Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Vicarious Not Cumulative Atonement

I suppose it is possible to look upon the passion of Christ--it's beatings, whipping, stabbings, humilitations, crucifixion, and rejection by God--in pity and say, "that was awful," while simultaneously doubting whether it was really tantamount to all the punishment for all the sin that has ever been and will ever be committed. Really, people have been treated to far worse fates before and since, and their deaths are not looked upon with any wonder. The reasoning in such an approach seems to calculate that what occured was not sufficient to bear the cumulative weight of sin. There was not enough blood shed, nor enough anguish experienced to account for every sin ever sinned.

The problem in such logic, as I see it, is that the atonement of Christ was not suffered cumulatively, but vicariously, prototypically. For Christ's passion to be effective vicariously for any individual whatsoever, it would only have to be sufficient for the very worst individual that ever lived. Adam and Eve were prototypically the best that mankind would ever be, Christ on the cross had to be prototypically the worst that mankind could ever be. So the cross does not have to "mathematically" reflect the sum total of all punishment against sin, it merely has to be sufficient to encompass the very worst individual any individual could be.

Really, we're not all that different from one another. Our conceptions of degrees of sin and punishment are a bit stilted, imo. Does being Hitler or Stalin, and missing out on God differ substantially from being grumpy Uncle Charley who refused to believe in Christ and missed out on God too? The Lake of Fire may have warmer eddies in one spot than another, but how much does it matter when one is swimming in fire and drinking flames? If there are gold medals awarded in the race to hell, they can only be made of fool's gold.

What the atonement had to be in order to be for all, was sufficient for any sinner to gaze upon it with faith and say, "that was me." We aren't saved in groups but as individuals, the atonement of Christ was masterfully fashioned by God to work perfectly in that regard. It does so because it functions vicariously, not cumulatively.


  1. Sounds a bit like identification to me.

  2. I have to mildly disagree with the implication that it was Jesus' *suffering* that makes atonement effective, rather than Jesus' *death*. The suffering was to make healing available ("by His stripes we are healed"), but his death makes our salvation available ("The wages of sin is death"). In God's eyes, sin is a capital crime, requiring death as full punishment.
    [[continued on next comment]]

  3. [[[continued from previous comment]]]

    However, at the core of the idea of the Cross providing atonement lies a fundamental injustice: it is well for someone to pay a fine for another, but in no place was it ever allowed or recorded that an innocent man was allowed to die on behalf of someone deserving of death: When moses offered himself as a substitute for the sins of the people, the offer was refused. When done ignorantly, it is regarded as a horrible mistake, and our reluctance to impose the death penalty is born from a nagging suspicion that a 'few' of the ones being executed are "really" innocent. If we regard as horrid something that is done *by mistake* (even honestly and after long procedure), we are expected to accept it if done *deliberately* and willingly? Hardly!

    The solution to this dilemma is what I call "Unification", and what others call "Union with Christ", in which the death of the One can be rightly accounted as the death of the many. Normally, human beings cannot die for another, for the nature of humanity is for a man to be judged by his own works and be rewarded for what *he* does, not another who did *not* do what *he* did ("the soul that sins shall die"). The key is to turn men into beings who are *naturally corporate*, thereby allowing God to legally and appropriately treat the sin of all as the sin of one, and the punishment of one as the payment for all. Such treatment would be LAWFUL because it would be done according to the NATURE of the being(s) being judged. Though he was God, Jesus became man, so he is both fully God and fully Man. However, he does nothing until the Spirit descends and abides in him, after which he becomes the God-man whose connection to God is through the Spirit. In a sense, he IS a new being because he is symbiotically united with the Spirit, forming a "new creature". Even modern biology agrees that symbiotic entities, such as lichen, are to be regarded as a single unique species rather than a hyphenated-species. (This uniting is at a more fundamental level than the mere imposition of the Spirit ON people, as it was with John the Baptist: he had the Spirit on him since his conception, yet it did not affect his nature, which is why the least in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than John the Baptist.)

    When we believe in Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior, we receive the Holy Spirit IN THE SAME WAY that Jesus did, thus becoming members of the New Species of God-Man. We are saved and our sins are atoned for the moment we become members because the corporate nature of the New Species LEGALLY and NATURALLY allows the sin of all to be the sin of one. Similarly, the righteousness of one LEGALLY AND NATURALLY becomes the righteousness of all. This property comes from the Divine/God half of the symbiotic being, for the Trinity shares all things alike, and the acts of one are the acts of all ("God was in Christ, reconciling the world to Himself"). That which would be unjust for Homo becomes just for Homo/Deus, because it is that New Species' INHERITANCE and NATURE.

    All that we have, and all that we are as Christians (Homo/Deus) derives from this Unification of ourselves to God. It makes us part of God's family, and thus binds us to God and to each other, which is why we are urged in Scripture to meet together often, not forsake the gathering of ourselves together, and to love one another as Christ loves us. Communion commemorates, illustrates, and puts into our consciousness, how in the Symbiotic union one is fed by the Other. For sure, we celebrate Our Lord's death that way until He comes again, but it also reminds us of who feeds who, HOW that feeding takes place, AND the very fact that there is a feeding at all.

  4. Gerald,
    Thanks for the comment.

    I don't think I implied that it wasn't death that was the ultimate issue in the atonement. However, I don't think the scriptures say it was only his death. We know that Christ was forsaken, minimally, while on the cross, so the process of atonement was already afoot before he died. Death wasn't even the seal because he was there until the third day. I think Isaiah 53 paints the picture of the atonement as something taking place from trial (beatings and mockings) until resurrection.

    As for corporate union, there is a hint of that in the OT concept of Yom Kippur and the scapegoat ritual. Certainly that pointed to Christ and does so from a corporate vantage point. Passover was observed familially, and thus had a corporate sense as well. It's presage of atonement is much more symbolic of the source of atonement (Christ) than the process of atonement (blood shed for the remission of sin). Jesus drastically changed that focus during the Last Supper. The sin offering was individual, however, and so there is an individual aspect to Christ as well. I say that is actually the operative aspect because that is how we come out of sin and into grace.

    The schema that you suggest requires, in my mind, an intermediary understanding that is not referenced or taught in scripture, but can only arise through commentary filling in the blanks. Good brothers do believe in identification rather than actual uniting, and some of them believe in corporate substitution, but I think if we stay in the boundaries of scripture, the atonement is relatively simple:

    -a real man without sin suffered the condemnation of a sinner and died the death of the cursed

    -that man rose bodily, victorious over sin and death, never to die again, on the third day

    -this occurred because God made him our sin and poured the punishment of our sin upon him

    -faith allows us to participate in that punishment by seeing ourselves united with Christ in his death and resurrection (i.e. that was me on that tree)

    -because I have already been punished (in Christ) for sin, I can stand now (in Christ) before God with a clear conscience, without any condemnation and animosity from him even possible.

  5. I am in agreement with your four "bullet points" regarding the atonement, and would abandon my position if it logically entailed any contradiction of them. Rather, I was conjecturing on mechanism rather than outcomes: the "how", the "mechanix" of atonement.

    That it entails "reading between the texts" so to speak is understood, since symbiosis, its biological analogue, was not recognized, much less named, until the 18th century. Obviously, one cannot expect an apostolic "stamp of approval" of an explanation of "how" that is founded on a concept that would not be known for centuries. There are other biblical critera that can be used to judge its correctness, but the burden of proof rests on me rather than my hearers.

  6. Thanks Gerald, I appreciate your graciousness.

  7. Peter,
    After seeing your last post, I fear I may have misinterpreted what your comment was saying. Sorry if I did. Let me rephrase my response and see if it makes more sense.

    I can see your point, both in regard to Christ becoming a real man as well as man truly coming “into Christ.” If one is speaking of Christ’s identification with man in order to be the Lamb of God, 2 Corinthians 5:21 and Romans 6 work together to bring forth how substantive that identification was.

    When it comes to man’s identification with Christ, I think an approach to vicariousness that perceives an actuality in the substitution is required. I don't believe we can unite (or entwine) as Paul envisions in Romans 6 without seeing Christ on the cross as actually ourselves (i.e. I was “in Christ” on the cross).

    An idealized, prototypical sacrifice, such as I put forth, could be seen as identification (in both directions) by similitude rather than actuality. I was silent on that subject in the post. I think you and I agree that approach, which rests on imputation without actuality, leaves Christ as no more than an OT sacrifice and the sinner still conscious of guilt. The writer of Hebrews says that such an OT sacrifice is not sufficient vicariously and could not cleanse conscience of sin.

    Really, the thing I wanted to get at with this article is the individual nature of the atonement's functioning. That is really what plows a chasm between orthodoxy and universalism, it seems to me, and elucidates why Christ could die prototypically for all but only those with faith can benefit.

    Let me know if that’s clearer, or only muddies the waters more.

  8. Kutztown,

    Question: What do you do with Isaiah 53 that says that he laid the sins of us all upon him?

  9. Anonymous (Peter, I assume),

    I merely say that He did. ;-)

    I think the question is how he did. Christ was offered as everyone's sin offering--perfect, singular and communal--yet united with individually (Romans 6). That, in effect, makes Christ everyone's personal sacrifice. We all come to the altar, so to speak, with our own sacrifice for our own sin, it just so happens that we're all bringing the same lamb. He is the bearer of the sins of us all, and he is the bearer of my sins. I think that is in line with the sense of Hebrews 10 as well (even if a bit extended).

    So I don't think a cumulative understanding is essential to hearing Isaiah 53 properly; although I'd have to admit, that if there was no Romans 6, that is most likely the way I would see it.


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