Recently a good Twitter brawl broke out among the twits, a twitologian debate over “penal substitutionary atonement.” I just dropped a paper towel over the whole mess and quietly retreated to my own blog, there being far too many people over there clearly wanting their pound of flesh, which I found quite ironic.
“A pound of flesh,” is a phrase that comes from Shakespeare, the Merchant of Venice. It pretty much means, getting what you are owed. A lawful, but unreasonable and often bloodthirsty, vengeful compensation for what has been stolen.
If there is one thing I could say about a tenet of Christianity or a basic concept, “theology 101,” it would be the idea that you, yourself, do NOT get what you are owed, and therefore have no right to demand a pound of flesh from others. “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”
A couple of things I wanted to say about “atonement,” first off there are lots of big words in theology and half the time the people using them really have no idea what they mean either. True story! Half of the time the big words are just offered in a display of peacockery, to let the others know just how very smart you really are.
By the way, that’s just me, collecting my little pound of flesh. But it’s often quite true!
A couple of things I want to say about atonement. First off, back in the 1500’s when that word pretty much came into existence it actually meant, “satisfaction and contentment.” I love that definition, it conjures up visions of laying on a tropical beach with a cool breeze and a drink in your hand, breathing in the peace. To be “satisfied and content” is a good thing.
Of course human nature often intrudes on my fantasies, so “satisfaction and contentment” often meant, my enemies have been slain and I can now drink wine from their skulls. What can I say, we’re often ugly creatures. I demand “satisfaction” soon came to mean, I want my pound of flesh. That is what Shakespeare is mocking and trying to get people “woke to,” in the Merchant of Venice.
Biblically however, it was really the enemy, the devil who demanded his pound of flesh. Jesus paid our debt, He paid our ransom, He gave the devil his due, so that we might live. CS Lewis portrayed this beautifully when Aslan handed himself over to the White Witch to save the children, to honor the law, to become the pound of flesh the evil lady demanded. She had the paperwork in order too, the t’s crossed and the i’s dotted. I would have just told her to go pound sand, but being perfectly just really requires one to honor contracts even with people we don’t like, people who aren’t worthy, even people who are downright evil.
Many, many people, Christians and atheists alike, get this concept all wrong in their hearts. They falsely believe a wrathful God is demanding His pound of flesh. They tend to see God as an angry Father, killing His own Son just because He is mad at us. That’s is a deeply perverse distortion, a powerful misunderstanding.
All those words we hear, “ransomed, set free, debt paid, satisfied, justified, reconciled,” are about a loving Father (or the Lion of the Tribe of Judah if you prefer,) intervening on our behalf and satisfying the enemy’s demand for his pound of flesh.
Somebody smart once took apart the word “atonement” and came up with, “At One Ment.” That is really what it means, we are now at one with God, in this very moment. Much like Adam once said, “bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh,” and much like we speak of marriage as two people becoming “one flesh,” Jesus became flesh for us and gave Himself in our place.
Mercy, grace it also means, “to absorb the cost.” When we forgive someone for breaking a window, say a kid with no money, we absorb the cost ourselves. To extend grace and mercy to others costs us something. “For God so loved the world that He gave….”
Atonement, it means At One Ment. Like it or not, when we are one with God we surrender our right to claim our pound of flesh from others. None of us are perfect of course, we all have our moments, whether we are trying to extract our pound of flesh in rush hour traffic or in a twitter argument over “atonement.”