In the wake of Easter and Good Friday, and in the continued reality of the global pandemic we find ourselves in, I have continued to think much on the death of Christ. In the last two decades there has been a concerted effort to downplay the cross and instead trade it for an emphasis on the teaching and life of Jesus – at least in what I have read, observed, and experienced in popular Christian scholarship. I think I am finally realizing the error of this and while it has been a necessary correction has in many ways swung the pendulum of this paradox too far.
Yes, the incarnation of Christ, in the person of Jesus, is a phenomenal mystery and displays the love and compassion of God in unimaginable ways. And the teachings of Jesus show us an alternative way of thinking and living. Jesus came proclaiming the Kingdom of God which is both a current and not yet reality we are invited into. Jesus lived it and showed us how we also can live it. With that said, I am learning (again) that this does not negate, in any way, what Christ did on and through the cross.
I have long since forgone some of the more traditional (in the sense of being the predominant theories of the 20th century) theories of atonement such as substitution, ransom, and satisfaction in favor of more of a moral influence or scapegoat theory. However, I have been recently challenged about this by Fleming Rutledge in her book The Crucifixion. She articulates, much better than I can, that the whole notion of “theory” when referring to atonement is a really bad way of thinking about and interpreting scripture. She writes, “The Old and New Testaments do not present theories at any time. Instead, we find stories, images, metaphors, symbols, sagas, sermons, songs, letters, poems. It would be hard to find writing that is less theoretical” (p. 9). This has made me rethink everything I have read and studied on atonement and has actually allowed me to then go back to some of those other motifs such as substitution, ransom, or satisfaction with a different understanding and instead be able to ask, “What is the truth that is being conveyed through these different images?”
For instance, with Anselm’s Satisfaction Theory we are led to understand that there is a God whose wrath demands justice and payment and unlike the Ransom Theory (whose payment went to the devil) payment needed to made to God. I really think both of these images (Ransom and Satisfaction) break down when we try and make them mean what they are not trying to say. If God is just and loving and forgiving then why doesn’t he just forgive? Why does there have to be some sort of payment? Can’t God merely just erase the debt? Let’s take a look for a moment at Hosea 11. Here we are given a picture of a God who relents from his wrath, even without a blood sacrifice.
When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son.
The more I called them,
the further they went from me;
they kept sacrificing to the Baals,
and they burned incense to idols.
Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk;
I took them up in my arms,
but they did not know that I healed them.
I led them
with bands of human kindness,
with cords of love.
I treated them like those
who lift infants to their cheeks;
I bent down to them and fed them.
They will return to the land of Egypt,
and Assyria will be their king,
because they have refused to return to me.
The sword will strike wildly in their cities;
it will consume the bars of their gates
and will take everything because of their schemes.
My people are bent on turning away from me;
and though they cry out to the Most High,[a]
he will not raise them up.
How can I give you up, Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, Israel?
How can I make you like Admah?
How can I treat you like Zeboiim?
My heart winces within me;
my compassion grows warm and tender.
I won’t act on the heat of my anger;
I won’t return to destroy Ephraim;
for I am God and not a human being,
the holy one in your midst;
I won’t come in harsh judgment.
They will walk after the Lord,
who roars like a lion.
When he roars,
his children will come trembling from the west.
They will come trembling like a bird,
and like a dove from the land of Assyria;
and I will return them to their homes, says the Lord.
Ephraim has surrounded me with lies,
the house of Israel with faithless acts;
but Judah still walks with God,
and is faithful to the holy one.
Hosea 11 (CEB)
God does not demand payment like some angry bitter old man. And I think this is where these images of atonement have broken down for so many. Where they DO NOT break down however is on the seriousness of sin and the reality that our sin, our actions, DO IN FACT bring grief to God. And, at least for me, this is something that I often forget. God absolutely is a God who forgives, who loves, and who shows much more compassion than we ever deserve. But this in no way should ever diminish the seriousness of our sin and how sin affects our relationship with both God and others.
And so I wonder… instead of picking a theory that works with our understanding or that fits within each of our respective theologies, might we be able to see the different images or motifs of the cross and receive them, not as a theory that needs to be proved or defended, but rather as an image or a way for us to better understand a God who does actually really love us, but who is also just and righteous. God of course loves us, but it is because he loves us that he is greatly grieved when we make decisions that go against his purpose and design for creation.