It seems fitting that this topic of Atonement comes up as we approach Holy Week and Easter. Over the next few weeks, a lot of time and energy will be spent talking about and meditating on the Cross of Jesus Christ. I will be one of those in meditation but not from the bloody perspective but the perspective of love. Although I believe the crucifixion was necessary, as was the resurrection, it was the Birth of Jesus Christ that mended the rift between God and humanity.
The 2nd-century write Irenaeus wrote about the atoning nature of the Birth of Jesus Christ. From the moment of conception, Jesus was sanctifying humanity. He sanctified the nature of woman by connecting to the essence of womanhood in the womb. As he progressed through the various stage of life, he joined with the essence of each stage of development and sanctified humanity.
Jesus came to reset the clock or hit the reset button on humanity’s relationship with God. The Birth of Jesus returned humanity to its natural state of walking with God. In Genesis, we read that after the creation of humanity, God walked with humanity in paradise. Sin entered the world, and that relationship was broken. God no longer physically walked with humanity. The image I have is God and humanity walking and spending time together not just in a spiritual sense but in a very physical sense. The Creator was present with the creation. Humanity became corrupted and needed sanctification.
Irenaeus was writing to combat the heresy of Gnosticism that believed that Jesus was not both human and divine. They did not believe that the Old Testament’s God was the true God because that God created matter, and all matter is flawed and sinful. Jesus could not have been born in the flesh for the same reasons; all flesh is matter, and matter is evil. The Gnostic belief that Jesus put on his humanity like a coat and then took it off before the crucifixion, so God was not crucified but the man Jesus.
Centuries later, Peter Abelard would write, rejecting the idea that Jesus came to pay a ransom to Satan for humanity. This idea was rejected because it would place Satan on the same level as God, making Satan another God that had to be satisfied. But Abelard also dismissed the idea that Jesus’ death was in payment to restore God’s honor. In the work of Abelard, there was also a rejection of the judgment of God that said a person was damned to hell for all of eternity until the person accepted the death of Jesus Christ as a payment for their sins. This would indicate that the mind of God could be changed. This perfect God that does not change could somehow change God’s mind because of the acceptance of the death of Jesus. Abelard taught that Jesus died not to repay a debt but as an expression of the love of God.
I appreciate what Abelard was doing, and the result of his writing was to see himself excommunicated from the Church. I feel a close kinship with Abelard as a church has excommunicated me for my positions. It was not over my position on the Incarnation as it involves the Atonement. Still, it did have to do with the love of God for all of God’s creation and this idea that the God that sent Jesus to the world is not a vengeful God that seeks to rule by fear but that we follow God out of love.
I have a real problem with this idea of a blood sacrifice and that God sent Jesus just to die. To me, this does not put God in a, particularly good light. This idea of the blood sacrifice is at odds with the God of love that so loves the world that he sent Jesus, not to judge the world but to show us a new way, a way of love.
Because of this, I must reject the Satisfaction Theory of Atonement espoused by Anselm and which Abelard wrote against. This idea that humanity had insulted God’s honor and that Jesus had to come in human form, the same form that offended God seems theologically ludicrous to me. Yes, sin is repugnant to God, and yes, humanity distanced itself from God but this idea that God could be insulted in such a manner that only a sacrifice could repay that debt?
Coming off that theory, the Theory of Penal Substitution seems at odds with this idea of a loving God and thus another rejection from me. The theory was first developed during the Protestant Reformation and advocated by both Luther and Calvin. The Reformed Theologian Charles Hodge more concretely developed this theory placing it biblically and putting in the historical roots of the early Church.
My spirituality and theology are grounded in this idea of revolutionary and God’s radical love as shown to us by Jesus Christ. “For God so loved the world…” “God sent Jesus not to judge the world…” Along with being rooted in love by theological understanding comes from the idea that it was the Birth, the Incarnation of Jesus Christ that redeemed the world. In answer to the question of why Jesus died on the cross, I lean towards the Moral Theory of Atonement and what Christ came to do was to be an example of the great love that God has for humanity.
Jesus willingly stretched his arms out on the cross in a posture of welcome and love. There is no payment. There is no blood sacrifice. Jesus came to demonstrate love. Jesus witnessed to us how to serve God through love and not through fear. We perform good works for others because of the grace of love poured out on us through the witness of Jesus Christ.
So why then did Jesus die? I see a two-fold reason, one is spiritual, and one is political. Spiritually, as already aggressed, Jesus died as the ultimate expression of love. Yes, we are called to death, but not in a physical sense but rather spiritually dying to self-sense. When we move to love others and wish to serve others, we have to die to what the self wants. We recognize the divine in each human, and due to that recognition, we love them.
But there was a political reality as well. Jesus angered the political and religious leaders of the day. Jesus made them extremely nervous. He led multitudes of people toward a different way of religious expression, which threatened the power of the religious elite. By allowing himself to be called King, Jesus put himself at odds with the political reality of the day.
Was there another way? Sure, and Jesus pleaded with God in the garden before his arrest but willingly gave in to the plan again to express love.
Jesus was put to death on trumped-up charges in a kangaroo court as an innocent. The act of salvation was completed at the Birth of Jesus, the act of love was completed on the cross.