The final post in a series about atonement, the question of meaning and accomplishment in the death of Jesus.
The first six posts in this series focused on the origins and evolution of the theological interpretation of Jesus’ death. We explored the foundations of sacrifice and vicarious suffering in the Hebrew Bible, New Testament perspectives on the passion of Jesus, and the development of certain atonement theologies throughout Christian history. You can revisit those posts for my analysis and conclusions. In this final post, I want to leave the research where it is and focus more on the lingering questions and feelings surrounding atonement. Because, ultimately, I’m not sure a technical or transactional understanding of the death of Jesus is the most helpful or valuable one.
The Problem of Over-realized Theology
Strange as it is to have to articulate this, I think it’s crucial to remember that all of our source material for a Christian study of atonement – from scripture on down to Calvin’s Institutes – consists of subjective human interpretation long after the fact. Even the gospels themselves represent an artistic reconstruction of the events of Jesus’ life and passion, told from various perspectives a generation later. Paul’s letters are thought to be the earliest material in the Greek canon, but they are written by a man who was not a companion of Jesus when he walked the earth. Later, the Church Fathers would often blatantly disregard the settings and tropes of scripture in their effort to fit the texts into their own Greek-flavored interpretive schemes. My point is this: for all of the inspired and inspiring insight offered by Bible texts and other Christian writings, they are all assigning meaning on top of meaning to a distant historical event, from a certain vantage point, with the benefit of time and imagination, under many diverse influences. We are the beneficiaries of their work, and their writing is of great value. It is my opinion, however, that when we literalize or absolutize these subjective perspectives we develop an overly legal or forensic view of atonement. That is, we downplay the historical messiness of Jesus’ death and begin to imagine that the theological metaphors are actually concrete, that there was actually some cosmic juridical transaction that took place, as if heavenly bookkeepers were frantically balancing their ledgers as the last drop of Jesus’ blood spilled out. We forget that theology is interpretive and speculative, not descriptive.
As a younger man I believed that Jesus came down to Earth out of the sky, like the son of Jor-El, with a picture of me in his wallet, knowing that he had to be in the right place at the right time to die for me so I could go to heaven. If he had missed his chance or chickened out, I would be out of luck. But Jesus is the hero of the story, so he died just like he was supposed to. Happy ending. Is there a modicum of truth in this version of the story? Perhaps. But my privileging and overemphasis of the transactional (and substitutionary) interpretation of Jesus’ death completely blinded me to historical reality, and led me to imagine it as something other than a tragic injustice. I oversimplified and misrepresented Jesus’ mission and self-identity, completely disregarding the Jewish context of both. I was also myopic and self-serving, assuming that the central crisis of the known universe was my personal fate and afterlife destiny.
Well, the ancient narratives do tell us that Jesus faced his fate with courage motivated by compassion, first and foremost for his own family of Israel and for the love of the whole world. But even given his sense of mission and determination, the political machinations of his trial and execution are never seen as incidental or irrelevant. To say that Jesus “had to die” is not to say it was alright, just a technicality that had to be taken care of. It is to say that his prophetic message about a forgiving Father God and a kingdom of peace and radical social justice was such a challenge and offense to the religious and political powers-that-be that his execution became inevitable. To state this theologically, the life-based justice of God clashed with the death-based “justice” of the world. To state it in more anthropological terms, Jesus lived and died by his countercultural commitment to nonviolence and non-retaliation. If Jesus simply needed to die to satisfy a cosmic theological need, he could have thrown himself off a cliff or jumped in front of a chariot. Instead, he looked corrupt human empire in the face and said, “you don’t understand how power works.” Yes, he had to die, and there is no more damning comment on the state of humanity. Atonement is about palpable hope for our future in spite of this, because of Jesus.
How to Believe in Atonement
So what does it mean to “believe” in this death? Is it simply a fact we must acknowledge in order to be saved? Is it a transaction we need to understand correctly so that its benefits can be applied to us? Or is it more than that, a story into which we can enter, that can redefine the way we understand the world? As we observed, the ancient interpreters understood Jesus’ death as a self-given sacrifice which disarmed and defeated corruption and sin, exposed the evils of empire and hell, set humanity free from bondage, and reconciled creation to its Creator. There is enough there to keep us hoping and imagining for the rest of our lives, but there are countless other insights, questions, and dreams, some old and some quite new, which explore different aspects and ramifications of atonement. I’ll conclude this series with just a few brief samples, which will hopefully whet your appetite and send you out on your own investigation.
- To be meaningful, Jesus’ death cannot be separated from his resurrection. One of the big problems with theologies that focus primarily on transactional or substitutionary atonement is that they seem to suggest that Jesus’ death was, in itself, a complete, sufficient, and satisfactory event. These interpreters affirm the resurrection, of course, but treat it as a separate theological category. The cross is about atonement and salvation, resurrection is about eschatology and afterlife. A holistic view of atonement understands Easter as more than proof of heaven or a surprise happy ending. It is God’s peaceful and life-affirming response to the horrors of human ritual victimization exposed on the cross. It completes the picture, and it’s the only way that the events of the passion can be called “good.”
- Incarnation is atonement. This idea actually goes back to Anselm, but it has been picked up by some of today’s best thinkers (see this Facebook post by Michael Hardin). It suggests that incarnation – how Jesus in his humanity embodies and reveals the divine nature – is the true context and content of atonement. Death and resurrection are thus only the climax of the full story of Jesus’ humanity. Jesus is not God in a man costume, securing atonement by shedding his own heavenly blood. He makes atonement because he is the true human being, who faces a human fate, and who interrupts, disarms, and transcends the human cycle of violence. He does this for and with and on behalf of his human family.
- Does God love mercy or sacrifice? Why would God send prophets into the world to urge us toward “mercy not sacrifice” if His real desire was for a propitiating sacrifice? Time and again, the Bible’s prophetic witness suggests that blood sacrifice is a human endeavor, a concession, and that God truly desires obedience, mercy, and relationship. Dare we suggest that this same God’s ultimate plan of redemption for the world is the violent sacrifice of an innocent human, His own son? An atonement theology in tune with the gospel and the divine character as revealed in Jesus cannot attribute that kind of bloodthirst to God. In fact, taking a cue from the book of Hebrews, it sees Jesus’ death as a self-given sacrifice which exposes and ends the practice of sacrifice forever. At Easter, mercy obliterates sacrifice once and for all. (Check out this blog post by Brian Zahnd.)
- If God cannot change, then atonement cannot change God. Philosophically speaking, God is absolute and unchanging by nature. The divine will cannot turn or change its mind, even though anthropomorphic depictions of God in scripture often suggest otherwise. This is one reason why the earlier atonement theologies we surveyed were careful not to suggest that God’s wrath was satisfied or His mind changed by the death of Jesus. Instead they focused on external, impersonal factors like God’s “honor.” His consistency of character and His reputation for mercy and compassion had to be preserved. And after all, how coherent is it to suggest that God reached into human history to affect a change in His own heart and disposition? It is we who need to turn away from aggression and embrace compassion, not God.
- Atonement is a revelation, not a project. This is along the lines of the previous idea. Richard Rohr (after John Duns Scotus) has suggested a vision of atonement as a revelation of God’s love, rather than a project or transaction intended to solve a problem. Jesus did not live and die to “mop-up” humanity’s sin problem, but to reveal God’s true face and posture in the midst of our trouble. Read more here.
- Mark Heim says, “Jesus didn’t volunteer to get into God’s justice machine. God volunteered to get into ours.”
That feels like a haphazard and incomplete list of ideas, and I think that’s just about right. One thing I do not want to suggest with this series is that atonement can somehow be systematized or explained in any complete or tidy way. The death of Jesus is (with good cause) the most overanalyzed and over-explained event in the history of the world. It actually does us good, I think, to resist the impulse to pin it down or distill it into a chart or a slogan. We do well to preserve something of the chaos of history, to treat Jesus’ death as a distant and devastating memory. “Atonement” is our attempt to discover our own place in the old story, to feel a fresh wave of the sorrow and shock of Good Friday, and the elation and glory of Easter. This is the story of our lowest moment as a species, and of God’s greatest triumph.