Straw Atonement Theories

One of the dilettante hobbies of the secular liberati is mocking a god who doesn’t exist and who Christians should hate if he did exist. But it is an amusing hobby, and so persists. These cheap thrills take many forms – for example, the atonement, as imagined by those who hate the very idea of law, sin, or rescue. Their idea of atonement would not be good news if it had happened.

The church has fed the scoffers by butchering its own message. Any given Sunday you can hear from Christian pulpits a cartoon of the biblical vision. Some words have meanings so poorly understood by the audience they should not be inflicted on the sleepy crowd. “Sacrifice”, “atonement”. Such words have only a half-life of meaning for the typical congregation. Each generation must refresh them as if they had never been heard.

I’m remembering an anatomy book from my boyhood. I’m not sure they are around anymore, but this one had multiple transparent pages that overlaid one by one deeper and deeper sections of the human body as you flip the pages. The first page shows the skin. Lift the page, and the skin is peeled away to show muscle underneath. Lift another clear plastic page and the muscle is gone, leaving internal organs visible. And so on.

The modern critics of atonement are looking at the top page and insisting the body could never stand erect because there are no bones. The reductionist mind, typically, strips the delicate tissue out of a concept then criticizes the corpse for being dead. They see the crudest satisfaction theory which would represent nothing new in the history of religion and never think to wonder why such a sacrifice would revolutionize an empire.

You see, satisfaction makes no sense if it means Person A, acting on Person B, for the benefit of Persons C. Structured like this, it is a deracinated version of the biblical truth; it is no advance over a hundred ancient myths. But the entire point of the biblical redemption is not that God acts on His Son for the benefit of the world. Rather, it is that God acts on His Son who is, in fact, somehow, Himself, for the sins of the world which have become, somehow, His sins. God does not act on an Other; He is the Other. God does not act to save a world that is Other; He has entered that world and is bearing the sin. There is no action on Others; God saves by assuming the ontological space of the Other and exercising justice and mercy at once, and this coinherent logic of agape is the entire point. If we were not asked to wonder at this new, radically new logic the Bible would be wasting our time rehashing the perennial religion in recycled images.
This unity of Actor, Agent, and Beneficiary doesn’t just drop out of the ceiling wires like a convenient plot device. The theme has already been played and played again in the magnificence of Incarnation and Trinity, those other chapters in the drama with Persons who are at once distinct yet not separate. So that when God in Atoning love both acts and receives on behalf of the world, this union of subject, verb, and object is not new. In Atonement, as the culmination and Grand Reveal, the one God in multiple Persons wills to discharge the burden of His own law by exacting and taking His own penalty.

The Christian drama of redemption hasn’t been pondered by the big thinkers, then rejected; it is typically too profound for them.

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