Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Atonement

As I sat in church today, I began to think again about the Atonement. I have argued that a certain view of the Atonement - a view that goes by the name "Substitutionary Atonement" - is fatally flawed. But since I came to that conclusion, I have been uncertain how one might do better. I now have a suggestion.

But before I lay it out, let me first say what I believe are the criteria that any plausible account of the Atonement must meet. (1) First, something of great importance to humanity was achieved by Christ's death, and any plausible account of the Atonement must say just what this is. Here of course one will likely say that Christ's death made possible (or inevitable as we universalists would say) humanity's salvation. This is no doubt so, but of course a word is not itself the explanation we seek. If we say that Christ's death made possible our salvation, we must then explain just what we mean by "salvation". (2) Second, any account of the Atonement must explain the necessity of Christ's death. What Christ achieved, He achieved (at least in part) through His death; and what was achieved by His death could not have been achieved in any other way. (3) Third, any account of the Atonement must explain how Christ's death achieved its effect.

So then we need these three things: an account of the what, an account of the necessity of the what, and an account of the how.

Here's my idea. (I'm certain that it's not new. It - or a variant of it - comes to us from Schliermarcher.) I begin with a number of propositions that seem to me axiomatic to the Christian world-view. Sin brought about a rupture, a breach that separates God from man. The purpose of the Incarnation was to heal that breach. The breach consists is a lack of love, both for God and for neighbor; and thus the purpose of the Incarnation was to perfect love.

Let us then view the Atonement through the lens of this idea. It was a bottom an expression of love, and in that love God makes possible the perfection of our love. How was his done? As Christ told us, there is no greater love than a love that will sacrifice all for another. This fact is known by all. Thus if Christ were to "give His all" for us, and if we knew that He and the Father were one, we could know that God's love for us is unsurpassable. But if we knew this - if we knew that the author of our being loves us with an unsurpassable love - we would inevitably begin to return that love. But to the degree that that love is returned, the breach between God and man is healed.

Here then is our What and our How. The Atonement achieves a perfection of love, and it does so by the natural human propensity (no doubt implanted in us by God) to return love that is given to us. But what of the necessity of the What? How might we prove that God could achieve the perfection in no other way than the sacrifice of Christ? I do no see my way clearly here, but I suspect that we must draw upon our capacity for free will. A perfect love is a love freely given; it is a love that is not forced. But how might one lead another to love if one cannot force that love? One can do no better than reveals one's true nature and hope that this touches the other deeply. But what is God's true nature? It is love. Thus God had no choice but to make known his perfect love for us. How best to teach this lesson? How bestfor God to make known His love? By the most perfect expression of that love, and this I contend comes in self-sacrifice. In any other act, one might suspect that the motives are ultimately selfish. But in self-sacrifice - a sacrifice that ends in death on the cross - there can be no such suspicion. The very nature of deliberate sacrifice of a life rules out the motive to serve only the self.

This is my view of the Atonement. It was not a price paid. It was a love displayed. It does not ransom us. It calls forth from us the perfection of love for which we were made.

5 comments:

Walty said...

Interesting that you should post about the Atonement just as it is making for an exciting climax in my own theological endeavors. Interesting, not for you, but for me. Anyway, I just finished my last semester of undergrad and my final paper was about atonement. Past atonement theories, various logical, philosophical, and theological faults within them - and one theme crossed my mind which has not left my mind (and my heart).

I agree with your treatment of the atonement whole-heartedly, except for one presumption: that Jesus' death on the cross was the ultimate display of love. First you might say that, no, it was not his death that was the perfect display, (for two thieves also displayed as much), but his willingness to "give his life for his friends" (John 15:13).

I will stop belaboring and get to my point. I'd like to offer a redefinition of "give his life." Traditionally the idea is understood as a direct foreshadowing of Christ's death on the cross. Generalizing the statement, we may say that no love is greater than a person dying for her/his friends. But I ask, is it greater to die for your friends, or to live out your entire life as one intent on serving rather than being served, and lowering oneself to the position of a servant rather than a king? Surely we cannot quantitate the various flavors of self-sacrifice. Nonetheless, I think it interesting that we often give self-sacrificial death greater prominence than a life of self-sacrifice, illustrated in a day-after-day sort of way - embodied in Christ, not on the cross, but with a towel and a basin, washing his disciples' feet.

Anyway, thank you. I appreciate your thoughts, and I look forward to reading your other posts, as I have only just stumbled upon your blog this late morning.

Franklin Mason said...

Thanks for the comment. I intend to dig a bit deeper into views of the Atonement. Any sources you suggest I look into?

I believe that we agree at bottom. A perfect love can exemplify itself in various ways, and it seems that you're right - the totality of that perfect love can be found in acts other than sacrifice of a life. But there is one act that is most apt to convince others of the perfection of love, and that is when a life is given. It is not as if Christ's love only became perfect on the cross. It was perfect before. But to us ruined creatures who so readily doubt the purity of motives, it was an expression of love that cannot be doubted.

David B. Ellis said...


But how might one lead another to love if one cannot force that love? One can do no better than reveals one's true nature and hope that this touches the other deeply.


If that's the goal it seems one destined to fail when directed at a rational being. I would think that a rational person does not feel touched deeply by the love of another because they're willing to inflict self-mutilation, torture and death on themselves to express it.

That sounds more like a psychotic ex who call you up a three in the morning saying they're going to kill themselves if you don't take them back.

I, for one, would be much more impressed by an expression of God's love which involved healing every injury and disease and disability in the world and meeting the actual needs of the desperately suffering people of this world.

THAT would be an expression of love which would make me happy to return that love.

Franklin Mason said...

If we give an credence at all to the Gospels, Christ did meet those very kinds of needs. He healed the sick, feed the hungry, etc.

About your first point: it was not "Love me or else I'll kill myself". Rather it was "I love you so I'll die for you." These are quite different.

David B. Ellis said...

I regard stories of Jesus healing the sick the same way I would regard a doctor who had enough doses to inoculate tens of thousands against a deadly disease---but, in fact, only inoculates 20.

That he saved 20 lives is not impressive considering that he left thousands to risk death.

And being tortured for someone when you have the ability to avoid it without anyone being harmed is not a display of love. Its an exhibition of insanity. Functionally, the "atonement" is a mere guilt trip---and one of a particularly insane form.