WHY THE ATONEMENT?
We are faced with the experience of what Christians call 'sin' all the time - except, perhaps, when we are asleep, drunk or comatose. Other people, some who deny that there is such a thing, merely call it by other names. 'Sin' is that which is the thing we know to be bad, that we must avoid and which we find wrong in others. Several times, when at a Green Party conference, I noticed that those who would deny that 'sin' is real used the word 'centralist' instead. They might have had a different view of what sin is; but they still have, deep down, the notion of sin.
We all experience sin, in all our living. In others and, if we are honest, in ourselves sometimes. Sin is not just a label we put on people; sin hurts and harms. What my green colleagues called centralism, for example, is responsible for a huge amount of injustice, both social and ecological.
Worse, the effect of sin multiplies and spreads. It is like cancer, like dry rot. Many of us have had an experience like this. We have something out of proportion, and are a little selfish about it, and want this thing for ourselves. Something gets in the way of our achieving it, and we get irritated. In our irritation, we are sharp with others in our family or among our colleagues, unintentionally hurting them. But that hurt is real, and when they leave the room, they meet someone else and are irritated with them, passing on the hurt. But, worse, in their state of being hurt by us, they find it all too easy to remember other times when we were irritated and selfish before. They brood in self-pity, and as a result of such brooding, over some time perhaps, they build up a dislike of us that makes them fear us or get irritated with us in return, and our relationship, while still cordial on the surface, jumps down a level.
And so it goes on. Sin spreads. Another page holds a deeper discussion.
There are at least five ways in which people deal with sin. To me, at least, only the fifth is fully satisfactory and satisfying.
- Deny sin. Some say "Well, it doesn't really matter" or "Well, we're all like that, so why worry; just develop a thick skin." Or we can redefine sin. The philosopher Nietzsche turned it round and said that this is precisely how we are to be, in order that evolution can proceed among us. But, it doesn't work to deny sin; there is always a result that is damaging. The thick skin makes us less sensitive, for example. Ironically, Nietzsche himself could not escape the reality of sin, though he defined it in the opposite way: one thing he hated was hypocrisy, and another was half-heartedness.
- Try to Do Something About It. Most people move on from that step to the next at least. We recognise that what we are doing wrong and try to stop. We recognise that the way we are is wrong, and try to change. We have hurt someone in the past and try to make amends - perhaps by treating them to a meal or buying them a toy. It works to some extent, but not always, for two reasons. There is some sin that we cannot make amends for, and there is some sin that we find we cannot stop, however hard we try. Sins of the way we are, especially, we are powerless to alter. We might tinker around the edges of it, or cover it up so nobody notices it, but we know, deep down, that it is still there.
- Try Religion. Some people engage in religion in the hope that it will do something about their sin. Roman Catholics have the Mass and Confession, and believe that somehow going through these rituals amends have been made. In other religions there are various other rituals or even sacrifices that the believers think will make them right again. They can then perhaps start with a cleaned slate even if not an entirely clean one. But there is a problem with this approach. Suppose we get our slate cleaned as frequently as once a day. But suppose eight hours after my slate has been cleaned I commit a sin, and then two hours later I die. My slate has not been cleaned, and I can do nothing more about it. Also, some people realise that sin is a deeper stain than religious ritual can reach.
- Despair. Realising that there is some sin we cannot do anything about - whether an act we have committed or some flaw in our character - can lead us to despair. We find ourselves recognising "I've sinned. I wish I hadn't done it. But I acn't undo it. It sticks, forever." When we realise this, some of us go to despair. Despair might not appear on the surface, but it rots us deep inside, it rots the real us. Some of us, unfortunately, never get through this stage, and end up in despair. In the end we die, with that stain.
- God Conquers Sin. Some of us do get through the stage where we might despair, because we find that God has conquered sin and abolished death. He is the victor in the final battle with evil in the universe. He is the cosmic champion. He had the superior might, knowledge, strategy, etc. So, in the battle with death, he has triumphed - by rising from death. And his love conquers all sin, even if the way of love leads through suffering. And he has made a supreme statement about this by himself dying on the cross 2000 years ago. So many Christians believe. And there is hope. But we are not yet at the final stage.
If an evil tyrant has long held us oppressed and someone comes along with superior might and conquers him (or her), then we feel the benefit. We are free. We can then sing the praises of the conqueror and perhaps even sign up in his/her service. Especially when we know s/he actually suffered, gained some cuts and bruises and a huge economic loss, in the process in fighting. We are free and happy, yes; but something is still missing. Several things. One is that the conqueror is distant from us. Another is that we still experience sin, and have to somehow cope with it in the here and now, and though our final destiny might be assured, we still have regrets and frustrations and worse here and now. And, in the mean time, we are left to cope with one of the previous four ways. That was my experience for years. Things were OK, but only OK. This stage seems rather 'thin' to me now. There is a final stage we are invited to enter.
- God Takes Sin. The good news is that not only has God conquered sin, not only has he suffered, but:
- He himself takes full responsibility for it even though he was and is sinless (he himself became the sacrifice (to himself) for our sin), so that, in a ssense, our sin no longer matters (like type 1 above).
- He replaces sin in us (by living in those who accept him, as the Holy Spirit) so that we can grow and become changed (and thus this fulfils type 2 above in a much more effective way than ever we could have made up).
- And he does so on an individual basis (i.e. in those who accept him; he does not force himself against our wills).
It is easy enough to conquer when one has superior might or strategy to outwit the enemy. But it's totally 'something else' to take the full responsibility of it into yourself. That is what love is about, the ultimate love. It is a much keener love that brought God to die for us, than just to die and rise again as conqueror.
Copyright (c) Andrew Basden 1999. Comments, queries welcome.
Last updated: 7 February 2001 email. 19 November 2006 unet.