All hail the power of Jesus’ name
Let angels prostrate fall . . ..
Ye chosen seed of Israel’s race
Ye ransomed from the Fall . . ..
A hymn sung out of centuries of spiritual tradition can say so much with a single word. Ransomed. There is a whole doctrine of the Atonement in that familiar hymn, but it is a doctrine that is not in the least familiar to modern people.
Atonement means how we are saved. Jesus went to the cross. I say each Eucharist, The gifts of God for the people of God. Take them in remembrance that Christ died for you and feed on him in your hearts with thanksgiving. Jesus went to the cross for us. But how does that work? Why should his suffering and death make any difference for the state of our souls?
It’s an old question. Since the 16h Century, one answer has prevailed in popular understanding. God has rules. If they are broken, someone must be punished. That also is one of God’s rules. Jesus suffered in our stead to satisfy his Father’s need for retribution. Many cling to that interpretation of the Cross with love and devotion. Others, myself included, are repelled by it. A God defined by retribution is not who we want to worship or become like. I might go on at length and in stronger language about why that atonement doctrine strikes me as abhorrent and damaging to human souls, but I will leave it at that and go on to other understandings that may be more helpful.
Morna Hooker, one of the best New Testament scholars today, wrote a book on the atonement doctrine or doctrines in the New Testament. https://www.amazon.com/Not-Ashamed-Gospel-Testament-Interpretations/dp/1592449352/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1509043465&sr=1-1&keywords=Morna+Hooker It was a bold step writing such a book, because it is routinely said that there is no atonement doctrine in the New Testament. There are phrases here and there that might be construed and elaborated into an atonement doctrine. I find phrases suggesting eight quite different atonement doctrines on two pages of Romans. But we cannot honestly say how any New Testament author understood the connection between the Cross and our salvation.
Hooker argues that we can’t see an atonement doctrine in the New Testament because the way we ask the question, our basic assumptions about ourselves and the nature of the problem, are all so different from the 1st Century worldview that the New Testament isn’t answering the question we are asking. We assume that each of us is a free moral agent who makes bad choices and should have to pay for those choices. We want to know how Jesus’ death gets us off the hook.
But the New Testament is concerned with the salvation of communities, indeed the entire cosmos. The notion that we are each an individual moral agent making our own free choices, and we are saved by making the right choice to embrace Christianity, was called the Arminian heresy as late as the 18th Century. The New Testament is about Jesus shedding his blood to form a covenant bond with humanity. That covenant connects us to God and to each other. That connection is our eternal lifeline. But Hooker does not claim this is a fully fleshed out atonement doctrine. It is the starting point for Christian theology for centuries to come.
Ransomed, in our hymn, evokes the first developed atonement doctrine. Its author was the 2nd Century saint, Justin Martyr. He saw sin as a power that holds us in bondage. Paul had said much the same. Justin went on to say it was as if we had sold ourselves into this bondage, made a pact with evil so to speak, like the man who sells his soul for some momentary advantage. Something malevolent holds the title to our lives.
Does that make sense? It did to 2nd Century Justin and it is a recurring theme in literature. We may personify the “something malevolent” as Satan, or we may think of it as the system or the domination system or “the tears in the nature of things” or the world “grinding on its axle.” Some like to take a happier view of human nature. We are all good. We just need to celebrate our own goodness. Meanwhile, the Myanmar Buddhists commit ruthless genocide against the Rohingya Muslims. ISIS decapitates victims. A lone gunman slaughters 58 people at a country concert in Las Vegas. The government proposes to cut off food and medical care to the poor. Crime statisticians project over 1,000 forcible rapes in Las Vegas in 2017. Freud, Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche, and countless great minds have seen a darkness in humanity. We do not behave well. Belsen. Auschwitz. Newtown. Hiroshima. Sand Creek. Wounded Knee. The gulags.
Against this damning evidence stand countless acts of generosity. The lives of the saints, the love of family members, and the kindness of strangers. Behind those outbursts of decency is our sense that we are better than we often behave. Which of us has no regrets? Which of us has not done things that could not have come from our souls, our true selves?
Justin believed we are intrinsically good but have fallen into a state of bondage to something that exercises power over us. The way to free us from that power was to pay its bloody price. God in Jesus ransomed us because we were hostages to evil. God in Jesus redeemed us, bought us back from the power that held us in sin’s dread sway to quote another familiar hymn. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-JHV75MENqk Yes, Jesus bled and died for us, but it wasn’t to satisfy God’s need for vengeance. His sacrifice opens the possibility of freedom to come home to God. The evil hates the good. The good one’s suffering and dying pays our debt to the evil, and sets us free to be ourselves again.
Various other atonement theories were formed after St. Justyn Martyr. I don’t omit them because they were bad but because, coming as they did from a different time and place, I don’t think they will speak clearly to the hearts of people today. I fast forward to the 13th Century. Peter Abelard was one of the first academic theologians. He taught at the Sorbonne in Paris, and is chiefly famous for his illicit love affair with his student, young Heloise. Her father had him castrated. St. Bernard of Clairvaux, the warmongering contemplative monk, who wrote perhaps a bit too much about the sublimated eroticism of the Song of Songs, was obsessed with castrating Abelard’s influence in theology. But Abelard and Heloise continued their devotion from afar, and their letters are a classic of Western literature. https://www.amazon.com/Abelard-Heloise-Letters-Writings-Classics/dp/0872208753/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1509044130&sr=1-1&keywords=abelard+and+heloise It is perhaps not surprising that Abelard would understand the Cross as an act of love evoking a responsive act of love – and not surprising that powerful voices in the Church repressed his interpretation.
Abelard taught his students a theory of attraction generally known as the moral influence theory of the atonement. Our problem is not guilt in the sense of a liability for rule-breaking. It is that we have failed to love God, who is the heart of Reality itself. That separates us from everything. We cannot rightly love anyone or anything, not even ourselves. We live at one step removed even from our own lives because God is the heart of our own lives. This God is not a superpower on a distant star. This God is the context of our experience, the one in whom “we live and move and have our being” but we do not love God and so we are cut off (like castrated of course, but also cut off is what it means to be cursed). As Justin saw the problem as bondage, Abelard saw it as alienation.
But God, not a superpower on a star but the heart of Reality itself, still loved us, love us enough to take on our troubled state and go to the cross to be there with us. God plunged into the brokenness of human experience as a parent might plunge into the ocean to save a drowning child. But God’s plunge was not an instrumental act. It was not if I do this it will achieve that. It was a joining us in our suffering as an act of loving solidarity.
We see that. We turn our eyes to the cross. We see God’s love and it evokes our love back. It is loving God that restores our connection to everything. It is loving God that heals us our core spiritual wound. God should not have had to die to prove his love, but he did. He died to win our hearts, and winning our hearts, he makes us whole.
Since Peter Abelard was laid to rest in Paris, and Heloise grieved his passing, many more atonement doctrines have been articulated. It is ludicrous for me to offer my explanations alongside those of giants like Justin and Abelard, and more wrong that I should offer them instead of those from far wiser theologians. But I will offer a few of my own thoughts, simply because I can explain myself better than others – and I live in the faith that I have never had an original thought, nor aspired to think one, so these surely come from someone whose name I have just forgotten.
Much of the evil in the world is a kind of violence. Sometimes it is literally violence. Other times it is psychological aggression. It works in two ways: action and reaction – I hurt you so you hurt me back, then I hurt you back and on it goes. Or more commonly, it circulates in a kind of roundabout karma. A hurts B who passes on the hurt to C who passes it to D then F and so on till it gets back to A. Then the karmic circle repeats over and over. “What goes around comes around,” we say. The circles of karmic violence enshroud the entire earth.
But what if there were a disruption? What if unspeakably unjust violence were inflicted on a deeply good man, who in his incomprehensible goodness, did not pass it on. What if from the Cross he prayed, “Father, forgive them.” The pattern would have a significant hole in it – so significant that a few years later, that good man’s disciple (Steven) would be dying as his persecutors pelted him with rocks and he too would raise his eyes to heaven and pray for his persecutors, and so it would go until Martin Luther King would absorb the violence perpetrated against him in love. Note: it is not just that the first man taught non-violence. He had to live it and die it to break the circle. That sets others free to do likewise.
But suppose the problem is not violence. Suppose it is as John Bradford, Brene Brown, and others have said: shame. There are things about us that we do not accept. We pass judgment on ourselves either directly as conscious shame or more pathologically as narcissism. What if a man who might have been so whole, so complete, so fully human and divine at once, that he could have easily lived shame free, chose – chose – to join us in disgrace, allowed himself to be condemned, mocked, stripped naked, tortured, and hung on a cross for hours of taunting. Suppose he did this to share our experience, to join us in it, and to accept us, to accept us all the way, to accept all the things about us that we cannot accept in ourselves.
Now here’s a slight variation on Justin. If the notion of bondage to evil or pacts with the devil sound too superstitious for you, might you allow that actions have consequences, that evil actions have evil consequences. There are as the social workers tell us “natural and logical consequences for our actions.” But when you add them all up, all the wrongs we do, the end result is the destruction of everyone and everything. The wrongs we commit – and I am one who commits them – are mind boggling and heart wrenching. God of course is above the reach of evil. We cannot hurt God, only each other and thereby ourselves. But what if God chose to save us? What if God chose to become vulnerable so as to absorb enough of the consequence of our sin to save us from destruction – not so completely that we could not still learn and grow from experience but enough to preserve our lives and our souls? That would be an atonement. This way of thinking is not precisely what St. Athanasius said in the 4th Century, but it seems to me to be in line with his thinking.
Or suppose it is about conforming human life to God’s will. Suppose that matters because God’s will for us leads to life and joy and blessing while our rebellion and arrogant self-will cut us off first from God, then from each other, and finally from our own true nature, which lies deeper than our will. Now imagine that this is not just an individual choice – being that such a notion was first invented in the 17th Century and has not held up to the insights of psychology since the 20th – no, not an individual choice to obey God or rebel against God, but rather a positon all humanity makes. Suppose, as St. Irenaeus of Lyons said in the 2nd Century, just as in business transactions, we have an agent to cast our lot on our behalf. Someone, literarily represented by Adam chose rebellion. So, the human race lives in rebellion against God for all of history – until – until – someone becomes so fully human, so perfectly human, that he attains the status of agent to make this decision for our species. And suppose that person, were in a Garden, where obedience would lead to torture, disgrace, and a miserable death, but disobedience could have led to quite a nice life on the Mediterranean, and suppose that man, that agent for all humanity, chose obedience. Thereafter, disobedience still happened. But the fundamental stance of humanity had changed. Jews, Christians, Muslims and other faiths would credibly insist that a good life is to be lived in obedience to God.
My point is not to sell you on any single way of understanding what it means that Christ died for you. It is to say it is a holy mystery about which any explanation can at best be partial. At different times in my life, I have been more at peace with one explanation only to find another spoke more clearly to my heart a few years later. My appeal is that we should look on the cross with sufficient humility to know that God’s sacrificial love is beyond our understanding. But there are many ways the Cross touches our lives for hope and healing. Even partial understandings can help, but finally it is not ours to comprehend but rather to say, “thank you.”