Atonement and the Evils We Face
I’ve been a part of a couple of interesting conversations over the last few days. One was with a bunch of guys on a work retreat and had to do with the nature of God’s knowledge and how it relates to the problem of evil. The second had to do with how to make sense of a tragic situation and how mental illness does/does not factor into the destructive decisions and actions of those close to us. One conversation was pretty detached and abstract, the other intensely personal, but both reminded me of the centrality of theodicy in how we look at the world and of the importance of getting clear exactly how we think that Jesus addresses the deepest questions we have.
One lens through which I have recently thinking about these questions has to do with the admittedly arcane topic of the nature of the atonement. This is an issue that is currently attracting a bit of attention in our tiny little Mennonite Brethren corner of Christendom (this isn’t exactly a new topic within evangelical Christianity; we’re just a little late to the party). One of our MB academics, Mark Baker, has co-written a book challenging the supremacy of of penal substitution (God punished Jesus so that he wouldn’t have to punish us) as the central understanding the work of the cross, and his book has drawn the ire of some, both inside and outside the MB fold.
(I attended a conference on this a few months ago and came away somewhat disheartened. It was frustrating for me to see an unwillingness to consider what are, in my opinion, more balanced and holistic conceptions of what the cross actually accomplishes.)
So how does the nature of the atonement relate to the question of theodicy? Quite simply, the Christian believes that the cross of Christ represents God’s response to the problem of evil—not as an abstract question of philosophy but as an existential and ethical crisis that we all face in some form or another. We all suffer, to varying degrees, and we all wonder how to live with the evil in our path and what hope there is for a future free of its influence.
From my perspective, any theory of the atonement that even merits consideration must do justice to at least two basic facts:
- We are participants in and contributors toward the evil in the world.
- We are the victims of the evil in the world and suffer because of both the actions of others and the very parameters of our existence.
Whatever we say about the atonement has to take both of these into consideration. Either one, in isolation, tells too little of the story.
To return to my earlier conversation about how to think about mental illness, we somehow have to factor in both the fact that someone is affected by evil due to factors not of their choosing and that they have made/continue to make decisions which actively contribute to the suffering of others. It will always be a question of degree, of course. Some are mostly victims and barely culpable contributors, while for others the situation will be reversed. And the same probably holds true for you and I—some of us have a much harder road to walk than others, some face greater evils than others, that profoundly influence who we are and who we become. Some of us face less obvious evil yet continually choose to live in such a way as to bring pain to those around us.
For the Christian, the cross addresses both extremes and everything in between. But in my view, proponents of penal substitution as central metaphor for understanding the atonement fail to fully factor in the basic fact that we are more than just guilty sinners. We are victims, as well. We are born into structures and patterns of injustice, oppression, and deceit. We are deeply affected by many factors and forces not of our own choosing (hence, the appropriateness of the Christus Victor metaphor). Similarly, those who see no place for any kind of vicarious substitution in Christ’s death fail to appreciate that we are more than just victims, that we do contribute to the evil in the world, that we are sinners who do deserve judgment, however this is understood.
The atonement wars are, on one level, rather wearying and, perhaps, a massive exercise in frustration. But I think that how we understand the significance of the cross has a profound effect on both our theology and our anthropology. Is the God of Christianity a wrathful deity demanding that his his honour be vindicated through the punishment of sin? A divine psychotherapist who just wants us to feel loved without the unpleasantness of accountability? Are human beings wretched worms dangling over the precipice of hell, preserved only by the arbitrary will of God? Helpless victims who would always do good but for the unsatisfactory nature of their circumstances?
The truth, as is usually the case, lies between the extremes. And our understanding of the atonement ought to reflect this. Because if the cross of Jesus Christ really does represent God’s final answer to the evils we face then we should be able to conceptualize and present this in a way that does justice to the rationality and the beauty of the hope that is ours.