Tuesday, June 18, 2002


It is often said of Jesus by non-believers that He was “a great moral teacher.” What they usually mean is, “I like the outcomes Jesus’ teachings as understood by liberation theologians, but I think we’re all a little too sophisticated to accept all that nonsense about his being the Son of God.” At least, this is what the nonbelievers I encounter seem to mean. Your mileage may vary.

Strangely, though, the “Son of God” part, per se, is not really the root of their objection. They can conceive of God, and they can even conceive of God-made-flesh, albeit perhaps not in an orthodox way that encompasses full humanity and full divinity. What they stumble on is something that even believers often don’t fully understand, the doctrine of the Atonement.

The doctrine simply states that God lowered himself to become united with man in the person of Jesus, in order to raise up humanity, and that in dying for our sins Christ fulfilled this unity, and reconciled us to, or made us “at one” (the origin of the word) with God. This is essential to Christianity: if you don’t believe it, you cannot be Christian as such.

The specific mechanism by which the Atonement occurred is not something that all Christians do or must agree upon. Various metaphors have been put forth over the centuries, with “ransom” being one of the most common. I’ll avoid the mechanical question entirely, because it is extraneous, and anyway not the main difficulty for nonbelievers.

The surprising thing, to me at any rate, is that anyone should have any sort of difficulty at all with the idea that Christ, by taking on our sins, would remove them from us, could atone for them. Even a cursory glance at the people around us should make it clear that our very nature reiterates the idea on a daily basis.

I for one am constantly putting my sins off on others. How often do I nurture some petty resentment against my wife into a festering sore upon our marriage—the dishes not done; the laundry still in the baskets? I am not satisfied to let them go until she has taken them on herself. (And then I am usually filled with regret and self-loathing that all too often does not get communicated half as easily as the resentment.) In larger society we see it all the time; call it the Hilary Clinton Syndrome, where a person bears the sins of another in order to achieve fame or success or some other transient goal.

Now, I do not suppose that my wife is really atoning for my sins, though she may tolerate them with Christ-like patience some days. Nor do I suggest there is anything very admirable or holy about the Clintons’ nakedly twisted ambition. What I do suggest is that, as so often happens, the miracle of Christ is echoed up and down through history, almost a literal echo. Our very nature is wired from the ground up to expect that a moment will come when some other will bear our sins away from us, and free us from their terrible burden. The holiday of Yom Kippur in ancient times was celebrated by symbolically putting the sins of the community on a goat and then chasing the goat out of the city walls—hence the “scapegoat.” In this way, our constant effort to shift the blame, to avoid responsibility for our actions, can be seen as a perverted reflection of the reality.

Everything about our beings expects that someone else will come along to make it all right, to make us whole again. This is an observable phenomenon, testable and repeatable within a lab. The only thing strange about it is that something so obviously inherent in human nature should become objectionable only when it is explained.


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