Atonement Theology 101
The Meaning of Jesus’ Death
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an introduction to “atonement”
The definition of the word “atonement” can be conveniently explained by sounding out its syllables. It means to make two parties “at one” with one another. In biblical language, “atonement” means that there is a problem in the relationship between human beings and God, which is resolved somehow.
God takes the initiative to make “atonement.” There were preliminary forms of “atonement” in the Old Testament, but the supreme act of “atonement” was made by Jesus of Nazareth.
the definition of “medical substitution” and “healing atonement”
Imagine a child born with fetal alcohol syndrome. Imagine the challenges that child will inherit as she grows up.
Now imagine that every human being is born with a syndrome - a disorder and disease in our human nature. We were not originally created this way. But our first parents internalized a desire to define good and evil for ourselves, a power that belonged with God. Today, we act in ways that increase the damage in ourselves, that alienate us further from each other and the created world.
The good and loving Creator God took the initiative to heal both the damage we inherit, and the damage we cause. He imposed mortality as a limit to human evil and self-corruption, anticipating His own future remedy that would undo our mortality and offer healing to our corruption. Meanwhile, God called together a focus group - called “Israel” in the biblical story - to help them live by a challenging spiritual health regimen. It partially worked. They experienced the goodness and wisdom of God’s commands. But the people of Israel also resisted God (e.g. Romans 7:14 - 25) and could not completely conquer the disorder within themselves. Sin persisted. But, the Israelites diagnosed the disease in human nature, and documented the disease. We call that documentation “the Hebrew Scriptures” and “the Old Testament.”
As a good “doctor,” God became His own “patient” to become the cure. The eternal Son of God entered the womb of Mary of Nazareth and acquired both our humanity and the disorder within it. He fought a fierce, lifelong, internal battle with our disorder, resisting every temptation to define good and evil for himself. With every breath, he lived in love for his eternal Father, God the Father, and pressed the Spirit of God into every part of his humanity. In fact, Jesus killed the corruption of sin by loving us and loving the Father all the way into his death on the cross. He did that in order to resurrect his human nature purified, healed, and utterly God-soaked.
Jesus “substituted” himself in for the focus group - Israel - and did what they couldn’t and we wouldn’t. He fully received God’s health regimen - God’s “medical” treatment - into his human nature. Jesus was our “medical substitute.” He accomplished “atonement” by destroying the hostility to God within human nature (Romans 5:10; 6:6). He made human nature “at one” with God.
Now Jesus, enthroned in heaven, shares his Spirit with us, so he can do in us what he did in himself: conquer the disorder of sin, and reunite us with God the Father (Romans 8:3 - 4; Deuteronomy 30:6). Jesus shared in our fallen humanity, so we might share in his healed humanity. In himself, he made a new humanity for all humanity. Jesus’ first followers, guided by his Spirit, recorded the teachings of Jesus, the life story of Jesus, and Jesus’ invitation to personal relationship, in what we call “the New Testament.”
To listen to a helpful podcast, check out Beyond Penal Substitution on the Almost Heretical podcast when Mako discussed atonement.
the work of the Anástasis center
The Anástasis Center for Christian Education and Ministry seeks to help people experience Jesus in this way. We write Bible studies, devotional reflections, and papers for people to use for their personal enrichment, day-to-day life, and ministry. We design tools for evangelism, preachers and pastors, counselors, and missionaries who seek to engage other cultures and belief systems. We recover insights from the early Christians to help Christians today know that we stand in an honorable and respectable tradition, especially on the atonement.
In fact, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in Letter from Birmingham Jail that these earliest Christians were radical and revolutionaries. They changed the world. With those hopes, we also develop Christian study and action guides on social issues to inspire Christian activists, to engage non-Christians, and to help Christians live out God’s healing and restorative work. We curate materials to show that the Christian approach to power and politics must be restorative, respectful of non-Christians, and mindful of the successes and failures of Christians who went before us. But because Jesus’ work of atonement is about healing humanity and human relationships, we see God’s justice as restorative.
We hope to foster and support a broad network of people who are interested in growing in Christ this way. Check out our Facebook group.
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the anastasis center in context today
For more information about how Christians from all three major traditions (Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant) are revisiting the sources of Christian faith, please see this summary of the Nicene Creed and how historians and theologians are re-evaluating Augustine of Hippo (354 - 430 AD) and his influence on Western Christianity, especially as we find it in Martin Luther and John Calvin.
Please check out our Resource Library for more information and materials.