Sin, Grace, and Atonement

Psychologists distinguish between two types of love: unconditional mother love and conditional father love. God shows conditional love when an individual earns it through a change in behavior. He shows unconditional mother love before a change occurs. This unearned forgiveness is called “grace.”  Because men need an impetus to get out of the cycle of guilt and sin, acceptance and forgiveness must come first. Grace resembles getting an A grade from the outset, erasing the sting of fear and punishment.

Naturally, I wondered whether grace would lead to laziness or moral looseness. I learned, however, that gratitude towards God fosters moral behavior and obedience to God. Real and rightly understood, grace leads to a radically changed nature. C.S. Lewis said, “God does not love us because we are good, but because He loves us, He will make us good.”
The grace aspects, inherent in Judaism, have offset its more legalistic phases and have kept it alive throughout the centuries. Consistent with the overall pattern of Jewish History, Jews please God out of gratitude for forgiveness.
Paul Tournier, a Christian psychologist, wrote about man’s innate understanding of the atonement process. Primitive Indians, far removed in time and place from Old Testament’s notions of atonement, recognized the need for animal sacrifice to attain closeness with God. Tournier associated this longing with Carl Jung’s idea of the collective unconscious—that certain mythical symbols, evolving in man’s psyche over the generations, represent great psychological truths. Many theologians believe that God prepared the thought forms of the ancient mystery religions to anticipate the substitutionary concepts later found in the Bible.
Because the Temple no longer exists, the Talmud affirms that, for Jews, repentance, prayer, and performing good deeds suffice as atonement. Curiously, on the Day of Atonement, Ultra-Orthodox Jews practice Kaporos, the ritual killing of chickens. Before slitting their throats, men using roosters and women using hens, swing them around their heads three times, saying: “This is my substitute, this is my exchange, this is my atonement. This fowl will go to death, and I will enter upon a good and long life.”
Despite areas of continuity, Rabbi Meir Soloveichik distinguishes between Christian Jewish approaches to repentance. Christianity stresses God’s outreach to humanity while Judaism stresses the idea that man saves himself. Also, in its plan for salvation, Christianity focuses on the individual rather than on the community.  A more nuanced understanding comes from Abraham Joshua Heschel. He contends that repentance in Judaism is both actively willed and based on God’s reaching out. The initiative for repentance comes from God, based on, “Turn us to you, and we shall return.”
Several Jewish scholars asked Yale’s evangelical theologian, Miroslav Volf, to reflect on the theological differences between Judaism and Christianity. Volf agreed with Abraham Heschel’s contention that God searches for us. But he said that Christians claim much more—”God has gone to such lengths that the sins that weigh you down have already been taken away! God makes repentance possible only by taking our sins upon himself.”
When all-consuming wretchedness prevents an individual from initiating reconciliation, God Himself accomplishes the work. He partakes of the evil by turning it into love with a once-and-for-all quality. Only when God became the victim and forgave did we have proof of his love. When we understand forgiveness in this way, it becomes more than a theory but an identification with the suffering, atoning work of God.
Because Judaism starts with the worth of humankind and the inherent goodness of creation, many see the Christian view as pessimistic. However, Blaise Pascal describes a more paradoxical situation. Christianity teaches that we resemble deposed kings. Though made in the image of God and capable of great things, mankind experienced a fall. The greatness God makes the wretchedness more terrible—the greater the height, the more catastrophic the fall.
Christianity teaches neither blind optimism nor resigned cynicism. In his Pensees, Pacal wrote, “Knowing God without knowing our wretchedness leads to pride. Knowing our wretchedness without knowing God leads to despair. Knowing Jesus Christ is the middle course, because in Him we find both God and our wretchedness.”

The typical substitutionary model of atonement caused me to think of God as an abusive parent. I prefer Lewis’s understanding—one that veers away from forgiveness in the legal courtroom sense. Prominent Protestant theologians such as N.T. Wright, Richard Allison, and Dallas Willard hold to Lewis’s view.

  James Bernstein, a Jew who converted to the Greek Orthodox Church, contrasts the Eastern Church’s view to that of the Western Protestant Church. InSurprised by Christ, he states that Protestants use terms that imply pardon, debt, payment, and ransom. However, when the Orthodox read, “Christ died for our sins (1 Corinthians 15) they understand it to mean that Christ died for us—to heal us, to change us, and make us more Godlike—not that He died instead of us in the sense of paying our debt.
    The sacredness of the blood and its efficacy consists not in what its offering does to God, but in what it does for the person accessing forgiveness. It doesn’t imply a transference of sin from the person to the animal being sacrificed. Expiation is directed to that part of us that prevents perfect worship. Propitiation, the opposite, seeks to change God’s offended will by offering appeasement. When Jesus said, “Your faith has saved you,” He meant that your faith has healed you. Salvation, more than escaping from something such as death or Hell, connotes health.
  C. S. Lewis’ words on atonement from Mere Christianity:
Now before I became a Christian I was under the impression that the first thing Christians had to believe was one particular theory as to what the point of this dying was. According to that theory God wanted to punish men for having deserted and joined the Great Rebel, but Christ volunteered to be punished instead, and so God let us off. Now I admit that even this theory does not seem to me quite so immoral and so silly as it used to; but that is not the point I want to make. What I came to see later on was that neither this theory nor any other is Christianity. The central Christian belief is that Christ’s death has somehow put us right with God and given us a fresh start. Theories as to how he did this are another matter. A good many different theories have been held as to how it does work. I will tell you what I think it is like. All sensible people know that if you are tired and hungry a meal will do you good. But the modern theory of nourishment—all about vitamins and proteins—is a different thing. People ate their dinners and felt better long before the theory of vitamins was ever heard of: and if the theory of vitamins is some day abandoned they will go on eating their dinners just the same. Theories about Christ’s death are not Christianity: they are explanations about how it works. Christians would not all agree as to how important these theories are. My own church—the Church of England—does not lay down any one of them as the right one. The Church of Rome goes a bit further. But I think they will all agree that the thing itself is infinitely more important than any explanations that theologians have produced. I think they would probably admit that no explanation will ever be quite adequate to the reality. But as I said in the preface to this book, I am only a layman, and at this point we are getting into deep water. I can only tell you, for what it is worth, how I, personally, look at the matter.
   On my view the theories are not themselves the thing you are asked to accept. Many of you no doubt have read Jeans or Eddington. What they do when they want to explain an atom, or something of that sort, is to give you a description out of which you can make a mental picture. But then they warn you that this picture is not what the scientists actually believe. What the scientists believe is a mathematical formula. The pictures are there only to help you to understand the formula. They are not really true in the way the formula is; they do not give you the real thing but only something more or less like it. They are only meant to help, and if they do not help you can drop them. The thing itself cannot be pictured, it can only be expressed mathematically. We are in the same boat here. We believe that the death of Christ is just that point in history at which something absolutely unimaginable from outside shows through into our own world. And if we cannot picture even the atoms of which our own world is built, of course we are not going to be able to picture this. Indeed, if we found that we could fully understand it, that very fact would show it was not what it professes to be—the inconceivable, the uncreated, the thing from beyond nature, striking down into nature like lightning. You may ask what good it will be to us if we do not understand it. But that is easily answered. A man can eat his dinner without understanding exactly how food nourishes him. A man can accept what Christ has done without knowing how it works: indeed, he certainly would not know how it works until he has accepted it.
   We are told that Christ was killed for us, that His death has washed out our sins, and that by dying He disabled death itself. That is the formula. That is Christianity. That is what has to be believed. Any theories we build up as to how Christ’s death did all this are, in my view, quite secondary: mere plans or diagrams to be left alone if they do not help us, and, even if they do help us, not to be confused with the thing itself. All the same, some of these theories are worth looking at.
   The one most people have heard of is the one I mentioned before—the one about our being let off because Christ had volunteered to bear a punishment instead of us. Now on the face of it that is a very silly theory. If God was prepared to let us off, why on earth did He not do so? And what possible point could there be in punishing an innocent person instead? None at all that I can see, if you are thinking of punishment in the police-court sense. On the other hand, if you think of a debt, there is plenty of point in a person who has some assets paying it on behalf of someone who has not. Or if you take “paying the penalty,” not in the sense of being punished, but in the more general sense of “standing the racket” or “footing the bill,” then, of course, it is a matter of common experience that, when one person had got himself into a hole, the trouble of getting him out usually falls on a kind friend.
    Now what was the sort of “hole” man had got himself into? He had tried to set up on his own, to behave as if he belonged to himself. In other words, fallen man is not simply an imperfect creature who needs improvement: he is a rebel who must lay down his arms. Laying down your arms, surrendering, saying you are sorry, realizing that you have been on the wrong track and getting ready to start life over again from the ground floor—this movement full speed astern—is what Christians call repentance. Now repentance is no fun at all. It is something much harder than merely eating humble pie. It means unlearning all the self-conceit and self-will that we have been training ourselves into for thousands of years. It means killing part of yourself, undergoing a kind of death. In fact, it needs a good man to repent. And here comes the catch. Only a bad person needs to repent: only a good person can repent perfectly. The worse you are the more you need it and the less you can do it. The only person who could do it perfectly would be a perfect person—and he would not need it.
   Remember, this repentance, this willing submission to humiliation and a kind of death, is not something God demands of you before He will take you back and which He could let you off if He chose: it is simply a description of what going back to Him is like. If you ask God to take you back without it, you are really asking Him to let you go back without going back. It cannot happen. Very well, then, we must go through with it. But the same badness which makes us need it, makes us unable to do it. Can we do it if God helps us? Yes, but what do we mean when we talk of God helping us? We mean God putting into us a bit of Himself, so to speak. He lends us a little of His reasoning powers and that is how we think: He puts a little of His love into us and that is how we love one another. When you teach a child writing, you hold his hand while it forms the letters: that is, it forms the letters because you are forming them. We love and reason because God loves and reasons and holds our hand while we do it. Now if we had not fallen, that would be plain sailing. But unfortunately we now need God’s help in order to do something which God, in His own nature, never does at all—to surrender, to suffer, to submit, to die. Nothing in God’s nature corresponds to this process at all. So that the one road for which we now need God’s leadership most of all is a road God, in His own nature, has never walked. God can share only what He has: this thing, in His own nature, He has not.
   But supposing God became a man—suppose our human nature which can suffer and die was amalgamated with God’s nature in one person—then that person can help us. He could surrender His will, and suffer and die, because He was man; and He could do it perfectly because He was God. You and I can go though this process only if God does it in us; but God can do it only if He becomes man. Our attempts at this dying will succeed only if we men share in God’s dying, just as our thinking can succeed only because it is a drop out of the ocean of His intelligence: but we cannot share God’s dying unless God dies; and He cannot die except by being a man. That is the sense in which He pays our debt, and suffers for us what He Himself need not suffer at all.
I have heard some people complain that if Jesus was God as well as man, then His sufferings and death lose all value in their eyes, “because it must have been so easy for Him.” Others may (very rightly) rebuke the ingratitude and ungraciousness of this objection; what staggers me is the misunderstanding it betrays. In one sense, of course, those who make it are right. They have even understated their own case. The perfect submission, the perfect suffering, the perfect death were not only easier to Jesus because He was God, but were possible only because He was God. But surely that is a very odd reason for not accepting them? The teacher is able to form the letters for the child because the teacher is grown-up and knows how to write. That, of course, makes it easier for the teacher; and only because it is easier for him can he help the child. If it rejected him because “it’s easy for grown-ups” and waited to learn writing from another child who could not write itself (and so had no “unfair” advantage), it would not get on very quickly. If I am drowning in a rapid river, a man who still has one foot on the bank may give me a hand which saves my life. Ought I to shout back (between my gasps) “No, it’s not fair! You have an advantage! You’re keeping one foot on the bank”? That advantage—call it “unfair” if you like—is the only reason why he can be of any use to me. To what will you look for help if you will not look to that which is stronger than yourself?
Such is my own way of looking at what Christians call the Atonement. But remember this is only one more picture. Do not mistake it for the thing itself: and if it does not help you, drop it.