Wow. After all the spirited dialogue on yesterday’s post, I feel like my Part II is somewhat anti-climactic. Seriously. I took time to reply to each & every one of you who commented yesterday; if anyone has the time & patience, you should definitely check out the back-and-forth. It transcends the sadly-typical blog comment disrespect and opens up into some great dialogue. I’ve always thought that I have the best readers.
So…gulp…without further ado, here are some of my Possible Reconstructions of atonement meaning. I’m well aware that people far smarter & more thorough than I have attempted what I’m attempting, and do it better…but again, for my own wholeness’ sake, I’ve been re-reading atonement in Scripture afresh, with the aim of charting a faithful way forward. As I implied in my last post, my goal in reconstructing atonement is to be faithful to both the message of Jesus, which I take to be the Gospel of Peace, the message of God’s in-breaking Kingdom, and the message about Jesus – what he has done on our behalf in forgiving, cleansing, and empowering us, not to mention relationally indwelling us. Working with this latter aspect, messages about Jesus, is invariably working with images of sacrifice. While ‘penal substitution’ is tracable to Anslem’s work Cur Deus Homo in 1098, sacrificial imagery to describe Jesus’ death is undeniably tracable to the New Testament itself. I don’t want to sideline this imagery, but I do feel like I need to get a better grasp at the meaning(s) of sacrifice in Hebrew religious understanding. Here’s where I’m going right now…
- The Cross isn’t salvation by violence; it’s salvation from violent living, and God’s ultimate repudiation of violence, absorbing it all unto himself rather than fighting back.
- This absorption is not as a passive victim, but as transforming sustainer. Rather than transmitting pain, as we humans so often do, Jesus transformed the world’s pain/sin/death, creating instead sustaining nourishment whereby we can become partakers of the divine nature.
- Jesus’ death can be rightly seen as ‘sacrifice.’ But in the Hebrew faith sacrifice is not centrally about killing; it’s about giving your best – representative of your all. By freely giving a symbolic portion of your sustenance – the very food you eat, grain and meat – God meets the collective people with all that God is, giving away God-as-sustenance. (Which makes sense of Jesus speaking of his death and resurrection as real food & real drink in John 6)
- Jesus, as a symbolic representation of the whole of humanity, is given for all. But this giving began with Jesus’ birth, and didn’t end with his death. Jesus’ response to the cross stands out as the most vivid declaration of God’s eternal heart toward humanity & the cosmos – rather than retaliate in kind and mount the hordes of heaven (or an army of all-too-human zealous followers) in vengeance, Jesus forgives his tormentors, forgives the thief, and puts the powers of violence and oppression to an open shame in the manner of his dying and in resurrection by the Spirit’s power. The sacrifice that occurs is not the Father slaying the Son, but Jesus’ own sacrificial, creative-culture life, which he lived to one of its logical (and tragic) conclusions. Any theology of the cross that celebrates the execution without first mourning it is sub-Christian.
- Because Jesus’ execution by the collusion of the State and Religion is first of all a tragedy, a mockery of justice, and not something unusual but mundane in the litany of the fallen powers, we should not speak primarily of God’s desire for this to have happened. Jesus was ‘slain before the foundation of the world’ does not have to mean ‘before all time began,’ or some such thing. It can simply mean ‘in front of the foundation of the world,’ in a cosmological sense. This was an ordinary event – the officially-sanctioned killing of undesirable elements – projected by God onto the stage of the universe. In the midst of this most humiliating moment, the Father exalts the Son, and thus, by extension, exalts the suffering of all criminals, terrorists, innocent, guilty, perpetuators and victims alike. He who knew no sin became sin for us, displaying all of our tragedies and inconsistencies and lifting them up to Abba God’s forgiving, reconciling embrace.
So I’m going to make a bold claim: I’m not sure that the killing of Jesus changed anything metaphysically in the universe. I don’t think that God was unable to love us until God saw some spilled blood and suddenly his disposition changed. (‘Cause, y’know, John 3:16 is pre-death) Make no mistake: I fully affirm Paul’s writing in Romans 5:
“For while we were still helpless, at the right time, Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his own love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us! Much more then, since we have now been declared righteous by his blood, we will be saved through him from wrath. For if, while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, then how much more, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life!”
The question is, what did Paul mean when he spoke of “dying for”? He zooms out the lens from Jesus himself, to whom “anyone” might (or might not) die for – but it’s clearly in the context of a rescue mission – not a human sacrifice, which would be unconsciable for any Jew. To be sure, Jesus’ blood speaks, declaring righteous – but this doesn’t mean the act that sheds the blood is somehow righteous or just. After all, the blood of Abel speaks in Genesis too, crying out and accusing. And in this, another senseless and tragic murder, Jesus’ blood meets the cry of Abel’s blood, comforting it at last. Perhaps the wrath we are saved from is our own.