Ellyn Mullis is a friend who likes to exchange ideas, especially from books she's just read. During the Lenten season, I spent some time with her community of faith, Trinity Episcopal, where her husband, Brad, serves as rector. I must have said something about atonement and some of the on-going questions I have about that particular doctrine. She recently told me about reading THE GREAT EMERGENCE:HOW CHRISTIANITY IS CHANGING AND WHY by Phyllis Tickle. Tickle says that about every 500 years the Church has a big "rummage sale".....takes everything out, looks at it, throws some of it away, keeps some it, and rearranges a whole lot. We are now in a 500 hundred year period and one of the "items" receiving a lot of attention is this matter of atonement.
Atonement is not a subject that is neatly packaged in our theological system. There have been other periods in the story of Christianity when atonement has been questioned and closely examined. Its development did not stop with the first stated idea about it. It has been re-developed and re-examined on numerous occasions over a long period of time. And, today, it is still being questioned.
Why did Jesus die on the cross? However understood, there has typically been the idea that Jesus' death was necessary for us to attain salvation.....to get right with God, to escape hell, to gain entrance to heaven.......whatever. It is as though the sole purpose for Jesus being born was so he could die.
This concept has been preached and taught so extensively that it is almost a part of our genes. If you want to see some folk go into a fit of apoplexy, challenge the idea of "blood atonement."
The idea that "Jesus paid it all" becomes a part of our make-up. The necessity of being "washed in the blood" is held without doubt. His death on a cross is the only way that anybody can be SAVED.
I do believe that somehow we must reckon with the matter of the cross and Jesus' death on one. But did that cruel act make it possible for us to be whole and approved by God? Is God's anger toward our sin so great that it took a crucifixion to satisfy God?
Atonement comes in different categories. We call them theories and there are several of them; some better than others, some sorely lacking, in my opinion.
I want to explore these theories. So for the next several weeks I will take a "theory" each time I write and try to develop it as it has been historically and traditionally understood. I will welcome any additional thoughts from the readers as we go along. At the end of it all, you decide. Which is as it should be.
I will only ask that you approach this time of reflection with one question hanging over all your thought and consideration about the cross and the death of Jesus.
What is the character of your God?