That Christ died for the sins of the world is so obvious a truth of Christianity it is almost a truism. Somehow, Christ’s death and sufferings have “made us right” with God and this event bridged the unbridgeable gulf between finite, sinful humanity and infinite, pure God. But what are the actual mechanisms of this event? What is going on that makes it so that “because” of Christ’s crucifixion, God now stands in a different relation to humanity?
There are several theories of the atonement that I simply cannot square with the notion of a perfectly good God. One is the idea that Christ was punished – in the sense of becoming a guilty party – instead of humanity itself. No matter how you spin it, in the end you have a God who deems an innocent person guilty, and who punishes an innocent person in the place of those who are guilty. This theory is often touted as one that upholds the justice of God, but to me it destroys it. To punish the innocent instead of the guilty is precisely the definition of injustice. On this view the guilty get no justice, and neither does the innocent. The way I see it, to imagine God pronouncing an innocent person guilty is simply to imagine him making a misjudgment and misusing his justice. Obviously an all wise and all just God could do no such thing.
Besides the problem of attributing an immoral act to a perfectly moral being, there is an additional problem in thinking that Jesus stood in our place as a substitution. It is this. If Jesus bore all the consequences of our sin in our place, and if God’s wrath was fully satisfied by Christ’s death, why do any consequences of sin still remain? In other words, if death and suffering were the consequences of the sins of humanity, and Jesus took away these consequences by bearing their full punishment, why do people still suffer and die? It would seem that either i) Christ’s death was not fully satisfactory to God; or ii) death and suffering were not the punishment for sin. But if i) is false then the whole penal substitution theory of the atonement itself collapses. And if ii) is false then just what were the consequences of sin that Christ alone bore for us; and how, if these consequences are different than suffering and death, do they remain?
Finally, there is one more problem I see with this model of the atonement. If God’s justice was in fact fully satisfied by the death of his Son (who has an infinite value), what sense is there saying God actually forgives us? To forgive and to show mercy imply, not that justice is fully satisfied, but that, where justice could be satisfied, rather than it being so, it is set aside. But if Christ’s death appeases the infinite justice of God, in what sense is God’s justice set aside such that he exercises mercy and forgiveness?
Now it is undeniable to any reader of the Bible that Christ certainly died because of our sins. Verses abound which say that his death has healed us and reconciled us to God; that his it atoned for our sins; that Christ was a propitiation for our sins and that he even “became” sin for us even though he did not know sin in himself. So I certainly believe that Christ’s death has caused some real metaphysical re-orientation between fallen mankind and God. The question is, again, how do we understand the mechanism by which this occurs? If it really happened it must have some real inner working that is coherent. If Christ’s death really did something that “something” must be a real thing – a true reality. That does not mean we will necessarily understand in all its fullness what is going on but it at least suggests that it is possible to get some glimpse of what is.
I want to suggest the following model as a possible theory of the atonement that avoids the problems in the penal substitution model. But before I do this I want to make a point about how our theories of the atonement should be guided in the first place. Even if my particular suggestion is not really in the end a workable theory, it is built on an assumption that I think is non-negotiable about the atonement in general. That assumption is this: no theory of the atonement can be true if it presents a picture of Christ and God the Father as having different concerns or agendas regarding us as human sinners. In other words, all theories which posit Jesus as saving us from God – where God simply hates us and fervently wishes to vent his full wrath upon us until Jesus steps in and coaxes him into changing his mind – all these theories I think are fundamentally flawed. The main reason for this is because they posit a fundamental disconnect between the essence of the Father and the essence of the Son.
Christ says “if you have seen me you have seen the Father,” and the New Testament speaks of Jesus being “the image of the invisible God.” Even if you disbelieve in the Trinity, I’m not sure how you could still be a Christian if you thought that Jesus did not manifest in an exemplary way the character and nature of God. But as soon as you believe that you have to conclude that whatever Jesus did in terms of his life and the sacrificing of himself for others, these same acts and feelings must somehow be present in the Father’s heart as well. That is, anything good that Christ did on earth must have an appropriate analogue in the Father’s nature too. To deny this is not only to deny that Christ was a unique manifestation of God – what the New Testament calls “the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being”– it is also to deny that God is perfect love. In fact it is to suggest that a mere human being could be more loving, more merciful, more giving than God himself. Do we think the man Jesus – or even a very good human person who has sacrificed his life for an enemy – can be more loving or merciful than God? Yet if God himself is not able to self-sacrifically forgive without needing or having to extract justice, then it would seem some humans could be more loving than He is.
So, with all that said, how am I suggesting we understand the atonement? I want to suggest we look at it in the following way.
Imagine a time when someone has done you wrong. Perhaps someone has lied to you or treated you unfairly or stolen from you or made fun of you. Imagine, further, that whatever this person did, it was something truly inexcusable. You had not first lied to them or treated them unfairly. There was no “just retribution” they were fairly repaying against you. They were not “getting even.” They had simply, inexcusably, done you wrong; and because of this you had all the reason in the world to be angry with them and to hold them accountable.
Now, how do you forgive such a person? How do you get over what they did to you and become reconciled with them? You cannot make up an excuse for their behavior, for there was no excuse. Their selfishness came from their deliberate, freely chosen act of will towards you. Strictly speaking such a person does not deserve to be forgiven. For to be forgiven is to be given something that is not by right earned. How then, if you are committed to doing what is purely right and fair can you forgive such a person? As far as pure morality goes, you are in the right in being upset with them and they are in the wrong for what they did to you.
It seems to me that if you are in this situation there is only one way to forgive the person who offended you, if indeed you are going to forgive them and not sever your relationship with them. You must die to your own self, your own desires, your own justified offence.
All forgiveness – if it is true forgiveness, often we simply “cool off” and are only pretending that we are forgiving – all true forgiveness involves a sort of death to self, a suicide of the ego. You must in a sense just let go of whatever wrong has been done to you and kill the justice inside that is holding the other guilty. The voice that retorts “but they are at fault; they have done you wrong!” has to be just destroyed. It cannot be rationally argued with: indeed, rationally speaking it is correct: you do have good reason to be angry. Yet, if you want to forgive and to be loving, this cry of justice has to be simply suffocated, killed… crucified.
I want to suggest that that is how we at least begin to think about the atonement. Since Christ is the manifestation of God, we can understand God through the acts of Christ. Therefore Christ’s sufferings and death, I believe, can be seen through the lens of a God sacrificing his own ego, his own natural being of holy, just, lovely perfection, in order not to hold sin against those who have freely and inexcusably offended him. To put it in an analogy: the crucifixion is the pattern and manifestation of God killing that voice in his head that is saying that there is no excuse for sin. He is rightly and therefore justly offended by it. Yet God still chooses to love us, which means that in forgiving us he is letting his self and his ego and his justice go. He is in fact crucifying it – for the sake of the one who has wronged him. He is sacrificing his own self, insofar as he really does have a righteous, grounded case against us. Part of his self is there crying out “but this is not right. the fact they have sinned is wrong.” Yet, his love says, “even so, I will kill that part of myself, for I love them.”