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:
“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.”