Choosing to Embrace the Atonement

I wasn’t more than ten years old when I watched my grandfather butcher a pig. Contrary to what some might imagine, I don’t think I was emotionally damaged by it. Sure, it was gruesome and bloody. But I also remember thinking that this is how we get food. I liked meat. I liked the idea of nourishing my body. And that was enough for my kid’s way of thinking to justify the act and not blame my grandfather for any cruelty.

Years later I learned that there was a lifestyle called vegetarianism. A classmate confronted me with the horrors of murdering living creatures for human consumption. I was troubled. Was it wrong to kill an animal for food? And then I read the novel When the Legends Die in one of my high-school English classes. It told the story of a young Native American struggling to navigate the traditional ways of his parents with the practices of white men that had been thrust upon him. At one point, the protagonist returns to the forest to hunt like his father had. After killing a deer, he thanks it for its sacrifice so that he, a man, can eat and live.

Kind of weird to pray to a dead animal, but something about it left an imprint on my imagination.

Death for the Innocent?

After all these years, this scene is the only one I remember from that book. It helped me visualize and articulate a personal proverb that was forming in my mind and that I’ve never forgotten: sacrifice precedes life, and thanksgiving is always the appropriate response.

Life in this world holds a mysterious quality that’s difficult to explain. The death of something innocent—like a deer or pig—makes it possible for something or someone else to have what is needed to live. On the surface, it doesn’t feel fair or even right. Why does something living have to die? Yet it’s the way it is—the circle of life, as some call it. Even vegetarians must kill certain living plants to nourish life in their own bodies. And gratitude is always the humble and right response.

Throughout human history this insight, in one form or another, has been developed, and implemented. Animal sacrifices have not always been merely to provide for food but also for appeasing deities to gain favors that would supposedly improve human existence. Human sacrifices were thrown into the mix as well. The ancient cultures of the Egyptians, Chinese, Carthaginians, and Aztecs are a few of the many that believed the more precious the sacrifice (an innocent child, accomplished warrior, or virgin), the greater the ultimate benefit for the community. It made sense to them, though it’s mere murder in our minds today.

Biblical Sacrifices

The ancient Israelites, also, were instructed to make bloody offerings, though not human. Perfectly-formed bulls and lambs gave up their lives to somehow provide a holy covering for the imperfect Jewish community. Their tabernacle and temple served as places for the continual butchering of animals. Why? Though never thoroughly explained to the satisfaction of modern rationalism, a theme of the innocent dying for the sake of the guilty runs throughout the Hebrew scriptures.

It is accepted as a given from the very first chapters of the biblical story. The first sin recorded in Genesis 3 results in the guilty humans hiding from God because they are suddenly aware of how different they are from their holy Creator. To mercifully clothe their nakedness, which was a tangible expression of their shame, God provides animal skins to wrap them in. The reader is left to articulate the obvious conclusion: innocent creatures had to die to cover the sin and shame of the humans that God, for some reason, cares for so much. And that is just the beginning.

The mystery deepens for Jesus followers. For two-thousand years, the Christian faith has centered on a teacher who claimed to be one with God but gave Himself up to a bloody death. Explaining why Jesus had to suffer and die has challenged theologians ever since. Known as “Theories of the Atonement,” these interpretations provide a broad range of reasoning, trying to make sense of something that easily stumps human logic.

Explanations?

One of the oldest ways to understand the Atonement proposes that Jesus’ crucifixion somehow defeated all the dark forces behind sin and evil, freeing humans to live as originally intended. Another claims that He died in our place, taking the punishment that all humans deserve because of the initial and ongoing rebellion against the Creator. Still another sees the willing death of Jesus as the purest picture of sacrificial love, meant to woo estranged humanity back into the waiting arms of God. There are others, of course, including ones that mix the above three as well as the cynical understanding that His death was a tragic waste with no purpose at all.

All the theories have their critics, pointing out problems. And yet, if I am going to follow Jesus as presented in the Bible, I have to personally decide how to respond to His death. Of course, the other piece that must be considered is the claim that Jesus didn’t stay dead. Belief or unbelief in His resurrection is arguably the most crucial consideration in determining the significance of His death. If true, the resurrection makes ALL the difference (read post: Choosing to Put My Hope in Something Worthy).

Though He was called the Lamb of God (John 1:36), alluding to all those innocent animals that gave their lives for the troubled Israelite community, none of the countless slaughtered sheep ever came back to life. There was something incredibly unique about Jesus—how He lived and died and rose from the dead. We’re told He was fully human, living an unadorned earthly existence from birth to death. And yet He was also fully God, without sin and having existed for all eternity. He shouldn’t have had to die. And yet His followers said He did, willingly and purposefully, but then came back to life with a new incorruptible body that could never die again—and promising the same future for all who believe.

A Response is Required

So, what’s my reaction to all this? The idea that death can offer hope for life has a wide range of applications. But it leaves room for many skeptical challenges as well. As much as I long for logical explanations for my why and how questions, I must decide if I will simply trust that His death was significant for me based on WHO He claimed to be.

Imagine that it’s true, that there is some kind of “circle of life” at work in this world with a sacrificial death paving the way for life to be given to someone else. The intentional death of the One recognized as “God in the flesh” then, must carry a profound significance for everyone—more than the death of a sheep, a deer, a pig, or even a human. The activating power, however, is not in our cognitive understanding of how such an event is effective. Instead, it’s in a person’s childlike trust that such a sacrifice is an expression of God’s profound love and willingness to do whatever it takes to offer us eternal life—covering our guilt and shame.

I have chosen to believe and live in gratitude for His death and resurrection and all the ways these events have provided freedom and life. It’s made all the difference for me. What about you?

Response:

  • What makes the bloody death of a living creature so disturbing? How does a life-giving purpose for a death change things?
  • What are the different ways that the “circle of life” can be interpreted? How might it describe aspects of the Atonement? How is it not like the Atonement?
  • The idea of sacrificial love is often praised as the highest form of love. What makes this expression of love so attractive and powerful?
  • Why might the death of Jesus on a cross stir confusion and offense in so many? What needs to change in a person’s mind and heart to see the beauty instead?
  • Jesus, what do you want me to know about the significance of your death?

3 Comments on “Choosing to Embrace the Atonement

  1. Hi Jeff thanks for another good article. I also grew up on a farm and my Mom was so good with an axe to kill a chicken. I really enjoy your messages. Sharon

    Like

  2. Jeff, I really appreciate this article and the insights. I had a thought while reading it…you should write a children’s story along these lines. We need this truth written so that kids can get it. What do you think? ☺️

    Like

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