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  • Writer's pictureM.B. Christiansen

The Beauty of the Atonement

Over two thousand years ago, something monumental happened in and around a bustling, overcrowded backwater city of little consequence to the Roman Empire called Jerusalem. As Christians it is easy to gloss over Holy Week and Easter Sunday because we've heard the stories and we've been to the church services every year. But it's worth pausing and reflecting on how beautiful and eternally consequential the events of Holy Week really are. It's important to understand why this matters.

An Unsolvable Problem

In order to really understand the significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection, one must return all the way to the very beginning, to the Garden of Eden, where Adam and Eve failed to obey God’s command and chose, instead, to disobey with the goal of making themselves more like God.

Rather than actually becoming like God (as the serpent had promised), they introduced disharmony into God’s perfect creation, and broke the relationship they originally had with God. By rejecting God, they had made themselves enemies of God. This is what we, in the Christian faith, call the fall. Because of the fall, humanity is disconnected from God and unable to have a relationship with him because of its sin.

The result of the fall into sin was a spiritual dissonance. Something had changed. Things that once brought peace and joy now brought anxiety and shame. The abundance of the Garden of Eden was taken away and in its place was a barren wilderness.

Sin introduced death into the world. They did not die right away, but because they had sinned Adam and Eve would eventually die. Try as they might, they could not reconcile themselves back to God. Sin and death had entered the world.

God’s love, in spite of their sin, is tragically illustrated as Adam and Eve leave the garden:

And the Lord made for Adam and his wife garments of skins and clothed them.
Genesis 3:21 ESV

When Adam and Eve had realized they were naked, their original attempt to cover themselves was with fig leaves (Genesis 3:7), which are actually a skin irritant. Their attempt to cover themselves is woefully inadequate.

In an act of love, God makes clothes for Adam and Eve before they leave the comfort of the garden. What they failed to do; God did for them. But the tragic reality of their covering is that in order for them to be clothed, something else had to die. This is a subtle detail in the text, but the skins had to come from a third-party animal, whose life was taken in order to provide a covering for Adam and Eve’s sin.

All of creation is a victim of the fall, not just humankind. What God had created as a perfectly completed and harmonious world was broken by sin. And it found itself incapable of fixing itself. Within the world God had created, the problem was unsolvable.

In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis beautifully paints the picture of how we, on our own, are incapable of repenting and restoring our relationship with God. He envisions humanity's sin as a hole we have dug ourselves into:

Now what was the sort of “hole” man had got himself into? He had tried to set up on his own, to behave as if he belonged to himself. In other words, fallen man is not simply an imperfect creature who needs improvement: he is a rebel who must lay down his arms. Laying down your arms, surrendering, saying you are sorry, realizing that you have been on the wrong track and getting ready to start life over again from the ground floor – that is the only way out of a “hole.” This process of surrender – this movement full speed astern – is what Christians call repentance. Now repentance is no fun at all. It is something much harder than merely eating humble pie. It means unlearning all the self-conceit and self-will that we have been training ourselves into for thousands of years. It means killing part of yourself, undergoing a kind of death. In fact, it needs a good man to repent. And here comes the catch. Only a bad person needs to repent: only a good person can repent perfectly. The worse you are the more you need it and the less you can do it. The only person who could do it perfectly would be a perfect person – and he would not need it.

Remember, this repentance, this willing submission to humiliation and a kind of death, is not something God demands of you before He will take you back and which He could let you off of if He chose: it is simply a description of what going back to Him is like. If you ask God to take you back without it, you are really asking Him to let you go back without going back. It cannot happen. Very well, then, we must go through with it. But the same badness which makes us need it, makes us unable to do it. Can we do it if God helps us? Yes, but what do we mean when we talk of God helping us? We mean God putting into us a bit of Himself, so to speak. He lends us a little of His reasoning powers and that is how we think: He puts a little of His love into us and that is how we love one another. When you teach a child writing, you hold its hand while it forms the letters: that is, it forms the letters because you are forming them. We love and reason because God loves and reasons and holds our hand while we do it. Now if we had not fallen, that would all be plain sailing. But unfortunately we now need God’s help in order to do something which God, in His own nature, never does at all – to surrender, to suffer, to submit, to die. Nothing in God’s nature corresponds to this process at all. So that the one road for which we now need God’s leadership most of all is a road God, in His own nature, has never walked. God can only share what He has: this thing, in His own nature, He has not.


A Permanent Solution

Creation, ever since the fall, has been crying out for relief. Cries of pain and heartache, and a longing to be restored to the way things were always supposed to be. We know the devastating effects of sin on our world, and we ache for something better. And yet we are unable to bring about any meaningful change to the way things are by our own efforts. Is there a solution to this unsolvable problem?

Luckily for us, God was not content to simply leave us to our own self-destructive devices. God is inherently just, but he is also the source of love and is himself love (1 John 4:8). Rather than leave us to lie in the proverbial bed we had collectively made for ourself, God executed an unthinkable plan. Lewis continues:

But supposing God became a man – suppose our human nature which can suffer and die was amalgamated with God’s nature in one person – then that person could help us. He could surrender His will, and suffer and die, because He was man; and He could do it perfectly because He was God. You and I can go through this process only if God does it in us; but God can do it only if He becomes man. Our attempts at this dying will succeed only if we men share in God’s dying, just as our thinking can succeed only because it is a drop out of the ocean of His intelligence: but we cannot share God’s dying unless God dies; and He cannot die except by being a man. That is the sense in which He pays our debt, and suffers for us what He Himself need not suffer at all.

This is why Jesus came, and this is why Jesus died. Something had to die to cover our sin, but that something had to be capable of atoning. Our universally sinful nature disqualifies us, so God became a man and did it for us.

What we see, on the cross, is the eternal depth of God’s love put on full display. What Jesus did on the cross was precisely what we couldn’t do, and he did it for us willingly, at great personal cost.

The horrifying spectacle of Jesus being beaten, mocked, scourged, and crucified unfairly was the entire reason for the incarnation (God becoming a human). It is easy to look at Jesus’ public ministry as his primary mission, but the end game was the ugly cross that awaited him. The reason God took on human flesh and dwelt among us is not simply because he wanted to hang out with us and teach us, it was to accomplish for us what we could never do, with the goal of restoring us to him in a permanent and absolute way. This restoration back to God, in theological terms, is called the Atonement.

Restoration Through Jesus

The events of Holy Week so many years ago become inescapably relevant when we realize that each and every member of the human race has sinned and falls miserably short of the level of perfection required to be in heaven for eternity with God (Romans 3:23). The wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23) and since Adam and Eve, who represented the entire human race in the garden, introduced sin into the world we find ourselves unable to abstain from sinning.

Whether one holds each individual personally accountable for Adam’s original sin (as many theologians do), or only for their own personal sin (as do many others), it makes very little difference. At the end of the day, each member of the human race is disconnected from God and is morally responsible for their sin. In the presence of a perfect and holy God, the verdict is undeniably guilty.

What makes Jesus’ work on the cross so significant is that his suffering and punishment was not a broad, sweeping generalization which was meant to vaguely cover everybody’s sin at once. It is true that just as Adam represented all of humanity in the garden, Jesus represented all of humanity on the cross. But the Atonement is deeper and more profound than that.

Not only did Jesus’ suffering on the cross pay for sin universally; the fundamental element of the atonement is that it was done personally for you.

You are the guilty party responsible for your sin, which means that it should have been you up on the cross. What Jesus endured was what you deserve. The theological term is Substitutionary Atonement. Jesus took your place because he loves you. It was your sin that held Jesus to the cross, and the reason he willingly accepted the punishment you deserved is that he loves you and values a relationship with you. He went to the cross so that you would have a way back to a right relationship with God. Jesus took your place on the cross so that you could go free. Because the price has been paid, Jesus offers the free gift of grace to any who would turn from their sin and follow him. This is the gospel message.

Tearing The Curtain Down

This is why, when Jesus breathed his last, the curtain in the temple tore from top to bottom (Matthew 27:51). The curtain in question was the barrier which divided the innermost place in the temple - the Holy of Holies - from the rest of the temple grounds (and by extension, from the rest of the world).

This is deeply significant because in the Old Testament, the Holy of Holies was cut off from the rest of the temple and was strictly off-limits because this was where the very presence of God dwelled. Only the High Priest was allowed to enter the Holy of Holies, and he was only allowed to enter it on one day each year… the Day of (what else?) Atonement.

This was the day that he would offer a representative sacrifice to cover the sins of the entire nation of Israel. The Holy of Holies, where God dwelled, was forbidden to everyone else. To enter into the presence of a perfectly Holy God with sin resulted in instantaneous death. It is this curtain, which separated God from the rest of the temple and represented the sin that separated humankind from God, that tore when Jesus’ work on the cross was completed.

Jesus had torn down the barrier between us and God and made it possible, for the first time since the fall, to have a right relationship with God.

Jesus’ final words from the cross before he gave up his spirit are famously translated as “it is finished.” The original Greek word is τετέλεσται (tetelestai) which communicates much more than simply “it’s done.” Τετέλεσται carries with it the ideas of something having been finished, completed, fulfilled, and perfected. When Jesus’ suffering was completed, he cried out that he had accomplished his mission. He had carried the burden and had paid the price for the redemption of humankind once and for all and had provided a way for you, personally, to be reconciled back to God. He had carried out the plan to perfection and because of his self-sacrificial work, creation had a way to be restored.

Jesus has torn the curtain down that has separated us from God because of our sin. He has bridged the chasm. He broke down the barrier. Whatever language you want to use, Christ has made a way.

That is why Easter is such a monumental holiday worth celebrating and reflecting on. The events of Holy Week those thousands of years ago are the culmination of plans set into motion when sin was introduced into the world. The atonement was God’s rescue plan. He was the third-party which would die in order for us to live. And he executed it perfectly. It is not an exaggeration to say that Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection are the linchpin of human history which fundamentally changed the world. And through the cross Jesus has paved a way for you to have an unfiltered relationship with a God who loves you. That is why Easter is worth celebrating.

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