Friday, 8 February 2013

An Atoning God?

I spent two days with the (Anglican) Doctrine Commission last week, pondering the question of the atonement with a group of theologians who represent the breadth of Anglicanism in this country. It was a stimulating time and we discussed the matter in a spirit of charity and respect, even where we differed considerably in our interpretation of the meaning and mechanics of Christ's atoning sacrifice.

Since then, the ideas we explored have been going round and round in my head and, with it, a level of confusion. I'm not unhappy to be in some sort of confusion - I'd certainly resist being talked out of it - because I know we're in the realm of mystery where not everything is clear to the blurred human mind. And I'm a bit afraid of ruthless clarity.

One of the fundamental issues we discussed was whether sin and wrongdoing are punished for restorative or retributive reasons: to transform the wrong-doer or to punish the offender. These are not, of course, either/ors, as most people who believe in the need for punishment also recognise the greater need for restoration. But it has significant consequences for how we understand Christ's death.

Those who believe the death of Jesus is 'propitiating' argue that God has taken the punishment for sin on himself, so that no further retribution is needed. They do not believe, incidentally, that an angry Father punishes unjustly an innocent Son. Thus the debt for our sins has been paid, the punishment taken on our behalf and in our place. We now have a new legal status that enables us, though guilty, to stand as innocent before our divine Judge.

On the other hand, those who believe the death of Jesus is 'expiating' and not 'propitiating' argue that no punishment is required in the miracle of God's compassionate and forgiving love, but that Jesus' death removes sin - root and branch - and cleanses us from its guilt and stain. Forgiveness now becomes the new world order: not vengeance or retribution but forgiving, atoning, restorative love.

Both sides argue their case from biblical texts and from careful study of individual biblical terms.

I find myself, for the most part, in the latter camp. Yet I see the logic of the propitiatory view and I'm aware that many of our forebears believed it - at least to some extent. Karl Barth speaks of 'the Judge judged in our place', and that conveys an image to me of God throwing himself on a hand-grenade about to explode and taking the explosion into himself. That makes some sense to me theologically. Perhaps, for me, the image of God's wrath is a way of speaking of God's emphatic No to all injustice, all destruction, all oppression, all wrong. It also conveys to me a sense that the fearful consequences of wrong-doing are graciously and gratuitously borne by God.

For me, there are a number of different images of the atonement in the Scriptures and each of them contributes something to our understanding of the whole: none captures the entire event with its full significance. I'm happy to examine each and allow each to speak, taking seriously what it has to offer. I suspect it's dangerous to gallop off with one image in one direction, while ignoring or downplaying the rest. The 'penal substitution' view, to my mind, tends to do that. It creates a trajectory and pursues it, even remorsely, wherever the logic takes it. Calvin, of course, had a tendency to do that with his lawyer's mind. And I confess it makes me uneasy. He ends up believing that Christ died only for the elect and not for the massa damnata, left off the divine Teacher's class list before they even entered the school.

The view, too, of a God who will condemn people to Hell for all eternity is another one that, frankly, fills me with repugnance. Once again, it seems to take a biblical image - that of Gehanna, the rubbish tip - and push and push it into a full-blown theory of everlasting torment. But I don't believe that any part of creation - human, animal, plant, planet or angel - exists without the sustaining grace and providence of God. Just as creation is not a clock that God has wound up at the beginning of creation, so neither is the soul. It is not self-subsisting, for it exists, subsists, only in God. Everything in creation is dependent utterly on the life-giving Spirit of God, whether spiritual or material.

If that is true, it means that the souls of those who have died (incidentally, I use 'soul' in a non-Platonic sense) continue only because of the life-giving presence of God. Why would God keep them 'alive', as it were, only to torture them for all eternity for their earthly sins? Or, if Hell really means separation from God (as C.S. Lewis and others have argued), why would God maintain such souls in being only to keep them from him once they've crossed the impassible line of death?

For me, judgement means ultimately how each of us responds when we see the face of Christ. Will it reveal all beauty and goodness to us, or will it be hateful and unbearable: something from which we avert our gaze? That is much more the essence of judgement than whether or not we're card-carrying Christians in our lives or not. I want everyone to know Christ, to know God, but there are people, in my view, who may one day realise that they have known God all along and that the face of Christ is strangely and wonderfully familiar to them. There are also 'Christians' who may abhor that face and turn away in fear and disgust.

In the end, I believe in a God who forgives, who restores, who atones, who bears the burden and consequences of all sin on the cross. I believe in a God who gives freedom of choice. I believe in the New Jerusalem which remains always open: at whose gates the Spirit and the Bride perpetually stand, calling 'Come' to all on the outside.


  1. A vision for the Church on earth, surely, to be the Bride calling "come"?

    Beautifully written.

  2. Hi Dorothy,

    I like lots of this. I've gradually come to the view that a lot of confusion is created by the tendency to merge the emotional metaphor (anger/wrath) with the legal/forensic (judgement/justification) and argue them as a package. I think these are not one but two (and two of the many) threads in scripture that turn up, like a kaleidescope, as different ways of viewing the accomplishment of Christ's death (others include ransom; washing; defeat of darkness; reconciliation; sacrifice...)

    It seems to me that anger/wrath in scripture is associated with the unsettled, unpredictable element of God's opposition to sin, particularly as regards timing from our point of view. Judgement and justification are associated with the settled, predictable element, the final account.

    The distinction is not perfect because the sudden, unpredictable elements in the OT are seen as foretastes or advances on the final judgement; or perhaps even as that judgement (in a world where resurrection belief had not yet crystallised and death might have been the end). And in Jesus' teaching, the unpredictable element of wrath is merged with judgement by its focus on the timing of the parousia.

    But I think nonetheless they are two metaphors serving two different purposes which sometimes overlap. As a result, while it makes sense to speak of the legal/forensic aspects of the cross in terms of satisfaction of penalty; it makes little sense to speak of them in terms of satisfaction of wrath. There is no uncertainly of timing as regards the cross; and anger isn't something you satisfy, as though it is doled out in measurable degrees, it is something you placate or turn aside or calm. Christ's death turns aside God's wrath, or delays it until the parousia, because there is now a righteousness established in humanity that gives hope for the rest.

    That's as far as I've got with puzzling it out... I've been meaning to work it out more fully some time. What do you think of the general lines?

  3. Hi Dorothy,
    Thank you for your superbly written reflection. The last two paragraphs especially touched me at a rather challenging period in my life - thank you again.