The centrality of the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection
The salvation of creation, through the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the defining tenet of Christianity. It is the most challenging, fascinating and vital part of our faith. Without it, Christianity is a moral code, based on the teachings of an itinerant preacher. But a moral code does not a way of living make. A moral code is not the foundation of a transformative faith.
No, it is through the decision of God to be man, to die and to make new life of that death, that we are made new. Our faith, our lives as Christians are rooted in the Great Three Days. That is the still point of the turning world. The atonement is the eucatastrophe of humanity.
This transforming moment is beyond comprehending – it is the working out of the Divine Will on earth. Yet it is also fundamentally important – because it is the cornerstone of our relationship with God. So we try to comprehend the incomprehensible.
The injustice and lovelessness of atonement theologies
Theologies of the atonement range hugely. At one extreme, Penal Substitution holds that the sins of humanity are so severe that they demand the ultimate punishment. Eternal punishment is the just punishment for sin. Only through Christ standing in place of humanity to receive that punishment is the righteous anger of God satisfied, giving humanity the hope of salvation. Other variants on this theology hold that Christ’s death comes in place of human death to Satan, or that it somehow does God the honour which humanity has, through sin, failed to do.
Such a view, however, has many flaws. First, it implies a time before the debt was paid – the language of debt and payment is inherently temporal. It follows that part of humanity is beyond the hope of salvation. This cannot be a moral choice of a God who is love.
This theology is also rooted in the deeply problematic concept of original sin. Christ’s death does not, it is held, automatically win humanity the right to eternal salvation. We still rely on either living a good, moral life, or on God’s grace (depending on your tradition). All Christ’s death wins is the possibility that we might not be eternally damned. It wins the hope of Glory, yet the means of grace is still necessary. If we do not hold that humanity is ‘fallen’, there is no justification for an act of atonement – God’s grace alone would be sufficient.
Worse still, this atonement theology is rooted in an idea of justice, or worse of wrath and appeasement, which ignores the role of love altogether. To forgive without demanding reparations is surely a greater act of love than to demand the payment owed. Surely the divine love must be able to encompass such infinite generosity? Indeed, Christ shows that God can make sins as nothing, and not demand the punishment required by the law: Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more. Is that not the definition of grace?
Indeed, if we are made free, then human failure is an inevitable result of our humanity. Only the Divine can meet divine standards. To be human is to fall short of the Glory of God. How, then, could God demand punishment for what is the essential fact of how we are made by Him – our imperfection? To condemn, to demand retribution, would be neither just not loving.
The deficiency of moral influence
At the other extreme, Christ’s willing death for sins committed not by Him, but by the world, can be seen as the ultimate moral exemplar, an example of what the Divine nature is, and what we should choose to be. Christ died, not to change our relationship with God, or to win us the chance of salvation, but to show us how to live.
Yet this moral influence theory seems to fall into the trap of ignoring the vital (in all senses of the word) importance of the crucifixion and resurrection. There must be something more to this moment than a mere exemplar, or exposition of God’s love for us. Something bigger must have happened.
The timelessness of God, incarnate in time
God is eternal and unchanging. To be otherwise would fall short of perfection. Again, God must be outside time, which He created. God cannot create Godself, so He cannot be bounded by time. Nor can He change, as it is the passage of time, of before and after alone, which allows for change. To God, there is no before or after; no before or after creation, no before or after incarnation.
“Thou art always the Selfsame and thy years shall have no end.” Thy years neither go nor come… All Thy years stand together as one, since they are abiding… Thy “today” yields not to tomorrow and does not follow yesterday. Thy “today” is eternity.
– Augustine, Confessions
Yet, this leaves God cut off from His world. While God experiences all existence as God, it is only through Christ that God is able to be human. The incarnation anchors God in time. Through the crucifixion, Christ lives out human suffering. Through the resurrection, He embodies human joy.
The choice of incarnation
And this is the heart of it. Through the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection, God gives Godself to die. It is true that in this moment, we see God’s love for us enacted, as the moral influence view holds. But more than that, through the incarnation, which is eternally present to God, God continually makes the active choice to be part of the world and to inhabit our suffering and our joy. This is not simply a revelation of God’s nature, it is a fundamental part of His being.
What makes Christ’s death and resurrection so vital then, is that it changes our relationship to God. It does not do this by paying the price for our sins and satisfying divine justice, nor by simply helping us see what God is like. It does this by defining what it is to be God, altering God’s very being compared to a conceivable god which is not incarnate, or compared to the partial knowledge of what it is to be God which humanity held before we experienced the incarnation of Christ in time.
God is the god who chooses to share in the very worst of what it is to be human. It is played out, in its ultimate form, in Calvary. It breaks His heart, as it does ours. And it goes on.
Our relationship with the Divine is rooted in who we are, and in who God is. It is at the still point of God’s cross that we meet in the dance.
Between time and eternity
nothing was fixed.
One gaped at the other
across an unbridgeable void…
…nothing was fixed
until a workman took
a hammer and a wrist
and with one whack nailed down
eternity screaming into time.
– Godfrey Rust