My Atonement Theology
This was definitely not an easy write. For about 4 years, I have off and on been wrestling with the traditional understanding(s) of the atonement, particularly the problems that flow out of the penal substitutionary view that I had been taught was the same thing as “the Gospel.” Now that I have finished The Nonviolent Atonement by J. Denny Weaver and have incorporated some of his thought into my working theory, I decided it was finally time to put the pieces together here. I’m not loading this up with biblical references or even academic references; I decided I wanted this to be as succinct as possible, which is still not very succinct.
The Problem: Knowledge of Good and Evil
As per satisfaction/penal theory, I believe that the problem is that we have been separated from God. But unlike in that theory, it wasn’t God’s honour or God’s demand for punishment which created the separation. Instead, it is our desire to eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. In this way we play God, deciding between good and evil. But unlike God, when we try to judge between good and evil, we are not able to extend grace and work toward a restorative justice and instead settle for feeling ashamed.
We can see this right from the Fall narrative. Previously Adam and Eve were naked and unashamed, but now their nakedness is revealed to them by their new knowledge and they become ashamed. Suddenly they don’t think they’re good enough for God and go into hiding. But here’s the fascinating point: God goes after them. He isn’t ashamed of them even though they’re ashamed of themselves. It wasn’t the sin in and of itself that separated Adam and Eve from God, as per the Anselmnian view; it was their reaction of running away.
I also should say here that I think there is often the flip side as a result of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. While shame is judging ourselves to say that we are not good enough for God, pride is judging ourselves and saying that we don’t need God. Either way, we’ve created separation between ourselves and God based on our Good-Evil judging. I tend to gloss over that part because the church is usually very good at pointing out the problem with pride but often in the process settles for shaming, still missing the amazing grace offered by Jesus.
Missing the Point: The Religious Impulse
Adam and Eve respond to their eating of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil with shame, putting a perceived gap between their flawed selves and the perfect God. It doesn’t take long for humanity to decide that they need to invent religion in order to bridge this gap. As my teaching pastor Bruxy Cavey has put it, religion was humanity answering a problem that we ourselves invented.
Religion comes in a variety of flavours, of course. In its most ancient forms, present since Cain and Abel, it was usually related to ritual sacrifices, what Rene Girard’s atonement theory would call scapegoating. It can also manifest through other rituals, through ethical or social rules, through separationist tendencies, or most common in the modern world, through doctrinal understanding that align you with the right group. Once you’ve done whatever the requirement is, you can safely say you’ve bridged the gap. All the while, we are still governed entirely by the legal framework.
How Satan Fits In
The name Satan never appears on its own in the Hebrew Bible. It is instead always Ha-Satan, which means The Accuser (Ha = The, Satan = Accuser). Satan isn’t just his name, it is his title, his very identity. It shouldn’t be hard to draw the line from here to the original sin of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Just as we were tempted to play judge, Satan’s very identity is one who plays judge, constantly drawing us into the legal paradigm and encouraging us to go away from God. My theory does work without a personal Satan – as in J. Denny Weaver’s formulation, for instance, where Satan is replaced with societal and personal impulses instead – but in my case, I do believe that a personal Satan makes the most sense of the Scriptural text as well as of the way that the world operates. In other words, Satan is always behind the scenes ready to pull us away from God’s ideals as much as possible, including using tactics of pride and shame which the church has often fallen for in droves.
The Life of Jesus
Most atonement theories, other than perhaps Abelard, have little room for Jesus’ life and teachings. This is not that surprising considering the history of atonement theory and how it was often used to support the status quo while Jesus’ life was anything but status quo. As in Weaver’s theory, though, I think that the life and teachings of Jesus are absolutely essential as the declaration of the Kingdom, the inauguration of the Kingdom, and the invitation to join Jesus in enacting the Kingdom. Of course, that doesn’t make sense if you don’t consider the Kingdom – what Jesus called the Gospel – to be all that important. Jesus’ life and teachings don’t just give us a moral list, though, instead calling us toward a radically new life.
The Death of Jesus
Onto the turning point, then. One of the Church Fathers likened the death of Jesus on the cross to a hook with a worm on it catching the fish Satan. Satan bites at the opportunity to kill Jesus but is caught by the hook and thereby defeated. I’d like to nuance it more than that but I do think it is going in the right direction.
Jesus’ life was teaching something radically different from the ways of the world and the ways of Satan. This threatened Satan and the powers of the world and they responded in the only way that they knew how: violence. That is how problems are solved in the world of judgement, the world of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. We see it all the time, including in the thought of Christendom: if you are the good guys, you have the right to punish the bad guys. Sometimes you’ll be right about who is committing good and who is committing evil and sometimes you won’t. Unfortunately we almost always think that we are the good guys and they are the bad guys, so we get to kill them or at least judge them as inferior to us, including doing so in the name of the nonviolent and grace-filled Jesus.
Satan then, working through the powers of the world, was the architect of Jesus’ death. It was not God’s requirement that somebody die as punishment, as per PSA. It was humanity’s, specifically Rome’s in the defense of the Pax Romana (Roman Peace, peace through victory). Roman leadership, with the Jewish religious elite by their side, felt that they had to put down this revolutionary who wanted to mess with their status quo. That’s the only way that they knew how to operate and they don’t see that Jesus was really bringing something else. Look at pretty much any world conflict before or since and it is pretty clear this is our default method. It is much like a fish will instinctively bite on a worm without noticing the hook underneath that leads to its own death.
The Resurrection of Jesus
Victory is sealed with resurrection. While the ways of Satan and the powers of the world think they win by causing death on those who they judge, the self-sacrificial love and grace of Jesus triumphs over that. Death, the perpetual cost of continuing that original sin of judgement, can be overpowered through love. “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” (1 Cor 15:55). Ironically, the Accuser himself has been defeated through the accusations he believed would be necessary to continue his rule of the Earth.
What About Us?
While penal substitution leaves you in a place somewhere between fear of the angry legal God at worst and gratitude that Jesus would get in the way at best, this understanding of the atonement continues from Jesus’ life by beckoning you into joining the Kingdom life now. We are invited into a way of life in which love is better than hate, grace is better than judgement, and love of enemy is better than violence. We are invited to repent – change our hearts and minds – away from the ways of the world which rely so heavily on lording power over others and toward something completely different. It is an atonement theory that has radical life-changing implications.