Atonement or At-One-Ment?

This is Part Five of my series Only a Suffering God Can Save

We all know that Jesus Christ is the “lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world,” but how did He do that?

What most people believe is that because we all sin, we are all guilty in the eyes of God, and thus we all deserve to die and go to hell.  Jesus came, however, to die in our place, so if we believe in Him and accept His grace we are saved.  I know, I know that there are many variations on that, I don’t want to get picky on the details, but in general this is the mainstream belief.

What most people don’t realize is that the mainstream theory of atonement isn’t the only one out there, nor was it the first.  In fact there was nothing like what we have today for the first thousand years of Christianity, and the theory most of us are taught nowadays didn’t come until the Reformation.  A side note, around the year one thousand when various groups began kicking around different theories, none of them were ever declared heretics. So the theory that I am about to talk about has never been declared a heresy, just a minority opinion.

When speaking of the crucifixion Paul would use many metaphors such as ransom, debt, buying, blood sacrifice, payment of price, purchased in blood, sacrificial language used throughout the Bible.  These are images that would have spoken volumes to a culture steeped in sacrifice.  In fact, both cultures Paul was talking to, Israel and Greece, used sacrifice regularly.  It is important to remember that they are metaphors.  Sometimes we forget, because we use them so much.  Remember none of us have actually been cleansed by the blood of Christ.  That would mean we had to have to have actually bathed in His blood.  It’s a metaphor.

The Bible doesn’t just come out and give you doctrines.  They have to be put together after looking over the whole.  The problem is that the mainstream theory of atonement didn’t do that.  They look at the sacrificial metaphors and leave it at that, but these metaphors are very limited.  They make the death of Christ look like a mopping-up exercise.  It is a reaction to human sin, rather than a perfect and free gift of God’s love.  God is in charge, not us, and certainly not our sin.

The mainstream theory make it seem that the last week of Jesus’s life was the main point of His coming.  I’ve even seen posters that say “He was born, so He could die.”  Again, that makes His life a reaction to our sin.  The hymn that begins in Colossians 1:15 teaches that Christ came first.  He was before everything, and everything is for Him.  This is called the Primacy of Christ.  He was not a reaction to everything.  In other words, the incarnation of Christ would have happened whether we had sinned or not.  Why would He come if we hadn’t sinned?  It wouldn’t have been necessary.  Exactly!  His coming was never necessary, it was a pure gift.  Does that make it any less wonderful?

What about His death, isn’t that what we are really talking about?  Didn’t He have to pay our debt to God so He could forgive us?  Let me answer that question with a question, why did God need Jesus to die to forgive our sins?  He forgave sins all through the Old Testament, why does He suddenly need to sacrifice His son to do it?  This question has had theologians doing logical back flips.  They say things like He was able to forgive because He knew Jesus was going to make the sacrifice.  I say, if God can forgive, He can forgive.

So what happened on the cross?  Jesus is both the medium and the message, He is the way the truth and the life, all wrapped up in one body.  He is God, trying teach us about God.  He is Love, trying to teach us about Love.  He communicates both of these most graphically on the cross.  It is there that we learn to see and trust God’s love in a brutal and compelling image that assaults the mind and heart.  God died on the cross to show us how much He loved us, to hopefully change our mind about Him.  Yes, Jesus died on the cross not to change God’s mind about us, which is what the mainstream view is, but to change our mind about God.

Christ dying on the cross shows us that God isn’t above suffering Himself.  We aren’t alone in our pain.  Most of us don’t ever really believe God knows what it is to be human and suffer.  The mainstream view of the death of Christ seems to make His pain a little less human.  We sort of unconsciously think to ourselves that since he was born to die, He was specially prepared for it, or at least His pain was different than that in our lives.

The problem is that we emphasised the payment of debt more than love.  The cross became an image of divine transaction rather than divine love.  Unconsciously we made God out to be violent, vindictive, and petty.  We made Him subject to laws and justice and took away His own freedom, and we made Jesus into a remedy sent to solve a problem, rather than a message of God’s love.

Sin then became the reason for redemption, not love.  And we made redemption into an  act of violence.

For to long we have been taught to fear God, not to love Him.  How do you trust someone that you fear?  To see the crucifixion in the light of love, and free gift is to ground Christianity in love and freedom, that should draw people into prayer, reconciliation, forgiveness, and healing.  This gives us at-one-ment rather than just sacrificial atonement.  Nothing really changed on Calvary, but everything was revealed so that we could change


Continued in Jesus in the Belly of the Whale


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