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.