Alfred North Whitehead’s principle, “The only simplicity that can be trusted is that which lies beyond complexity,” applies to our understanding of the atonement and the events of Passion Week. Premature statements about Christ’s death, burial and resurrection are usually simplistic and superficial. Intellectually complex statements are often confusing, overwhelming and controversial. It is only after wading through the complexities of the atonement and struggling with their personal implications that we arrive at the elegant simplicity of God’s actions in the last week of Christ’s life on Earth. The clarification of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and various theories of the atonement that follow help me struggle through some of these complexities.
Maundy Thursday, so called because that night before he was betrayed Jesus gave the command (the mandatum in Latin), that we should love one another. Jesus was not talking about the love of our desire but rather a demanding love as in washing the feet of faithless friends who will run away and leave you naked to your enemies.
Why is Friday, which is so dark and bad, called Good Friday? Some scholars speculate that “Good Friday” comes from “God’s Friday,” as “goodbye” was originally “God be by you.” This is the day that God died – for a time. I think it’s important to enter into the great suffering that took place as Jesus bore the full penalty of our sins in his humiliating anguish. But it’s even more important not to leave him on the Cross, because three days later, he rose from that death and entered into heaven to return to his position of intimacy and glory with the Father. There, he represents his followers and provides the basis of a new citizenship for those believers.
All of the theories of the atonement, or “covering,” focus on some aspect of the truth but none can capture its full meaning.
• Moral Influence Theory (Faustus Socinus 1539-1604). Describes the subjective effects of Christ’s cross on the sinner. When we look at the cross we see the greatness of divine love, which delivers us from fear and produces in us an answering love, putting aside selfishness and sin. Popular among scholars in the liberal school.
• Ransom to Satan Theory. Sees sinful people as belonging to Satan. God offers his Son to Satan as a ransom, but Christ cannot be held in hell and rises the third day in victory. Popular with the early church fathers.
• Satisfaction Theory (Anselm 11th century). Sin dishonors the majesty of a sovereign God. To offer appropriate satisfaction to the offense would require one as great as God himself, but must be offered by a one who is man. Thus the God-man is needed to provide full satisfaction for sin.
• Penal Substitution Theory. The wages of man’s sin is death. Christ endures death and God’s punishment for sin in our stead. Popular with the Reformers.
• Sacrifice Theory. Christ’s saving act is a sacrifice for sin.
• Governmental Theory (Grotius) argues that Christ did not bear our punishment, but suffered as a penal example whereby the law is honored while sinners are pardoned.
Coming to terms with the meaning of the atonement and what happened on the cross is not a matter of picking a favorite theory, but rather wrestling with all of their complexity and then allowing the experiential simplicity of God’s love and God’s mercy to emerge and wrap around our hearts.
So for me this Easter, simply put, God so loved me that he gave up the life of his own Son so that I could have an intimate relationship with him forever and look forward to someday joining him where he is and then being like him. This will glorify his name. Alfred North Whitehead also said, “Seek simplicity, and then distrust it.” While I continue to wrestle with the elegant simplicity of God’s ways, I don’t rest in my confidence of understanding. Rather, I continue to seek his face.