A Bigger Atonement

Matthew 28:1-10 New International Version (NIV)

28 After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb.

2 There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. 4 The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men.

5 The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. 6 He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. 7 Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.’ Now I have told you.”

8 So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9 Suddenly Jesus met them. “Greetings,” he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him. 10 Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”


Does anyone know why the Easter bunny crossed the road? His friends egged him on.

I have no idea why or where the idea of an Easter bunny came from, though there are some interesting ideas out there about the perpetual virginity of rabbits. And I have heard a number of theories on why we color and collect Easter eggs. Some are interesting, some are not, but none of them will be our focus for today. Instead, I want to ask a different question or two that may not be so easy to answer. Because even though today is a holiday, we don’t want to take a break from thinking.

Can someone please tell me what happened on the cross? Oh, I know, Jesus was put to death, an innocent man without sin punished for insurrection. I know what physically happened all those years ago on Calvary. But what exactly took place at a cosmic or theological level?

If you haven’t figured it out, today, Easter Sunday 2014, we are talking about atonement theories. I know, please try to control your enthusiasm.

But before we move to the various ways that theologians have tried to explain what took place on that day when Jesus was crucified and/or the day when Jesus was raised from the grave, I want to recite together a little bit of liturgy that is spoken in churches around the world on a regular basis. Please read these lines along with me:

Christ has died,

Christ has risen,

Christ will come again.

If you get nothing else out of today’s message, keep those three little lines in mind. Christ has died, Christ has risen, and Christ will come again. You need not agree with me on anything else today, but let us affirm again and again that Christ has died, Christ has risen, and Christ will come again.

When I ask what happened on the cross, most Christians will respond by saying “Jesus took away my/our sins.” I believe that to be true, and I hope that you do as well. But how that happens does make a difference, and how we understand this forgiveness of sins will affect how we see God, God’s creation, and one another. All of this we place under the rubric of “Atonement Theory.” So don’t be intimidated by the phrase “Atonement Theory,” it simply means “How God saves us from our sins.”

I’ll give an example of how atonement theories can make God out to be a “Bad Guy.” The most common understanding of atonement is what we call “Penal Substitutionary Atonement,” which means that Jesus was punished for our sins in our place. This is based on biblical texts like 2 Peter 2:24: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.”

What a wonderful gift on behalf of Jesus! I believe some aspects of Penal Substitutionary Atonement to be correct. But like so many other of our theories, we can stretch it a bit, assume a few thing, and all at once we make God out to be something less than godlike.

Some have taken this approach and described God as an angry and hateful God. They say, “God hates you and wants nothing more than to throw you into hell for all of eternity because of your sin. The only thing that keeps us out of hell is that God chose instead to take out his wrath on Jesus.” (Okay, I might be stretching it a bit, but not too much.)

The image of God that we get here is that God is so angry and so ticked off that he doesn’t care who he punishes for sin, as long as somebody bleeds for it. This theory pits father against son and sometimes you will hear this called “divine child abuse.”

I don’t like that God, and we don’t have to believe in that God.

We can still believe that Jesus took our place and took our sins on the cross without believing in divine child abuse. We must keep our Trinitarian beliefs intact as we consider how Jesus saves. Remember that Jesus is God incarnate; he is God in the flesh. How about rather than pitting Father vs. Son, we view this as a relational decision where God decides to enter into human form to take on the sins of the world. Rather than God punishing Jesus for the sins of the world we can see God as voluntarily choosing to take the sins of the world upon himself because there is no other way. This way of understanding the atonement is still supported by the scriptures, but it also affirms the Trinitarian nature of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And let’s be honest, I can worship a God who volunteers to die for our sins a lot easier than I can worship a God who needs to take out his wrath on someone and doesn’t care who. Even if it is his own son.

So Jesus takes our sin upon himself, he is the perfect sacrifice that serves as the metaphorical sacrificial lamb of the Day of Atonement. But there seems to be more to it than just that. Because if Jesus was simply born to die, like the creeds and some theologies lead us to believe, then why live 33 years, ministering to thousands, healing, and teaching along the way?

In his book A Community Called Atonement, New Testament Scholar Scot McKnight uses a metaphor to help us organize all of our atonement theories. Many in my congregation at Staunton Mennonite are very familiar with this item: it is a golf bag filled with clubs.

Suppose I invite you to go hit the links after church today and play a round of 18. We both arrive at the golf course, pay our fees, and step up to the first tee. You pull out your driver, your 1 wood (I don’t golf, I hope I don’t butcher the terminology). This is the biggest, heaviest club that you own and you want to use this club because you need to drive a little white ball three hundred yards. So you hit the ball with all of your might and it goes a little bit better than 2/3’s of the way there. You then pull out your pitching wedge and chip the ball onto the green, about 15 feet from the hole. Finally, you get out your putter and tap the ball in for a birdie.

Then I get up to the tee and I try to drive the ball all 300 yards with…my putter. I give it my all and the ball goes 20 yards and into the woods.

Let’s just say that if you are playing with a full set of clubs and I’m committed to playing the entire round with nothing put a putter, you will beat me.

McKnight says that the various atonement theories are like a set of golf clubs. Different clubs do different things, help us out of certain situations, and work together for a more complete understanding of the work of God. Some are very useful, some not so much. He doesn’t claim that all atonement theories are equal and that all are valid or valuable. But there are a number of ways of answering how Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection bring about reconciliation that help us better understand who God is and what God is calling us to.

We have already looked at Substitutionary Atonement and how, when understood correctly, it brings about reconciliation. Next we will move to Christus Victor, or Christ the Victorious.

The Christus Victor approach begins with the fall of humanity and the evils of this world. We know that death is the result of sin. Before sin entered into the world, the world knew no death. But by offering himself as a perfect sacrifice, dying on the cross, and then rising again, Jesus was able to defeat the evils of this world and ultimately defeat death. Christ has won, Christ defeated death and evil.

We find this view supported in Colossians 2:15: “And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.” And in Hebrews 2:14, “Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil.”

Christus Victor is the main theory that we find in the Chronicles of Narnia series by C. S. Lewis. At one point we find the evil witch having a discussion with Aslan, the good and noble lion. The witch is claiming that she can take the life of a human, named Edmund, because Edmund is a traitor and the law specifies that the penalty for being a traitor is death.

But Alan offers a different option to the evil witch. He would allow the witch to take his life if, in return, she would spare Edmund’s life. The witch is quick to accept this offer because Aslan has been a thorn in her flesh for far too long. So she kills him and sets Edmund free.

However, the witch didn’t know all of the rules to the game. There were powers at play that she was not aware of and Aslan comes roaring back to life, tricking the evil witch and breaking the curse of death.

Guess who Aslan and the wicked witch represent. Christus Victor tells us that Jesus’ death and resurrection breaks the curse of death, which was the result of our sin.

Finally, I want to touch on what we sometimes call Girardian Mimetic Theory, named after the French anthropologist Rene Girard. Please note that I am drastically summarizing these theories, and I can only touch on a few aspects of each.

Mimetic Theory essentially comes from observing human beings. We do the things that we do in large part because we learned to do them by watching others. If I sneeze, you say “God bless you.” Did anyone ever teach you that you need to say “God bless you” when someone sneezes? Probably not. You learned it by watching others.

It is so interesting to watch our children as they grow and pick up things from their parents, family, and friends. If you were at Staunton Mennonite last Sunday you witnessed my four-year-old son give his first sermon. Where did he learn to stand up on the stage and speak to the congregation (and without notes, mind you)? He learned it from watching daddy.

Unfortunately, our children also pick things up by watching us that we would rather they not learn. Sometimes I see my son getting angry at his little sister when she won’t sit down in her car seat, raising his voice at her. It is a good mirror for me to see my own shortcomings and hopefully make some changes in how I parent. Because I don’t want him to get angry when she isn’t doing what she is supposed to be doing.

Girard observed the violent nature of human beings to call out for revenge when they have been wronged or perceive to have been wronged. He notes that ever since Abel’s sacrifice was accepted by God and Cain’s was “not looked upon with favor,” leading Cain to kill his brother, we have tried to find revenge when we feel we are wronged.

God limited revenge with the Lex Talionis, an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. Equal punishment for a crime committed. But that wasn’t enough. Along comes Jesus and he says no more of this eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth. No, we must forgive. And on the cross, as Jesus, an innocent, perfect, sacrificial lamb was led to slaughter, he called out, “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they do.”

Jesus forgave his murderers, Jesus forgave his disciples who had turned their backs on him, and Jesus forgave the people who had changed their cries from “Hosanna to the son of David,” to “Crucify him!” in a period of just a few days. In doing this he broke the mimetic cycle. We don’t have to follow the ways of the world that cry out for an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Jesus didn’t cry out, “I’m going to come back from the grave and show you who is boss!” He cried out, “Father forgive them, for they don’t know what they do.”

And when the resurrected Jesus meets his friends who had disserted him in his hour of need, how did he speak to them? Did he make accusations and point out how they left him high and dry? No, he repeats a couple of sayings: “Don’t be afraid,” and “Peace be with you.”

I will be the first person to admit to you all that these atonement theories don’t necessarily make sense on their own. Girardian Mimetic Theory may bring reconciliation between human beings, but where is the reconciliation between God and humanity in that? That is why I believe in a big atonement. That’s why I bring all of my clubs when I go golfing.

Did Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection bring about reconciliation between God and humanity? Or did Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection defeat death and sin? Or did Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection allow for brother and sister to choose to reject the cycle of revenge, the cycle of an eye for an eye? I would say “YES” to all.

Christ has died,

Christ has risen,

Christ will come again.

This Easter, I’m thankful for a big, big atonement.


About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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