In the past couple months, I have become more and more interested in the nature of the Atonement. I have read a few different articles on the subject, including a two-part series on our very own Fish Tank (see here and here) and this paper.
Of course, there are several paths of inquiry concerning the Atonement that one can explore: Could God (if He had chosen to do so) simply have forgiven our sins without Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross? If so, why did He not? Of what exactly are we being forgiven? These are thorny questions, and I hope to formalize answers to them someday. For now, though, I would like to explore one reason I believe that God chose to effect our salvation through the blood and body of His only begotten Son.
Perhaps the most famous and serious philosophical objection to Christianity (and monotheism in general) is the problem of evil. Epicurus summarized it well:
“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”
My purpose here is not to outline a complete theodicy, but simply to highlight one connection I see between the Atonement and the problem of evil.
It seems that it would behoove God to provide some sort of theodicy – some account of why He created a world in which so much evil and suffering exist. But God’s purpose for mankind extends far beyond proving to philosophers of religion that the argument from evil does not successfully disprove His existence. No, in the face of war and plague, God – like a reckless lover – has boldly sought to convince us of His love for us. And He has chosen as His coup de grâce none other than Jesus Christ: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
At first glance, it seems incredible. God loves us? What about the Holocaust, or slavery, or Darfur? How is God to explain Himself? How can it all be “worth it”?
Imagine, for a moment, that Jesus had not died on the cross and that God has simply waved a wand and pronounced our sins forgiven. At Judgment Day, God (presumably seated upon a luxurious throne) proceeds to explain why He chose to allow us to undergo so much suffering. At the end of His speech, God says, “This is how you know what love is: I forgave you and limited your suffering to that which was necessary.”
See anything wrong with that picture? It depicts an aloof God, impervious to the trials and tribulations of this world, a God who lectures on the merits of suffering He Himself has never endured. It reduces love – and the redemption of all creation – to the clemency of a somewhat stern sovereign. Perhaps most damning (as it were), it makes for a relatively uninteresting story.
Fortunately, it is not the story of Christianity; on the contrary, “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us” (1 John 3:16a). How can we trust that “our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (cf. Romans 8:18), that it will all be “worth it”? A huge part of the answer has to be that God also suffered. As John Stott wrote:
“I could never believe in God, if it were not for the cross. The only God I believe in is the one Nietzsche ridiculed as ‘God on the cross.’ In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to pain? I have entered many Buddhist temples and stood respectfully before the statue of Buddha, his legs crossed, arms folded, eyes closed, the ghost of a smile playing round his mouth, a remote look on his face, detached from the agonies of the world. But each time after a while I have had to turn away. And in imagination instead I have turned to that lonely, twisted, tortured figure on the cross, nails through his hands and feet, back lacerated, limbs wrenched, brow bleeding from thorn pricks, mouth dry and intolerably thirsty, plunged in God-forsaken darkness. That is the God for me! He laid aside his immunity to pain. He entered our world of flesh and blood, tears and death. He suffered for us.”
The impact of what the cross communicates to us cannot be understated. How do we know God loves us? Because He suffered for us. How can we trust that there is a purpose behind our suffering? Because God did not consider Himself above suffering, but suffered beside us, along with us – for us.
Now, to clarify, I am not suggesting that the above encapsulates the entirety of the Atonement’s import. In fact, I have said hardly anything about the nature of the Atonement itself or of the problems that arise with the several different theories of atonement. However, I think that any discussion of God’s plan for the Atonement must remember how central the cross is, not simply to the forgiveness of our sins, but to the whole of the Christian message.