A Modified Theory of the Atonement: God’s Response To The Human Condition

File:Edvard Munch - Golgotha (1900).jpg
Edvard Munch, “Golgotha”

Because we could not come to him or even be brought to him without horror, he came to us, in the form of Jesus Christ. There was never a time when God had not yet intervened in the human condition, so it is misleading to conceptualize the sending of his son as the beginning of God’s response. But Jesus Christ, from before the foundations of the earth, is the ultimate expression and the primary vehicle of God’s intervention. He is “the anointed one”–the “Christ” (in Greek) or “Messiah” (in Hebrew)–the one chosen to serve as this vehicle. As in all of the great hero stories, the hero comes prepared with the necessary assets for the monumental task that is set before him. Often the hero is told of some weakness of the enemy and given a predestined weapon, tempered for the conflict. The hero of God and man came armed, not with any sword of destiny, but with an intimate and unbreakable relationship with his Father. He spoke unceasingly of his Father–from his first recorded utterance (“Wist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business?”) to his dying breath (“Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.”). Why did he have power to perform miracles? Because his Father showed him how and gave him power. “Verily, verily, I say unto you, The Son can do nothing of himself, but what he seeth the Father do” (John 5:19). “All things are delivered unto me of my Father” (Matt 11:27). “The Father loveth the Son, and hath given all things into his hand” (John 3:35).

Jesus was a revelation of the Father’s love and glory and character. “He that hath seen me hath seen the Father” (John 14:9). And His mission was to bring his fallen brothers and sisters home to their Father. “In my Father’s house are many mansions…. I go to prepare a place for you…. And whither I go ye know, and the way ye know…. I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me” (John 14:3-6).

As the Father is to Jesus, so Jesus is to the rest of us: Jesus loved and obeyed and worshiped the father as his God, just as we are to love and obey and worship Jesus as our God. And in turn, the Father loved him and gave him all things, just as Jesus has loved us and will give us all things as we are prepared to receive them. “Though he were a Son, yet learned he obedience by the things which he suffered; And being made perfect, he became the author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey him” (Hebrews 5:8-9). 

When Jesus was resurrected, before he showed himself to the apostles, he commissioned Mary of Magdala to bring a message to them: “I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God” (John 20:17). Because of Jesus and through him, we learn to call God our father and to hope that where Jesus has gone we may also come: that we too may ascend unto Jesus’s Father, and our Father–not with the shrinking, existential terror of even the best natural man, but with the joy of the saints.

I have chosen a handful out of dozens upon dozens of possible scriptures in the New Testament. This is not merely one message among others–this is the core message that Jesus brought. All of the miracles, all of the preaching, and even the atonement itself, is simply the extension, the elaboration, the bearing out of Jesus Christ’s role as the revelation of God’s nature and the vehicle of his love and grace towards man.

“Lord, How Is It Done”

God has given no tidy definition of the Atonement, and we should be hesitant to presume that we may do so. However, I am comfortable positing for consideration that the Atonement is simply Christ’s intervention with respect to all that separates us from God–and particularly with respect to our individual and collective sins–the blood of the young man with which each of us is stained. I would posit that the Atonement may be conceived as taking place both in time and in eternity–in “history and mystery,” if you will. As a historical fact, Christ suffered in the Garden of Gethsemane and on the cross–but the passion of Christ transcended time and space. He is the lamb slain from the foundations of the world (Revelation 13:8). And although we may speak of Christ having already “paid the price” for sin, his intervention also takes place here and now. The Atonement already “happened,” and yet it happens in the full sense of the word only as souls are truly made “at one” with God and with each other. His great intercessory prayer was that his followers may be one with each other and with God, even as he is one with his Father. And promptly God sent him to the garden and to the cross to perform the infinite and infinitely painful labor of “at-one-ment”  that would somehow make it possible for God to answer that prayer.

Speculation about the nature of that labor necessarily falls flat, but the visual rhetoric of the cross may provide a clue. Surely it is not a coincidence that Jesus died by crucifixion. The torture of crucifixion literally consists in the downward tugging of the world on a body that, being fixed to a horizontal bar above the earth (symbolically, heaven), will not be moved–and yet which is made to feel exquisitely the downward pull because it is fixed to that bar with nails. Jesus felt with his whole body and soul, and with each jolt of pain through the nerves of his palms and wrists, every atom of downward-tugging mass. 

If the main source of suffering was the tension between heaven and earth, as the cross suggests, surely Christ’s labor was more than just to experience the tension. Indeed. If he was racked between heaven and earth, it was that he might make himself an eternal connection between there and here. The main end of his stretching was not the torture of his body and soul but the offering of them as a ladder.

How could Jesus in the garden and on the cross offer himself as a ladder out of every dark crevasse where any of God’s children have fallen? I am not sure that he could–rather, I think the garden and the cross were the preparation necessary for God’s grace to be administered at every moment and in every place. From the foundations of the earth, it set up the universal spiritual field through which grace is administered in the here and now. 

Love And Healing

Before further addressing the garden and the cross, let us turn back to the question of what it would take to redeem the tragedy of the young man and the other victim-perpetrators. It seems to me that as victims, we need only to be healed, and being healed requires mainly satisfying the preeminent need of every soul to love and be loved (i.e., the work of God’s kingdom, the yoke of discipleship). This simple formula–love and be loved–is not simple in application. Love entails an active, strenuous advancement of the good of one’s neighbors, including one’s enemies. It therefore also entails not just an often exhausting regimen of forgiveness and service, but also an often difficult effort of discerning what is the neighbors’ good. This in turn requires all the faculties of body and soul to understand to the extent feasible many things that exceed comprehension, and two in particular: first, every infinite, inexhaustible neighbor who peoples our “neighborhood”–and second, the nature of the Good as applied to them. It requires training of the affections and the understanding. It entails repentance. It necessitates a connection to the source of inspiration and life to avoid exhaustion on the upward path. Jesus provides that connection.

“[E]very one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God. . . . We love him, because he first loved us. . . . By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God, and keep his commandments” (1 John 4:7, 19; 1 John 5:2). I derive two points from these scriptures: first, until we know God and have the rebirth of eternal life surging through our veins, we cannot truly love in the intended sense–and therefore, none of us yet do. Second, to the extent that any of us “love” with the inchoate love of which we are capable, we must have already experienced a nascent dawning of the knowledge of God and a spiritual rebirth, and are enabled to “love” because we have ourselves experienced God’s love through Jesus. Man loves God and neighbor in the highest sense only through his connection to God. This connection comes through various means (e.g., parents, creation….), and for most people it comes despite ignorance or rejection of the doctrine of Christ. And it will take a long time for our souls to grow big and strong enough to sustain the kind of love that Jesus always bears—and at some point in the process we must necessarily recognize the ultimate source of our healing and growth. Meanwhile, it may be the best we can do to repeatedly wrest our attention away from the cankering sores of our resentments towards those who have perpetrated evil against us. 

With the foregoing said, I hope I can articulate a little more precisely what is required for the healing of evil’s victims: they must first receive love (grace) and then, by faithfulness to that love, grow in love, perhaps for many centuries after death, until they love as God loves and therefore see and know God truly, which is to enter into eternal life.

While as victims, our healing requires only loving and being loved, as perpetrators we require something additional. We require that our victims also receive a perfect opportunity for healing.

Justice and Mercy

“Mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other” (Psalm 85:10).

One meaning of “justice” is nicely captured in a Chinese proverb: “plant beans, get beans; plant gourds, get gourds.” An English equivalent is “you reap what you sow.” Justice in this sense means that our actions are meaningful. We get either beans or gourds depending on what we do. Different actions have different consequences. Our choices determine our destinies. This is not the only meaning of justice, but it is the only meaning of the word in which justice is in tension with mercy.

Mercy means that God intervenes on our behalf–out of compassion, and not because we have earned his intervention. 

God’s plan has no ctrl+z function–no “undo button.” He can intervene to avert the natural consequences of an action, but he cannot remove those consequences without intervening. God has given us power to act for ourselves, and therefore if we “plant beans” we will inevitably “get beans”–unless somebody digs them up or burns the field or otherwise prevents the natural consequences. 

What are the natural consequences of evil? Every act of evil wounds in at least three ways: by having freely chosen to act in a way contrary to goodness, we injure our own soul and move towards the devil end of the devil-angel continuum. We also hurt one or more victims. And we hurt anyone who loves either us or the victim(s), including at least God. Justice requires that these injuries may not simply be negated—they must instead be redressed. And we are not capable of redressing them.

Criminal “justice” exacts a penalty to punish and ideally reform the criminal and to discourage crime. God’s justice, at least in this sense, does not. His justice only requires that the conditions that make actions meaningful be maintained inviolate. If he ever adds punishments on top of the natural consequences of our actions, it is an act of mercy: he too sometimes punishes in order to reform and deter, but this is only one form of divine intervention, and is as pure a manifestation of his love as any recognized blessing. But so that our actions might remain meaningful and that God might not take back the gift he has given us of choosing by our actions real consequences, he allows the suffering we have caused to grow until it is immeasurably beyond our power to redeem–until it has propagated itself unto the third and fourth generation of persons whose names and faces we have forgotten. Could we be at ease in God’s presence knowing scores of people over the years have been in some degree shut out of the blessings we would otherwise enjoy there–of peace, confidence, knowledge of truth, and (what all other blessings lead to) loving and being loved–by the evil that we have put into the world? Could we be happy in heaven wearing blood-stained clothing? Not unless we knew that all our evil had been—not undone—but redeemed by someone with the power we lacked; that our clothes had been—not unstained—but scrubbed clean. The evilness of our own souls could be redeemed by repentance and reformation alone, if such were only within our natural power. But injury to others is a fact that only their healing, or their perfect opportunity for healing, could possibly rectify. And that, therefore, is what the God of Mercy provided: universal opportunity for healing on just conditions (i.e., conditions consistent with all the laws that make actions meaningful). 

Evil and Suffering

At this point, some further distinctions should be made regarding the types of injuries inflicted by acts of evil. As perpetrators, we injure ourselves directly in our very essence as souls-attuned-to-the-Other-and-to-the-Good. As victims and lovers of those victims who passively receive harm, we are injured only in inessentials–hurt bodies, psychological trauma, etc.–which God who made the body and brain can resolve at any time and will permanently and finally resolve at the resurrection. But the very injury creates temptations, sometimes almost irresistible, to turn perpetrator: it may even lay open the soul and render it vulnerable to the deepest infections of despair, hatred, and falsehood, which God who co-creates our souls with us, can rectify only with our cooperation. As victims and lovers we are therefore injured directly in inessentials and indirectly in essentials: imagine the mother who finds out her three year old has been abused by a babysitter and, in her mother-rage, makes sure the thirteen year old (introduced to pornography half a decade before by a stepdad) is labeled as a sexual offender for the rest of his life. She has gone on from receiving hurt to creating more, but who can sort out the mess of where the harm began? 

God, though, eternally beyond the reach of temptation, is injured only in his feelings as a lover of our souls. Importantly, injuries to our essence often hurt nowhere but in our benumbed consciences, while inessential injuries generally hurt much more acutely and clamorously. As perpetrators, therefore, doing violence to others, we and our victims alike may feel that all the pain is on the victims’ side. But God, who sees everyone as if already brought into the everlasting burnings where he dwells, knows very well that the injury the perpetrator has inflicted on himself will ultimately be vastly more lastingly and acutely painful than any injury within his power to inflict on anyone else–and as a lover of every soul, God is therefore more injured by the perpetrator’s violence to himself than by the injury to the victim, however unutterable the latter may be; and the less the perpetrator feels the injury, the worse the perpetrator’s spiritual state–and therefore the greater God’s suffering. The word “compassion” becomes ironic as applied to this scenario, since the benumbed perpetrator does not really suffer “with” God. Instead, while Jesus suffers in the garden, the perpetrator joins the chief apostles in their spiritual slumber.

Since we will no doubt continue to speak of Jesus “paying the price for sin,” let us at least be clear that what sin “costs” is simply distance from God, separation from the life that flows from him. “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). An entire century of literature now testifies to the bleakness of life without God (since from the modernists onward, most literature has been godless–and if godless then either bleak or facile or both). And yet unless a person has experienced life with God–or rather, unless a person is experiencing it at the very moment–there can be no true comprehension of the contrast. Dead bodies know nothing about the horror of death–only living bodies know something of it. But to truly know it, one would have to be fully alive and fully dead at the same time—to be grasped in the Father’s embrace while experiencing at the same moment the utter absence of God from the universe. What Jesus did must have been something like this, as suggested by his cry at a moment when God was never closer to him: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”

Because Jesus, alone among God’s children, suffered all the humiliations and victimizations of mortality without turning a hair’s breadth from his Father’s will–without turning again to victimize anyone–he alone has an immaculate conscience, supremely sensitive, and capable of knowing evil for what it is, to the darkest depth of depravity–capable of knowing the meaning of the spiritual death that we accept and inflict on each other. This suffering of evil without being turned to evil has been the focus of at least two short and almost parenthetical expositions of the Atonement that I have read–first, from George Macdonald’s “Justice,” to which I’ve previously referred, and second, from C. Terry Warner’s speech, “Honest, Simple, Solid, True.” The first:

I believe that Jesus Christ is our atonement; that through him we are reconciled to, made one with God. There is not one word in the New Testament about reconciling God to us; it is we that have to be reconciled to God. . . . Did not the Lord cast himself into the eternal gulf of evil yawning between the children and the Father? Did he not bring the Father to us, let us look on our eternal Sire in the face of his true son, that we might have that in our hearts which alone could make us love him–a true sight of him? Did he not insist on the one truth of the universe, the one saving truth, that God was just what he was? Did he not hold to that assertion to the last, in the face of contradiction and death? Did he not thus lay down his life persuading us to lay down ours at the feet of the Father? Has not his very life by which he died passed into those who have received him, and re-created theirs, so that now they live with the life which alone is life? Did he not foil and slay evil by letting all the waves and billows of its horrid sea break upon him, go over him, and die without rebound–spend their rage, fall defeated, and cease? Verily, he made atonement!

And second, from C. Terry Warner:

Rather than resisting evil, He suffered. Rather than compromise, He suffered. Rather than rejecting any of us—though every possible provocation to do so was laid upon Him—He suffered. He outlasted all these provocations. He conquered the forcefulness of force. He defeated all the pressures that push humanity toward enmity and discord. He absorbed the terrible poison of vengeance into Himself and metabolized it by His love. He broke the grip of death. 

I think that this suffering of evil while still loving the perpetrator takes us very close to the core of Christ’s role. The greatest injury we inflict when we do an act of evil is to ourselves–but while we do not much feel the injury, he does–together with all the other injuries of every victim of the act and of every other victim-perpetrator, and all the prior acts of evil done that led up to this latest act and every subsequent act to which it will lead–acts done by ourselves and by every bully and cousin and parent and child–the totality of the slimy, blood-dripping network of evil from the first stolen apple to the latest adulterous fashion of worldly idolatry, which network every new act of evil implicates and strengthens. And still he loves the world and wishes to save it. He who alone knows just how blood-stained, just how inhospitable to goodness, just how crucifyingly traitorous the world is, does not cast at it another meteor to end the bloody reign of man. Instead, after suffering more intimately than any sinner can possibly suffer, he says to each soul, “I do not condemn thee. Go thy way and sin no more.” And he adds also an invitation to clarify what he hopes “go thy way” will mean: “Follow me home to my Father and thy Father–and to my God and thy God.” Accepting this forgiveness and this invitation from the one absolute victim–the one blameless lamb in whom all victims and all perpetrators are sinlessly combined–is the only possible redemption. Our clothes must be cleansed in his blood or else remain eternally stained with the blood of all who reject Jesus.

The Price For A Soul

The separation from God that is the natural penalty of sin is not an abstraction: it was not just Life and Death as such that Jesus had to fully experience in order to fully know Good and Evil. Instead it was my death and my life and your death and your life that Jesus had to fully experience in order to fully know how to heal each of us and lead us home. It was not some penalty apart from sin that he had to pay; rather, knowing and loving us in our sin entailed his suffering. And he suffered as his Father’s obedient servant, utter slave to his will, and as his Father’s glorious son, utter embodiment of his life. Thus, with his right hand he kept tightly ahold of his Father, while with his left hand he descended all the way down to each of us at every moment, not only fully understanding but actually experiencing the injuries about which we complain and those deeper injuries that should worry us infinitely more. And he did this as many times as there are souls capable of sin, even though with each descent he was racked anew with our distance from God. And he therefore can love us truly with perfect knowledge of who we are–love us with more than the daily devotion and constancy of a mother and more than the intensity of a new lover. To be so known and so loved, even though we are incapable of receiving it, is to belong. And to belong entails obligations towards the ones we belong to–“the bonds that make us free.” To take the hand that Jesus offers is to accept that belonging and that obligation.

The wife bending to gather a double portion of straw, slave to her husband; the man bending to tread the straw into mud to make bricks, slave to the overseer; the overseer bending to whip the exhausted man, slave to the pharaoh; and the pharaoh, bending to sit on his throne, slave to false stories and astonishing bad luck that made him a ruler without first making him just–all of these are together purchased by a new Master who is a slave only to Goodness Himself, and if any find themselves on his left hand in the day of judgment, it will only be because they refused that hand each time it was offered to them–preferring with Lucifer to rule in the hell of their own small selves than to serve in God’s wide heaven. Although they were all alike victims, they will have no one to blame, and will freely acknowledge that God’s judgments are merciful and just.

Then let us take his hand–and with it his freedom and his yoke.

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