One of the most challenging doctrines in Christianity has to do with the atonement. What exactly does that mean? And how does it work? It is almost always expressed as a way of understanding the crucifixion and we find ourselves confused by issues of justice (Did Jesus have to die?), mercy (Did God really send Jesus to His death?), and agency (Who is responsible?). And underneath all of this lies a very understandable question of human salvation – can we be confident in our relationship with God?
Recognizing all of these difficulties, I want to start by highlighting three aspects of Jesus reconciliation of humans and God.
Atonement – literally at-one-ment, in our context to make humans “at one” with God.
Amendment – to fix, from the Latin to remove a blemish, in our context to eliminate the stain of human sin.
Advancement – to make worthy, in our context to make humans fit for divine service.
Amendment and advancement are both important, and I think somewhat confused. There is a question of guilt involved in amendment that troubles many people. It gets tied up in questions of original sin and human nature. Advancement on the other hand has to do with our own desire, above and beyond the necessary, to be worthy of the God we love and serve. For the most part, humans consider themselves unfit for so lofty a calling as Divine service. Amendment and advancement go together and must be tied into some pretty intimate value judgments about our own worth.
So, for the moment, I’d like to set them aside and deal with atonement, which need not require those value judgments. Atonement is all about our recognition of a gap between humanity and divinity. Christianity begins with the recognition that we don’t have the type of relationship with God that we want. This can be a question of amendment – humans have fallen – a question of advancement – God is beyond us – or simply a question of distance – God is separate. In any case, we wish to close the gap, but feel ourselves unable to do so. At least we feel unable to do so alone.
Here we get into the tricky question of agency. Who has the power to bridge the gap? Several groups have said humans can bridge the gap on our own (Pelagians), but the church has generally agreed that this place too much confidence in human ability. Other groups have claimed that God alone can fix the problem. While we tend to defend this position as technically true (God can do what God wants), it seems rather unsatisfying. God could make me do anything, but would I still be me? More than that, I like the planet metaphor. I might jump away from the planet Earth, and while Earth can move to catch up with me, it always feels like falling, because Earth is my point of reference. So we, wanting some hand in our own fate, and recognizing the immensity of God, see atonement as a return of humans to God, just as God reaches out to us.
Put more simply, it takes two to make a relationship. Atonement cannot be a matter of one party fixing the problem; it must be a reconciliation and a coming together. The offender must stop offending and the offended must forgive.
Thus we come to the idea of sacrificial atonement. I’ve generally avoided the concept of a Divine sacrifice, but today I got a hold of it for the first time. God tolerated further offense – the death of Jesus – as part of the process of reconciliation. (Yes, John 3:16.) This, however, was not a sacrifice God’s self or God’s dignity (as Anselm suggests), nor a sacrifice to some universal law that even God obeys (as CS Lewis inadvertently tells us). It is a sacrifice to us.
God yielded to the humanity God created.
Let that sink in for a moment.
It might seem at first that this means we successfully ransomed God; that we forced the Divinity to give us something – a rather unsettling thought. Importantly, though, the thing we got was God in Jesus Christ. We meant to steal God and found God as a gift. The atonement is sacrificial in that it involved the crucifixion, but the crucifixion is not the whole of the atonement. It was not a magical moment of Divine conjuring. The atonement begins with the gift of Jesus in the incarnation – God with us. And perhaps this would have been enough had we not rejected and despised Jesus. The atonement continues with the crucifixion – God allowing humans free will, even the will to kill Christ Jesus. God bends to our will. But the atonement is only made complete in the resurrection – God transforming theft to gift, tragedy to triumph, death into life. God gave us Christ, and in this gift we find ourselves not only free (what we wanted) but in possession of eternal life. We find ourselves kin to divinity. We sought to assert our independence and found ourselves more closely tied, more intensely involved with God and one another, and more fully loved.
It may be beyond human comprehension how God performed this miracle. Indeed, I think it is. But we can recognize it, we can feel it in the closeness of God to humanity. God was fully human, one of us in strength and weakness and in subjection to the rest of humanity. God was open to our will, and despite our transgressions, became for us a savior, opened for us a new way. We see eternity through this atonement. We aspire to a new life because Jesus, fully human, became the first fruits of the dead.