Since it’s Lent, I’ve been thinking a lot about atonement. If there was any time of year appropriate for thinking about atonement, it’d be now. Right?
Let’s get it out of the way up front: it’s been a long time since I’ve believed that atonement is as simple as saying, “Jesus died in my place on the cross for my sins and now God isn’t mad at me any more.” For one thing, when the New Testament talks about Jesus being a sacrifice, the writers don’t have an idea of substitution. When animals were sacrificed, it was never understood that they were dying in someone’s place. They were understood to maintain or repair a relationship with God, but not in the sense that the animal is being punished in someone’s place.
Second, boiling Jesus’ life purpose down to his death is way too minimalistic. It shortchanges everything that he taught about the kingdom of God and approaches those teachings as just some nice ethical things that he said to pass the time. Once one starts delving into some of those teachings, one sees first that they’re so multi-layered and rich that you need to spend some time with them, and second that they cut so deeply to the core of what it means to be human and a part of God’s creation. Glossing over all of that so we can get to the crucifixion misses a lot.
So now that all of that is out there, let’s move forward, shall we?
It seems to me that there are two questions behind the idea of atonement. First, we’re asking, “What is humanity’s problem?” Atonement assumes that humanity is broken or suffering or lacking in some way. Second, we’re asking, “What is God doing to fix it?” Notice that this question also assumes some things: God’s initiative and grace. Whatever is wrong with humanity, we can’t fix it on our own. We need to begin with and rely on God to address whatever our problem is.
So what’s our problem? Are we sinful and need to be punished? Are we separated; is there some great chasm between us and God that needs to be bridged, as the old tracts some of my college classmates insisted on passing out suggested?
As I’ve said, I’m not big on the punishment idea any more…but it doesn’t take watching more than three minutes of CNN to see that we have a major problem with sin. However, I don’t think that sin is equivalent to separation from God. I think the proper term for that is hell, but that’s for another post. I’m more apt to refer to sin as blindness to or willful ignorance of God, or if one is an atheist, blindness to what is right or ethical (what atheists use as a reference point for what is right or ethical is also for another post). Ultimately, if sin is separation from God, then God can’t be in very many places. Sin as blindness is to say that God is present and active with creation, but we suck at paying attention.
Scripture is filled with people who suck at paying attention. Adam and Eve and ignoring God’s command to eat the fruit. The people who built Babel. Jacob wrestling by the riverbank. The Israelites and the golden calf. Israel and Judah every time one of the prophets open their mouths. The Pharisees, Sadducees, and in many cases the disciples. The churches in Corinth and Galatia, and later some of those mentioned in Revelation. These people have a problem with living into an awareness of God’s presence and purpose, even and especially when they know or realize that God is right there with them.
I’ve generally heard two objections to this line of thinking.
First, people tend to object to the perception that people’s problem is merely academic. That is, that if people were simply more educated about God or the Bible or whatever, then our problem would be solved. The second objection is actually related to the first: it sounds to some like blaming the victim. That is, if someone experiences a crisis of faith of some kind, it’s their fault because they’re ignoring God. I actually don’t think that awareness is that academic or simple, and I give God and humanity a lot more credit than that. Jesus’ teachings were multi-layered in part because God, creation, and the relationship between the two are all multi-layered.
So thinking or believing the right things, or thinking or believing them harder, isn’t going to cut it. Anyone who has experienced a faith crisis knows this already. In those instances, a deeper kind of awareness is needed, an awareness that echoes through your entire body and spirit, not just your mind. It’s the kind of awareness that needs more credibility than logic can provide, the kind that transcends verbalization and synapses alone. I’ve got two examples for you.
First, at one point in seminary my classmates and I were told that we need to constantly ask ourselves what our theology will sound like to Jewish children in the furnaces in Dachau. At the time, this made sense. In the face of suffering, we need an answer that takes that suffering seriously. I’ve since changed my view on that idea. You’re standing in front of a bunch of kids on fire, and you’re going to stand there and try to explain God to them? What the hell is the matter with you? They’ve got other problems at the moment! This is to say that in the face of human suffering, the problem is not merely spiritual or mental. It is physical and emotional and you can’t address one aspect of that by itself. So an awareness of God is not going to happen without a more complete view of humanity and its needs.
Second, picture a family standing around the hospital bed of their dying mother. At one point, one of the kids turns to you and asks that question that every theologian dreads even a little bit: “Where is God in all of this?” If you approach the answer to this question only on a theological level, you’re going to strike out. The person asking it is not just asking it to be satisfied spiritually. He’s probably feeling a great deal of anxiety, sadness, anger, and uncertainty. The question is in one sense a theological inquiry, but it’s also a lament. It’s asked from the depths of his emotions and perhaps from a bodily weariness. The question is not simply academic, so an academic answer is going to fall flat on the linoleum.
This is supposed to be about atonement, right? Okay, atonement.
As we inch closer to Good Friday and Easter, we’re bound to hear texts dealing with the crucifixion. Maybe some preacher you know has decided to tackle the well-worn sermon series based on each of Jesus’ statements from the cross. Probably one of the most notable statements that he makes goes like this: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This is not an academic question. Far from it. Jesus is hanging from a cross and is being derided, mocked, spat upon; his disciples have long since abandoned him, one has betrayed him and another denied him. He’s in great pain emotionally, physically, and spiritually. He’s come to this point because of the blindness and willful ignorance of others. A lack of awareness is all over this scene.
First, the blindness, willful ignorance, and sin is apparent. Jesus is crucified at the hands of people who wanted to keep their positions of power, who wanted to assert dominance, who felt threatened. Jesus may or may not have died FOR sins, but he certainly died BECAUSE OF sin.
Second, Jesus himself cries out, craving an awareness of his own. It’s something that he needs with his entire being, and not just to satisfy a spiritual or theological yearning. At the same time, if Jesus is somehow the incarnation of God’s presence in the world, then Jesus is somehow providing awareness while crying out for awareness. Jesus, not just in his suffering but in his entire life, showed God to others. He showed God both to the people who didn’t want to see and to people crying out to see. In this lament, Jesus’ cry is on behalf of the entire world: why do people forsake and why are people forsaken? They all need you and they need you with their entire selves. They need to be transformed and drawn back in both challenge and hope.
This struggle, this lament, this need, is embodied in Jesus. His entire life, death, and resurrection is an atonement. In the tradition of Paul, the cross in particular displays a divine obedience in the face of human blindness and a lament lifted up with one's entire being while foreshadowing that that entire being will be renewed through resurrection. Jesus lived out and continues to reveal both humanity’s problem and God’s solution.