Saturday, February 2, 2013

The Atonement: A Catholic Understanding

Many who describe themselves as post-Christian, object to the barbaric idea of a loving God requiring His Son to die on a cross. This theology of a wrath-filled God satisfied, His anger appeased by a bloody sacrifice is a horror to them. I understand that perspective. That does not describe the Catholic model of atonement. 

Note: The Catholic Church does not have a dogma about exactly what the atonement did. It is still an open question. While we have a general belief, there are nuances that are not settled, so keep this in mind as you read. Catholics are free to disagree with my model... but it was argued and accepted as a possible explanation by the Scholastics in the Middle Ages.

Did God require a bloody sacrifice of an innocent victim to satisfy His wrath and atone for sin? 
To answer, I wish to return to the birth of evil:

Before the age of man, the wondrous Prince of the angels, allowed into the inner machinations of the Master Designer, emerged with a word of horror. This seraph, commander of powers and principalities for aeons, claimed that the God of the universe was no longer God. This deceiver claimed that He-who-ruled-the-infinite was unjust and could no longer be trusted. 
The darkened seraph broke with the Trinity clouding with sin the unseen deep. And the shadow of corruption curled its way into the cosmos threatening all that exists. The heavens,
a third of the spiritual entities---now violated and abused by the Father of Lies--was ensnared. 

The cries of infinite pain reeled and agitated in a cosmos of uncertainty. Unthinkable thoughts, ideas never conceived in the heart of any being for all existence awoke and brought a nightmare to which we have yet to awaken.  Questions of who is trustworthy, the unseen Spirit who has always been know as God or the archangel to whom the spirits pledged fidelity? A brother or a Creator? Who do we obey? No hint or breath of rebellion had ever entered the thoughts or hearts of any created being until now. Darkness and light warred. Turmoil marred heaven before it even touched earth.

Then, precious man, the apple of God’s eye, the only creature in  the Almighty’s creation made in His likeness and in His image also disobeyed and began to distrust God.  Man too became abused by sin and fell under the darkness of lies. 

The rebellion did not catch God unawares. Understanding the heart of man, the plan of Salvation had been conceived from the beginning. Restoring universal paradise and eradicating sin forever, God must dispel Satan’s myths and restore trust.

Salvation wasn’t about a Great Controversy between Christ and Satan as if they were equal warriors trying to defend their kingdoms. Redemption had nothing to do with the Devil’s rights over fallen man. Satan stood guilty and deserve
d nothing but eternal damnation. The solution took no note of Satan, nor needed to satisfy any devilish demand. 

Divine Justice must be satisfied but there was no great infinite law that required a sacrifice. This wasn’t about blood lust. The Trinity was not forced to choose the Cross, in fact, God could have chosen to forgive without a need for Divine satisfaction. The Cross was not literally our punishment, our verdict of death, that Christ took upon Himself.

Do not misunderstand. The verdict of sin was death. Scripture is clear about that. But that was God's decision. It wasn't from some law that hung over God forcing His hand. 

The Cross was chosen to restore our intimate unity with the Trinity and to deliver us from the deceit and destruction of sin. Our Heavenly Father embraced a miraculous rescue plan of infinite and eternal potency--more powerful than faith, greater than hope, a force of such magnitude that could annihilate with one expiring breathe all the sins of humankind--

He chose love

How does the Cross show love? 
Many people do not feel love when they look at the crucifixion; they feel disgust.  How does God coming and suffering torture and death for us show love? Let's look at a couple of typical lives:

The sleepy darkness is again disrupted for the tiny girl as poppa reels and stumbles home, his whiskeyed breath replaying the same quarrel with momma. One day, a divorce tears her family apart and the little girl will spend a lifetime atop an emotional rampart with bow in hand in a disoriented battle, never understanding this suffering stems from fear of abandonment and a desperate need for intimacy. 

In a quest to find manhood, this young, dashing lad targets vulnerable women for a night of pleasure, and as the years go by each encounter enslaves him in selfish darkness and asphyxiates the protector knight inside, eventually leaving a chasm of loneliness between he and his wife.  
The story of each human bears the wounds of Satan’s deception. Where we wander pursuing comfort or pleasure or money, we find ourselves caught in the trap of a self-centeredness thralldom, cursing the unforeseen fate of divorce, betrayal, hatred, jealousy, addiction, greed, broken promises, lies. Humanity is crippled, tormented with the catastrophic failure of our choices. And we find ourselves, as the race of Adam, unable to trust. How does one know, see, feel love in a world gone mad with the pursuit of personal happiness?

How can we restore love and trust?

Believe it or not, we discover love in sacrifice.

The little girl must see her father struggle to overcome his alcoholism and determine to be a good father and husband. The young man must find his manhood in determined, self-sacrificing choices, disciplining his sexual desires for the woman who will one day be his wife. Love and trust can only be restored by a husband fighting the temptation of adultery and pornography, a woman taking the responsibility of motherhood and devoting herself to her children instead of herself. 

The world is in need of a good fight. Not a fight to win power, comfort, money or fame. The world is in need of seeing a fight, a struggle of sacrifice for us to show us we are worth it. 

Love is not proven through words of promise or soft whispers of sweet feelings, not proven through quality time spent together, or gifts, or fun times. Love faithfully battles to give birth, to provide food, shelter, to remain true to one’s promises. Love faces hell and absorbs the enemies blows and if necessary sacrifices all its earthly desires, treasures and resources for the beloved. Self-sacrifice is the essence of love. 

This is the reason for the Cross. 
God could have forgiven Adam and Eve without need of Divine reparation. Justice could have been meted out with a stern lecture. Yet, the Creator knew that once sin wormed its way into existence and planted doubts and mistrust into the hearts of man, that love would have to be proven through the fires of Christ’s passion--the suffering of the Cross. Love is a battle for the beloved drawing the slings and arrows of pain and injustice into oneself to protect the Beloved. 

God hated sin. And He would do whatever it took to convince us that sin would wipe out the smallest sign of life if left unchecked. Sin had to be seen for what is was, God had to be seen for Who He Was. 

The full measure of sin and the full measure of Love were displayed at Christ’s death.
All the destructive, frenzied demonic forces of the universe converged at the Cross to wreck creation. Desiring to murder the Greatest of all Innocence and Purity, and yet fearful of the results of His death; rather, the hellish forces were willing to spend all eternity shredding the human flesh of Life and Love itself. The horror of sin, the depravity and depths of its ugliness were shown to the cosmos. 

Christ, our Savior, handed His soul freely to death, that we might look upon His sacrifice and trust Him. His reached out His hands and embraced us through the Cross that we might never question His goodness and His love for us--that we might never despair of our importance to God, question if He is love or fear the confusion of who we are to obey. Our heavenly Father, looking upon His Son on the Cross was seeing the greatest display of love ever known and it was beautiful and pleasing in His sight. 

The Cross isn’t about blood and offerings to satisfy an angry God, it is about proving for all time that Love is more powerful, and bigger than sin. And in God’s omniscience, the Cross was the best and most effective way to show this. Love captured and enveloped sin; it’s fire destroyed it. Catholics teach that through the Cross, the world can see that love won.

This Atonement theology found at the Catholic Encyclopedia 

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