On January 18, 1989, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled (in Mistretta v. United States) that sentencing guidelines for criminal offenses do not have to consider the possibility of rehabilitation. In making that decision, the Court confirmed a shift toward punishment as society’s way of dealing with crime.
The point here is not to debate the pros and cons of prison policy, but rather to note that the secular world struggles with its own version of what scripture calls “atonement.” How should society respond to criminals? Should they do “penance” in “penitentiaries”? Or should they be “reformed” in “reformatories”?
Of course, the ultimate aim is to overcome crime, not just resist it. But doing that means taking into account three factors: (1) the nature of crime, (2) the nature of the State, and (3) the nature of criminals.
Similar factors figure into Christian views of atonement: (1) the nature of sin, (2) the nature of God, and (3) the nature of sinners (humanity). As with crime, the ultimate aim is to overcome evil, not just resist it. But resisting evil is different from overcoming it. Resisting evil means an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, while overcoming evil takes a different tack. And that tack is suffering– innocent suffering, freely chosen.
All of us inherit an escalating cycle of sin from our ancestors. Fight and flight mitigate some of it, but the only thing that truly works is for someone somewhere in the cycle to break the chain– to be the one who refuses to amplify sin and pass it on to others. That refusal means choosing to suffer. It means forgoing one’s personal rights and simply absorbing the sting of evil into one’s own being. In biblical terms, that kind of “atonement” is called “substitutionary”– one person substitutes for another in bearing the burden of sin.
The substitutionary view of atonement, however, is a major problem in terms of human substitution. Humanity is like the crook who steals a million dollars, squanders half of it, and then wants to set things right by returning the remaining half million. Someone has to make up the difference– and it will have to be the innocent. But there simply isn’t enough innocence– not enough borrowing power– within humanity to deal with the total debt of collective sin. There is simply too much to repay.
One reason sin is so overwhelming is because the consequences of sin always exceed the narrow substance of the actual deed. Atonement necessarily goes beyond the remedy of simple restitution. Guilt is relational and involves broken relationships. The thief who steals a million dollars, and then with the help of others, actually returns the whole amount is still a thief in the eyes of the government and still in need of reconciliation over and above simple restitution. Faith has been broken with society and that break has to somehow be overcome. So even if humanity had the resources to undo acts of sin, humans would still have the problem of guilt among those who’ve committed misdeeds.
Thus the nature of sin is twofold. It’s more than just a legal debt– it’s a “moral debt”– a debt that demands both restitution in terms of deeds and reconciliation in terms of relationship. Both demands shift attention to the second factor of atonement– the nature of God, especially the nature of God as it relates to reconciliation.
Reconciliation doesn’t mean the restoration of old relationships– it means the forging of new ones. Broken relationships arising from adultery, for example, can never be restored in the sense that the adulterous deeds never happened. Instead, true reconciliation means working out new relationships based on better understandings of those being reconciled– understandings that clarify their true natures. Interestingly, an important part of reconciliation is simply allowing offended parties to express outrage (in biblical terms, wrath) at the offense to their natures. Although those expressions are eventually absorbed by the offended party (otherwise reconciliation is cut short), the clarifications of nature they convey are prominent in shaping new relationships.
The third factor involved in atonement is the nature of humanity. Although sin puts humanity in a helpless situation, unable to make restitution or initiate reconciliation, there’s much more to it than just that. Sin sets off a cascading sequence of events that upsets the rightness of the created order itself. Instead of being near the top of creation, humans wind up being subject to forces that would ordinarily exist to serve them. Returning to the previous illustration, it would be like a thief stealing a million dollars to bribe a corrupt judge to do the right thing. The intended image is of an unjust system being fought in an unworthy manner. Humanity cannot escape sin because fighting the “system” simply means becoming more and more a part of it. Therein lies the concept of “ransom.” Humanity must be ransomed from a world system that has become demonic, not just in reflecting sin, but in actively inciting it.
As it turns out, all of the above come together in the life of Christ. The moral debt of sin is too burdensome for humanity to bear. Even if humanity could bear it, the Trinity still has to work through the offense to its nature on its own terms. It has to absorb the deeds and the guilt within its own being for reconciliation to even be possible. Wrath is unavoidable.
In short, God has “issues”– internal issues that have to be worked out. The cross of Christ is the manifestation of those issues being resolved in the only way a holy, loving Father can relate to a helpless humanity while also being true to His nature.
One could even characterize the cross as a “divine domestic situation”– but a domestic situation that differs greatly from the human variety. For in the cross, all partners (Father, Son, and Spirit) are fully agreed on the problem and the solution. So the Father gladly sends the Son to ransom humanity from its self-inflicted subjection to “evil in high places;” the Son gladly goes; and the Spirit gladly brings it all to completion.
Thus we have a contemporary contextualization of the Atonement– a contextualization that speaks to the problem and solution for sin in a way people can understand and appreciate. In thinking about the Atonement in this way, the church can enliven a “crucial” Christian doctrine for a culture that no longer appreciates what the Atonement is all about.