A lot will be written and posted about Atonement this week, so let me add my two cents and explain what the Church originally taught before language of ransoms, substitution, and other legalistic and punitive ideas started becoming popular.
The Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ IS the atonement for sin. Sin is not the breaking of a law in which a fine or jail time is required. Sin is an illness. It is (to use contemporary language) a spiritually genetic predisposition. Sin is not willful defiance, but it is helpless compliance – the manifestation of a spiritual sickness. Therefore, what is required is not legal punishments and fines, but HEALING. Salvation is therapeutic, not legalistic! In fact, the Greek word translated as “salvation” is soterias, the root meaning of which is “health.”
So being saved means more than being saved from something, such as death or hell; it also means being healed or made whole. When Jesus says, “Your faith has saved you” (Luke 7:50), He means, “Your faith has healed you,” or “Your faith has made you whole.” Forgiveness and atonement pertain to God’s participation in His creation in order to renew His image and likeness in us, bringing us to wholeness and fulfillment. To be healed, we don’t go to a lawyer or to a judge. To be healed, we go to a physician – and Jesus is the Great Physician.
God is love and God was love even before the Creation. How can God be love before the Creation when love requires a relationship? God, as Eternal Trinity, is Relationship itself. The Second Person of the Trinity became human. By becoming human, the cosmic wound caused by the Fall of Adam and Eve was healed through the incarnation of Christ. Jesus became the Second Adam, and where Adam said “no” to God, Jesus said “yes.” Jesus lived an entire life: birth, infancy, childhood, adolescence, adulthood, death. Jesus even experienced death as human beings did. He went into hades, the realm of the dead and experienced whatever that is like just like everyone else. Jesus healed every part of human life and existence through the incarnation.
The Lover of Humanity did not become incarnate to punish, or to be punished, but to heal. There is a tendency to forget Jesus’ ministry and mission and focus solely on the cross. It is as if everything Jesus did before the cross is inconsequential or just a collection of nice stories. The cross is where atonement happens in traditional thinking. But why then did Jesus do or teach anything if the cross is the only thing that matters? Why didn’t Jesus just show up and be crucified as a Sacrifice for sin and not waste time healing the sick, exorcizing demons, giving to the poor, and all the other things He did, and told His followers to do?
The ministry of Jesus is not just Jesus killing time until His crucifixion, but it is the model of atonement. Jesus is healing humanity by His action. The medicine Jesus uses to heal is the essence of God – LOVE. Jesus did not come to pay a debt to the devil, or to God the Father, neither did He come to be a substitutionary offering to appease a just and angry God. Jesus Christ came to rescue us from our fallen condition and transform us, enabling us to become godlike through the process of healing us.
The original biblical Gospel often speaks of salvation as an organic experience that is preeminently non-juridical. The words and phrases used include: being crucified with, dying with, being buried, resurrected, and living with Christ and in Him, being united with and together with Him, as well as putting on Christ. They also include abiding in Him and He in us, being one with, married to, members of His Body, and of one flesh with Christ.
Jesus takes upon Himself our humanity in order to purify, heal, illumine, and transfigure it. We are saved from something (namely, death, sin, and the devil) in order to be saved for something else (union and communion with God). This union and communion with God is ongoing. This is why the Sacraments are vital to the life of the Church and the faithful. The Sacraments are where we have our personal relationship with Jesus. The Sacrament of Baptism is where and when we are “born from above.” The Sacraments are like daily medicine to keep the disease of sin in check. Of course there are times when our spiritual sickness flairs up, but when that happens, we have a remedy of Christ and the Sacraments. Through a regular receiving of the Sacraments will also make those “flair ups” less dramatic and painful.
So why is Jesus on the cross if Atonement occurs through the Incarnation itself? Christ did take on sin and the consequences of sin on the cross, and died as a perfect sacrificial offering, but not as an appeasement to an angry God, but in order to destroy sin and death. When we are united with Christ in the Sacraments, we die with Christ and are raised with Christ. Sin and death no longer have any power over us because Christ voluntarily died to destroy death. A reading of the Gospels shows that God does not demand the crucifixion, people demand it. People put Jesus on the cross, not God. But Jesus receives that human rejection of the divine, that consequence of Adam’s “no” to God, and he takes it to the cross, so that the human rejection of God is crucified with Christ. So the cross, as part of Jesus’ life and the Incarnation of God is part of the Atonement, but it is not the entirety of the Atonement. And the Atonement is not the legalistic repaying of a debt, or the paying of a ransom, but the entire healing and therapeutic activity of Jesus Christ.