Jeffrey Johns on Atonement
After describing our innate fear of the retribution of God, and the support for this view in the Old Testament. He then makes the case, that this retribution theory cannot be reconciled with the teachings of Jesus:
There's a much-ignored passage in Luke's Gospel that tells us very clearly what Jesus thought about this theory of retribution. The disciples come up to Jesus one day and tell him about two recent events in the Palestinian news. In Galilee Pilate had just staged a massacre of some sectarian Jews who had been holding an illegal sacrifice; he had actually had them burned along with their offerings. And then in Siloam, a suburb of Jerusalem, a tower block had collapsed and killed l8 people. The disciples were very excited about all this and distinctly inclined to gloat. These people had got it in the neck, so they must have deserved it; besides, they had just been to Jerusalem and Galilee with Jesus, and those people had refused to listen. So plainly they had it coming to them. But when Jesus replies, what the disciples get is a wonderful smack in the mouth. "Do you really think the Galileans were worse than anyone else because they suffered? Or do you suppose the people in Siloam were greater sinners than anybody else?
The fact is that throughout the New Testament the primitive theory about the relationship between justice and suffering is turned upside-down. Jesus couldn't have been clearer. Blessed are the hungry, he said, not the well-fed. Blessed are the poor, not the rich. Blessed are the sick, the miserable, the disreputable, the outcast, the down and out. They are the ones who will get their reward. If anything, a man's suffering and failure in this life are the sign of God's special blessing and care for him, not the opposite.
With this background, Johns then confronts the meaning of Jesus dying on the cross for our sins:
And then finally, at the end of it all, he got himself crucified. Crucifixion may or may not be the worst form of torture in the world, but it had a particular theological significance we mustn't miss. As St Paul explains, crucifixion was the method of execution which, according to the Law, was the special sign of God's ultimate punishment, his absolute curse: "Cursed be he that hangs upon a tree". On the cross, says Paul, Jesus took the place of all those who were supposed to be punished according to the Law. "God made him into sin who knew no sin". "He became a curse for us".
But hang on - you may well say - what exactly does that mean - 'Jesus took our place' ? Does it mean, then, that we are back with a punishing God after all, and that the Cross is somehow to be understood as God's ultimate punishment for sin?
That's certainly what I was told in my Calvinistic childhood. The explanation I was given went something like this. God was very angry with us for our sins, and because he is a just God, our sin had to be punished. But instead of punishing us he sent his Son, Jesus, as a substitute to suffer and die in our place. The blood of Jesus paid the price of our sins, and because of him God stopped being angry with us. In other words, Jesus took the rap, and we got forgiven, provided we said we believed in him.
Well, I don't know about you, but even at the age of ten I thought this explanation was pretty repulsive as well as nonsensical. What sort of God was this, getting so angry with the world and the people he created, and then, to calm himself down, demanding the blood of his own Son? And anyway, why should God forgive us through punishing somebody else? It was worse than illogical, it was insane. It made God sound like a psychopath. If any human being behaved like this we'd say they were a monster.
Well, I haven't changed my mind since. That explanation of the cross just doesn't work, though sadly it's one that's still all too often preached. It just doesn't make sense to talk about a nice Jesus down here, placating the wrath of a nasty, angry Father God in heaven. Christians believe Jesus is God incarnate. As he said, 'Whoever sees me has seen the Father'. Jesus is what God is: he is the one who shows us God's nature. And the most basic truth about God's nature is that He is Love, not wrath and punishment.
. . .
The cross, then, is not about Jesus reconciling an angry God to us; it's almost the opposite. It's about a totally loving God, incarnate in Christ, reconciling us to him. On the cross Jesus dies for our sins; the price of our sin is paid; but it is not paid to God but by God. As St paul says, God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. Because he is Love, God does what Love does: He unites himself with the beloved. He enters his own creation and goes to the bottom line for us. Not sending a substitute to vent his punishment on, but going himself to the bitter end, sharing in the worst of suffering and grief that life can throw at us, and finally sharing our death, so that he can bring us through death to life in him.
. . .
On the cross God absorbs into himself our falleness and its consequences and offers us a new relationship. God shows he knows what it's like to be the loser; God hurts and weeps and bleeds and dies. It's a mystery we can hardly glimpse, let alone grasp; and if there is an answer to the problem of suffering, perhaps it's one for the heart, not the reason. Because the answer God's given is simply himself; to show that, so far from inflicting suffering as a punishment, he bears our griefs and shares our sorrow. From Good Friday on, God is no longer "God up there", inscrutably allotting rewards and retributions. On the Cross, even more than in the crib, he is Immanuel, God down here, God with us.
Read it all.
It is quite interesting that atonement has been such a theme this season of Lent--and particularly this week. Several of us--lay members like me and profound thinkers like Johns alike--seems compelled to think and write about atonement this Lent. I can't offer a complete answer as to why this is, but I do think that the traditional notions of atonement have run their course--they simply no longer make sense to our modern ears.
We need a new paradigm to understand the mystery of the cross that relies on the love of God, and not his wrath. The mystery is not solved. It will never be, but I for one will come out of this Lenten focus on atonement with a far firmer and profound belief that Jesus Christ, the son of God, dies for our sins and for our salvation.
[For those interested in my previous posts on atonement, here are the links:
Atonement: A Guy in the Pew Struggles With Theology
More on Atonement
I also recommend a very thoughtful discussion of atonement by Father Jake in this post.