Monday, October 09, 2006

atonement & redemption

For the last few weeks we've been studying Jesus as the Christ in systematic theology, and all the theological implications about what it could mean that he was fully human and fully divine, how the Ecumenical Councils of the early church came to "orthodox" doctrines, and what it means that he is our Redeemer.

One of the topics that I've found most interesting is the concept of atonement and redemption. In Christian churches, usually you hear only one atonement theory--one theory as to why Jesus had to die in order to redeem us. But there are actually several theories. I find it refreshing to hear about all the different theories, and to think about it myself, because really this is the central question of Christianity: why on earth would God have to die, and how is that possible, and what good did it do? I'll lay out the basic theories and then talk a bit about my thoughts on the whole thing.

The basic one is that God was angry at us and so had to kill God's Son in order to take out anger that otherwise would have been taken out on us. This is called substitutionary atonement, and is based on the theory of satisfaction: that no human could do what needed to be done to get rid of God's anger, because we're all fallen, but God couldn't just wipe out our sins because that wouldn't be just. So God came as a human, and Jesus, both human and divine, substituted his life for ours so that we wouldn't have to die (figuratively).

Closely related to this is the ransom theory, that a price had to be paid for our sins, for our state of separatedness from God, and that no redemption can happen without the shedding of blood. This is taken from the Jewish sacrificial system, and is an explanation especially in the book of Hebrews as to why the sacrificial system is no longer necessary: Jesus came as the great high priest and sacrificed himself, a pure, spotless lamb, but much better than any lamb, to be the sacrifice once for all that cleanses us from sin and unites us with God.

Then there's recapitulation: Jesus came as the "second Adam," because, as sin entered the world through "one man, Adam," so it had to be taken away by a perfect man, Jesus--one who was tempted just as Adam and the rest of us are, but didn't sin.

Some ideas favored by the early church fathers were the idea of deification--that God had to become human in order for humans to become divine; and Jesus as Teacher--showing us the way to be a perfect human, which includes suffering and death, but also new life. These are both true in their own ways, but have to be stated very carefully in order to not be taken as herestical, as many of their authors later were.

Through all these flows the Christus Victor idea, that through Jesus' death and resurrection he conquered sin, death and evil and arose victorious, a victory in which we can share if we believe in him.

So, all of these are well and good--they explain a few things, but they also have problems. My professor put his finger on it, I think, by saying that all of these ideas fall into two categories: ontological and forensic understandings of the need for redemption and the way it occurred. Ontologically, it was important who Jesus was--what Being he happened to be, because it's not like any person dying on a cross could cause our redemption, but it's important that it was Jesus, that he was the man chosen to be the Christ, the anointed one of God. The forensic understandings get at the idea that in the Bible it seems that there was a law at stake here--a broken law had to be paid for--and that this is a costly thing. It's no easy thing to pay back debts owed or to serve jail time. There was a definite cost involved, and God was willing to pay it.

But what's really going on here? Is it just a dry legal transaction? Is it just that God made creation this way and worked it out from the beginning that this would be the way the transaction would occur? Was God just coming down here and bailing out these poor weaklings from their misery, and letting them live in their misery for a while longer anyway, with the promise of a great afterlife? Is this all that atonement is? Is this all that redemption means?

My professor brought up a good point: there should also be an ethical understanding to atonement. Not only is it importantt hat it was Jesus who did the work (or rather, God through him), and that a price was paid, but the real importance is that God's redeeming love was (and is) at work. "For God so loved the world..."

God so loves the world!

That's the important part. That Jesus lived and died, and somehow remained so conscious of God that he embodied God, and that God allows us to participate in that God-consciousness and to bask in that redeeming love if we so choose (that's a little Schleiermacher for you).

The problems of some of those atonement theories: first, it's been pointed out by feminists and others that God killing the Son looks a lot like divine child abuse--and if God can do it, hey, why not the rest of us? So that's unfortunate. Also, God being so angry with us that God can't look at us is a problem. Really God loved us so much, and yes was angry in a way, but more hurt, that even though we turn away from God time and again God was determined to give us a way out, to provide a way we can't provide for ourselves. Some of these theories' problem is that they don't really require a resurrection. If Jesus pays for our sins by dying, why did he have to rise from the dead?

And there's still the huge question: why did Jesus have to die a violent death? Why couldn't he have lived a perfect life, overcoming sin by being fully human and yet not being separated from God? Why did his blood have to be shed, and why did he need to rise again?

So today my professor talked about what happened when Jesus died on the cross. He yelled out, according to Mark and Matthew, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" and according to Luke, "Into your hands I commend my spirit," and according to John, "It is finished." Was he separated from God? Was he forsaken by God? My professor says no, he was not forsaken by God--his cry in Matthew and Luke shows his trust in God, because it's the first line of Psalm 22, in which the psalmist cries out to God for deliverance and is heard. God does not turn away from him (or her). God is present as this person experiences affliction.

And this is what's so important about Jesus' death: God didn't turn away from Jesus, God didn't cause a rift between God's self and the Son at the moment of death, but God jorneyed through this suffering and pain with the human, Jesus, and God will do the same with us. It's in these moments where we cry out to God that God is closest to us. God is a good of the poor and the outcast, and has promised to be with us even in a horrible, torturous death. The cross is an act of solidarity, between the parts of the Godhead (if you want to think in Trinitarian terms) and between us and God: we are not left to face our troubles alone, but God is present even and especially in our suffering.

This isn't an abusive Father who watches his Son die and turns his back. This is a Father who so loves all the children of God that God is willing to become one of us, to suffer with us, to have mercy on us even when we are least deserving. This is a God who loves us and has gone to all lengths to be near to us. This is the God I worship.


Robin M. said...

I still have trouble with this whole theory. I am currently working on the idea that God didn't kill Jesus, people killed Jesus (for an array of political, social, religious reasons) and God raised Jesus from the dead.

Is that at all allowable in traditional theology or would this get me thrown out of any serious Christian discussion?

Unknown said...

Oh definitely! I think that's the "orthodox" understanding--that God didn't actually kill Jesus, it was people who killed Jesus. God let it happen, and knew about it beforehand, but God did not make it happen, just as God doesn't cause any evil.

In substitutionary and ransom theories, God required this to happen to pay for the sins of humanity, because someone had to pay the price. But God still didn't actually kill Jesus.

The problem is that this still LOOKS like divine child abuse, because God sent Jesus into this situation knowing full well he'd be tortured. That's all I was trying to say. But it's completely different when we think of God accompanying God's Son into death, so much so that God experiences the agony and even dies. This isn't child abuse, it's solidarity and love.

Does that make more sense?

David Korfhage said...

When we discuss basic Christian theological concepts in my world religions class (a senior elective at my high school), I take the tack that experience was primary, and theology was an attempt to make sense of experience. So the apostles' first experience was an experience that God loved them and had forgiven them--i.e., the fact of the atonement--and then they had to figure out (or at least, later intellectuals thought they had to figure out) why this had happened, and from that you get theories of the atonement, the idea of the incarnation, and the trinity. But I think, as you do, too, that the experience of God's love is what is primary.

BTW, I've read about a psychological theory of atonement--that people had to be shocked into seeing that God loved them by the extermity of Christ's death on the cross. I think Abelard had this idea, but I see it echoed in bits of 2 John--can't remember the passages right now.



Johan Maurer said...

I've heard several great overviews of atonement/redemption theology, including Daniel Smith-Christopher's several years ago here at Reedwood Friends Church. But yours is as clear and heart-level as I've ever seen. Thank you!

You point out the shell-game that God seems to be playing in substitutionary atonement theology. It's as if God doesn't have the power to overcome God's own indignation over the rebelliousness of creation except through the device of torturing the Son of God, knowing full well that there will be a happy ending ... although the rebellion continues even after the happy ending. Is this irreverent? Not at all ... I love God with all my heart and my God-given mind still wanders, with the best will, into these uncertainties. It is the core doctrine that God is love that causes me to pick and probe at substitutionary atonement.

Substitutionary atonement may, ironically, also be deficient in its acknowledgment of evil. If all evil in the world were attributable to human depravity, consciously pursued, then maybe God's savage response in allowing the Son to be tortured might be at least be understandable in scale, if not in method. But human sin is not just a matter of conscious depravity, it is essentially a matter of congenital weakness, as the early Friends acknowledged. By ourselves, we are unable to resist the snares of Satan, to paraphrase Barclay, but we are not actually evil until we do evil things. (This was the Quaker protest against the doctrine of original sin and total depravity.) Substitutionary atonement seems to depend on a blanket condemnation of all humans, or all creation, for its logic. And evil works far more subtly than that, and seems to operate through "principalities and powers" that not every human participates in equally.

As you imply, all these theories of atonement contribute something, at least metaphorically, to our understanding of the crucial difference that Jesus's death and resurrection makes. Substitutionary atonement is sternly and correctly aware of how wide the gulf can be between God and us, and that God acts to overcome that gulf. The chicken-and-egg question of whether we humans are (together and individually) solely responsible for that gulf is a question worth remembering, but the gulf is there, and a lot of additional harm comes from forgetting our incredible capacity for sin and self-deception.

Thanks, Cherice!


Mark Wutka said...

Hi Cherice,
Thank you for posting this. The various atonement theories are something that I have struggled with for a long time. Charles Rathmann recently blogged about the "Causative vs. Transactional" nature of Jesus death and I found it to be rather compelling. Also, Arthur Roberts wrote an essay about various views of the atonement that is interesting. The last view that Roberts talks about seems similar to the one presented by Forrest Curo in the comments on Charles' blog entry.

Your class sounds very interesting, and if we can't enjoy the class itself, at least we can enjoy some of its fruits!

With love,

RichardM said...

Despite Paul's mission to the Gentiles most first generation Christians were Jews and saw the world through the lens of the religion that had been raised in. That religion placed a great emphasis on the ceremonial animal sacrifices conducted at the Temple in Jerusalem. Shortly after the crucifixion the Temple was destroyed for good by Rome. The crucifixion of Jesus was a shock that these Christians struggled to comprehend. In seeking to understand it they came to see Jesus as one last collosal sacrifice made to God which signalled the end of an old era and the beginning of the new.

Such an understanding was natural for them but seems strange if not downright perverse to many of us 20 centuries later. I agree that the experience is primary and the theology is generally just an attempt to put the experience into words that make some sense to us. Early Christians experienced that Jesus mission on earth, which as a matter of brute fact included his death, somehow changed the cosmos. I think that we as modern Christians should seek to understand this cosmic event in terms that make sense to us and not feel ourselves bound to words and images that made sense to Christians 20 centuries ago. We shouldn't presume that our understanding of the events is necessarily superior. It is wiser to admit that not only did Paul see as in a glass darkly but we do as well. Still, we must make the effort to see and understand as best we can in terms that make sense to us.

What makes most sense to me is Jesus as Trailblazer. By picking up his cross, suffering and dying in order to be reborn he is showing us the Way to follow him.

Anonymous said...

Some years ago, when trying to understand the idea of Christ's atonement, it occurred to me that, more specifically than suffering WITH us, God in Christ was willing to suffer AT OUR HANDS. Isn't forgiveness a bit cheap if it is offered from someone who has not directly suffered the wrong? Many of us were deeply moved by the forgiveness shown by the Amish families whose daughters were killed last month. But wouldn't it have seemed weird and presumptuous for those of us removed and in safety, who have never had a loved one killed, to have so publicly offered forgiveness? The inner spring of the story (for me) is that, through Jesus' crucifixion, God now appears to us as one who really can forgive our sins because he has been wounded unto death by them. God gets past the place of just being "offended" by our sin. There on the cross he is our victim. Then, it is the very power of forgiveness, asked for by Jesus on the cross, that breaks the hold of sin and death and opens up the tomb. Forgiveness gives new life.

Paul Kelly

Anonymous said...

There is one other explanation for the reason Jesus was crucified. His crucifixion is the sin of murder caused by blood shed. Acts 7:52. Whenever a male human's life is lost because of blood shed God demands an accounting from those who have taken a life by blood shed, Gen. 9:5b NIV, but this demand includes "from each man too." In the case of Jesus death the Way was perfected that requires each man to give this accounting God demands to save himself. Regarding that Jesus is the only man who has been given all authority, after his crucifixion and through his apostles message his command repent was given, relative to the outstanding issue of guilt to a sin. Jn. 16:8. The only Way to obey this command is by repenting of the one sin of Jesus murder for the forgiveness of all sins. This is the small narrow gate for escaping death perfected by the crucifixion of Jesus. Not obeying him is a deliberate act of disobeying God from which there is no forgiveness.

Anonymous said...

Crucifixion was the how the Roman state murdered people; curcifixion was not a form of Jewish Biblical punishment. Jesus' death was a civil punishment by the state. Romans had also crucified an entire town in Judea to prove the power of the state over the local populace.

Resurrection was a popular belief of one of the Jewish sects at the time. Jesus was not the only person to have experienced resurrection.

So then what does his crucifixion and resurrection mean for his early followers? We know that even the earliest writings, the Epistles, not all written by Paul, differ on why Jesus died, and the letters reflect the beliefs of different worshipping communities.

Keep engaging with the texts and read extra-historical works. Each of us meets Jesus again for the first time in our time. Happy hunting.

Theodore A. Jones said...

If one meets Jesus again he has already met him previously. The crux of the matter is saving your own life from the determined intent of God to end things as they are. Meeting Jesus is not the requisite for your salvation but obeying Him is. For upon his return back to his father he was elected from among his brothers to serve his God in the office of high priest in the sanctuary. The rule the high priest is under is that he is not allowed to leave the sanctuary while serving his God in the sanctuary. So Feinberg if you have met someone whom you might think is Jesus it is a figment of your imagination and nothing else. Bragging about your relationship with God will undoubtedly become the hottest idea you have ever had.

Kevin J Bowman said...

I know the was written 3 years ago, but just wanted to say I was very blessed it.


Unknown said...

Thanks for the comment, Kevin, and glad this post was helpful to you.