As we come close to Holy Week, I think it is time to focus on the Cross. Over the course of Lent, I have been doing much reading and thinking about the theological concept of atonement--the fact that Jesus Christ died for us on the cross, and by that death he wipes out our sins and defeats death itself.
This is at the center of my faith. This is what I believe. Nonetheless, I think there are difficult issues worth exploring that might help me illuminate this faith. I therefore decided to explore the mystery of the Cross and atonement with the following admonishments in mind from C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity:
"We are told that Christ was killed for us, that His death has washed out our sins, and that by dying He disabled death itself. That is the formula. That is Christianity. That is what has to be believed. Any theories we build up as to how Christ's death did all this are, in my view, quite secondary: mere plans or diagrams to be left alone if they do not help us, and, even if they do help us, not to be confused with the thing itself. All the same, some of these theories are worth looking at."
I find the traditional Western explanations very unsatisfying. They largely assume that there is some debt or penalty that must be paid for our sins. And the more liberal modern theories such as the moral influence view, which teaches that that Christ's death on the cross served for humankind as an example of God's great love and Christ's obedience, seems to downplay the divinity of Christ.
To me the challenge is this: I believe in a loving God who through Jesus Christ has, by Grace, offered salvation from sin and death. Why would this loving God demand a sacrifice as the price of this Grace? Could God not have offered us the grace of salvation without the Cross? After all, we did nothing to serve the grace that results from the crucifixion of Christ, so what is the reason for the Cross? With or without the Cross, the Grace is equally undeserved and unearned.
I am beginning to wonder whether the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross was not because God required this death as an atonement for our sins, but because we required it.
At the time of Christ's crucifixion, humankind could only imagine atonement through violent sacrifice. After all, the violent sacrifice of an animal was the means of atonement in both the Jewish and Pagan worlds in the First Century. The only way to break us out of this cycle of scapegoating and sacrifice was for God to make the ultimate sacrifice of his Son. And God knew that the only way to seize our attention and have us commit to the new way of living by love described by both Jesus and Paul was by the Cross--the violent sacrifice of the innocent and divine Son of God.
In other words, the loving God could by his grace alone have reconciled us with no atonement and no sacrifice, but we could only have hope of accepting this grace if God took the additional and astounding step of putting his Son on the Cross. God did not demand such a sacrifice. We did. And I can think of no more loving act.