Friday, April 18, 2014

Atonement and the Cross


In the early part of the 16th century, William Tyndale was translating the Bible into English (an act of civil disobedience for which he would pay with his life). He needed a word for the process by which human beings are reconciled to God, a noun to name means by which humans and God become at one. Since the English language didn't have such a word, Tyndale coined one: atonement, literally "at-one-ment."

Christians, probably all Christians, believe that the cross of Christ in some way effects our atonement. Probably the most common explanation for this, at least among American Christians, is the idea of penal substitution. This is the atonement theory that many of us carry around in our heads. In rough form it goes like this:

     God is holy and just.
     Human beings are sinners.
     God's justice demands that sin be punished.
     Human beings are, therefore, condemned to hell.
     But Jesus came and was crucified.
     On the cross he took the punishment we all deserve.
     Now, humans can go to heaven
       provided they have faith in Jesus.

This atonement theory has a few things going for it. It's simple. It's clear. It's easy to explain. It tells a compelling story. Some people even find it comforting. It can soothe the fears of people who have guilty consciences. I think it plays well among prison populations.

But there are also problems with this penal substitution theory.  For one, it portrays God as a kind of monster. God is all about punishment. God created people but now just wants to send them to hell. This sort of image of God led the young Martin Luther to not only fear God, but, by his own admission, to hate God, until he discovered God's grace.

The God portrayed in penal substitionary atonement is not "gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing." This atonement theory reduces God's justice to retribution and makes God's holiness something mechanical.

Another problem is that it makes atonement all about heaven and hell. It's focus is exclusively on the next life. It doesn't say much about this life.

In the first half of the twentieth century, Dorothy Sayres parodied penal substitutionary atonement like this:

God wanted to damn everybody, but His vindictive sadism was sated by the crucifixion of His own Son, who was quite innocent, and therefore, a particularly attractive victim. He now only damns people who don't follow Christ or who have never heard of Him.

Fortunately, there are other ways to understand the cross and its role in atonement. I prefer an atonement theory that doesn't make the cross about what God did to Jesus but about what we did to God.

I begin with the Christian proclamation that Jesus is God incarnate. In the person of Jesus Christ, God entered this world and reached out to his human creation in love. God did not come into the world with power or wealth or glory, but as a helpless infant, the swaddled son of a refugee family moved hither and yon by an uncaring Empire. Born with only a stable for shelter, Jesus never had much in the way of possessions. "Nowhere to lay his head" as the Gospel says.

As an adult Jesus was an itinerant. He healed the sick, thereby showing God's good will to the world. He gathered followers around himself and taught them to trust God and take care of one another, a message with profoundly political implications. His talk of the kingdom of God, a radical alternative to the power of the empire, God him crucified.

Jesus died as he was born, another helpless victim of an uncaring empire. Crucifixion was a form of punishment reserved for the lowest classes: slaves, non-citizens, rebels, the worst criminals.

On the cross, Jesus embraced our full humanity. On the cross, God was at one with the humblest, the lowest, and the least--with all of us.

Told this way, the cross is not the story of an angry God punishing an innocent victim. It's the story of a loving God taking on everything that makes us human.

I also think that this story of the cross has implications for how we live in this world. It exposes the cruel nature of Empire, the futility of might. It frees us from the thrall of power and wealth and glory to trust God and take care of one another.

This atonement theory is not immune to criticism but it provides an alternative to balance the uglier aspects of the theory of penal substitution.  No single way to understand the cross will ever be complete.

Martin Luther taught that on the cross, God put all of our sin on Jesus. (I take "sin" here to mean all of our human failings, frailties, weakness, and imperfection). And, on the cross God put all of Jesus' divine nature on us. By the cross, God made us holy.

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