In my last post I showed some of the problems with the popular conception of the atonement. This post I hope to offer an alternative understanding of the atonement. Now this would be sheer madness if I was offering some theory of my own that I had come up with last week. Instead, I would offer something far older than myself, a theory that has existed in the church since the beginning. For those familiar with different theories of the cross, the term Christus Victor might be the most fitting for this theory. However, it is not exactly the theory identified by Gustav Aulen in his book of the same name. It is something more.
The popular modern conception of the cross, which dates back to the Reformation, is familiar to almost everyone. God is angry with us, wants to smash us to bits, and has every right to do so. So Jesus comes in, takes the smashing for us, and the problem is solved. The more ancient understanding of the cross is that it is the place where Jesus confronts human sin, suffering, and death, as well as the dark powers of the earth, and overcomes them. Jesus takes on human suffering as the fulfillment of His incarnation, drawing us to Him in His suffering.
This meeting of God and human suffering, death, and guilt, is all based on the fact that Jesus, as God, is stronger than all of these things. But He must become a human being to experience them in Himself. He must be the one who suffers, experiences guilt, shame, sorrow, loss, and the perceived abandonment of God. He must take on a body that can suffer and die so that He may directly encounter this suffering and death in Himself. Then, once he has died, He overcomes the suffering and death in the resurrection. (1)
By doing all of this as a human being, Christ transforms our human nature and binds it closely to his divine nature. In other words, humanity is now in the trinity by means of Jesus’ incarnation, death, and resurrection. By dying he has confronted human death in himself, and overcome it by his divinity. That divine overcoming is shared with us, and we are grafted into it, being allowed to now become, as St. Peter says, partakers of the Divine nature. The divine nature of Jesus is shared with all of us, so that our sin, suffering, and death, may be overcome by his victory.
Of course, this is not merely a simple pardoning then of sins. Our sins are forgiven by Christ, and his death works in a mysterious way to blot out sin. But this is not the only thing. We are not simply made legally righteous before God, but invited to share in God’s own person so that we are transformed into Christ in the world. All of this seems very clear in John’s Gospel.
This image of redemption does not put us in the hands of an angry God. Instead, it puts us as people who endangered our own existence by doing evil. We undermined our own beings by disconnecting ourselves from God who is the very root and ground of our being. By being in conflict with God, for in God being and goodness are one, we have lost our ground for goodness and existence. Thus we do evil, and we die. In other words, “the wages of sin is death.”
Christ comes to fix all of that by binding us tightly to Him in goodness and being. The result is that we begin a journey of life that transcends what we understand of human life. We are called to be humans bound up in the divine life of God. None of this requires a God who is wrathful against humanity. None of it requires that we think of ourselves as dung or worthy of God’s terrible wrath. Instead, we are loved people, far more valuable to God than merely people He wants to see in some kind of legal relationship with Himself. He says to us, as the New Testament makes clear, “you are one flesh with me” by making humanity in the Church His bride.
As well, all of the problems listed in the last article, do not pertain. Instead, there is one consistent act of creation, redemption, and glorification. God creates so that we might partake of God. When we fall, God acts to restore the relationship in reality, not merely in a legal fiction. And we then begin to partake of God’s life here and now, with a great hope that we will partake of it without limit after the resurrection.
(1) All of this may be found in St. Athanasius, as well as much of it seen in St. Cyril as well as Maximus the Confessor and others.