Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Theology of the Atonement, Part 1

Let's talk theology. In particular, for this Easter season, I'd like to talk about the theology of the Atonement – in other words, our understanding of why Jesus became a human and was crucified and rose again and how this brings about our salvation.

Theology sometimes has a reputation of being dry or impractical. From medieval theologians' supposed debates on “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” and “Can God make a rock so big he cannot lift it?”, to the sometimes abstruse philosophies of 19th and 20th century thinkers, it's sometimes earned this reputation. It doesn't have to be this way, though. C.S. Lewis compares good theology to a map of the ocean. If you've seen the vastness of the ocean and the power of the wind and the waves, a map can seem dry by comparison – but if you want to sail someplace, you won't get far without one. Similarly, to follow God, we need to experience God, but without knowing anything about him, we won't get far. Theology is simply knowing about God.

There are two ways of approaching theology. The first is to view it as almost a sort of science, figuring out as much as we can about God and explaining as much as we can about God. There's obviously nothing wrong with this – God is kind of an important topic to understand. This first approach is how my mind works; I tend to think along rational and intellectual lines, and I'm uncomfortable with not knowing or with mystery or uncertainty.

The problem with this first approach to theology is that God is God, and we're not, and so we can pretty quickly run into the limits of how much we can know and how much we can explain about God. The second approach to theology is to let our learning about God bring us face-to-face with God's greatness and his transcendence and his majesty and to realize how far beyond our understanding he is, and so to bring us into worship.

So, the theology of the Atonement. I imagine many of us have been taught the traditional view, that because we sinned, we deserve the penalty of death, and Jesus became human and died to bear this penalty, so we can live forever. This traditional view is a good view – it's the best single explanation I've heard – but, throughout the centuries of Christianity, not all Christians have subscribed to this understanding, and Christians still sometimes disagree, so I'd like to take some time to look at other views as well. I'm not interested in just making a list of these theories of the Atonement, all ready for a Bible college test, and I'm not interested in arguing over which view is right. Instead, I think that because we have “so great a salvation” (Heb 2:3), we sometimes oversimplify things by insisting on viewing Jesus' death through the lens of a single theory – especially one that many of us have grown up with and may accept without much thought. I think that looking at some of these other viewpoints can bring us to a new appreciation of Jesus' death and resurrection and so bring us into worship.

A quick warning: I'm probably oversimplifying some of these positions. I'm not a professional theologian, and I'm more interested in how I can better appreciate what Jesus did for me than I am in trying to prove one view or the other correct. If you're interested in a more systematic and thorough treatment, Wikipedia is not a bad place to start.

Penal substitution

“Our sin carries the penalty of death. By dying, Jesus accepted our penalty, so that we are freed from the power of sin.”

As I mentioned, this is the traditional view. Sin isn't just breaking a rule; it's rebelling against God, the source of our life. The consequence is death. God can't simply ignore this rebellion; it violates his justice, and if he permitted his creation, which he sustains, to remain in rebellion against him, he wouldn't be true to himself. So Jesus, by living a sinless life (so that he deserved no consequence of sin himself) and bearing the consequences of our sin, removes the penalty from us.

Knowing this is immensely freeing. I have this nagging voice in the back of my head, “Did I do okay? Did I do enough? Am I good enough?” Jesus death answers that question – it's all been taken care of. Every burst of anger? Paid for. Every selfish deed I've done? Paid for. Every lustful look I've permitted myself? Paid for. Every good deed I've left undone, every encouraging word I've left unspoken? Paid for.

The penal substitution view can kind of get distorted into saying that God is vindictive, that he's angry at us for our sin, like I sometimes lose my temper with my kids when they disobey but blown up to a cosmic scale, and that he takes his anger out on Jesus. That's a warped view, but God's wrath is real: “the wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness” (Rom 1:18). I like how my NIV Study Bible describes God's wrath: “not a petulant, irrational burst of anger, such as humans often exhibit, but a holy, just revulsion against what is contrary to and opposes his holy nature and will” (p. 1709). It's the response of an exterminator to a termite; the response of a surgeon to cancer; the response of a police squad to a meth lab. I'm not saying this to try and scare us into repentance, to go all “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” on us, it's just that appreciating just how serious sin and God's wrath are let us recognize how even Jesus' death and God's love are even greater.

Satisfaction theory

“Our sin robs God of the honor due him. By obeying to the point of death, Jesus renders supreme honor to God, so that we are freed from our debt.”

This is similar to the idea of penal substitution, but the emphasis is a bit different. Penal substitution emphasizes the penalty for our sins and how bad what happened to Jesus was and how that covers our penalty. Satisfaction theory emphasizes the offense to God's honor and how good what Jesus did was and how that repays the offense. This was popularized in the 11th century by a guy named Anselm. I don't generally think in terms of “honor” and “satisfaction,” and when I first heard about this, it seemed like an odd idea, however...

I've been a Christian my whole life, but it wasn't until the last couple of years, when I read a little bit by a modern Christian author named John Piper, that I felt like I started to get a glimpse of just how great God is. And theologians argue that, if you commit an offense against a being, then the greater the being, the greater the offense. This makes sense, intuitively. If you go up to a low-life criminal and spit in his face, it's not polite, but he probably had it coming. If you go up to some random person on the street and do the same, it's a pretty mean thing to do; the person deserves it less, so your offense becomes greater. If you spit at some loving, saintly person – your grandma, maybe, or Mother Teresa – then now we're talking about a pretty despicable act. Now imagine a Being who's greatness towers over Mother Theresa like Mount Everest towers over an ant, and who therefore deserves all the honor that we'd give our grandmothers or Mother Teresa multiplied a thousandfold, and realize that our actions are robbing him of the honor due him.

And this isn't a debt that we can just pay back. If you're behind on a project at work, you put in overtime to catch up. If you're doing poorly at school, you can do extra credit work to boost your grade. If you're worn out from the work week, you sleep in on Saturday. There's all kinds of ways to do extra to make up for a shortcoming, but there's nothing extra we can do to pay off our debt to God, because everything is already God's. “The earth is the Lord's, and everything in it” (Ps 24:1). “‘The silver is mind and the gold is mine,’ declares the Lord Almighty” (Hag 2:8). God “gives breath to all living things” (Nu 27:16). “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).

This is why, according to the satisfaction theory, Jesus became human. Only a human could pay back the debt, because the debt was humanity's. Only God was capable of paying back the debt, because humanity had nothing more they could give. Therefore, Jesus came as a man, and by obeying God to the point of death, he satisfied God's honor and repaid our debt.

Our descriptions of Jesus' death usually focus on how terrible it was, and it was pretty terrible. But I like this idea from satisfaction theory about how good, in a sense, it was, about how much Jesus honored God through his obedience and his sacrifice. This is a very Biblical idea. Hebrews 5:8 says that Jesus “learned obedience from what he suffered” – not that Jesus came to know something he didn't know before, or did something that he didn't know how to do before, but he took on a new experience, he demonstrated something new. Philippians 2:5-11 has perhaps the most beautiful statement of this idea.

Have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
     did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
     by taking the very nature of a servant,
     being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
     he humbled himself
     by becoming obedient to death—
     even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
     and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
     in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
     to the glory of God the Father.

Jesus glorified God by obeying him, even to the point of death, and now Jesus is glorified to the highest place.

Part two covers three more views: moral influence, theosis, and Christus Victor.

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