Atonement from Jesus' Life, Not His Death
What happened on the Cross? Before that…why are you asking at Christmas? We’re talking about baby Jesus not Jesus on the Cross! Weirdo!!
The following is an attempt to offer a middle ground between blood atonement (Jesus’ death atoned for our sins) and exemplary atonement (Jesus’ life atoned for our sins), and in doing so, moving the locus of the atonement from Good Friday to Christmas Day.
Varieties of Atonement
“What happened on the Cross?” There are many different answers to that question. Our long Christian story has at least three traditional understandings of what happened on the cross between humanity and God. These interpretations are understood as atonement theology.
- Ransom Atonement refers to the understanding that Jesus paid the ransom to the Devil for us, tricked the Devil, and as ransomed people we gain eternal life.
- Substitutionary (or Penalty-Satisfaction) Atonement refers to the understanding that Christ died for our sins, in our place, a sacrificial lamb, and in his suffering he redeemed God’s lost honor.
- Exemplary (or Moral Influence) Atonement refers to the willingness of Christ to suffer for humanity as a salvific example for people to follow.
It is important to note that these atonement theories are centuries old and are tied to their contexts. For example, Satisfaction atonement is based on a Middle Ages feudal system, with subjects offending their lord’s honor and the lord demanding payment. To answer this question of atonement, one must take seriously what it means to consider Christ to be a sacrifice and a ransom paid in our modern world.
Faithful followers of Christ have struggled with the problems of these theologies in the context of modern life. Faithful followers of Christ seek to take seriously the problems of medieval theology in contemporary culture. As a mostly faithful Methodist, we turn now to John Wesley’s understanding of atonement and how it guided his personal theology.
John Wesley & Atonement
Wesley did not write a doctoral dissertation or systematic theology, so our sources include his sermons, letters, and his commentaries on the New Testament. From the outset, Wesley’s theology defies being placed in one category. Wesleyan historian Randy Maddox characterizes Wesley’s theology of atonement “as a Penalty Satisfaction explanation of the Atonement which has a Moral Influence purpose, and a Ransom effect” (Responsible Grace: 109).
Ugh. Let’s unpack that statement of Maddox through a statement by Wesley.
“We receive Christ; that is, we receive Him in all His offices, as our Prophet, Priest, and King.” John Wesley, Sermon 43.
Wesley understands Christ to be the mediator between God and a sinful humanity. To Wesley, Christ has three roles (offices): King, Priest, and Prophet. Christ as King empowers humanity to break free of the chains of sin. Christ as Priest absolves humanity of their personal guilt for sin. Christ as Prophet guides humanity into holy living and constant vigilance against the temptations of sin. We can understand this in a Wesleyan way by focusing on the interaction between sin and Wesleyan grace.
- Christ’s office as King destroys “the power and root of sin” and gives us a chance at new life before we’ve earned it (prevenient grace)
- Christ’s office as Priest redeems us from the guilt of sin when we confess our complicity in it (justifying grace)
- Christ’s office as Prophet teaches us how to live out this newly redeemed life without sin (sanctifying grace)
With these offices in mind, consider how they match up with traditional atonement theories.
- Wesley’s Kingly office presents Christ as a liberator from evil and encourages followers to seek freedom from sin and all oppressive powers in their lives (Ransom)
- Wesley’s Priestly office portrays God as requiring a sacrifice and encouraging Christians to imitate the sacrificial obedience of their Savior (Substitutionary)
- Wesley’s Prophetic office encourages Christian to pursue holy living while on earth instead of allowing injustice to go unchecked or waiting for some heavenly reward (Exemplary)
What a hodgepodge! For Wesley, Christ’s three roles are so intertwined that they defy traditional categories. Wesley clearly understood the difficulties of traditional atonement theories, and blended them in his personal theology. What we can say definitively is this: Wesley believed that Jesus redeemed humanity’s relationship to God for everyone once and for all, but this redemption must be worked out for each individual. Christ as King frees all humanity from the power of sin, but Christ as Priest absolves me of my personal guilt for sin, and Christ as Prophet teaches me holy living as well as reminds me of the continuing influence of my sin.
I personally cherish two aspects of Wesley’s theology. First, through many restless nights and moments struggling to fit into a traditional atonement model, I am thankful that John Wesley politely declined to fit into one model. Secondly, Wesley’s embrace of the Prophetic office of Christ is very personally powerful for me. I can’t just look at what happened on the Cross. What happened on the Cross was an extension of what was already happening in Jesus’ life.
Contemporary Methodism & Atonement
I am not alone in seeing atonement as more than what happened on the Cross. One of the joys of the internet is online communities and easily accessible commentaries by Methodist laity and professionals. A few years ago, one layperson on 7 Villages, a now-defunct (I think!) UMC online community, discusses his experience of Alpha’s lesson on atonement (and I saved it…thank you Evernote).
“One theory is that God is a judge in a courtroom and I stand before him a Sinner. God pronounces me guilty and just as they drag me away, Jesus steps in to take my place…This is not justice. To punish the innocent and let the guilty go free is not true justice, which is something atonement theorists hold in high regard: ‘God is Just.’ Atonement theology bothers me. It is rife with pagan notions of a God demanding blood sacrifice, and contradictions that make little sense to me. It pits God against Jesus. God wants to damn us. Jesus wants to save us. Who does he want to save us from? God. Atonement theology says that all God cares about is forgiving us, but changing us isn’t really necessary.” (Bill McCracken)
I am reminded of my parishioners’ struggles with the language of sacrifice. When my local church did a 9/11 Remembrance, there was a coffee hour discussion of the “sacrifice that firefighters made” as they rushed into the towers. One person said that they were being Christ-like, sacrificing themselves to save another. Another reacted with these words:
“I don’t think that the firefighters died in place of someone, or that they died in exchange for someone else living, or that God demanded one person died that moment, either the firefighter or someone inside.”
What troubled my parishioner is the language of sacrifice. The idea that Christ was a sacrifice worked for the Biblical world of temple sacrifices and pagan fertility rites, but not for some in today’s Christian context. Why did God demand a blood sacrifice? What sort of vengeful God would have God’s own Son murdered? We do not share first-century beliefs about blood sacrifice any more than we share medieval understandings of serfs and lords.
Furthermore, the language of suffering and self-sacrifice does not always speak to my parishioners. In conversations with a woman who used to be with an abusive spouse, she said these words:
“We look at our Jesus and say that his sacrifice is to be admired. Maybe. For those with power, the Gospel Message is of giving away power. But for those without power…us victims…it makes our abuse seem godly, when for truth it is evil and not of God.”
But if the violence on the Cross is not helpful or seen as redemptive for people in their walks of life, then how can we reconcile the violent portrayal of Jesus on the Cross?
Violence & Atonement
Let’s go back to the original question: What happened on the Cross? Simply put, what happened on the Cross was violence. But was it violence demanded by God? Why would a loving God use violence to draw humanity closer to God’s self? We can point to movies like Mel Gibson’s The Passion, which seems to say that the more Jesus bled for us, the more He loved us. That is a troubling theology that glorifies suffering. Any atonement theology which glorifies suffering leaves battered women or abused children without the theological tools to say “the violence done to me is wrong.”
From my pastoral experience and reading the persuasive reason of fellow Methodists, I cannot accept atonement theologies that glorify suffering. I cannot accept that God required violence, required suffering, for Jesus Christ to redeem humanity. But if it is not God needing violence, requiring suffering, then what happened on the Cross was…just state-mandated violence. That’s the reason. That’s it.
Here’s the critical point. Traditional atonement theologies take an act of state-mandated violence and redefine it as a private transaction between the glorified sufferer and an abusive God. This is problematic in so many ways: Violence in intimacy is presented as saving life; violence without reason is interpreted as “God is testing us”; violence replaces love of God with fear of suffering; etc.
Part of the Good News is that Christ died to show that redemptive violence is not the way of the world. In Luke’s Gospel, the Centurion at the foot of the Cross says “this was not supposed to happen.” Jesus was not meant to glorify violence, but to end violence. For me, redemptive violence was meant to be ended and dis-glorified, not continued on every Good Friday service by saying God demanded violence to happen.
Incarnation & Atonement
What’s the solution? What would happen if we moved the locus of atonement away from Jesus’ death and towards Jesus’ life. While that is a step towards Exemplary atonement, it’s not quite a mere “Jesus showed us how to live” idea of an example to live by. Instead, an atonement focused on the Incarnation, on the belief that God became human, might say that in that act of becoming human, God atoned humanity and reconciled humanity to God’s self. The re-creation of humanity into the community of God was not through suffering, violence, or death, but simply because God became human and suffered alongside us.
In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus’ divinity is made known through the confession of the Gentile soldier and the Veil in the Temple is ripped in two. God is telling us that no longer is there a veil between humanity and the divine. The relationship between God and humanity is atoned; God is at-one with all of humanity: no barriers, no transaction requirements, no blood or money, no Gentile or Jew.
The Cross is not about salvific suffering. It is about at-one-ment between God and humanity. And God became one with humanity long before what happened on the Cross.
- Atonement happened to Zacheus up on that sycamore tree, who was a sinner, but through Christ was redeemed by his own individual act of contrition.
- Atonement happened to the criminal alongside Jesus who confessed he was wrong, and was welcomed by Jesus into paradise.
- Atonement happened to Peter who denied Christ, but after his death admitted he loved Jesus after all.
Atonement does not actually have to be about death or suffering, but it must be about the reconciliation of the relationship between God and humanity. I believe atonement theories lose sight of this reconciliation when they focus on the Cross alone and an Incarnational Atonement corrects this drift towards wrestling with what violence must be rather than what God is actually doing.
So do we do away with the Cross because the Cross is violence? By no means! But we must look at the Cross on the mountaintop from the vantage point of seeing all of Christ’s ministry. Just as John Wesley emphasizes Christ’s role of the Prophet, so do I see Jesus atoning all along the path to the Cross.
Atonement means making one, “at-one-ment”, but more than that, it is making one again. It is turning humanity towards their original being created in the image of God.
- It is the woman at the well who is brought closer to God through Jesus’ insight.
- It is the woman who anoints Jesus’ feet (or hair), and Jesus does not look down on her like the others.
- It is the story of Jesus not only suffering on a cross, but suffering through his foolish disciples’ deftness, holy men’s lack of faith, women’s persistence who confront him, and finally a disciple who betrays him.
- Jesus suffers willingly in life, not just in death, and joining others in their suffering. Jesus suffers in his love for us. For me. For you. The Cross is one inevitable step in that journey of presence.
An Incarnational Atonement means that the same thing happened on the Cross that happened every day of Jesus’ ministry: Jesus chose to suffer with people. Jesus suffered alongside and in companionship with the least of the people. Jesus suffered with me. Jesus’ ministry and death on the cross meant to them, to us, that while their suffering is not redemptive, it is descriptive of the life’s journey they will walk with Christ. Though the world may inflict violence, it does not matter: we are at-one with God. And God will never let us walk alone.
A Christmas Atonement
In the moment of justifying grace when I realized that God is persistent in God’s love, I knew deep inside that I will suffer as I seek sanctification in my walk with God. But it is not redemptive suffering: Jesus ended that a long time ago, not by dying in my place like a sheep, or by paying the ransom like a serf, but because Jesus knew humanity needed to know that where there is suffering, Christ is there with us. We bear Christ with us in our suffering, no longer kept on the shelf in the bible, or behind a veil in a temple. Christ is Emmanuel, “God with Us,” and this Incarnational atonement is the way I understand what happened on the Cross…and indeed, in all of Jesus’ life.
And that is why I think Atonement needs to be discussed at Christmas as we discuss the Incarnation. If the incarnation is so important that it actually redeems humanity in the form of an 8 lb 6 oz baby Jesus, then the promise of Jesus’ life and death is actually fulfilled in his birth.
Maybe if we talk more about what Christ’s life meant and refocus the locus of God’s love to Christ’s life rather than his death, then we might do away with problematic theologies of violence and suffering and instead give truly empowering theology to the people.
And that is a hack well worth discussing.
Your turn: Thoughts?
- Do you fit neatly into any of the atonement theories and if so, why are the other ones not persuasive to you?
- Does Wesley fit easily into an atonement model or do you see the hodgepodge I pointed out above?
- What effects could take place by an atonement theory that places the moment of atonement with the birth of Jesus, God-with-us, rather than his death?
Thanks for reading and I appreciate your comments!(Image Credit: “jesus” by Flickr user Mavis, reposted under Creative Commons license)