Our youth pastor invited me today to talk about atonement with our confirmation class. As you know, I am very passionate about offering a better explanation than the Four Spiritual Laws of how Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection reconcile us to God. I’m not very good at turning confirmation lessons into silly activities with cotton balls and papier mache. So what I offered them was pretty simple: a single sheet of paper with a brief description of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection at the top and then seven different concrete problems that Jesus’ atonement provides a solution for (realizing that’s not an exhaustive list). I gave them scripture passages to read and had them try to answer based on the scripture how Jesus’ atonement addressed the stated problem.
Life: Jesus was the Word of God made flesh. He lived a normal human life like all of us. He got sick. He told jokes. He faced all of the temptations and struggles that we face as part of life. Not only that, but Jesus lived in poverty. He was the son of a carpenter in the small town of Nazareth, Galilee. So despite the fact that He was fully divine, He chose to come to Earth as one of the lowliest members of society.
Death: Jesus was arrested, put on trial, and executed on a Roman cross even though he was perfectly innocent. The people of Israel had a long history of killing animals in sacrifice as a way of purifying their community of all the bad blood they had acquired because of sin. Jesus’ death was the ultimate sacrifice to heal and purify the human race of the sins of all people. Jesus’ cross created an eternal place where people can leave behind the bad things they’ve done as well as the bad things other people have done to them.
Resurrection: Christians believe that Jesus rose from the dead on the third day after he died on the cross. His resurrection means that the religious leaders who condemned him to death didn’t get the last word. He was victorious over them. It also means that our sins were not too much for him to bear; he conquered our sin just like he conquered death. Jesus’ resurrection is proof of the Holy Spirit’s power of transformation. Just like Jesus was raised from the dead, we too can be healed from addictions, abuse, and every mess that we’ve ever gotten into.
Seven problems resolved by Jesus’ atonement
1) God is perfect; I’ve made so many mistakes; how could he ever accept me?
I chose Hebrews 4:12-16 for them to look at, because it starts off saying that God’s word is a “two-edged sword” which “is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (v. 12). God sees everything that we’ve done and it is quite appropriate to be intimidated by the thought of facing him. But then Hebrews 4:15 says, “We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses.” Jesus’ incarnation proves God’s sympathy with our human condition. Because we have a sympathetic high priest in Jesus, we can “approach the throne of grace with boldness” (v. 16). Throughout the book of Hebrews, the atoning sacrifice of the perfectly sympathetic priest is depicted as the means by which we gain “confidence to enter the sanctuary [of God]” (Hebrews 10:19). In other words, the problem is framed as our need for assurance. Hebrews never talks about atonement in terms of appeasing God’s wrath.
2) I’ve been bullied, and I’m mad at God because He allowed people to hurt me.
To look at this problem, I sent the kids to the Suffering Servant passage in Isaiah 53, where it says, “He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by others” (vv. 2-3). I could have also had them read about how the Roman soldiers mocked him while they were beating him and other examples of bullying. Part of the atonement of Jesus’ passion is the fact that it shows solidarity with those who are bullied. Jesus’ cross proves that God is not aloof to the suffering of the oppressed. I realize this is not a familiar reading in the privileged white evangelical world, but it factors hugely in the slave spirituals as well as more recent Latin American liberation theology texts.
3) I have dark secrets nobody knows, and I’m scared to death that somebody will find out so I just smile and pretend like nothing is wrong.
I paired this problem with a selection out of Romans 7:21-8:4 which starts with Paul agonizing over the good that he wants to do in his spirit and the evil that his flesh does, and crescendoes with Paul’s declaration that “there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” This problem is different than just having sins that need to be paid off. Part of atonement is God’s forgiveness of sin, but a slightly different matter is the way that Christ’s public shame serves as a basis for releasing us from the prison of our shame. We often presume that the “self-denial” of taking up your cross refers to some kind of “sacrificial” exertion, but if you think about what it really meant to walk down a 1st century Palestinian street between armed guards with an enormous plank of wood strapped to your shoulders, it is more public exposure than exertion. It describes a willingness to disavow your dignity and carry your shame openly. The cross is not only payment; it is also radical vulnerability that creates the vulnerable community of those who take up their crosses and follow Christ.
I paired this with Ephesians 2:11-16. The cross not only addresses the impossibility of behaving perfectly; it also addresses the impossibility of assigning blame perfectly. In most of our conflicts with other people, there is no way to figure out exactly whose fault it is. I realize Ephesians 2:11-16 is talking specifically about the conflict between Jews and Gentiles, but when Paul says, “He is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us” (v. 14), it’s really applicable to any two groups in conflict. Because Jesus has put every sinful aspect of my quarrel with another person on his cross, we don’t need to get to the bottom of exactly how much I am supposed to apologize and how much my adversary is supposed to apologize before we can make peace.
5) I feel small and insignificant; nobody will ever take me seriously.
I paired this with Philippians 2:5-13: the famous Christ-hymn about Jesus’ self-emptying plus some extra verses about how God is at work in us. It is part of Christ’s atonement that God reaches down to the smallest and most insignificant people through Jesus’ willingness to “empty himself” and “take the form of a slave.” Just as Jesus’ self-emptying in vv. 5-8 results in his exaltation in vv. 9-11, if we “work out our own salvation in fear and trembling” (v. 12), the power of God will be “at work in [us], enabling [us] both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (v. 13). God enjoys demonstrating his power by accomplishing amazing things through the smallest and weakest of us. 1 Corinthians 1:27-29 is another passage that speaks to this in the way that God chooses “the weak to shame the strong” and “the foolish to shame the wise.”
6) I know that I’m awesome; I like to brag about my accomplishments, and I like to judge and criticize other people.
Romans 3:19-28 seems like a good remedy for the problem of arrogance. None of us are righteous. We are all in need of God’s mercy. It is when we recognize this need for God’s mercy that he can accomplish his righteousness through us. Otherwise, we ruin every good thing that we do by turning it into the basis for our self-worship. When we recognize that we “are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood” (vv. 24-25) then: “What becomes of boasting? It is excluded” (v. 27).
7) Our world is filled with problems that seem irresolvable. If only we could start over from scratch!
It is because of the intractability of the problems in our world, that we need the atonement of the resurrection described in 2 Corinthians 5:16-21. We need to be able to say, “Everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (v. 17). God reconciles the fallen world to himself by inscribing the transformation of crucifixion and resurrection into every aspect of reality. To live in the kingdom established by Christ’s resurrection is to live in a world where anything is possible and no problem is insurmountable.