In my last post I asked the question, “How does Jesus’ death on the cross reconcile us to God?” and closed with this proposition…
There is another way of understanding what happens on the cross. God did not demand Jesus’ death. We did. God came into the world and shared God’s dream for all of creation with us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. We responded to that dream, to God’s love by pushing God away. Unwilling to see ourselves through God’s eyes, unwilling to cede the fantasy that we are at the center of all things, we nailed God to a tree. In giving God’s self into our hands God loved us enough to give up control of the outcome, loving us before we could love in return, loving us when we didn’t love in return, and refusing to abandon us even when we betrayed him to an awful, violent, and bloody death.
In enduring the cross God has experienced the very worst that lies within us. There is no depravity hidden from the God who wants only to love us and who has died at our hands.
And yet, knowing who we are, knowing what we are capable of, knowing what we have done, God has not abandoned us! God loves us still!
Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong is quoted in Living the Questions: The Wisdom of Progressive Christianity as saying something very similar:
“People betrayed him and he responded by loving them. People denied him and he responded by loving them. People forsook him and he responded by loving them. People killed him and he responded by loving them. How else could he communicate to people like you and me that there is nothing we can ever do, there is nothing we can ever be that will place us outside the boundaries of the love of God” (pp. 114-115).
As we begin to examine and unpack this proposition it will be helpful to reach back into our sacred story, into the narrative that gives shape to who we are and what we know about ourselves and what we believe about God:
“But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’ So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves. They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden” (Genesis 3:4-8).
How long have we been sewing fig leaves and hiding behind the trees of the garden, ashamed of our “nakedness,” afraid to be seen as we truly are? How long have we been alienated from God by our own reluctance to be seen by and to see ourselves through God’s eyes? Standing at the foot of the cross there is no way that we can go on believing that our elaborately constructed fig leaves are somehow hiding our “nakedness” from God. God has seen us with all of our scars and warts revealed.
But how does all of this reconcile us to God? Jesus dying on the cross at our hands would actually seem to deepen our alienation from God compelling us to design even more elaborate and intricate garments of fig leaves so that we might better hide our nakedness.
On the cross Jesus endures the very worst that we are capable of, knows us at our very worst… and in the resurrection God puts an end to our fear of abandonment, that little voice that hides in the back of our consciousness and says, “You say you love me but if you really knew me, knew what I was capable of… If you knew what happens in the dark parts of me that are so scary I hide them even from myself you wouldn’t love me anymore. You would surely turn your back and walk away. You would abandon me, in disgust.”
The key phrase here is “and in the resurrection.” The cross, standing alone on a hill outside the gates of Jerusalem doesn’t bring us out of the shadows of the garden, doesn’t give us the courage to toss aside our fig leaves and stand naked in the sight of God. It is in the resurrection, God’s perseverance, God’s refusal to abandon us, even after the cross, when our sense of justice would call for a severing of the relationship, that our reconciliation with God is accomplished. It is the cross and the resurrection that allow us to step into the light.
While this “atonement theory,” or understanding of the cross and resurrection, needs some more explication and we will get to that in subsequent posts, this is probably a good moment to acknowledge some concerns.
Principle among the objections that might be raised to this model are concerns about its failure to deal with “original sin,” with “God’s justice,” and “God’s wrath.” If those words or concepts are familiar to you it is probably because the most common taught atonement theory in western Christianity is the “Penal Substitutionary Theory of Atonement”. This theory finds its chief architect in Anselm and builds on Augustine’s theory of “Original Sin.”
In the doctrine of Original Sin Augustine of Hippo (354-430) says that Adam and Eve committed the original sin by eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, that in that act they forfeited their immortality, and that their nature was so distorted by this act that they lost the ability to choose and do what is right in the sight of God. This is the story of the “fall.” Adam’s and Eve’s sin is passed along through the male semen in sexual intercourse so that we are all inheritors of Adam’s guilt and distorted nature, unable to choose what is right in God’s sight.
Anselm, writing in 1098, a time when the west was beginning to recognize the authority of law over the authority of an inherited monarchy, developed the first substitutionary theory of atonement emphasizing “God’s justice.” Anselm said that,
“…among God’s eternal characteristics is justice. By this reasoning, God cannot possibly forgive human sin without some recompense, for to do so would undermine the eternal laws of justice. And since every human being is sinful, there’s not one human being who can make this payment. Only a perfect, sinless God-man can pay that price. Anything less would be unjust” (Tony Jones , A Better Atonement: Beyond the Depraved Doctrine of Original Sin, only available as an e-book, page number not available).
Original Sin and the Penal Substitutionary Theory of Atonement would say that our reconciliation with God can only be effected by a change in God’s stance towards us, that God’s righteous anger or wrath needs to be appeased so that God can allow us back into the relationship to which God calls us. Another way of looking at this would be to say that God is prevented by God’s own justice from being in relationship with us until a penalty has been assessed, a price paid, recompense made. Anselm wrote that God paid that price on our behalf by sending his only Son to die on the cross on our behalf.
The theory or model of the atonement, of the cross and the resurrection that I have been proposing sets aside the doctrine of Original Sin and Substitutionary Atonement. This model describes a God who has never ceased to love us and never will; a creation that is broken not because God has moved away from us but because we have moved away from God; where God acts to draw us back into relationship by deconstructing the barriers, the fig leaves, that we, in our fear of rejection and abandonment, have created to protect us from God’s loving eye and presence. In the Cross and the Resurrection God reveals, or reminds us of the true nature of our relationship,
“… that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).
This model or theory of the atonement needs some more unpacking. There are important questions that still need to be answered. How are we changed by the events of the cross and the resurrection? Is the creation, the world changed? Is God or God’s approach to us changed? Does this model or theory of the atonement deal with the problem of pain, suffering, and evil in the world? I will be working through some of these questions in subsequent posts. In closing I would like to offer a quote from the sermon I preached on Good Friday this year. I hope that it will give you a sense of where I am going next.
“We have fallen short of God’s vision, God’s dream for creation. Left to our own devices we have become stuck in a cycle of violence that consumes the lamb, the kid, and the fatling; returning violence for violence, escalating and multiplying the hurt, building pain upon pain. We have created the world in our own image and our need for power and control has loosed bears who rend and destroy, lions who devour the innocent, and adders who seem to strike without warning or mercy.
God came into this broken world, not to condemn us for our failure to live in God’s light and love; not to demand justice, compensation and ransom; but to lift us out of the darkness by putting an end to our endless cycle of rage, retribution, and violence. God came into this world to offer us forgiveness, something that would ‘fulfill God’s law and to open for us the way of freedom and peace’ (BCP p. 370).
To fulfill God’s law… It doesn’t make much sense to us because God’s law and God’s justice don’t look much like ours. But this is what God’s law, God’s justice looks like… It looks like Jesus, God on a cross. God’s law, God’s justice is a love so great, so deep and so wide that it is willing to suffer; to endure hurt, wrong, and betrayal. God’s law, God’s justice is manifested in a willingness to forgive in the hope that we will choose the way of freedom and peace. And that transformed by the gift of forgiveness that has been given to us and by the demonstration of the power of love over sin and death we will begin to live out our vocation as the church, “to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ’” (BCP p. 855).
Thanks to The Reverend Doctor Jonathan Grieser of Grace Episcopal Church, Madison Wisconsin for some additional resources:
Christus Victor by Gustav Aulen
A Better Atonement: Beyond the Depraved Doctrine of Original Sin by Tony Jones This book is only available as an “e book” through Amazon but I highly recommend it.
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