one of the conversations that i just can’t get into all that much is the atonement theory debate. while i find it very narrow and unhelpful that penal substitution is the only way to view jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, i just don’t have a tremendous amount of interest in debating it until i’m blue in the face.
with that said, i’ve been considering the nature of “salvation” and the nature of jesus’ death on the cross lately after a couple prompts. first, we—in an “open mic” night at eikon church—discussed our interpretations of the nature of salvation. what is salvation? is it a moment or a process? do we ever fully attain salvation? or is it there inherently? in addition to that, tony jones blogged several days ago about whether or not a blood sacrifice was required by god for our sins. in other words, is the penal substitutionary theory the only acceptable atonement theory? these things simply sparked some thought, regardless of whether or not i feel passionate about some kind of consuming debate (like many have had over the last few years).
in jones’ blog post, he linked to an emergent village post from a couple years ago in which they announced a contest for alternate atonement theories. i remembered the contest, but didn’t remember reading the winning submission by professor/author steve sherwood. it’s a truly beautiful (but simple, accessible) piece worth sharing here.
let me just say that i’m posting this here without direct permission, but my hope is that mr. sherwood would appreciate his beautiful view of jesus’ sacrifice being shared, even 2 years after being written for a silly little internet contest. 🙂
This is written as a talk/sermon. I work in Young Life and have given versions of this as talks spread over a couple of days at YL camps (and as you might guess from YL’s recent controversy, had both very positive and not so positive responses). I’ve tried to meld a couple talks into one here in a way that isn’t too stilted. I’m attempting to present the atonement in a way that affirms the reality and severity of sin, the need for substitution or ‘sin/shame bearing’ by an innocent party and the achievement of not a ‘legal fiction’ but an actual change in relationship while doing so outside of the metaphoric world of penal substitution. Essentially, non-penal substitutionary atonement.
Three Stories of Grace
At the very heart of the Christian faith is the death of Jesus on the cross. The vast majority of Christians would affirm, in some way, that ‘Jesus saves us from our sins.’ That said, what in the world really happened there? What did it mean? How did Jesus dying on the cross ‘save’ us? From what? From God’s anger?
Christians have wrestled with these questions and more for 2000 years. Predominantly, especially over the last 400 years or so, we have done this in the world of ‘concepts’ and ‘propositions’. I’d like to propose a different way of looking at it. Not a way that will answer every question or cross every ‘t’ and dot every ‘I’, but a way that I think is true to the heart of the story of scripture, true to God and in a way that makes sense to how we actually experience ourselves in the world.
I believe God, in both the Old Testament and the New, gives us two very interesting clues, or frameworks through which to understand the cross. In both cases, the clues come in the same way, the telling of stories.
In the Old Testament book of Hosea, God directs Hosea to enter into a marriage, a living story of sorts, to illustrate the way God feels about Israel (and by extension, all of us). In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is asked why he spends so much time with ‘sinners’, he answers by telling three stories, the key of which is the third, a story about a father who had two sons. In both cases, I believe, God is saying, “Do you want to know who I am, what I’m about? Let me tell you a story.” These stories tell us worlds about whom God is, what is wrong with us and what Jesus’ life and death were about.
God tells Hosea to marry Gomer because what happens in his relationship with his wife will mirror God’s relationship to Israel. We don’t know how quickly, but things go horribly wrong. Gomer cheats on Hosea. Not once, but repeatedly and brazenly. Amazingly, Hosea’s love is undaunted by the humiliation and rejection he receives from Gomer.
At various points he showers her with gifts to win her love again. She takes them and gives them to her lovers. He devises romantic schemes; to ‘take her into the wilderness and speak tenderly to her’ (a romantic picnic with personally written love poems) to woo her back. To no avail.
Hosea can’t stop loving Gomer. She rejects him at every turn. This isn’t just a story about two people. Remember, the whole point here is God saying, “This is me. This is how I love you, Israel!” Where any spouse would reject the one who had caused so much pain, Hosea loves on. Of course he does, his love mirrors God’s.
A Ridiculous Dad
Ancient Jewish culture had a very strict sense of honor. To be the male head of a family was to be the center of a world built around the giving and maintaining of your honor. If a Jewish father was shamed by a child, maintaining honor took precedence over familial love. True disgrace brought literal exclusion from the family. A father would hold a funeral for the offending child. All mention of him would be forbidden. “How is your son?” “What son, I have no son. My son is dead.” That is the way of honor.
How shocking then when Jesus tells a story about a very different Dad. A Dad whose youngest son has come to him demanding that the father liquidate his assets so the son not have to wait until the father’s death to get his share of the family inheritance. Basically, “Dad, I wish you were dead. All you are to me is an obstacle to wealth.”
The father does it. And, what’s even more amazing, he doesn’t have the expected funeral for his insolent son.
Let’s be really clear here, before going on. This story is NOT about the son. It comes as the last of a group of three stories (the lumping of three ideas together being profoundly significant in Jewish culture) all of which are on the same theme. Something precious has been lost and the one who has lost it will not rest until it is found. A shepherd with a lost sheep, a woman with a lost coin, a father with a lost son. This is not a story about the son, but about the father.
The Road to the Cross
We were created for relationship. With God, with one another. And for awhile, we experienced that. In Genesis, for awhile, God walked in the Garden with Adam. Adam and Ever were naked, but not ashamed (free from the need to hide, free from self-consciousness).
Quickly things go wrong. Whatever one things of the historicity of the snake and the apple, the ‘truth’ of the story is irrefutable. Humanity begins to focus upon itself. To value ‘self’ above all else, to ‘want what I want’, to turn from the open arms of God. Like Gomer turns from Hosea, like the son takes the money and runs from his father, humanity walks away from God.
BUT, like Hosea, God won’t rest with that. He pursues. He woos. First with one man, Abraham and then with his family. Later, rescuing the Israelites from slavery in Egypt only to be rejected by them. As the Israelites head out into 40 years of suffering in the wilderness because of their rebellion, God does an amazing thing, something never before experienced by humanity. God says, “Build me a tent, because I’m coming with you.”
The story of God is now set in motion. Act I: we are loved by God and created to relate to God. Act II: we walk away from Love. Act III: God ‘hears the cry of my people crying out in their suffering and have set about to rescue them’ and says, in the face of humanities suffering, ‘I will dwell with you. I will enter in.’
Over a 1000 years later Jesus is born. Jesus is ‘Emmanuel, God with us.’ This isn’t a new idea in the mind of God. This is who God is. This is the God who suffers with Israel in the wilderness. This is the God who tells Hosea to keep loving. This is a God who is like a father who does not disown the son who has brought him shame.
From Very Bad to Much Worse
Things unravel for Gomer. One can rely on looks and sensuality for only so long. Eventually she becomes a prostitute. Even that dries up. In ancient Israel, if one becomes so destitute that one’s debts can’t be paid, you could sell yourself as a slave. That is what it comes to for Gomer.
Things aren’t any better for the son. He lives the highlife for awhile, but the money runs out and things get desperate. In the end, he takes a job working for a pig farmer, standing up to his knees in pig manure envying the slop they have to eat. He thinks to himself, “Even slaves in my father’s house had it better than this.”
Humanity is lost. Like Gomer and like the son we have wandered far from home and can’t find our way back. Our efforts to be god of our own lives end up as bankrupt and desperate as Gomer’s indebtedness and the son’s filth wallowing hunger.
What would YOU do?
Hosea shows up for the sale. Why not, right? After who knows how many humiliations and wounds it’s time for a little payback. Why not go watch the final degradation of the one who’s hurt him so much. This ought to be good.
The son hits on a plan. “I can’t go home again. That’s gone. Dad has had a funeral for me. I no longer have a father. BUT, maybe I can be HIS slave instead of this filthy pig farmer’s. That would be better than this.” And so he sets off with a plan. He knows what he’ll have to do. His father probably won’t consent to see him. He’ll make him wait outside the door. Eventually, maybe he’ll be allowed in. Of course, he’ll have to crawl into his father’s presence, face scraping the floor to confess his sin and pitch his plan. Hopefully, if he grovels enough, and because he remembers what a good master his father is, his father will relent and allow him to become a slave.
This is how God is with us, right? All those Old Testament sacrifices. “I’m pissed off, but if you burn enough animals, maybe you can buy me off.” It’s a pretty natural way to view what happens in the Old Testament. Especially, if we think, “how would I respond if I were God, Hosea, the father?” The vital thing to realize is that God is NOT like us, however. God has already placed Israel in a unique relationship, the sacrifices help maintain the gift already given.
Things take a stunning turn
Hosea not only shows up at the auction, he makes a bid. He must REALLY want revenge, right? Not enough just to watch Gomer’s humiliation, he’s going to buy her back and keep the payback coming! BUT…he doesn’t. As Gomer walks down from the block, Hosea says something unbelievable to her. “I have bought you, not that you should call me master, but that you would call me Husband.” After everything, Hosea’s still bent on reconciliation! Still bent upon a return to a relationship of love!
The father sees the son, the son he should have ‘buried’ long ago and does NOT retreat to his seat of honor, giving the servant’s instructions on how the humiliation will play out. HE humiliates HIMSELF. He sets off on a series of actions that pile humiliation and shame upon any Jewish male who would do them. He runs in public. He embraces his swine crap caked son. He kisses him, showing emotion in public! He removes his cloak and ring (signs of prestige, position and honor) and places them on his son! The son launches into his speech, but the father shuts him up. “You were dead and now you are alive. You were lost and now you are found!” Again, a father not bent on payback and retribution but upon reconciliation and relationship. None of his actions make sense in the world of honor, they only make sense in the world of reconciliation and love.
God goes to the cross. Jesus, who is still just as much Emmanuel~God with us on the day of his death as he was on the day of his birth, goes to the cross. Gomer’s indebtedness had to be paid off. The son’s shame had to be removed. The sin of humanity has to be dealt with. But, just as Hosea’s goal is not retribution but restoration and just as the father shames himself to be relationally restored with his son, Jesus does not go to the cross to pay off God’s wrath. He goes to the cross to complete the restoration to relationship that God the Father has yearned for from the start.
Reconciliation comes at a great cost to Hosea and to the father. Both set aside honor and ‘their rights’ to bring reconciliation to the one they love. They, the innocent party, ‘bear the penalty’, the shame brought on by another, in order to restore the one that was lost. Likewise, Jesus, the visible expression of God’s heart toward humanity, endures the cross. Not to ‘satisfy the wrath of God’ but to satisfy God’s love.
Hosea to Gomer, father to son, God to humanity: “Welcome home! I’ve missed you so!”