Holy wisdom is not clear and thin like water, but thick and dark like blood. C. S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces
My sophomore year of college Kristin Donaldson and I walked into Dr. Tom Schmidt’s office (bottom floor of Porter Hall, terrible blue carpet and wall to wall books) with a burning question. “How,” I asked Dr. Schmidt, a New Testament scholar, “does the atonement work?” (Verbatim.) At the time, and I recall this with crystalline clarity, I wanted a functional answer, some explanation that linked sin and redemption in an equation. What’s the mechanism here for Jesus actually saving me by dying on the cross? I thought Dr. Schmidt could map it out for me, almost like providing a recipe for muffins. Instead, he dutifully, and appropriately, offered a brief overview of the New Testament images – substitutionary atonement, ransom, blood sacrifice – and my response was to push him, again, to tell me how it functioned: “Yea, but how does it work?” He gave me the same general response. I left dispirited and unsatisfied.
30 years have passed, and I have not stumbled across an answer to the “how” question. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe C. S. Lewis simply calls it a magic deeper than the witch’s knowledge, created in the stillness before time. We must, by necessity, play the mystery card. But, as my favorite historical theology professor once said; “Don’t play the mystery card from the top of the deck. Stay with the hard, impossible questions until they wear you out and confront you with new truth.” Studying theology should stretch our knowing and believing, not confirm them, else why study? And atonement is one of those stretching questions. It suggests truths that are, at best, uncomfortable: the world is terribly broken and I am a part of the problem. I need only open the paper or look in the mirror, hard, to confirm.
I would very much prefer to sidestep these truths, to search for atonement without the dark reality of Good Friday. But a steady and honest look at each day doesn’t allow for salvation by sentiment or sloganeering (“Love Wins!”) becuase, to start, I know (and this is verifiable) that I am fallen, lost in sin. We don’t like to talk about sin; it’s an old, old word and weighted with caricatures, both real and imagined, of thundering preachers pointing at anyone but themselves. That’s unfortunate. But it doesn’t make it untrue. Sin is a part of who I am, “an error bred in the bone,” said Auden. When I am quiet long enough I notice shadows, hints that my motives and desires, even those presumptively most pure, are tinged by self-interest. Augustine diagnosed sin as “disordered loves.” I love the wrong things too strongly and real things too weakly. I love passing things as if they were permanent, and the permanent things . . . . sometimes they’re just too hard to believe, so I bypass them. This is not dour, handwringing pessimism; it’s simple honesty. “Forgive my secret sins,” says the Psalmist, “Who can discern them?”
And atonement – healing the rend between God and God’s creation – requires more than a hall pass for sin. God (or any God worth believing in) cannot look at the horribles of reality, of my life, and say simply, “Don’t sweat it. No problem.” Love may win, but it’s not enough. Justice is a part of the “deep logic of reality” and that logic says that something must be done to effect healing and wholeness. “The pervasive and monstrous nature of injustice around the world forces us to acknowledge that forgiveness alone does not give us a true picture of God’s purpose.” (Fleming Rutledge) Stay with that a moment. We talk often about God’s grace, and we should because Lord knows we need it, but grace without justice is mere sentimentality, and sentimentality is the privilege of the privileged.
The biblical images of atonement – passover and exodus, blood sacrifice, ransom, Christus Victor, the great substitution – don’t tell us how it works but they do guide us into God’s redemptive purposes by making clear that God weaves justice into the very nature of creation and creature, a strand of the deeper magic. They are “a luminous hint” to a reality we appeal to every day – justice must be done – and they invite us into the “long arc of God’s history that bends toward justice.”