The other day, our son and daughter dropped by with their new rescue dog, Layla. Now, Layla is adorable, but she is not so sure about other dogs. When Ragna comes close, she growls and shows her teeth and acts like she is going to take a chunk out of Ragna’s ear. Now, Ragna responds like a gentleman. He backs off and finds a safe spot where he can be alone. He also acts out his anxiety by chewing on things. This time, he found a bag of Scrabble tiles and tossed them on the couch. But he only chewed on three of them. He chewed on the “R.” He chewed on the “Q.” And he chewed on the “L.” We figured he was trying to send a message; we are not just sure what it means. It could stand fo,r “Layla, Quit! Ragna.” Or it could be, “Layla quarrels relentlessly.” Or maybe, “Listen, queenie, revenge [is coming].” We are not really sure what he meant; after all, he is a dog.
What do we mean when we talk about “the atonement?” It also may be a bit hard to define. But this we know: we are a church of the atonement. Jesus’ death on the cross for our sins is not only at the center of our faith, but without it, we have no faith. But how are we to understand the atonement? Yes, Jesus died for our sins; and in his death, we found at-ONE-ment, but what does that really mean? And while that is a lot, is that all there is to it? Of this I am sure — not at all! But to understand all that Jesus did for us, we need to look around a bit. But where do we start?
Let’s start with Jesus, which is to say, let’s start with Jesus’ kingdom. See, you can’t understand the atonement without understanding Jesus’ vision of the kingdom. According to the gospel of Mark, Jesus’ first words were to announce the coming of the kingdom (Mark 1:15): “The time has come. The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” First words, like last words, tend to be important; and for Jesus, the kingdom was definitely important. And what is the kingdom? The Kingdom of God is “the society in which the will of God is established to transform all of life” (Scot McKnight). Pay special attention to those words, “all of life.” If Jesus believed his atonement would help bring the Kingdom of God to earth, then any theory of the atonement that focuses on “Jesus saving us” or “Jesus forgiving our sins” is way too small. The purpose of the atonement is to restore the whole fallen world and to secure the Kingdom of God on earth. Back to McKnight: “The atonement is only understood when it is understood as the restoration of humans – in all directions – so that they form a society (the church) wherein God’s will is lived out and given freedom to transform all of life.” Never forget: Jesus’ atonement launches the Kingdom of God on earth.
Now, to be honest, we usually don’t begin a discussion on the atonement by looking at the Kingdom of God. Usually, we begin with God’s wrath. CS Lewis describes this approach in Mere Christianity, saying: “God wanted to punish men for having deserted and joined the Great Rebel, but Christ volunteered to be punished instead, so God let us off.” (As you can tell by the snark, Lewis isn’t totally onboard with this approach). But for many of us, this is the story of the atonement we have been taught. And it is taught so loudly, that we think this is the only story. But it’s not.
The Eastern church begins with death itself and sees the main theme in the atonement as God overcoming death through the gift of immortality in Christ. Death is the enemy, but God defeated death in the death and resurrection of Jesus. And as a result, we are given life! The atonement is all about Jesus overcoming death and setting us free from its clutches.
Others believe the atonement starts in the very beginning. Before there was “in the beginning.” Before there was time. Before there was anything, there was God dwelling together in Trinity. Here’s how these people like to tell the story. God from “before the beginning” dwelt together, three-in-one; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And these three dwelt together in love. Scholars call this relationship, the perichoresis. Miroslav Volf defines the perichoresis as the “reciprocal interiority of the three persons of the Trinity” which is another way of saying that these distinct persons are so connected to each other that the very core of their being is love; so much so, that you can’t know one, without knowing the other two, because together they are one. Here’s the point: since God is profoundly relational, everything he does is relational. And that means that the atonement must also be eminently relational. And suddenly, the picture becomes clear. In Jesus’ atonement, we were brought into God’s oneness (of course, always as creatures brought near by God’s love). And through Jesus’ death, we were made dearly loved children, children who were then called and empowered to love others as their Father had loved them and enveloped them into the love of the Trinity. And there it is: the atonement, then, is relational through and through. We have been reconciled to God and brought into a relationship with him so that we can mimic his love (the love of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit) to everyone we meet. The atonement is God uniting us to himself. It’s all about God’s expanding love.
Others see the driving force behind the atonement in God’s creating humanity in his image. We were created to represent God in our world. We are his special ambassadors, designed, if you will, to embody God’s will in our world. But in the fall, God’s image in us was marred. We are still God’s representatives, but we are doing a horrible job at it, so bad in fact, that God can barely be seen in our deeds anymore. And so, God sends a new bearer of his image. He sends Jesus, the perfect image of God. And Jesus fulfills God’s will perfectly and gives himself so that others who have been made in God’s image may be restored. The atonement is the means by which broken images may be healed and be recreated to function as they were originally designed to function in the Garden. The atonement is God’s salvation to restore us to our original glory so that we would truly be men and women made in the image of God.
Others want to start any discussion on the atonement with sin. But again, where we begin often dictates where we will end up. So, God’s purpose in the atonement is seen in our definition of sin. For instance, if we define sin as the breaking of God’s laws, the purpose of the atonement is to forgive us for our moral failure and to empower us to obey God’s voice from now on. If sin is rebelling against God, then the atonement seeks to restore us to God so that we may enjoy him forever. If sin is refusing to be ourselves before God or usurping God’s place in our lives, then the atonement is God’s means to heal us so that we will once again be ourselves and worship God as our proper king. But what if sin is muti-directional. What if it is flagrant rebellion against God, selfish disregard for others, willful disrespect and abuse of God’s creation and purposeful blindness towards our own faults and sins? What if sin, at its core, is relational in every direction? What if sin is “going it alone” in every direction so that our desires will be done? If sin is relational, then the atonement is about being restored to (relational) wholeness (in every direction).
So, which view is right? My guess . . . all of them! We need to embrace all of them because all of them tell a part of the story of what Jesus has done for us. And when we put all the pieces together, we may see the whole glorious picture. So, here are a few questions for you to think about during this Lenten season. First, which story of the atonement is the one with which you are the most comfortable? Second, which story of the atonement makes you stop and think? Third, what definition of sin speaks to your soul? And last, right now, of what sin(s) do you need to repent? It is, after all, Lent. And repent, Lent and atonement all go together. More next week.