In the history of Christian thought there have been many theories of how we are made at-one with God (atonement). One theory which we find referenced as early as the 500’s AD, called the “Ransom Theory,” or the”Classic Theory” suggests that because we are sinful that we actually belong to Satan. The Ransom theory, building itself on the verse from Paul, “you were bought with a price” (1 Corinthians 6:20) identifies Jesus’ death with his paying a ransom to Satan, and springing us from Hell. Later theologians took exception to this narrative, because it seems to give too much power to Satan. Did an omnipotent God really need to do all of that to defeat Satan?
In the wake of those charges the onus moved from Satan being owed something to God being owed something.
God was a “just God” who demanded justice for our evil. Jesus was the answer to solving our problem, and bridging the gap.
This secondary theory was called “Penal Substitutionary atonement.” It holds that we are guilty and deserving of harsh justice, but Jesus substituted himself for us to satisfy the justice of God.
Later Christians didn’t appreciate a “necessary” bloody death. And so an idea linking Jesus’ moral teachings to atonement came to be: Jesus came to make us one with God through the things he asked us to do, and the way that he called us to live. After all, the first Christians were called the “Followers of the Way.”
I know that the preceding paragraphs dumb-down thousands of years of theology and speculation, and millions of pages of books and treatises on the subject of the atonement. (But, what can one do with a measly blog post?)
I’m a believer that the cross actually did something—something that changed the course of human events, and which altered the functioning of the cosmos. I find it interesting, and maybe a little annoying, that Jesus doesn’t give explicit teachings on exactly how the cross saves us. He talks about salvation in terms of loving your neighbor, loving God, believing in God, caring for the poor and hungry, being wary of riches, eating his flesh and drinking his blood, etc. etc. But no clear links between Golgotha and atonement/ salvation—at least not from Jesus’ teachings.
But, so much is made of Jesus’ coming among us, as the Son of God and the Word, that to have him die on the cross innocently – after committing no crime…well deep in my bones I feel like it means something big. Something so big that the cosmos is ontologically altered, and a new reality emerges.
But, I can’t explain how. I can dig through books by other Christians, most of which are far smarter than I am, but I still have a hard time reconciling it.
Which, is perhaps the point of Jesus’ lack of teaching on the cross and salvation. It if could be easily internalized—if it made perfect sense—then what would be the point of observing Good Friday? What would be the point of falling on our knees before the cross?
If it were simple—like a mathematical formula—like a medieval theory of the atonement, then I could just do the math and go on with my life.
But, Good Friday isn’t a day to revel in an equation.
Poor Me + Jesus’ Death = Everything is OK
Good Friday is the day when we enter into the reality that Jesus—our friend, rabbi, and Lord—was betrayed, denied, arrested, spat on, laughed at, whipped, and nailed to a cross and left to die in the heat of the day—naked and practically alone.
And that death—the death of the one who we sang beautiful carols celebrating his birth just three short months ago—breaks my heart. It stings. When I close my eyes and I see his eyes, I ache. When I hear his words “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?,” I ask the same question.
And when I see his bloody and broken corpse unstuck from the cross, hastily prepared and shut up in a tomb…
No theory on the atonement makes that go down any easier.
But, I tell you what does – what gives me the slightest glimmer of hope. It may be Friday, but I hear something good might just happen on Sunday.