It is a central tenet of the Christian faith that Christ died for the sins of the world. The idea is that somehow, Christ’s death and sufferings have “made us right” with God and that this event bridged the unbridgeable gulf between finite, sinful humanity and infinite, pure God.
But what are the actual mechanisms of this event? That is, what is going on that makes it so that “now” that Christ died or “because” of his crucifixion, humanity has become reoriented for the better in its relation to God?
There are several theories of the atonement that I simply cannot square with the notion of a perfectly good God. One is the idea that Christ was punished – in the sense of becoming a guilty party – instead of humanity itself. No matter how you spin such a picture, in the end you have a God who chooses to deem an innocent person guilty, and who punishes an innocent person in the place of those who are guilty. Now this is exactly the opposite of justice and goodness. That is, to punish the innocent instead of the guilty is precisely the definition of injustice. To imagine God pronouncing an innocent person as guilty is simply to imagine him making a misjudgment, which is not possible if he is perfectly wise and just.
Besides the problem just described – that is the problem of attributing an immoral act to the most perfectly moral being in existence – there is an additional problem in thinking that Jesus stood in our place as a substitution. It is this. If Jesus bore all the consequences of our sin in our place, if, that is, God’s wrath was fully satisfied by Christ’s death, why do any consequences of sin still remain? In other words, if death and suffering were the consequences of the sins of humanity, and Jesus took away these consequences by bearing their full punishment, why do people still suffer and die? It would seem that either i) Christ’s death was not fully satisfactory to God; or ii) death and suffering were not the punishment for sin. But if i) is false then the whole penal substitution theory of the atonement itself collapses. And if ii) is false then just what were the consequences of sin that Christ alone bore for us?
Now it is undeniable to any reader of the Bible that Christ certainly died because of our sins. Verses abound which say that his death has healed us and reconciled us to God; that his death atoned for our sins; that he was a propitiation for our sins and that he even “became” sin for us even though he did not know sin in himself. So I certainly believe that Christ’s death has caused some real metaphysical re-orientation between fallen mankind and God. The question is, again, how do we understand the mechanism by which this occurs? If it really happened it must have some real inner working that is coherent. That does not mean we will necessarily understand what is going on but it at least means that such a thing is possible.
I want to suggest the following model of what I think to be a possible theory of the atonement that avoids the problems in the penal substitution model. But before I do this I want to make a point about how our theories of the atonement should be guided in the first place. Even if my particular suggestion is not really in the end a workable theory, it is built on an assumption that I think is non-negotiable about the atonement in general. That assumption is this: no theory of the atonement can be true if it presents a picture of Christ and God the father as having different concerns or agendas regarding us as human sinners. In other words, all theories which posit Jesus as saving us from God – where God simply hates us and fervently wishes vent his full wrath upon us until Jesus steps in and coaxes him into changing his mind – all these theories I think are fundamentally flawed. The main reason for this is because they posit a fundamental disconnect between the essence of the Father and the essence of the Son.
Christ says “if you have seen me you have seen the Father,” and the New Testament speaks of Jesus being “the imagine of the invisible God.” Even if you disbelieve in the Trinity, I’m not sure how you could still be a Christian if you thought that Jesus did not manifest in an exemplary way the character and nature of God. As soon as you believe that, however, you have to conclude that whatever Jesus did in terms of his life and the sacrificing of himself for sinners, these same acts must somehow be present in the Father’s heart as well. That is, anything good that Christ did on earth must have an appropriate analogue in the Father’s nature too. To deny this is not only to deny that Christ was a unique manifestation of God – what the New Testament calls “the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being” – it is also to deny that God is perfect love. In fact it is to suggest that a mere human being could be more loving, more merciful, more giving than God himself. Do we think the man Jesus – or even a very good human person who has sacrificed his life for an enemy – can be more loving or merciful than God?
So, with all that said, how am I suggesting we understand the atonement? I want to suggest we look at it in the following way.
Imagine a time when someone has done you wrong. Perhaps someone has lied to you or treated you unfairly or stole from you or made fun of you. Imagine, further, that whatever this person did, it was something truly inexcusable. You had not first lied to them or treated them unfairly. There was no “just retribution” they were fairly repaying against you. They were not “getting even.” They had simply, inexcusably, done you wrong; and because of this you had all the reason in the world to be angry with them and to hold them accountable.
Now, how do you forgive such a person? How do you psychologically get over what they did to you? You cannot make up an excuse for their behavior, for there was no excuse. Their meanness came from their deliberate, freely chosen act of will towards you. Strictly speaking such a person does not deserve to be forgiven. For to be forgiven is to be given something that is not by right earned. How then, if you are committed to doing what is purely right and fair, can you forgive such a person? As far as pure morality goes, you are in the right in being upset with them and they are in the wrong for what they did to you.
Well it seems to me that if you are in this situation there is only one way to forgive the person who offended you. You must die to your own self, your own desires, your own just complaint that you are holding against whoever has wrong you.
All forgiveness – if it is true forgiveness, often we simply “cool off” and only pretend we are forgiving – involves a sort of death to self, a suicide of the ego. You must in a sense just let go of whatever wrong has been done to you. The voice that immediately retorts “but they are at fault; they have done you wrong!” has to simply be killed. It cannot be rationally argued with: indeed, rationally speaking it is often correct. It has to be simply murdered, suffocated… crucified.
I want to suggest that that is how we at least begin to think about the atonement. Since Christ is the manifestation of God, we can understand God through the acts of Christ. Therefore Christ’s sufferings and death, I believe, can be seen through the lens of a God sacrificing his own ego, his own natural being of holy, lawful, lovely perfection, in order not to hold sin against those who have freely and inexcusably offended him. To put it in an analogy: the crucifixion is the pattern and manifestation of God killing that voice in his head that is saying that there is no excuse for sin – which is also part of his rational and pure self and which has a certain correct “case” being made in its favor. So in forgiving us God is letting his self and his ego go – crucifying it – for the sake of the one who has wronged him.
Anyway, I know this is a few days past Good Friday. Still, it is something that should never be far from our minds.