Friday, April 6, 2012
C S Lewis’ View of the Atonement: Picturing What We Cannot Fully Understand
My Facebook friend, C S Lewis scholar and author Will Vaus, today posted a link to an interesting article in Christianity Today, which challenged my thinking about the Atonement Christ accomplished for us on the cross. (See He's Calling For Elijah! Why We Still Mishear Jesus by Al Hsu.)
A common interpretation of the crucifixion is that the Son of God was forsaken by the Father in order for Christ to suffer the wrath of God in our place. Hsu argues that Christ was not forsaken, and that His words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” from the cross would have reminded the Jewish audience of Psalm 22. Hsu believes the entire context of the Psalm, which ends in triumph, must be kept in mind when interpreting Jesus’ words. Certainly the psalmist was not forsaken by God when he penned those words, but was expressing how he felt. Hsu points to verse 24 as proof Christ was not actually forsaken: “For he has not despised or scorned the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help.” [NIV]
Jesus is not saying that God has forsaken him. He's declaring the opposite. He's saying that God is with him, even in this time of seeming abandonment, and that God will vindicate him by raising him from the dead.
From the comments left, it seems the Christianity Today article has raised quite a stir. Some of the respondents are assuming Hsu has rejected the common “substitutionary atonement” theory (Christ received God’s wrath so we don’t have to.), although this is not specifically addressed.
When I replied to Will Vaus’ post, he suggested I read the chapter “The Perfect Penitent” in Mere Christianity by C S Lewis. Lewis sums up his thoughts about “substitutionary atonement” on the first page of the chapter.
Now before I became a Christian I was under the impression that the first thing Christians had to believe was one particular theory as to what the point of this dying was. According to that theory God wanted to punish men for having deserted and joined the Great Rebel, but Christ volunteered to be punished instead, and so God let us off. Now I admit that even this theory does not seem to me quite so immoral and so silly as it used to; but that is not the point I want to make. What I came to see later on was that neither this theory nor any other is Christianity. The central Christian belief is that Christ's death has somehow put us right with God and given us a fresh start. Theories as to how it did this are another matter. A good many different theories have been held as to how it works; what all Christians are agreed on is that it does work.
Lewis says that any theory about how the Atonement works is just an attempt to picture what it looks like, much as a scientist will use an illustration or picture of an atom to convey what it is like.
But then they warn you that this picture is not what the scientists actually believe. What the scientists believe is a mathematical formula. The pictures are there only to help you to understand the formula. They are not really true in the way the formula is; they do not give you the real thing but only something more or less like it. They are only meant to help, and if they do not help you can drop them. The thing itself cannot be pictured, it can only be expressed mathematically.
No matter what explanations or illustrations we may come up with, they are at best imperfect, feeble attempts to explain the unexplainable.
I will not try to attempt to explain Lewis’ picture of the Atonement. You can read it for yourself. (An online version of the chapter can be found here: 4. The Perfect Penitent. I am not yet convinced that it has helped me, and, as he says, “if it does not help you, drop it.” But if it helps you...
What has helped me is the idea that theories about the Atonement are not the same as the Atonement itself. It works—it is effective on our behalf—not because we understand it, but because it works. We like to have everything packaged up nicely so we can examine it, but that’s not what God has done. Our insistence that we understand everything is often where we go astray.
It’s called “faith” for a reason.
On this Good Friday, don’t spend the day trying to understand or (probably worse) explain what Christ did for us on the cross. Just believe it and enjoy the results.