A proper understanding of the atonement must begin from the starting point of relationship with Jesus, and with God’s purposes to reconcile all of creation unto God-Self. If your atonement theory fails to make intimacy with God(that includes all of Creation’s intimate reconciliation to God)—the focal point of Christianity—then you will miss not only the goal of Christianity but also the purpose of the death and resurrection of Christ. This is not to say that our individual relationship should be seen alone, apart from our communal reconciliation to God, or even Creation’s reconciliation to God. God is making all things new, and our individual reconciliation is one small facet in his purposes of reconciling all creation. God-Self is seeking to make creation whole, which includes individuals, the collective community, and the rest of creation.
Sin, rightly understood, is rejection of God. This includes rejection of your neighbor or any aspect of God’s creation. For if God is the source of all Being, then any rejection of Creation (because all things that exist apart from God are by-products of the source of all Being) is also a rejection of that God. God sent Jesus to reconcile us not because we acquired a debt that we could not pay, butrather because we rejected him. For if he was sent because we acquired a debt, then God seems petty and easily offended, and morality becomes the central focus of Christianity. I quite imagine at this point that someone objects with the rebuttal, “But God is Holy, and Justice must be done.” But a God who is Love has no need for retributive justice, no need of a reason to forgive. Forgiveness is simply a necessary action of his character. God-Self forgives because it is part of who he is and he can do no other thing. For God is Love. All his attributes flow from his Essence of Love and must not be defined side-by-side with his love as if they have equal standing or as if God has two contradicting Natures; instead they must be defined and subjected according to his Nature of Love. All his attributes flow out of his Nature and Essence of Love. Instead, I believe that God’s justice as defined by love is always restorative. God is always seeking reconciliation, always seeking restoration. Sin and death is the punishment and wrath of God, but it is not brought on by God-Self, rather we bring sin and death unto ourselves by rejecting God, who is Love. We ourselves choose to go against the underlying current of reality, which is Love, I.e. God. God wants to free creation from this, wants to restore us to his holistic love.
In our rejection of God-Self he still pursued us so that we (creation) could be in relationship together. Not just us as individuals, but as communities, and as creation as a whole. Sin or rejection of God created a wall between God and us, a wall that we built but by no means were strong enough to destroy. It is as if we went to the gym and placed too much weight on the bench press. We ourselves placed the weight there, but we are not strong enough to lift the weight—therefore our spotter Jesus has to lift the weight for us, thus preventing the barbell from crushing our windpipe and killing us. Behind this wall, and because of this wall, we gave ourselves over to Satan, evil, sin, and death. We rejected a holistic life orientated around love. It is this wall, or rejection, that Jesus died and rose again to remove.
He went behind enemy lines to rescue us. Irenaeus (130-202 A.D.) speaking of Christ and his work said it this way, “For in accomplishing and recapitulating these things in Himself, in order to obtain life for us, ‘the Word of God became flesh’ by the economy of the Virgin, in order to undo death and vivify man, for we were in the prison of sin, . Rich in mercy was God the Father: He sent the creative Word, who coming to save us, was in the same place and situation in which we were when we lost life, breaking the bonds of the prison; and His light appeared and dispelled the darkness,, and sanctified our birth and abolished death, loosening the same bonds by which we were trapped.” We who having rejected God gave ourselves freely over to sin and death had thus becoming imprisoned by sin and death. And Christ being rich in mercy sought to infiltrate our prison and reclaim us for himself by abolishing sin and death and bringing us back to himself.
The problem with most atonement theories is that relationship is made a secondary purpose of Christ’s work rather than the very reason he came in the first place. Instead, these atonement theories make his reason for coming about morality or lack thereof. Protestants who say salvation is not about works end up ironically denying that very truth. To them it is about works, but we could not be good enough to complete those works ourselves, so Christ has done them for us. While it is said works are not what our salvation is about, we actually deny this by using works as a starting point. To many, Christ came because we did not do good works, because we behaved immorally, because we broke the law. But if this is the starting point,then salvation is inherently about works because it started with a breaking of works. Instead, for salvation to truly not be about works, it must start not with the breaking of the law or some sort of morality, but with the rejecting of a relationship. God’s primary concern is and always has been about us choosing God in relationship, living in love with God-Self, community, and the rest of Creation, and being like God. That is why Christ came, because we rejected relationship with him and he wanted to restore that. Morality only comes into the picture when the choice between choosing or rejecting God is made the focal point. Doing good or evil is meaningless in regards to salvation (which is Knowing God) until you choose the ultimate good, which is God. That’s not to say that morality is inherently useless, as it continually invites and points us to reconciliation and fellowship with God, but I’ll save that discussion for another essay.