Lesson10: Compassion in the Atonement

The most difficult theological task is explaining the atonement. There have been many theories, but none are completely satisfying in our day. I was surprised how frequently I turned to compassion in the past few months when trying to understand the crucifixion. It at least offered clarity missing in the traditional explanations.

During the same period, members of our small theological symposium reported they have trouble using 4th-century creeds to confess their faith every week and I was disturbed by preachers using 16th-century doctrines to answer modern questions. For instance, a pastor claiming to correct the poor theology of the Decision for Christ promoters posted a paragraph that began with “The Trinity loves us” and culminated with “This is a Triune God of love where his son Jesus is obedient to God, going to the cross for our sins.”

I imagine most of us who attend church regularly can unravel this to some degree; however, it is utter nonsense to anyone else. Why would a god of love command his son to undergo execution for something he did not do? Why isn’t this extreme child abuse? How can a doctrine love you? How can someone killed over 2,000 years ago affect my sins today?

Talk about Jesus being a sacrificial offering, paying a penalty we deserve, redeeming us from the control of Satan, or saving us from burning in hell doesn’t provide a very useful answer to any of these questions.

Compassion at least offers a possible start for a meaningful modern theory. It can support our claim that Jesus of Nazareth represented God in some fashion that changed the divine-human relationship. It helps understand the crucifixion as an atoning action that unites God and humanity in love.

Compassion expresses God loving us enough to suffer in order to restore, maintain, improve, or save our relationship. The crucifixion-resurrection is the ultimate instance when God refuses to give up when human authority killed his representative.

Parts of the tradition such as the grieving mother of the Pieta can be used to support this approach. The compassionate love a parent has for all her children is a more helpful picture of God at the Cross than a father needing to be obeyed.

To top this off, compassion certainly is a perspective simple enough to be understood by Christians and non-Christians alike. It is far from answering all the theological questions, but it offers a basic theme on which we can build.

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2 Enlightened Replies

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  1. C. Hoffmann says:

    Jesus “represented God in some fashion” ???

  2. Fritz Foltz says:

    I want to express the lowest common denominator at this point. Some of us confess Jesus the divine Son of God., but many modern theologians use different perspectives to explain his role in the history of salvation. I want to take their ideas into consideration when trying to understand the atonement.


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