It’s Holy Week. There were tons of pictures of Palms, donkeys, and parades on Palm Sunday. There will be images of footwashings, communion cups, and dinner tables on Maundy Thursday. Three crosses on a hill on Good Friday. And an empty tomb, rolled away stone, and Easter Lilies on Easter Sunday.
Following the images are the theological statements about atonement. Jesus came to Jerusalem to die to atone for our sins. Jesus had a Last Supper because he was going to die to atone for our sins. Jesus died on a Cross to atone for our sins. And Jesus died for our sins he could be Risen, and that we would believe.
But that’s not how the narrative has to go. In fact, Jesus “atoning for our sins” upon his death on the Cross is only one understanding among many.
Mapping out Atonement Theories
Briefly, the word atonement comes from sixteenth-century English and literally means at-one-ment. Atonement is the process of reconciliation between God and human beings (either on a communal or individual basis) with the goal of righting a wrong or injury, i.e. sin.
Christians contend that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is intimately related to this process. But not all agree on when this act of atonement happened.
The graphic encourages you to answer this question: what part of Jesus’ life was most important in redeeming humanity?
- God becoming human in the Incarnation (Christ’s birth)
- Jesus teaching and performing miracles (Life and Teaching)
- Jesus dying on the cross (Crucifixion)
- Jesus rising from the dead (Resurrection)
Based on your answer, you are able to see where you might want to study more on the Atonement chart. Click here to read about the chart options.
Could Atonement have happened before the Cross?
One application of the chart is that it helps folks who have issues with atonement and redemptive violence that is wrapped up in the Cross. While cross-based atonement is absolutely a valid approach, I find fewer theological minefields in other understandings of atonement (and so do other United Methodists).
Briefly, I feel that atonement theories lose sight of the very real reconciliation that Christ offered through his life when they focus on the Cross alone. 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.
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. And Jesus was doing that long before he was on a Cross.
- Atonement is the woman at the well who is brought closer to God through Jesus’ insight into her life.
- 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.
- It is Jesus who 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.
If that is true, then the Cross is one inevitable step in that journey of presence. But the atoning power of Christ could have come long before the Cross, and my claim is that such reconciliation was not subjective to the individuals only but was objective to humanity as a whole.
Atonement doesn’t have to mean that what happened on the Cross was unique. Atonement could mean that the same thing that happened on the Cross 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.
Atonement with a Call To Action
What would happen if we moved the locus of atonement even further away from Jesus’ death and towards Jesus’ birth and life? While that is a step towards Exemplary atonement, it’s not quite a mere “Jesus showed us how to live” or “an example to live by.” Instead, an atonement focused on the Incarnation, on the belief that God became human, might say that in the sheer 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 lived alongside us.
An Incarnational Atonement changes the Holy Week conversation from “wrestling with what violence must be” towards “what is God actually doing here?” 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.
This is personally convicting for me. Using Wesley’s terminology, in the moment of justifying grace when I saw that God is persistent in God’s love, I knew that I would suffer as I seek sanctification in my walk with God. The suffering itself is not redemptive; however, redemption is found alongside suffering because Jesus knew humanity needed to know that where there is suffering, Christ is there with us. I feel a call to action to live like Jesus in that sort of atonement that I don’t feel as strongly in guilt-based Cross theologies.
Wherever we go, we bear Christ with us in our suffering. Christ no longer kept on the shelf in the bible, or behind a veil in a temple. Christ is Emmanuel, “God with Us,” and what was achieved on the Cross was for me the (Reinforcement? Fulfillment? Consequent?) of what Jesus had already achieved by his very life.
May we live into that mystery as we live out our reconciliation every day.