Saturday, March 19, 2005

Six Views of the Atonement

As I prepare for Easter, I am preaching through the book of Mark. Mark 15 records the crucifixion. It is detailed about Jesus death. But it has no detail as to why. I am struggling as to whether just to focus on the details of his death with no why or to take some time and talk about why. The resurrection is next week on Easter Sunday. This week is just the death.

So "why the death?" Lately I've been reading Brian McLaren and what I really like about McLaren is he sets the stage for understanding the question. In The Story We Find Ourselves In, Further Adventures of a New Kind of Christian, the two ministers are trying to explain Christ to a woman who has fallen away from her faith. They have led her a long way by explaining "episodes" -- Creation, Crisis (the fall), Calling (Starting with Abraham), and Conversation (the push and pull between man and God which includes prophets, priests, poets, and philosophers.)

Now he starts to explain Christ. The woman's father was a minister. She knows the basic story, that Jesus died in our place so that God could forgive us. She finds that lacking. Why didn't God just forgive us anyway without the brutality and sacrifice of an innocent man?

One of McLaren's pastors, Dan Poole (who represents me in a lot of ways, plugged into tradition but with somewhat an open mind to valid questions and their ensuing discussion) explains to Kerry (the questioning woman) that what might help her is to understand that we don't know exactly what happened when Jesus died on the cross. There are in fact at least five theories, all slightly different. This could cause a person to have less faith because we don't exactly know. In fact, these different theories have caused fairly deep division among Christians, who think only their view is right and others are wrong.

But McLaren describes it this way: We could understand these theories as windows, none of which show us the fullness of the sky, but all giving us a spectacular peek.

1. Christ died as a ransom in our place. We had fallen into Satan's hands and Jesus traded us places to free us. Then Jesus "double crossed" Satan.

2. Christ died in our place, absorbing the wrath of God, which was meant for us.

3. Christus Victor - Jesus entered into and overcame death.

4. Perfect Penitent - A theory of CS Lewis, which I don't recall hearing though I have read Mere Christianity, which chapter 4 of book 2 explains clearly.

And none of us are very good at repenting. None of us can repent sincerely or fully, because deep down, a part of us, at least, still loves to sin. Our best repentance is always ambivalent, partial, holding back. So this theory sees Jsus' acceptance of death -- after all, he could have escaped any number of ways -- as his enacting, on behalf of the whole human race, perfect repentance for us. He becomes a representative of all humanity, and willingly submits himself to being condemned and punished on our account, in spite of his true innocence, as a way of acting out real repentance for the human race. -- The Story We Find Ourselves In, p 104

Now repentance is no fun at all. It is something much harder than merely eating humble pie. It means unlearning all the self-conceit and self-will that we have been training ourselves into for thousands of years. It means killing part of yourself, undergoing a kind of death. In fact, it needs a good man to repent. And here comethe catch. Only a bad person needs to repent; only a good person can repent perfectly.
Can we do it if God helps us? Yes, but what do we mean when we talk of God helping us? We mean God putting into us a bit of Himself, so to speak.
But unfortunately we now need help in order to do something which God, in His own nature, never does at all -- to surrender, to suffer, to submit, to die. Nothing in God's naure corresponds to this process at all. So that the one road for which we now need God's leadership most of all is a road God, in His own nature, has never walked. GOd can share only what He has; this thing, in His own nature, He has not.

But supposing God became a man -- suppose our human nature which can suffer and die was amalgamated with God's nature in one person -- then that person could help us. He could surrender His will, and suffer and die, because He was man; and He could do it perfectly because He was God. You and I can go through this process only if God does it in us; but God can do it only if He becomes man. Our attempts at this dying will succeed only if we men share in God's dying, just as our thinking can only succeed because it is a drop out of the ocean of His intelligence; but we cannot share God's dying unless God dies; and He cannot die except by being a man. That is the sense in which He pays our debt, and suffers for us what He Himself need not suffer at all. -- Mere Christianity, pp 59-60

5. Moral influence -- Jesus' death was self-giving and sacrificial and influences us to become self-giving and sacrificial. As liberal as this one sounds if it were to stand on it's own, it doesn't stand on it's own. But as a window, it is a true picture of Jesus' death.

6. In McLaren's novel, Neo shares about his wife's betrayal. She cheated on him. He was devastated. They started to work it out, he worked through some forgiveness, but she finally left.

It works like this: by becoming vulnerable on the cross, by accepting suffering from everyone, Jews and Romans alike, rather than visiting suffering on everyone, Jesus is showing God's loving heart, which wants forgivesnn, not revenge, for everyone. Jesus shows us that the wisodom of God's kingdom is sacrifice, not violence. It's about accepting suffering and transforming it into reconciliataion, not avenging suffering through retaliation.-- The Story We Find Ourselves In, p 105

I probably didn't explain at the beginning of this why I like McLaren so much. He doesn't give you the answer. But he gives you a history of the question. The questions we have are ones that have been in discussion for 2000 to 5000 years. If we frame the previous discussion, it gives us a better framework from which to seriously discuss our own questions, for instance as CS Lewis did only a few decades ago.

McLaren does this with a bunch of issues in A Generous Orthodoxy. I don't know whether I'll land in the same place McLaren does on these issues, and actually, he doesn't care. He makes no claim to being right. But I feel like he's taken me above the forest to at least see where each path leads. I had felt before like I was a bit blind and had to try each road out or refuse a road and never see what could be learned from it. Thanks Brian.

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