Earlier this fall, I blogged about alternatives to the penal substitution theory of atonement. This article from the December 2001 issue of American Catholic continues the theme of foregrounding God’s gift of love in the Incarnation. Kenneth R. Overberg, S.J., writes that Christ did not come primarily to die but to fulfill God’s desire for union with His creation.
…Because the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus make up the foundation of Christianity, the Christian community has long reflected on their significance for our lives. What was the purpose of Jesus’ life? Or simply, why Jesus?
The answer most frequently handed on in everyday religion emphasizes redemption. This view returns to the creation story and sees in Adam and Eve’s sin a fundamental alienation from God, a separation so profound that God must intervene to overcome it. The Incarnation, the Word becoming flesh, is considered God’s action to right this original wrong.
How did this view develop? Just as we do when we face tragedy, especially innocent suffering, so the early followers of Jesus tried to make sense of his horrible death. They asked: Why? They sought insight from their Jewish practices like Temple sacrifices and from their Scriptures. Certain rites and passages (the suffering servant in Isaiah, psalms of lament, wisdom literature on the suffering righteous person) seemed to fit the terrible end of Jesus’ life and so offered an answer to the why question. Understandably, these powerful images colored the entire story, including the meaning of Jesus’ birth and life.
Throughout the centuries, Christian theology and piety have developed these interpretations of Jesus’ execution. At times God has even been described as demanding Jesus’ suffering and death as a means of atonement—to satisfy and appease an angry God.
An interpretation that highlights the Incarnation stands beside this dominant view with its emphasis on sin. The alternate view is also expressed in Scripture and tradition. Nevertheless, the emphasis on the Word made flesh has remained something of a “minority report,” rarely gaining the same recognition and influence as the atonement view.
What, briefly, is the heart of this alternate interpretation? It holds that the whole purpose of creation is for the Incarnation, God’s sharing of life and love in an unique and definitive way. God becoming human is not an afterthought, an event to make up for original sin and human sinfulness. Incarnation is God’s first thought, the original design for all creation. The purpose of Jesus’ life is the fulfillment of God’s eternal longing to become human.
For many of us who have lived a lifetime with the atonement view, it may be hard at first to hear the minority report. Yet it may offer some wonderful surprises for our relationship with God. From this perspective, God is appreciated with a different emphasis. God is not an angry or vindictive God, demanding the suffering and death of Jesus as a payment for past sin. God is, instead, a gracious God, sharing divine life and love in creation and in the Incarnation (like parents sharing their love in the life of a new child). Evidently, such a view can dramatically change our image of God, our celebration of Christmas, our day-by-day prayer….