Archives For Atonement

Good Friday is ground zero for speculating about the atonement.

Many of ‘theories’ of the atonement rely upon a literal reading of the ‘Fall’ in Genesis to which probably Jesus himself, being a Jew and Rabbi, did not subscribe.

That’s not the only problem with how we often speak on Good Friday.

To many Christians, the crucifixion is the means by which God solves the problem incurred by Adam’s Fall. Not only does this ‘solution’ seem much worse than originating problem (fruit of the tree vs. torture and execution of an innocent man), it seems to miss the (obvious) extent to which the crucifixion is an intensified instance of the first sin: the rejection of God’s love.

Herbert McCabe, a Dominican philosopher who died a decade ago, enjoyed subverting the conventions of popular piety. In the excerpt below, McCabe meets head-on the challenges posed by Darwin et al to any literal understanding of the ‘Fall.’

By first concurring that social science suggests humanity’s ‘Fall’ was up not down, McCabe locates what Christians mean by ‘original sin’ not in a mythic, primordial Garden but in the historically concrete case of the crucifixion:

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“I can remember a time, it seems quite long ago, when it was definitely not respectable to talk about original sin. The notion plainly belonged to some depressing and pessimistic version of Christianity…the other thing that made original sin less respectable was its connection with the whole Adam story.

It seemed ludicrous that one man’s failure should somehow infect everyone else.

And, any way, how many people could still possibly believe in anyone called Adam?

But it seems reasonable for us to try in terms of our ways of thinking to answer the question ‘How come human society is the way it is?’

I would say that the answer is that human beings ‘fell’ not down but up.

That is to say, humans are maladjusted because they have powers which are greater than they can control…

I would also like to propose a Pickwickian sense in which the occasion on which original sin was committed was the crucifixion of Jesus- that this finally gave meaning to this state of Sin.

In the crucifixion of Jesus it is finally manifested that the maladjustment of man amounts to a rejection of God’s love.

The sin of the world comes to a head in the crucifixion, shows itself fully for what it is. And, of course, in coming to a head is simultaneously conquered.

The Cross is both the manifestation, the sacrament, of the sin of the world, and the manifestation, the sacrament, of the redeeming act of God. It is just as we realize our death that we find life. It is only when it appears as sin that it can be forgiven…

To believe that Jesus is God is to believe that, in rejecting him, people are making the most ultimate kind of rejection, the final contradiction of themselves.

The crucifixion is not just one more case of a particular society showing its inhumanity. It is the whole human race showing its rejection of itself.

The resurrection is the Father’s refusal to accept this self-rejection of man.”

 

I’m marking Holy Week this year by reading the work of the late Dominican philosopher Herbert McCabe.

Here, McCabe cautions against any understandings of Good Friday that are exclusively religious or theological. The very fact that Jesus was crucified suggests the familiar cliche that ‘God willed Jesus to die for our sin’ is not nearly complex enough nor this worldly:

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“Some creeds go out of their way to emphasize the sheer vulgar historicality of the cross by dating it: ‘He was put to death under Pontius Pilate.’

One word used, ‘crucified,’ does suggest an interpretation of the affair.

Yet [that word] ‘crucified’ is precisely not a religious interpretation but a political one.

If only Jesus had been stoned to death that would have at least put the thing in a religious context- this was the kind of thing you did to prophets.

Nobody was ever crucified for anything to do with religion.

Moreover the reference to Pontius Pilate doesn’t only date the business but also makes it clear that it was the Roman occupying forces that killed Jesus- and they obviously were not interested in religious matters as such. All they cared about was preserving law and order and protecting the exploiters of the Jewish people.

It all goes to show that if we have some theological theory [about the cross] we should be very careful.

This historical article of the creed isn’t just an oddity. This oddity is the very center of our faith.

It is the insertion of this bald empirical historical fact that makes the creed a Christian creed, that gives it the proper Christian flavor. It is because of this vulgar fact stuck in the center of our faith that however ecumenical we may feel towards the Buddhists, say, and however fascinating the latest guru may be, Christianity is something quite different.

Christianity isn’t rooted in religious experiences or transcendental meditation or the existential commitment of the self. It is rooted in a political murder committed by security forces in occupied Jerusalem around the year 30 AD…

Before the crucifixion Jesus is presented with an impossible choice: the situation between himself and the authorities has become so polarized that he can get no further without conflict, without crushing the established powers.

If he is to found the Kingdom, the society of love, he must take coercive action. But this would be incompatible with his role as as meaning of the Kingdom. He sees his mission to be making the future present, communicating the kind of love that will be found among us only when the Kingdom is finally achieved.

And the Kingdom is incompatible with coercion.

I do not think that Jesus refrained from violent conflict because violence was wrong, but because it was incompatible with his mission, which was to be the future in the present.

Having chosen to be the meaning of the Kingdom rather than its founder Jesus’ death- his political execution- was inevitable.

He had chosen to be a total failure. His death meant the absolute end his work. It was not as though his work was a theory, a doctrine that might be carried on in books or by word of mouth. His work was his presence, his communication of love.

In choosing failure out of faithfulness to his mission, Jesus expressed his trust that his mission was not just his own, that he was somehow sent.

In giving himself to the cross he handed everything over to the Father.

In raising Jesus from the dead, the Father responded…

This is why Christians sat that what they mean by ‘God’ is he who raised Jesus from the dead, he who made sense of the senseless waste of the crucifixion.

And what Christians mean by ‘Christian’ are those people who proclaim that they belong to the future, that they take their meaning not from this corrupt and exploitative society but from the new world that is to come and that in a mysterious way already is.”

 

Holy Thursday is often called ‘Maundy Thursday’ from the Latin word ‘mandatum.’

Thought most Christians mark the day by recalling the Passover meal Christ celebrated with his disciples, ‘Maundy’ instead recalls John’s scene of Christ washing his friends’ feet and then giving them the ‘mandate’ to wash one another’s feet as a sign of love.

Consequently, Maundy Thursday is a day when Christians give a lot of lip service to the word ‘love.’ However Christians often exhibit little awareness of how impossible love is- especially when we speak of God’s love for us.

The late Dominican philosopher Herbert McCabe wrote much on the impossibility of God’s love. Taking Nietzsche’s critique of Christianity with the seriousness it deserves, McCabe works out a response that mines the riches of the ancient Christian tradition.

I’m marking this Holy Week by wading through some of McCabe’s relevant work:

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“From one point of view, the cross is the sacrament of the sin of the world- it is the ultimate sin that was made inevitable by the kind of world we have made.

From another point of view, it is the sacrament of our forgiveness, because it is the ultimate sign of God’s love for us.

Love requires a relationship of equals.

To love is to give to another not possessions or any such good thing. It is to give yourself to another, but this other must share equality with you (or, as in the case of parents and children, the potential for equality) or it is not really love you share…

You will, I know, recognize immediately that this presents a problem about God.

God is evidently incapable of loving us simply because there cannot be this relationship of equality between God and his creatures.

In one very important sense then the Father can only love the Son because only in the Son does he find an equal to love.

The Father can be kind and considerate to his creatures as such, he can shower gifts and blessings upon them, but in so far as they are simply his creatures he cannot give himself, abandon himself to them in love.

That is why any unitarian theory, or any Arian theory that diminishes the divinity of Christ, leaves us as our only image of God that of the supreme boss.

It leaves us, in the end, with a kind of master/slave relationship between God and his creatures. In a sense, it leaves us with an infantile God who has not grown up enough to have learnt to lose himself in love. Such a god may be a kind and indulgent boss, but he remains a master of slaves- even if they are well-treated slaves.

This is exactly the idea behind the rejection of Christianity made (rightly) by Nietzsche.

If, however, with traditional Christianity, we take the Trinity seriously, we too have to join Nietzsche in rejecting the idea.

For the Christian tradition, the deepest truth about people is that they are loved.

But that is only possible because we have been taken up into the love that God has for his Son.

It is into this eternal exchange of love between Jesus and the Father that we are taken up, this exchange of love we call the ‘Holy Spirit.’

God loves us because we are in Christ and share in his Spirit. We have been taken up to share in the life of love between equals, which is the Godhead.

Nietzsche was absolutely right. God could not love creatures; he still can’t love creatures as such, it would make no sense.

But Nietzsche omitted to notice that we are no longer just creatures: by being taken up into Christ- whom the Father can and does love- we are raised to share in divinity, we live by the Holy Spirit.

To trace the line of the argument again:

 

  1. God the Creator cannot love creatures as such. To think he could is not to take love seriously. It is like speaking of someone loving his cat- except even more so.
  2. But God, as the Gospels continually affirm, loves Jesus. Therefore Jesus must share equality with God. There cannot be two individual Gods any more than one individual God.
  3. Jesus came forth from the Father as it is said in the New Testament: ‘the Father is greater than I.’ He is sent from the Father both in his mission in history and in the eternal procession that that mission reflects.
  4. We can say this only because we have been taken up into the mystery itself, taken up into the Holy Spirit, the eternal love between the Father and the Son.

Or have we?

If we have not, we have no right to say any of this, no right to say that God is love.”

God Matters

 

I’m marking this Holy Week by reading the work of the late Herbert McCabe, a Dominican philosopher who had a gift for articulating the ancient Christian tradition in concise, clear, crisp prose.

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“In the first place, it seems to me that Jesus clearly did not want to die on the cross. He was not crazy, he was not a masochist, and we are, of course, told that he prayed to his Father to save him from this horrible death. Matthew, Mark and Luke all picture him as terrified and miserable and obviously panicking in the Garden of Gethsemane.

He came through this terror to a kind of calm in accepting the will of his Father, but he is quite explicit that it is not his will- ‘not my will but thine be done.’

He did want to accept his Father’s will even if it meant the cross, but he most certainly did not want to the cross itself.

Well, then, did the Father want Jesus to be crucified?

And, if so, why?

The answer as I see it is again: No.

The mission of Jesus from the Father is not the mission to be crucified; what the Father wished is that Jesus should be human.

Any minimally intelligent people proposing to become parents know that their children will have lives of suffering and disappointment and perhaps tragedy, but this is not what they wish for them; what they wish is that they should be fully alive, be human.

And this is what Jesus sees as a command laid upon him by his Father in heaven; the obedience of Jesus to the Father is to be totally, completely human. This is his obedience, an expression of his love for the Father; the fact that to be human is to be crucified is not something the Father has directly planned but something we have arranged.

We have made a world in which there is no way of being human that does not lead to suffering and crucifixion.

Jesus accepted the cross in love and obedience and his obedience was to the command to be fully human.

Let me explain what I mean. As I see it, Jesus, not Adam, was the first human being, the first member of the human race in which humanity came to fulfillment, the first human being for whom to live was simply to love- and this is what beings are for.

The aim of human life is to live in friendship- a friendship amongst ourselves which in fact depends upon a friendship God has established between ourselves and God.

When we encounter Jesus, in whatever way we encounter him, he strikes a chord in us; we resonate with him because he shows the humanity that lies more hidden in us- the humanity of which we are afraid.

He is the human being we dare not be.

He takes the risks of love which we recognize as risks and so for the most part do not take.”

- Good Friday: The Mystery of the Cross

This past Palm Sunday I fielded questions about the Cross and Holy Week off the cuff, a format I like to call ‘Midrash in the Moment.’ Because so much of my thinking is indebted to McCabe, you might have hear some resonances.

Here’s the audio:

As a Thomistic alternative to my normal Barthian tendencies, I’m observing Holy Week this year by reading the theological essays of Herbert McCabe.

A Dominican philosopher, McCabe has revolutionized my thinking about the faith and prompted me to get back in to reading Aquinas this past year.

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‘The crucifixion is the supreme expression of Jesus’ humanity- that is what crucifixes are for, to remind us of what human beings are, when we try to forget.

The crucifixion is the supreme expression of his obedience to the Father, of his eternal Sonship.

On the cross he casts himself simply on the Father. It is his prayer to the Father, the only prayer known to Christians, and the Resurrection is the Father’s response.

The crucifixion and the resurrection are no more to be separated than prayer and response, than two sides of a communication.

The resurrection is the full meaning of the crucifixion.

And this communication of eternal prayer and response is what the Holy Spirit is- which is why Jesus speaks of sending the Holy Spirit in history when he is united with his Father.

Just as the crucifixion/resurrection is what the eternal procession of the Son from the Father looks like when projected upon sinful human history, so the sending of the Holy Spirit is what the eternal procession of the Holy Spirit looks like when projected onto that sinful human world.

And the Holy Spirit appears in our world of course as catastrophic and destructive, as a revolutionary force making the world new, or the Church new, the individual new.

By reducing them first to chaos.

That, I’m afraid, is a very compressed sketch of what the Christian means to be saying when he or she speaks of God as Trinity. And in the end what it all boils down to is this central mystery:

God is love.’

 

As a Thomistic alternative to my normal Barthian tendencies, I’m observing Holy Week this year by reading the theological essays of Herbert McCabe.

A Dominican philosopher, McCabe has revolutionized my thinking about the faith and prompted me to get back in to reading Aquinas this past year.

This is from his essay ‘Freedom’ in the volume God Matters, which was published shortly after McCabe’s death.

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‘The story of Jesus is what the eternal trinitarian life of God looks like when it is projected on to the screen of history, and this means on the screen not only of human history but of sinful human history.

The obedience of Jesus to the Father, his obedience to his mission, is just what the eternal procession of the Son from the Father appears as in history. His obedience consists in nothing else but being history, in being human.

Jesus did nothing but be the Son as human; that his life was so colorful, eventful, and tragic is simply because of what being human involves in our world.

We for the most part shy off being human because if we are really human we will be crucified.

If we didn’t know that before, we know it now; the crucifixion of Jesus was simply the dramatic manifestation of the sort of world we have made, the showing up of the world, the unmasking of what we call, traditionally, original sin.

There is no need whatever for peculiar theories about the Father deliberately putting his Son to death.

There is no need for any theory about the death of Jesus.

It doesn’t need any explanation once you know that he was human in our world.

Jesus died in obedience to the Father’s will simply in the sense that the Father will the Son to be human in our world.’

 

chagallIf I could offer you a choice: between a savior who tells you to return hate with love, or a savior who gives you permission to strike back at those who do you evil- if I could give you a choice, which one would you choose?

If you could choose: between a savior who says: ‘those who pick up the sword will die by it,’ or a savior who invites you to take up arms against the world’s villains- which one would you choose?

If you had a choice: between a savior who promises you a better life and the end of suffering, or a savior who promises you a life of cross-bearing- which one would it be?

Who would you bet on?
A savior who refuses to be a victim, or a savior who refuses to be anything but?
A savior who promises to liberate the poor or a savior who becomes poor?
Which one?
A savior who promises to turn the clock back to the time you were most happy, or a

savior who speaks of a future where everything is new and unfamiliar and turned upside down?

Which one would you choose? Which one really?

If you were a Jew in Jesus’ day, the raw reality of Rome’s invasion left you with three political options.

If you wanted to hang on to your wealth and status then you could collaborate with the enemy. Think Herod.

Instead of collaborating, you could turn within and use Rome’s oppression as an opportunity to call people to reform and holiness. This was the route taken by the Pharisees.

A third option, popular with the masses, saw the overthrow of Rome as the only faithful option. Those who chose this option were called Zealots, and they pushed for an armed Revolution that would return Israel to the glory it had known under King David.

Depending upon your point of view, the Zealots were either criminals or freedom fighters. At least one of Jesus’ twelve disciples was a Zealot, Simon.

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The Zealots believed a time was coming when God would break into history and rid the Promised Land of the Roman invaders. And they believed their violence was in harmony with the violence God was about to wreak very soon.

Barabbas is a Zealot, and the fact that his crimes were famous probably means he was something of a folk hero to the pilgrims gathered for Passover. It’s likely too that Barabbas’ name and deeds were better known in Jerusalem than Jesus’ own. It’s even possible that Barabbas had a larger following than did Jesus of Nazareth.

Every year, at Passover, to keep a lid on any Revolutionary fervor, Pilate had two choices available to him. He could crucify some Jewish insurgents just to remind everyone who was in control. Alternatively, he could release a prisoner in order to appease the crowds. Usually, Pilate did both.

That Pilate even offers to release Barabbas, a known revolutionary, shows that Pilate doesn’t actually expect the chief priests to push the charges against Jesus any further. Zealots like Barabbas wanted to assassinate the Jewish elites too.

Pilate expects the chief priests’ jealousy of Jesus to be outweighed by their fear of violent radicals like Barabbas. That the chief priests refuse to relent on Jesus shows that they understand how Jesus poses a different kind of threat.

So Pilate lines them up, side by side, and gives the crowd a choice.

They’re both named “Jesus,” which means ‘God saves’ or ‘Savior.’

The one’s last name ‘Bar-abbas’ means ‘son of the Father.’ The other, not by name but by origin, claims the same identity. In other words both of them are named ‘Jesus, son of the Father.’

They’re both criminals in the eyes of the chief priests.
They’re both opposed to the Powers that be.
They both ignite within their People the hope that one day soon they will be free. Pilate lines them up, side by side. These two ‘Jesus-es.’

‘Which would you choose?’ Pilate asks them.
Which ‘Savior’ do you want?
Barabbas promises he can change the world by changing who’s in charge of it. Barabbas promises everything will be better if only we get rid of Pilate and the

Priests and Rome.
Barabbas asks his people to take up arms.

Jesus asks his people to take up their cross and follow.

Matthew says that the chief priests ‘persuaded’ the crowds to choose Barabbas over Jesus. The reality is that they probably didn’t have to try very hard.

If I gave you a choice…

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Would you choose a savior who butts in on your marriage and your money, who forces you to look into the mirror and own up to your own brokenness, who says you have to try and understand those you don’t like, who says you’ve got to love those who don’t like you, who says you’ve got to forgive and forgive and forgive.

Or, would you choose a savior who promises to leave the rest of your life alone and just answer the one prayer you have in your life?

Which would you choose?

A savior who will change only the pain in your life and leave the “good” alone, or a savior determined to change everything?

Which?

Pilate lines them up, side by side. Two different Jesus-es. Pick one, Pilate says.

Barabbas says ‘I can give you the life you want.’
But Jesus says ‘I can show you the life God wants.’
Barabbas believes governments and their armies are the tiller of history.
But Jesus believes the future can be moved by a Cross and the hearts that are changed by it.

Had Pilate known the crowds would choose Barabbas, he probably never would have given them a choice.

But the choice is with us all the time.

lightstock_60074_small_user_2741517Unbeknownst to many Christians who invited him into their hearts to be their personal Lord and Savior, Jesus couldn’t be more political.

Even the words ‘Lord’ and ‘Savior’ come out of the Hebrew Bible dripping with political overtones.

Perhaps no other day in the Christian year is as thoroughly political as tomorrow, Palm Sunday.

Jesus rides into town on a donkey to shouts of ‘Save us, King’ and waving palm branches- all of it calculated, political street theater designed to mock Pontius Pilate and the Caesar who sent him.

Here’s an old Palm Sunday sermon from the vault:

chagallThis Sunday is Palm/Passion Sunday, the day which kicks off a week’s attention to the passion story.

There’s a sense in which the Gospels themselves are extended Passion stories. That’s certainly true of Mark and John’s Gospels.

And yet for all the attention given to the cross, the Gospel writers do not make anything about the cross self-evident.

There’s no neon footnotes shouting ‘This is what IT means.’

The confusion gets compounded by the fact that the Passion stories are layered with biblical allusions and imagery.

So it’s not surprising that the cross would provoke questions.

This weekend for my sermon I will use a format I’ve affectionately termed ‘Midrash in the Moment.’ 

Midrash = commentary on scripture.

 I want to tackle some of questions people have about the cross, Jesus’ last week, Christ’s passion and the atonement. 

So email me a question by 5:00 PM EST at jamicheli@mac.com.

Or leave one in the comments section below or submit a question via the Speakpipe on the right of your screen.

I’ll put all the questions in a bingo tumbler and tackle them at random during the sermon time. 

Holy Week is nearing and again preachers and pew-sitters will be pondering the great Paschal mystery.

One thing on which the historic creeds of the Church keep silent is the Cross. The creeds name Jesus’ mother, single out Pontius Pilate for blame and cite forgiveness as one of the effects of Easter.

The creeds do not ever attempt to say exactly what happens on the Cross, what transpires between Christ and God or between God and us. The creeds do not supply or single out a ‘why’ to the Cross.

Much like the New Testament itself, the Church has spoken of the atonement (how Christ makes us at-one with God) in a variety of metaphors.

Today, however, contemporary Western Christianity has tended to privilege one understanding of the atonement to the exclusion of all the others: Jesus suffered the wrath of God meant for you.

There are other, better I think, ways of speaking and thinking about the Cross.

So in shameless self-promotion-

I encourage all of you who will be preaching or reflecting on the Cross these next weeks to download my eBook: Preaching a Better Atonement. 

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In it, I try to unpack the various ways the Church has understood the work of Christ on the Cross and for each perspective I offer a few sermonic illustrations.

One fellow pastor in Virginia had this review, which is the most romantic thing anyone has ever said to me:

“Better than anything Adam Hamilton or max lucado puts out.”

A review on Amazon scores it thus:

“It’s like a snarky, Italian Jon Stewart writing theology.

Fantastic introduction to atonement theories – i.e. what does the cross mean?

Incredible accessible, funny, poignant, but also theologically sound…

Perfect balance between serious theological study and lay understanding.”

Click here to buy it and I will send the proceeds on to the Guatemala Toilet Project.