The Taser's Edge

Atonement vs. Reconciliation


In these particular American pop Christian, neo-Calvinistic times, a whole lot of emphasis is put on which theory of atonement you believe in.  Which is ridiculous, not because the atonement is ridiculous, but because there is no single ‘orthodox’ theory of atonement found in the history of the church. 

And yet, there are guidelines, and certain theories of atonement are heresy.  For instance, these lyrics Pat Sczebel’s 2003 “Jesus, Thank You” (which our church sang this morning): 

The mystery of the cross I cannot comprehend
The agonies of Calvary
You the perfect Holy One, crushed Your Son
Who drank the bitter cup reserved for me

Your blood has washed away my sin
Jesus, thank You
The Father’s wrath completely satisfied
Jesus, thank You
Once Your enemy, now seated at Your table
Jesus, thank You

By Your perfect sacrifice I’ve been brought near
Your enemy You’ve made Your friend
Pouring out the riches of Your glorious grace
Your mercy and Your kindness know no end

Lover of my soul
I want to live for You

“You, the perfect Holy One, crushed Your Son” at the end of this first verse, and then “The Father’s wrath completely satisfied” in the chorus.  I can only assume Sczebel was trying to channel St. Anselm, whose theory of atonement likened God to a feudal Lord whom we have dishonored by sinning against and who demands satisfaction.  The metaphor was an unfortunate one, as it didn’t really account for the many differences (an understatement) between medieval feudalism and the household of God. 

But Sczebel’s lyric is far more than unfortunate.  It portrays a raging, bloodthirsty God whose lust for human blood can only be sated by the blood of his own son-made-flesh, Jesus.  And just killing Jesus isn’t enough; God has to really get his wrath worked out.  If the cross is God’s killing of Jesus as Sczebel’s song portrays, then surely the torture Jesus suffers before the cross is also God’s torture.

This totally misses the grammar of ‘satisfaction’, which in the phrase, ‘satisfaction theory of atonement’ does not refer to the sating of God’s appetite for blood (leaving God ready to take a nice nap after the meal of his one and only son, who took on flesh just so that he would taste better). 

Sczebel hasn’t channeled Anselm; he’s channeled Molech, the god worshipped in the Ancient Near East through child sacrifice.  I can’t decide which is worse, to turn the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob into Molech, or to waste a really terrific melody doing it. 

Sounds much better than "God Finally Satisfied After Devouring His Own Son; Christian Worshippers Overjoyed and Sing About It"


Any theory of atonement is going to have real problems when it fails to recognize that ‘Atonement’ is a synonym for ‘Reconciliation,’ and that reconciliation means restoring relationship and bringing unity to damaged (or destroyed) relationship.Any theory of atonement which throws away the whole purpose of reconciliation/atonement–drawing us into union (or “at-one-ment”, which is atonement’s literal meaning not just a catchy mnemonic device) with God–in favor of abstract and/or culture-bound ideas of justice accomplished by God’s violent revenge against us, is not the atonement for which the Word became flesh, lived, died, and rose among us and for us. 

Finally, even if we remain committed to the idea of satisfaction, as I think we should (because, yes, we have badly breached our relationship with God, and something huge and beyond human power needs to be done to make things right), it can’t be the same satisfaction which gentlemen want when their feelings are hurt.  And it can’t be resolved in the same way as those pouty and honor-bound folks resolve their disputes, no matter how catchy the tune: 

Reconciliation vs. Morality?
“The whole thrust of God’s purpose in Christ as executed by the Spirit is to bring men to reconciliation and relationship with God, so that in comparison even moral sanctification becomes a quite subsidiary interest.”

Thomas Smail, Reflected Glory: The Spirit in Christ and in Christians, p. 57

That is, God’s main purpose in Christ is to heal the shattered relationship between human beings and God; being enabled to live morally is of secondary concern in God’s plan.  Not sure if that translation translated anything for you.  The reason I post it is because it is a quite provocative statement, inflammatory in some Christian circles which do seem to reduce Christianity to that moral sanctification.  Stereotypically, “Don’t drink, don’t chew, and don’t date girls that do.”  More concretely and realistically, there are plenty of Christian colleges–even real, accredited ones among them–that make you sign off on not dancing, not drinking, not fraternizing with the opposite sex when alone.

My take?  Smail is right.  God surely cares more about healing our broken relationship with God than about whether we like microbrews.  (After all, when Jesus made wine, he made good wine, not more Sutter Home.)  And yet reconciliation with God and reconciliation with other humans are inseparable processes.  They are not two reconciliations; they are one.  If my fellow child of God and I are both being drawn into a healed relationship with God, then our relationships with each other will also experience redemption and healing.

Yes, being reconciled with God can certainly cause friction and even destruction of some relationships.  Yes, the Gospel causes its own offense, and God knows Christians cause plenty more.  Jesus said, “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword…a man against his father, and a woman against her mother.”  But if I am not experiencing healing and redemption in interpersonal relationships, then I don’t see how I can possibly believe that God is drawing me nearer to God.  If morality is some separate little (or even big) compartment of our lives, then, rest assured, it is not Christian morality.