The doctrine of atonement is the central Christian doctrine where we consider how it is that God has brought about the reunion of humanity and indeed, all of creation, back to Himself. This presupposes of course that the most natural existence for humanity is to be in relationship with God and with creation.
The doctrine of atonement concerns itself with the understandable reality that humans are regularly not at their best and therefore often fail to live well with themselves, with creation, and with their creator God. Another way of putting this is to talk about the sinfulness of humanity, or a broken relationship.
Atonement doctrine asserts that humanity has tried but has failed to bring about this reunion with God and therefore requires that God has to act to repair the relationship and to bring about the reconciliation of all things to Himself. This involves forgiveness for all that have spoiled the relationship.
At this point it seems to me that we need to assert a profound and fundamental reality about God. God is love. That is: God is love.
Thus it follows logically to say that the reunion of humanity with God is brought about by love and in love. Atonement is an example of the wonderful, beautiful, glorious nature of the love of God. From beginning to end atonement is flushed through with love. Because God is love, God can do no other.
Plus, just so there is no confusion; at no point in the process of bringing about this reunion does God act outside of love.
So, in order to bring about atonement – the reunion – what is necessary?
- Love. God moves towards humanity with a passionate desire for a renewed relationship.
- Forgiveness. Forgiveness arises out of love and is necessary to deal with all that has messed up the relationship.
How about forgiveness then? How does God forgive?
Was God active in the death of Jesus?
Now, it is often said that the death of Jesus was a necessary prerequisite for God to forgive and renew relationship with humanity. Some atonement theories state that God was somehow active within the violent event of the death of Jesus bringing about the reunion of humanity with Himself. My view, reflecting on the words of Jesus, is that God was not involved in the violence of the death of Jesus.
Shocking…? Maybe. But here’s what I mean. As he hung on the cross Jesus cried out to God, ‘My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?’ Jesus did not believe that God was active in the violence of the cross.
- The violent death of Jesus was perpetrated by a violent culture.
- If God was involved in the violence of the death of Jesus then God is a violent God.
- If God was involved in the death of Jesus then we could hold God culpable of filicide – killing His own son.
Was the death of Jesus necessary for atonement?
Some theories even suggest that the death of Jesus was somehow necessary in order to bring about forgiveness, atonement and reunion. Again I assert that this is simply not true. God is love.
- When has the death of a perfectly healthy, sane, good person ever been an act of love?
- And I simply do not believe that God was so inadequate in His love that he required a bloody sacrifice, without which he could not forgive and bring about atonement.
- God is perfectly able to forgive…because God is love.
If we take a look at the life of Jesus how do we see forgiveness?
- Jesus forgave the sins of a paralysed man (Matthew 9:2).
- Jesus forgave the sins of the woman who anointed him with perfume (Luke 7:48).
- Jesus insisted that his disciples should forgive, and forgive, and forgive (Matthew 18:21-22).
- While Jesus was dying he continued to forgive (Luke 23:24).
The reality that we see in the life of Jesus, which we would claim is the best evidence we can turn to for the character and values of God, is that forgiveness does not require violence, or death. Forgiveness is given freely. And for disciples of Jesus forgiveness is insisted upon. In the Lord’s Prayer – more properly the Disciple’s Prayer – Jesus teaches that forgiveness for the disciple is dependant upon the disciple forgiving others (Luke 11:4). The point being that forgiveness is offered freely, without recourse to bloody sacrifice or violence.
So what can we conclude?
- God is love
- God is able to forgive from within Himself.
- God does not require anything – sacrifice, death, etc – in order to forgive.
God forgives because God is love. God forgives because he desires a renewed relationship with humanity and he desires that humanity should be reconciled with God and creation. Everyone who turns to God in humble trust will receive forgiveness.
This is not the end of it, but the death of Jesus is not the place of atonement – of reunion. If anything, the death of Jesus shows humanity at its worst. Moreover, I am not at all convinced that the Apostle Paul thought that the death of Jesus was a prerequisite for atonement, forgiveness, and reconciliation.
‘And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins’ (1 Corinthians 15:17). Let’s think about this. The Apostle Paul is reflecting on a position in-between the death and the resurrection of Jesus: post-death and pre-resurrection. Jesus has been crucified, but he has not yet been raised from the death. At this point, suggests Paul:
- You are still locked into your sins,
- Atonement has not taken place
- Reunion / reconciliation has not been accomplished.
Atonement : a loving reunion (part 2) is on its way…
‘the return of the prodigal son’ Charlie Mackesy