,” now seemed a natural result of both his love and his righteousness.
In preparing this paper, I have struggled some with where to place my view in the historic and current theories of atonement. Clearly in my narrative story, God has been eager to save us all along. And without thinking it through systematically, I have imagined that we are saved as we accept his salvation and enter into a new life of obedience to Christ empowered by the Holy Spirit.5 It seems to me my view suffers from McClendon’s criticism of Bushnell’s vicarious sacrifice view (based on Anselm’s theories): I “offer no clear explanation of how the costly work of Christ authorizes or accomplishes our forgiveness.”6 Basically, my view is probably best understood as a re-working and reaction to the penal, justification theory which I encountered as a teenager.
Turning from my own view to McClendon’s work, I was impressed by his final section on the atonement, where he looks afresh at how Jesus saves, and particularly by his conclusion, where he looks at the God-ward, devil-ward, and human-ward aspects of atonement in terms of the narrative story of Jesus. This conclusion was a nice pulling together of many strands that atonement theories struggle to hold together.
I also appreciated Wright’s reminder that “theories of atonement are all, in themselves, abstractions from the real events, and that the events, the flesh-and-blood, time-and-space happenings, are the reality which the theories are trying to understand but cannot replace.”7 I have a lot of thinking to do still about the atonement and salvation and will presumably be working on that for some time to come.
McClendon, James Wm., Jr. Doctrine: Systematic Theology, Vol. Ii. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994.
Wright, N.T. "Evil and the Justice of God: Lecture 3: Evil and the Crucified God." March 17, 2003.
N.T. Wright, "Evil and the Justice of God: Lecture 3: Evil and the Crucified God," (March 17, 2003), 1.
This summary is from Mt 5:21-48, NRSV.
This sounds very strange in our ears (Aaaah!! What will this do to my self-esteem?), but it seems to me to be faithful to the Biblical witness and an excellent starting place for humility.
Clearly, for many of us, in practice entering this new life is an incremental process rather than a sudden transformation.
James Wm. McClendon, Jr., Doctrine: Systematic Theology, Vol. Ii (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), 212.
Wright, "Evil and the Justice of God: Lecture 3: Evil and the Crucified God,"7.