Some thoughts on the Atonement
(transcript of a talk given in Brisbane, Australia, in August 2004)
I’m going to try to defend a thesis with you: that Christianity is a priestly religion which understands that it is God’s overcoming of our violence by substituting himself for the victim of our typical sacrifices that opens up our being able to enjoy the fullness of creation as if death were not.
The first thing that I ought to do, therefore, is to give you a brief account of what is traditionally called the substitutionary theory of atonement; of what we are up against; of what a certain crystallization of texts has thrown up that has kept us captive; and how we are going to try and move from a two-dimensional account to a three-dimensional account and see that actually all the creative lines in that story flow in an entirely different direction. So, here’s the standard story, which I’m sure you’ve all heard before:
God created the universe, including humanity, and it was good. Then somehow or other humankind fell. This fall was a sin against God’s infinite goodness and mercy and justice. So there was a problem. Humans could not off our own bat restore the order which had been disordered, let alone make up for having dishonoured God’s infinite goodness. No finite making up could make up for an offence with infinite ramifications. God would have been perfectly within his rights to have destroyed the whole of humanity. But God was merciful as well as being just, so he pondered what to do to sort out the mess. Could he simply have let the matter lie in his infinite mercy? Well, maybe he would have liked to, but he was beholden to his infinite justice as well. Only an infinite payment would do; something that humans couldn’t come up with; but God could. And yet the payment had to be from the human side, or else it wouldn’t be a real payment for the outrage to be appeased. So God came up with the idea of sending his Son into the world as a human, so that his Son could pay the price as a human, which, since he was also God, would be infinite and thus would effect the necessary satisfaction. Thus the whole sorry saga could be brought to a convenient close. Those humans who agreed to cover over their sins by holding on to, or being covered by, the precious blood of the Saviour whom the Father has sacrificed to himself would be saved from their sins and given the Holy Spirit by which they would be able to behave according to the original order of creation. In this way, when they died, they at least would be able to inherit heaven, which had been the original plan all along, before the fall had mucked everything up. My guess is that you’ve heard something like that before. This is a familiar story.
Now, rather than make mockery of it, I want to suggest that the trouble with it is that it is far too little conservative. I want to put forward a much more conservative account. And the first way I want to be conservative is to suggest that the principle problem with this conventional account is that it is a theory, and atonement, in the first place, was a liturgy.
Now that doesn’t sound like too much of a contrast in our world because we tend to have an impoverished notion of liturgy. And we do not realise how much our dwelling in theory complicates our lives. That in fact having atonement as a theory means that it is an idea that can be grasped – and once it is grasped, one has got it – whereas a liturgy is something that happens at you. I want to go back and recover a little bit of what the liturgy of atonement was about; because when we understand that we begin to get a sense of what this language of “atonement” and “salvation” is about.
Let’s remember that we’re talking about a very ancient Jewish liturgy in the
The Jewish priestly rite was already an enormous advance beyond that world. They understood perfectly well that it was pagan rites that sacrificed victims in order to keep creation going. And one of the ways in which they had advanced beyond that, even before the fall of the
The notion is that humans are inclined to muck up creation; and it is God emerging from the place that symbolises that which is before creation began, “the place of the Creator”. The Holy of Holies was the place that symbolised “the first day” – which, of course, meant before time, before creation was brought into being.
The priest emerged from that and then he came to the
Now, here’s the interesting point: for the
So the priest would then come through the Veil – meaning the Lord entering into the world, the created world – and sprinkle all the rest of the
That was, from what we can gather, the atonement rite. But here’s the fascinating thing: the Jewish understanding was way ahead of the “Aztec” version we attribute to it. Even at that time it was understood that it was not about humans trying desperately to satisfy God, but God taking the initiative of trying to break through for us. In other words, atonement was something of which we were the beneficiaries. That is the first point I want to make when we are talking about a liturgy rather than a theory. We are talking about something that we undergo over time as part of a benign divine initiative towards us.
This puts many things in a slightly different perspective from what we are used to. It means, for instance, that the picture of God in the theory that we have that demands that God’s anger be satisfied is a pagan notion. In the Jewish understanding it was instead something that God was offering to us. Now here’s the crunch with this: the early Christians who wrote the New Testament understood very clearly that Jesus was the authentic high priest, who was restoring the eternal covenant that had been established between God and Noah; who was coming out from the Holy Place so as to offer himself as an expiation for us, as a demonstration of God’s love for us; and that Jesus was acting this out quite deliberately.
There are a number of places where we get hints of this language. One of them is in Jesus acting out the role of Melchizedek. For example, the announcement of the Jubilee, which Jesus preaches in the synagogue in Nazareth (cf. Lk 4:16f.), was the way in which the high priest Melchizedek would come back and work for the liberation, the “atonement”, or “redemption”, of the people. In fact, what Jesus says and does in Luke is to fulfil the Melchizedek agenda, which includes going up to
There are different ways in the other Gospels in which this is depicted. The classic example is in
One of the ways in which this is told in
The identification is complete. And of course, Jesus cry on the cross in John’s Gospel is “It is finished”, “It is completed”: meaning the atonement, and therefore the inauguration of creation is completed. In John’s Gospel the “I shall go to my Father” is always synonymous with “I shall go to my death, in which I shall be lifted up, and that is how I will glorify my Father.” All of these things we know; but usually we do not see them in the context of Jesus being the authentic high priest doing the high priestly thing.
You can tell that that was how it was read because immediately after this, at the resurrection, we are transferred to the garden. The “first day” we are in “the garden”. Peter and John come to look, then Mary Magdalene comes in. What does she see? Two angels! And where are the angels sitting? One at the head and one at the foot of a space that is open because the stone has been rolled away. What is this space? This is the Holy of Holies. This is the mercy seat, with the Cherubim present. The Holy of Holies is now open, because creation is able to flow completely freely. No more tangling up of creation. The Holy of Holies has been opened up. The high priest has gone in who did not need to sacrifice a bull for his own sins because he didn’t have any! He was able to come out of the place of creation. And remember that in the epistle to the Hebrews, as in much of the Pauline literature, and in John’s Gospel, Jesus was the Word of God who was with creation from the beginning – “all things were created through him”. This is the high priestly language of the One who is coming from God to offer atonement so as to open up creation. That is being fulfilled. And you get a sense of a realization in John’s Gospel that this is what has been acted out: Jesus’ fulfilling of the liturgy of the atonement. So far so good! This is an explanation that allows us to see Jesus’ “subversion from within” of the ancient liturgy of atonement – which was practised in a much more cursory way in the
From our point of view that is all an aspect of atonement. What Jesus was doing was fulfilling a set of prophecies concerning a liturgical happening, which is to us largely mysterious. The reason I wanted to tell you about it is that it is very important for our understanding when we see that this is not someone simply abolishing something that was bad, but someone fulfilling something that was considered good but not good enough. Do you see the difference? That means that our tendency to read the whole world of priesthood and sacrifice as an “unfortunate Semitic leftover” is really very wrong. The Jewish priestly thing – apart from being responsible for some of the most extraordinary texts that we have in what survives in the Hebrew scriptures – was also the pattern which enabled the relationship between creation and salvation to be held together. And that is the pattern of the Catholic faith, as I want to explore a little bit more: it is the notion of God making available for us the chance to participate in the fullness of creation by God becoming a sacrifice for us in our midst.
We are all – quite rightly – allergic to liturgy by itself. We are absolutely right because that is one of the things that the NT is insistent on. The genius of Jesus is the bringing together of the liturgical and the ethical, which is why atonement matters to us. Because what Jesus did was not really, as it were, to fulfil a series of prophecies regarding a somewhat bizarre ancient rite that involved lots of blood and barbeque. What Jesus did – and this is the fascinating thing – was to make an extraordinary anthropological breakthrough. And this is where atonement is “substitutionary”.
Here I want to make a little aside: normally, in the theory understanding of substitutionary atonement, we understand the substitution to work as follows: God was angry with humanity; Jesus says, “Here am I”; God needed to loose a lightning rod, so Jesus said, “You can loose it on me”, substituting himself for us. Boom: lightning rod here: sacrifice: God happy. “Got my blood-lust out of the way!”
The interesting thing is that it worked in an entirely different way: what Jesus was doing was substitute himself for a series of substitutions. The human sacrificial system typically works in the following way: the most primitive forms of sacrifice are human sacrifices. After people begin to become aware of what they are doing this gets transferred to animal sacrifices. After all it’s easier to sacrifice animals because they don’t fight back so much; whereas if you have to run a sacrificial system that requires you to keep getting victims, usually you have to run a war machine in order to provide enough victims to keep the system going; or you have to keep the pet “pharmakons” around the place – convenient people to sacrifice, who live in splendour, and have a thoroughly good time, until a time of crisis when you need people to sacrifice, and then you sacrifice them. But this is an ugly thing, and people are, after all, human; and so animals began to be sacrificed instead. And in some cultures from animals you get to more symbolic forms of sacrifice, like bread and wine. You can find any variation on the theme of sacrificial substitution.
The interesting thing is that Jesus takes exactly the inverse route; and he explains to us that he is going in the inverse route. “The night before he was betrayed…” what did he do? He said, “Instead of the bread and the wine, this is the lamb, and the lamb is a human being.” In other words he substituted a human being back into the centre of the sacrificial system as the priest, thus showing what the sacrificial system was really about, and so bringing it to an end.
So you do have a genuine substitution that is quite proper within the atonement theory. All sacrificial systems are substitutionary; but what we have with Jesus is an exact inversion of the sacrificial system: him going backwards and occupying the space so as to make it clear that this is simply murder. And it needn’t be. That is what we begin to get in
So what we get in St John’s Gospel is a clear understanding that the undoing of victimage is not simply a liturgical matter, it’s not simply a liturgical fulfilment, but is the substituting himself at the centre of what the liturgical thing was covering up, namely human sacrifice, therefore making it possible for us to begin to live without sacrifice. And that includes not just liturgical sacrifice, but therefore the human mechanism of sacrificing other people so that we can keep ourselves going. In other words, what he was beginning to make possible was for us to begin to live as if death were not, and therefore for us not to have to protect ourselves over against it by making sure we tread on other people. Do you see how he is putting together the ethical and the liturgical into the same space so that there is a moment of anthropological revelation? God is showing us something about ourselves in Jesus bringing together the liturgical and the ethical understanding of victimhood.
Now, this was quite clearly seen at the time, as is clear from references in
Let me read you a little story from 2 Samuel, that takes us straight back into the world of expiation, propitiation and atonement , in the anthropological sphere, not the liturgical sphere. Remember, the two are linked, but they haven’t yet been linked clearly:
Now there was a famine in the days of David for three years, year after year; and David sought the face of the LORD. And the LORD said, "There is bloodguilt on Saul and on his house, because he put the Gibeonites to death." So the king called the Gibeonites. Now the Gibeonites were not of the people of
After a short time the famine and the drought went way. A lovely story! The interesting thing about it is that it reminds us of what we often forget: the language of expiation. Here King David is expiating something, offering propitiation to the Gibeonites. In other words, the Gibeonites have a right to demand vengeance. Can you remember where this passage comes into the NT?
In that text, who is propitiating whom? King David is propitiating the Gibeonites by means of Saul’s sons. God is propitiating us. In other words, who is the angry divinity in the story? We are. That is the purpose of the atonement. We are the angry divinity. We are the ones inclined to dwell in wrath and think we need vengeance in order to survive. God was occupying the space of our victim so as to show us that we need never do this again. This turns on its head the Aztec understanding of the atonement. In fact it turns on its head what has passed as our penal substitutionary theory of atonement, which always presupposes that it is us satisfying God, that God needs satisfying, that there is vengeance in God. Whereas it is quite clear from the NT that what was really exciting to Paul was that it was quite clear from Jesus’ self-giving, and the “out-pouring of Jesus’ blood”, that this was the revelation of who God was: God was entirely without vengeance, entirely without substitutionary tricks; and that he was giving himself entirely without ambivalence and ambiguity for us, towards us, in order to set us “free from our sins” – “our sins” being our way of being bound up with each other in death, vengeance, violence and what is commonly called “wrath”.
Now, what is particularly difficult for us, and why I want to remind us that this is a liturgy rather than a theory, is that the way we live this out as Christians is to remember that the one true sacrifice – that is to say, the place where God gave himself for us in our midst as our victim – has been done. It’s over! The whole of the sacrificial system has been brought to an end. The Holy of Holies has been opened.
The way in which we depict this in our iconography is through the doctrine of the ascension. Remember what happens at the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles. Jesus is with the apostles on a hillside outside
The purpose of the Eucharist is not us trying to make Jesus come down here but our obeying Jesus to invoke him, to do this in memory of him, in such a way that we find ourselves transported into participating in the “heavenly banquet”, the place where the Lamb is standing as one slaughtered, as in the vision described by the Book of Revelation. This is a Holy of Holies vision; this is a vision of the Holy of Holies now full. It is the one true sacrifice that has been done. That does not mean to say “over and done with”. It means that the victorious Lamb is there; his blood is flowing out; the victim, the forgiving victim, is present. And we have access to participate in that atonement, which has been achieved through it being made available to us in our Eucharist. What the Eucharist is for us is the high priest emerging out of the Holy of Holies, giving us his body and blood, as our way into the Holy of Holies.
Now, if that picture is true, then it seems that what our Eucharistic life is supposed to be about is that we are a people who are being turned into the new temple by receiving the body and blood of the self-giving victim, who is already victorious. We are being turned into the new temple that is able to participate here and now. That is what the doctrine of transubstantiation is about. It means: this is not our memorial supper; this is, in fact, the heavenly banquet where someone else is the protagonist and we are called into it. We are being called “through the Veil”, into the participation. We are given the signs; which is why the body and blood are not something that hide the divinity but make it manifest. They are signs reaching out to us of what God is actually doing for us.
Now, all that is happening in heaven. That is the purpose of the doctrine of the ascension: the Holy of Holies fulfilled, and us beginning to receive it.
This has ethical consequences. This is tremendously important for our understanding, because, if you have a theory of atonement – something grasped – you have something that people can “get right”, and then be on the inside of the good guys. “We’re the people who are covered by the blood; we’re the ones who are okay, the ones who are good; and then there are those others who aren’t.” In other words, rather than undergoing atonement, we’re people who grasp onto the idea of the atonement. But the whole purpose of the Christian understanding is that we shouldn’t identify too soon with the good guys. On the contrary, we are people who are constantly undergoing “I AM” – that is to say, God – coming towards us one who is offering forgiveness from the victim. And we are learning how to look at each other as people who are saying, “Oh! So that’s what I’ve been involved in.” Which means that we are the “other” in this package; that we are the “other” who are being turned into a “we”, in the degree to which we find our similarity with our brother and sister on either side of us; rather than: we are the people who, because we’ve grasped the theory have become part of “I AM”, and therefore the “other” is some “them”. If you are undergoing atonement it means that you are constantly in the process of being approached by someone who is forgiving you. That, it seems to me, is the challenge for us in terms of imagination when it comes to imagining and re-imagining atonement.
The difficult thing for us is to sit in the process of being approached by someone. Because we are used to theory we want someone to say, “This is what it is. Get it right. Now put it into practice.” This imagines that we are part of a stable universe that we can control. But if the real center of our universe is an “I AM” coming towards us as our victim who is forgiving us then we are not in a stable place. We are in that place of being de-stabilized, because we are being approached by someone who is entirely outside our structures of vengeance and order.
Imagine what it is like to be approached by your forgiving victim. What a pity none of us like very much to think about our being approached by our forgiving victim! What is it like to actually undergo being forgiven? We are not going to resolve this by saying, “Oh, it’s not being forgiven that matters. It’s forgiving: I must forgive!” So we work ourselves up into a moral stupor about straining ourselves to “forgive the bastard!” It’s very, very complicated. But in fact the Christian understanding is quite the reverse: it’s because we are undergoing being forgiven that we can forgive; and we need to forgive in order to continue undergoing being forgiven. But remember: it’s because we are approached by our victim, that we start to be undone. Or in Paul’s language: “even though you were dead in your sins he has made you alive together in Christ.” Someone was approaching you even when you didn’t realize there was a problem, so that you begin to discover, “Oh! So that’s what I’ve been involved in.”
Now, this is vital for us: it means that in this picture “sin”, rather than being a block that has to be dealt with, is discovered in its being forgiven. The definition of sin becomes: that which can be forgiven.
And the process of being forgiven looks like the breaking of heart, or “contrition” (from the Latin cor triturare). What forgiveness look like in the life of the person is “breaking of heart”; and the purpose of being forgiven – the reason why the forgiving victim has emerged from the Holy of Holies offering himself as a substitute for all our ways of pushing away being forgiven, trying to keep order – the reason he has done that is because we are too small, we live in a slowed up version of creation … because we are frightened of death. What Jesus was doing was opening up the Creator’s vision, which knows not death, so that we can live as though death were not. In other words, we’re being given a bigger heart. That is what being forgiven is all about. It’s not, “I need to sort out this moral problem you have.” It’s, “Unless I come towards you, and enable you undergo a breaking of heart, you’re going to live in too small a universe, you’re not going to enjoy yourselves and be free. How the hell do I get through to you! Well, the only way is by coming amongst you as your victim. That’s the only place in which you can be undone. That’s the place you’re so frightened of being that you’ll do anything to get away from it. So if I can occupy that space, and return to you and say, ‘Yes, you did this thing to me. But don’t worry! I’m not here to accuse you. I’m here to play with you! To make a bigger space for you. And for you to do it with me.’” And of course the way he acted this out before his death was setting up the last supper, in which he would give himself to us so that we would become him.
This is a risky project. That is the point! That is why I want to bring together the notion of creation and atonement, recovering the priestly dynamic. This is the risky project of God saying, “We don’t know how this is going to end. But I want you to be co-participants with me on the inside of this creative project. And that means I’m running a risk of this going places I haven’t thought of because I want to become one of you as you, so that you can become me as me.” We get this in John’s Gospel: “You will do even greater things.” And we think, “Oh Jesus is just being modest about his miracles.” No, he is being perfectly straightforward anthropologically. To the degree in which, by receiving this sacrifice, we learn to step out of a world which sacrifices, tries to run things protectively over and against “them”, to that extent we will find ourselves – as we have found ourselves! – doing greater things than he could even begin to imagine. That’s what the opening up of creation does.
The opening up of creation works in our midst through the Spirit who is the advocate, the defense counselor, who therefore rejects the accusatory tendency. While we accuse, while we live in a conspiracy theory, we never learn what is, so we never learn to take responsibility for it. We never learn to inhabit creation with fullness.
Do you see that there is a huge movement in the atonement? The movement is from creation to us becoming participants in creation by our being enabled to live as if death were not. This is the priestly pattern of atonement; and it is the priestly pattern that Jesus had the genius to combine with the ethical, bringing together the ancient liturgical formula, the prophecies, the hopes of fulfillment of the anointed one, the true high priest who would come and create a new temple, the true shepherd of the sheep who would come to create a new temple – fulfilling those, and revealing what it meant in terms of ethical terms: the overcoming of our tendency to sacrifice each other so as to survive. That is the world, which thanks to him, we inhabit.
Now, do you see why I said that I wanted to give you a much more conservative account than the atonement theory allows? What we are given is a sign of something that has happened and been given to us. What is difficult for us is not grasping the theory, but starting to try and imagine the love that is behind that. Why on earth should someone bother to do that for us? That’s
© James Alison, August 2004
Reproduced by Courage with kind permission