Thursday, October 30, 2008


I have doubts about the Atonement.

These fall broadly into two main thought strands:
  1. What did Jesus actually achieve on the cross?
  2. Could anyone else have achieved this?
But first, just a quick recap on what 'atonement' actually means.

A*tone"ment\, n.
  1. (Literally, a setting at one.) Reconciliation; restoration of friendly relations; agreement; concord. [Archaic]
  2. Satisfaction or reparation made by giving an equivalent for an injury, or by doing of suffering that which will be received in satisfaction for an offense or injury; expiation; amends; -- with for. Specifically, in theology: The expiation of sin made by the obedience, personal suffering, and death of Christ.
Until I looked into this a few days ago, I hadn't realised that the English word 'atonement' was coined by William Tyndale when he was translating the bible, and couldn't find an existing word to fully convey the act by which sin was paid for and reconciliation with God was achieved.

So, it is claimed that Jesus's death on the cross somehow 'paid' for the damage due to sin and also restored the union between man and God which that sin had ruined. I think that's what most Protestant, Evangelical Christians mean by the word anyway.

Following on from the Levitical law and the concept of the flawless sacrifice, I can understand how it may be seen that as Jesus had lived a sinless earthly life, he was an appropriate sacrifice to pay for sin. But, I've recently come around to an understanding of Jesus's life as a picture of the perfect human life, that is the life he lived should actually be possible for other people to live out. In other words, it is possible (even if it might never have happened) that another human may have lived an entirely sinless life. I don't believe in original or inherited sin, so someone else could have done it. So the question is, could the other -theoretical- sinless human have died for the sins of the world?

Or is there some reason why a divine, sinless sacrifice was required?

Perhaps the plan was to wait for a sinless human to come along and atone for the sins of the world, but after a few thousand years of waiting, that hadn't happened and God had to step into the world and do it himself...? OK, so I don't believe that, but I don't really have any good reasons for that not being the case.

The NT makes it clear that the blood of animals can't atone for the sins of the world, so maybe the blood of a sinless man couldn't atone for it either. But why should the blood of a sinless God work then?

And what actually did Jesus's death do?

As I've said before, I can't buy the reasoning that it appeased God's righteous anger against us by satisfying His blood-lust. Or was it C.S. Lewis's Narnian explanation that when one who didn't deserve to die actually died, it broke the power of death?

Don't get me wrong, I believe that Jesus did manage to reconcile us to God by dying, but I'm just really unclear on why it worked or what was the mechanism...

Answers on a postcard please. (Or leave a comment, if you want.)


John Cowart said...

To add to the confusion, why does the Scripture refer to Jesus as the Lamb slain before the foundation of the world?

I take that to mean before human sinners were even created.

Perhaps there are bigger things at play here than just my puny sins. Maybe this is not about me at all; that my salvation is a by-product, not the purpose, of what God is doing.

I did not know Tyndale invented that word. How would you translate it?

Ricky Carvel said...

Rev 13v8:
"All inhabitants of the earth will worship the beast—all whose names have not been written in the book of life belonging to the Lamb that was slain from the creation of the world.

My NIV footnotes it, thus:
"Or written from the creation of the world in the book of life belonging to the Lamb that was slain."

But, without that footnote I would understand it to mean that God's plan was from the foundation of the world and that Christ's death atoned for the sins of those who died between the creation and the crucifiction, not just those who followed after.

Still don't know how it worked though.

Chris Hamer-Hodges said...

The cross is a profound mystery at many levels. I don't think anyone really understands the 'mechanism' of what happened. It almost defies understanding: the immortal dies; the incorruptible becomes sin; the indivisible is divided; the immutable is changed.

I think to understand it best, one has to look beyond the cross to what lies on the other side - as Jesus himself did. This shows what the cross achieved and why it was necessary that Jesus achieve it.

The eternal purpose of God for this world is to fill it with 'sons' in his image who represent the order and rule of God on earth as it is in heaven. In Adam (before the fall) we see a natural paradigm of this, as he was instructed to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.

But it was always the ultimate intention of God to exalt a different Son, and through him to bring about the purpose and kingdom of God on earth.

If the cross was just about patching up our old sinful life then it may have been different, but that is not what it is ultimately about. It is about producing sons of God, reunited with the divine nature, who represent God and bring heaven down to earth.

In the cross we have a great exchange. At the cross Christ laid down his life for ours; and at the cross we lay down our old life for his. We don't just receive forgiveness but a new life united with God in Christ.

I have no idea 'how it works', but I know that it had to be Christ. His death and resurrection opened the way for us to follow and die to self and live a new life alive to God.

Ricky Carvel said...

Chris, I see what you're saying about the purpose and what Christ achieved. But I still have questions about how on earth (or in the heavenlies) the death of Jesus could have brought that about.

Its not like we're faced with a maths problem like:

x + 3y^2 - 19z = 42

That is insoluble, but only until we get more information about at least some of the variables. But here it's more like the sum reads:

x + 3y^2 - 19z = pink strawberries

There's no way in maths (at least not in any reputable field of maths that I'm aware of) that you can equate numbers to fruit. The LHS of the equation and the RHS are so unlike each other that the sum appears to be complete nonsense.

Jesus + Incarnation + Sinless life + Terrible Death = Reconciliation between God and man

It doesn't seem to add up.

boxthejack said...

Yeah the mechanics are completely elusive. All we have are a series of metaphors which have been endlessly contested.

A good book on this is Joel Green's 'Recovering the scandal of the cross' which is dissatisfied with the overemphasis on penal substitution - on exegetical and philosophical grounds.

Thing is, it seems impossible to make a system out of any of the other metaphors either.

I wonder if in fact atonement begins with the incarnation rather than crucifixion. Surely it's a bigger deal, a bigger sacrifice, that the invisible God should be made mortal man than that this mortal man then died? This leads me to wonder if in fact the crucifixion is largely exemplary - and that following him is about sharing in his suffering.

Ricky Carvel said...


That's a great comment!

You've managed to convey in words something that I've been mulling over, without actually managing to find a good way of saying.

I'm totally with you on the exemplary aspects of the cross. Jesus taught his disciples to love their enemies, even to the point of death. And then did it. That is the example to follow. Perhaps Jesus's death needs no more justification than that.



Anonymous said...

In the book The Last Week by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, they go over the meaning of sacrifice for the ancient audience in detail. They make it clear that the concept of substitutionary atonement was not a conception the early Christians would have been familiar with. They explain that ancient people had "two rather basic ways of creating, maintaining, or restoring good relations with one another--the gift and the meal." You can give people presents, or you can invite them to share a meal (a very significant act. note that Peter and Paul are both challenged for whom they share meals with). In relationship to a divine being, a sacrifice that was understood to be a gift was burned up entirely, so that the aroma of the sacrifice would please the God. This doesn't really seem to apply to Jesus, because if Jesus were a goodwill offering to God, the ones who killed Jesus would not be condemned, but celebrated in the Bible. In the case of a sacrifice that was understood as a meal, the animal would be killed and the blood poured on the altar, then the individual would take the meat home (priests doubled as butchers) and have a celebratory meal of it. In short, as Crossan and Borg say, "the offerer did not so much invite God to a meal as God invited the offerer to a meal." Borg and Crossan go on to explain that this fits with the etymology of the word sacrifice (sacrum facere, "to make sacred") and that a sacrifice would not increase in significance through its suffering, nor would it be considered a substitution for the individual. An offering of sin as in Leviticus would still be a gift or a meal, intended to reconcile.
For me this gives new meaning to the Institution of the Lord's Supper. The night before Jesus dies, he invites his followers to a meal of his body and blood, just as a sacrifice would have been understood. Jesus is therefore not sacrificed in place of us because we deserved to die, Jesus dies on the cross as an invitation for us to come into God through Christ.

Anonymous said...

The other issue that I have with substitutionary atonement is that it assumes that God is so angered by our sins that no amount of human finite punishment can atone for them. Substitutionary atonement necessarily includes the concept that God demanded Jesus "atoning sacrifice" as a condition for our forgiveness. It is kind of syllogistic. God sends God's only Son to suffer and die because God demands punishment for the people.

Sorry for such long posts.

Anonymous said...

It confused the disciples as well; they didn't get it until he had actually done it, and so kept rationalising away his talk of his death as a metaphor.

One thing I will add is that what I am most aware of Jesus saving us from is not the "Wrath of God", but sin. In the sense that the apostles keep telling people they have been saved from a worthless life, and from the actual action of sinful living, though presumably with it's connotations of judgement built in.

Jesus's plan was never getting us back to zero, like Paul said, the same weirdness with Adam that led to the current world is being utilised by God to lead to surpassing awesomeness, to an extent that is incomparably greater than the previous deficiency.

So we have example, icon, identifying by suffering, Adam effect, death of sin, inheritance trigger, victory over fear of death, compensatory restitution, demon-ass kicking, requiring replacement, heavenly high priest/advocate, becoming essence of rebellion as service, sacrificial lamb, blood as price, earning Godhood, getting heaven ready, nature swap/unifying, and probably all sorts of other things.

Do we pick the meaning of the cross that suits us best? Or do we go searching through those justifications that don't speak to us directly in order to get a greater picture of God? Or perhaps better, we could speak to those who are affected by them.
I'd say first then second, it is multi-faceted wisdom after all.