As we draw nearer to Holy Week, I am sharing another excerpt from my book Atonement at Ground Zero: Revisiting the Epicenter of Salvation (to released in the Spring 2012).
It should be no mystery that human beings are drawn to the idea of atonement. After all, it would be the rare person who would not agree that there is something wrong with the world and, by association, with all people. As Christian thinkers throughout the ages have wrestled with atonement theory, the looming realities of evil, guilt, and shame have demanded their attention. Various cultures have sought to appease their deities with sacrifices and rituals; Christians have tried to understand how it is that Jesus takes care of everything for us. In this book I have tried to explore that understanding primarily through the experiences of those present at or near the time of Jesus’ death.
None of those present at the ground zero of Jesus’ crucifixion would have divorced him from the life that led to the cross. His death was not an isolated theological event but rather an explosive, mind-numbing experience that translated quickly into joy, hope, and mission. Even those who did not know Jesus before the crucifixion—such as many among the gathered crowds and the executioners—would have seen a real, live human being dragged to the cross and nailed down like a wind-blown shutter. For all present, Jesus’ death was tied intimately to his life.
During a class session in systematic theology, my seminary professor—a man not shy about stirring up controversy—asked the question, “If, in the garden of Gethsemane, under the great stress of anticipating his impending arrest and crucifixion, Jesus died of a heart attack, would he have died for our sins?” I didn’t immediately know how to answer his question, but I expected a lively and spirited class discussion to explode any second. I was not disappointed.
My professor was not attempting to disparage the reality of the cross. Rather, he was attempting to get us to think about the implications of the incarnation. If, indeed, in Jesus the fullness of God dwelt (Col 1:19); if, indeed, Jesus is the Word made flesh (John 1:14), then God has done something in and through the entirety of Jesus’ existence on earth that defies complete and full comprehension. The cross is not God’s cosmic gamble, his hope-against-hope that Jesus doesn’t miss his opportunity for crucifixion; the cross is the penultimate event in the life of the one who became “. . . like his brothers and sisters in every respect” (Heb 2:17a), yet an event that was ultimately turned on its head by Jesus’ resurrection.
While the separating of Jesus’ crucifixion from the full story of his preceding life and subsequent resurrection is faulty theology, it would be no less faulty to treat his death as an event that was incidental because of its human inevitability. We are helped when we remember that we are not asked to come to grips with the man Jesus who is sacrificed by God for the purpose of God’s satisfaction, but rather with the Son . . . “whom [God] appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being” (Heb 1:2b-3a).
Atonement theory stumbles when it separates the Father from the Son and pits them against each other in a tragic and violent relationship of appeasement. When the Son becomes a perfect, sacrificial other who brings satisfaction to the transcendent God who demands such a requirement, then our understanding of the depth of relationship that is shared by the Father and Son suffers from abuse. While the relationship of the eternal Father to the suffering and dying Son raises questions about the nature of God, creating a chasm between the Father and Son that is bridged only by the Son’s death is a solution grounded more in the concept of blind western justice than in the doctrine of the Trinity.