I’ve always been a bit ambivalent about the stories surrounding Easter. I remember as a child listening to adults talking in solemn and hushed tones about the death of Jesus, and wondering how I was supposed to react. Should I be feeling guilty, since as a sinner I shared part of the blame for his suffering? Should I be feeling horrified? (Some of those who went into excruciating and grisly detail seemed to be hoping to provoke a bit of that reaction.) All too often, hearing the story of Good Friday left me with an image of a Jesus who quite possibly resented me for having messed up so badly that he had to pay for it, and who was now scrutinizing my every action to see if I was good enough to be worthy of his help.
I still struggle to make theological sense of the atonement. The model in which Christ dies to satisfy some kind of divine demand for justice raises, I think, a number of troubling questions. God requires us to forgive one another without first demanding satisfaction. Why, then, would he be unable to do such a thing himself? I cannot quite get my head around the notion I’ve heard so often that God wants to forgive us, but first requires that someone else suffer horribly on our behalf. What would we think of a human parent who could not forgive the trespasses of a child unless one of the other children first died a painful death? And even if some abstract notion of justice needs to be appeased, how can such appeasement come through an act which seems profoundly unjust, in that an innocent person is punished in place of the perpetrator? (I know Amulek poses this very question in Alma 34, but I am not sure I understand his answer.) I am not unsympathetic to those who, upon hearing such claims, are rather appalled by the behavior of the Christian God and raise serious questions about a faith founded on such premises.
But as much as I resist aspects of substitutionary atonement theories, I am also uneasy with theological approaches in which the suffering and death of Christ, though seen as valuable and important, is not directly redemptive, does not somehow save us from sin. I am still muddling through this, but one suggestion I like is that we should begin the story not with God’s alienation from us, but rather with our alienation from God. God has not wandered away, after all; we have. We are the ones who are lost. In this line of thought, the atonement, rather than being directed toward God and attempting to placate his wrath or justice, is instead directed toward us–it is God’s way of calling after us, of seeking to repair the relationship broken on our end. To put it another way, the suffering of Christ is not the reason that God is now willing to forgive. Rather, the causal relationship goes in the other direction: God’s willingness to forgive is the reason that Christ enters into our existence and suffers with us.
Why in this latter model would the suffering of Christ be necessary or salvific? Not because some set amount of suffering by someone is required by God (or by the general laws of the universe) to get us off the hook, but rather because only one who is willing to enter the darkness with us, to come where we are, has the power to bring us back. Christ does not keep a safe distance and shout enthusiastic encouragement. Instead he follows us into the abyss of sin and despair and grief, and in the process he is as deeply wounded as we are–and worse–by all the jagged edges of life. From this perspective, I find it easier to understand how grace not only makes up for the sins we’ve committed, but also the pain we’ve suffered for which we are not culpable–how it can transform our very nature and orientation. The atonement does not just balance some cosmic scale that’s fallen askew; it enables us to return to God from wherever we are, regardless of how we got there.
Good Friday is disturbing, dissonant. I must confess I find its violence jarring. Yet there is also something raw and real and powerful in its story. It reminds me that Christianity is not simply about warm fuzzies and happy thoughts and looking on the bright side, that it does not flinch from the darker aspects of existence. As Flannery O’Connor once observed, people “think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross.” The events of Good Friday profoundly challenge any notion that evil is illusory, or that the suffering of life can be overcome by the power of positive thinking. “With his stripes we are healed,” says Isaiah. We are saved through blood, through unimaginable and incomprehensible pain. It is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer refers to as “costly grace”, as opposed to grace that is cheap, easy, comfortable.
I cannot answer all the theological questions I have about the atonement. And it is still challenging at times to trust that Christ is not holding it over my head, in a kind of “look how much I had to suffer for you, and you can’t even do x right?” But I have slowly come to know a God who is not shocked or horrified by even the darkest and most shameful aspects of my life–precisely because no depths of human existence are foreign to him. I find myself confronted with a salvation which is in some ways deeply unsettling, a redemption which comes packaged in some rather horrific stories, a grace which requires me to starkly confront my own brokenness and breaks down my complacent assumptions about how the world works. It is in many ways no less than terrifying. Yet in the end, how can I resist such a love, one which risks and endures all in an attempt to pierce my rebellious and hardened heart?