Atonement 2

9 March 2008 at :00 am

I am using the three Matins addresses in March before Easter to think about one of the central ideas of Christianity, the theory of atonement, that in some way through the life and death of Jesus Christ a way has been opened up for us to find a new and living relationship at-one with God. Last week I thought about the notion of atonement through the following of Christ as an example, not least of all in the extraordinary act of forgiveness that he expressed on the Cross ‘Father forgive them, for they know not what they do’. I am sure that reflecting deeply on that, and allowing it to mould and modify our own approach to the pressures of life is part of the way in which we can think today about the meaning of atonement.

But the criticism some have made of that approach is that it does not take seriously enough the fact of evil. Now I have no doubt that we should not underestimate the power and strength of evil, one only has to read a little of some of the dreadful periods in relatively recent human history, like the holocaust or the killing fields of Cambodia, or the massacres in Rwanda, or still today in Darfur, to realise that evil does have a sort of terrible collective power sometimes. Breaking the power of that evil is obviously no easy task, and simply to see Jesus’ death and his manner of facing it as an example may not be enough. Something more fundamental needed to be done.

Now many in the early church saw in the verse in St Mark’s Gospel repeated in Matthew’s, that Jesus came to ‘give his life as a ransom for many’ as a way into that issue. It did not preoccupy them as much as the question of what the relationship was between the human and divine in Jesus, that was more the main issue for the early church fathers. But in so far as they did talk about breaking the power of evil they saw it in what to us might seem slightly strange terms, that the death of Jesus was a ransom that was paid to the Devil in order to release us from the Devil’s power. For a long time it was thought that human beings were in thrall to the Devil, and that the Devil had to be paid, in some cases even tricked by Jesus, into releasing human beings. Those of you who know C S Lewis’s classic children’s story, the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, can hear at least echoes of that in what happens to Aslan, the Lion, obviously symbolising Jesus, as he submits himself to the white witch, or the Devil, in being killed on the stone table.

But I am not sure that the notion of paying a ransom to the Devil is the most helpful way of describing that for many people today. Evil is indeed a very powerful thing, but I suspect I am not the only person here who does not find the idea of a personal Devil a very easy one to accept, and paying a ransom to him to release us may seem even stranger. Evidently that way of looking at things did speak to a much earlier age, and it rightly has an important part to play in looking at the history of doctrine, but it is not the way I personally, and I suspect many others, would want to put it for our own day.

Now there was a substantial development in that way of looking at the matter made by a former Archbishop of Canterbury, St Anselm. Writing towards the end of the 11th century he did not think so much in terms of a ransom paid to the Devil as almost a ransom that was due to God because of the wickedness of human kind. It is known as the satisfaction theory of the atonement; that the demands of justice had to be satisfied if God was to be able to forgive man. It is still a view held widely today, particularly in some evangelical circles of the church, and I suppose if someone is really pre-occupied with a sense of their own guilt and wickedness the notion that a price has been paid for our forgiveness may well be genuinely liberating, and have the effect of enabling someone to feel released from the grip of evil.

But where I believe some in the evangelical tradition get it wrong is when they insist on that being the prime, or even the only way of looking at the matter. For those for whom it brings real liberation, then fine, but again I suspect I am not the only person here who finds it proposes a rather unattractive view of God, as though God needs some sort of sacrifice in other to enable him to forgive. And the fact is that the church as a whole has never formally adopted that way of approaching atonement as the sole or even main way of looking at the matter. It has always been one among a range of theories.

In more recent years another way of approaching atonement has been developed particularly by a Swedish bishop, Gustav Aulen, in a book entitled ‘Christus Victor’. Like all the other theories it picks up elements that have certainly been there from the very beginning in the Christian tradition, it is not so much a new theory as a development from the rather muddled and disorganised thought of the early church. Aulen asserted that that what we see at Calvary is the eternal battle that is there always in our world between good and evil, but that, in the case of Jesus, it was a battle that Jesus won.

Now I suspect that many of us know a bit of the battle of good and evil in our own lives, we know what it is to feel the strength of a possible response of revenge, or rage, or destructive violence in the face of some perceived or even actual injustice, let along the temptation to initiate some act of obvious wrong-doing. But those words of Jesus do point to something else. ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do’. That certainly shows a different approach to one of revenge, or tit-for-tat retaliation, which so often seems to be the force that lies behind destructive evil in our contemporary world. Indeed breaking the power of tit-for-tat retaliation may be one of the most critical issues for resolving some of the intractable conflicts of our world today. And in Aulen’s vision that victory won at Calvary was not just temporary, but a victory won for all times. Good and evil have been faced in a classic confrontation at Calvary, and the victory of forgiveness and reconciliation is there achieved and completed.

Someone, I cannot now remember who, once said that Calvary was the victory, and what follows is just the mopping up operation. I think when you look at some of the horrors of the last century or this it is quite difficult to sustain that the battle with evil is just that. But at least a victory was won once, and if won once it can be won again. Therein the Christus Victor image has its power, and it certainly takes the fact of evil seriously. In terms of what might help us from the discussions in the church in the past I personally find a mixture of that image and the picture of Christ as an example the most helpful way into the issue. But next week, in St Margaret’s, I shall think about it in more contemporary terms.

© 2017 The Dean and Chapter of Westminster

Website design - Design by Structure