From a friend of mine: The idea of substitutionary atonement has troubled me throughout the past year. I can understand that we have been separated from God through sin. What I don't understand is how God could be limited by our tit-for-tat system of justice.
Why would God demand payment to atone for one's missteps? What kind of loving God would say, "Everything will be alright between us only after an appropriate sacrifice has been made." And what kind of God would subscribe to a "whipping boy" system by sending an innocent to be punished, thereby releasing others of their guilt?
Some people claim that these questions are reflective of our inability to understand the awesomeness of the Divine, but as far as I can tell, this type of cosmic "justice" seems all too human.
My questions about substitutionary atonement became particularly salient when I saw the movie "The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe." In C.S. Lewis's story, the ancient law states that the young boy, Edmund, must be turned over to the White Witch because he betrayed Narnia.
Aslan, the story's Christ-figure, offers up himself in Edmund's place, and this satisfies the White Witch. There is a debt and somebody must pay. While watching the movie, I wondered, "Why is that the law of Narnia? What kind of all-knowing, all-loving Creator would put such a law into place?"
It struck me that the only character referring to the law was the White Witch. Aslan had forgiven Edmund and saw him as the child he was. Perhaps this demand for payment is a human creation. Perhaps God does not require a sacrifice at all.
I set aside some of these thoughts and questions for a few months, and we entered the season of Lent. In late March, I spent one Saturday at a women's clinic that provides abortions. I saw many protesters. I saw some holding up bibles and acting as street preachers.
I saw some standing by large billboard images of bloody limbs, some yelling about Jesus. I saw some following patients and escorts around pushing literature, some photographing patients and escorts to put their pictures up on the web.
Some standing to the side of the escorts talking loudly to their accompanying small children about how "those people" are going to hell unless they turn to Jesus, some eavesdropping on the conversations of escorts to try to catch a name or other piece of information that could be used against them.
I also saw Christ. I saw Christ in the acts of the volunteer escorts as they passively allowed the hurtful words to be hurled. They walked beside the staff and patients, shielding them physically and psychologically. They were not paid to do this.
They simply knew that these people did not deserve the punishments being meted out by the protesters, and they offered up themselves as a small measure of protection.I began to understand the idea of substitutionary atonement. Christ, much like these clinic escorts, takes on the pain of the world that is intended for us.
This is not pain that we deserve in God's view. God does not demand suffering through some cosmic system of debts and repayment. We are targets of the world's limited understanding of justice, and God intervened in this system.
God knows we are children, like Edmund in "The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe," and we are simply trying to figure out this thing called life. God does not seek to punish us - or a cosmic "whipping boy" - for our humanness, and yet "for God so loved the world that God gave God's only son." Happy Easter!