Friday, September 25, 2009

The Atonement

Recently I re-read the book, "The Shack." I did it in part for a project in our church. I was glad to re-visit the book and take many notes this trip through.

My reflections about the book that I've posted here before and have also shared with some friends in e-mails are relatively unmoved, except in my estimation of Young's depiction of the atonement.

Reading the work the first time I suspected Young of trying to give form to the atonement, that is the meaning of Jesus' death on the cross, or how exactly his death upon the cross and his resurrection causes/opens/affects a release from guilt, sin and what the apostle Paul calls "condemnation," that was divergent.

Initially, I thought Young was working with a premise that denied what is called in technical theology circles, substitutionary or satisfactory atonement. I was wrong, mostly. In chapter 11, titled - Here Comes Da Judge, Mack finds himself face to face with Sophia and instructed to take the seat that he's often taken in life - the seat of the judge. In the conversation he is told that because of his judgments, he will have to use the judgments he's made of God to judge this time around. Mack has judged God as only saving some and damning the remainder of his creation, this means that Mack is asked to make a call when it comes to his children; who to send to eternal joy and who to death? Mack finally comes to the place where he says, I can't make this call - how about giving them all life and I'll go in their place. Sophia responds, "Now you sound like Jesus."

Here and in the opening parable about an Indian girl who gives her life for her tribe, Young does affirm that Jesus provides a substitution. He inserts his life for ours. But what does Jesus insert it for?

This gets to a deeper conundrum within theology. To whom, or for what does Jesus offer his life for ours? Why does Jesus offer to die in our place? Several proposals have been produced by theologians reading Paul's letter to the Romans; a highly accepted one among evangelicals was that Jesus somehow "paid the debt." This payment can be seen in two ways, one view is that Jesus paid a debt somehow owed to the devil, and that all who are in his train are released from the clutches of the devil. Another perspective holds to the understanding that Jesus satisfies the wrath of God against our sin, so that the mercy of God can be expressed. In either direction, Jesus is inserted instead of us, he's our substitute, and he pays a piper.

These various perspectives have their critiques. One, the scriptural narrative just doesn't support a view of Satan having that kind of power or responsibility, or of Jesus having to pay him off. Two, the depiction of God as one awaiting a satisfaction of His "wrath" for the sins of humanity, doesn't jive either. Consider that it's God who comes and makes covenant with Abraham, without this wrath and without satisfaction. It's God who more often than not acts in mercy, when we the readers of His story might prefer wrath.

Young seems to offer another perspective - that the work of Jesus is to satisfy a sense of justice, not only God's, but also our sense of justice. Young's tale is one of a tragic and brutal murder of a young girl. The main character wants at least justice against the perp. The perp should pay for what he's done, for the evil he's unleashed, for the death of a life and many other deaths. The need for justice is known by the the victim, the family of the victim, and an expanding amount of people.

However, in the story of the perp, we find that he too has his own sense of injustice in life. He was abused when a child. Not only is he a breaker of peace, he was also a recipient of injustice. This is a story we all participate in - we break justice(peace) with others, even as others break justice(peace) with us. It happens in greater and lesser amounts, yet it still happens and we're all part of the tragedy.

What to do in this circle? Here's where Young may offer a new perspective (actually the perspective of Lewis in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe)- that Jesus, the one who is perfectly just, who loves perfectly, offers himself to our sense of justice. How does Mack have the capacity to forgive the perp? By accepting the cross of Christ as satisfying his sense of justice. Instead of the perp taking the rap, Jesus essentially said, will I do Mack? I'll take it for him, just as I'll take it for you when there are others who want your hide. I'll say, apply it to me.

This is what Paul does in the letter to Philemon, when he says that if Onesimus owes Philemon anything, Philemon should apply it to Paul's account. This also lights the emptying of Jesus (also known as kenosis from Philippians 2) differently, he came emptying his divinity, even his divine sense of justice, so that he could be treated as a slave, he came to serve our term - against any who justly have a claim. The way of the cross is "where mercy triumphs over justice because of love."

This is transformational and it sheds new light on Jesus' connectivity of our forgiving others with our ability to be forgiven. Unless we are willing to accept others claim that Jesus has provided the means to bring peace to our relationships, we can't rightly point to him and say - hey, Jesus provides the way of peace for me. When I'm feeling wronged and I want to lash out and acquire justice, I need to recall Jesus on the cross saying, will this do? Forgive your neighbor as I've forgiven you. "Judgment is not about destruction, but about setting things right (p.171)."

There's more to be written on this and much needs to be refined. I appreciate the ability of this work to propose something I'm sure to have missed before in other writings, and I'm glad to once again wrestle with the question of the atonement, how is it that Jesus' sacrifice changes everything?

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