The ideas that God, the Father needed to be appeased in order to accept us, and that Jesus became human in order to suffer the wrath of his Father on the cross so that we could be accepted, always struck me as terribly wrong. But, growing up in the deep South in the USA, such notions were all one ever heard, and heard repeatedly, and still do. In this atonement theory, the Father is in two minds about us, or, at the very least, there are two sides of the Father, the one being the righteous, just and holy side, the other being the graceful, merciful and loving side. The one thing we knew for sure about God was that he could not simply forgive us and accept us as his fallen creatures. The truth, we were told is that He could not even look upon us vile sinners. His holiness and justice and righteousness demanded satisfaction before forgiveness could become a reality. And so on the cross Jesus bowed as the Father’s holiness, justice and righteousness formed into wrath against our sin and was poured out upon him instead of us.
Of course, it is far more complicated than this, or so we were told, but the more I tried to sort through the complications, the more troubled I became. Apart from the fact that in this theory there is no forgiveness at all, only justice, as my friend David Upshaw says, we are left with a divided Father, and a Son who is remarkably different in character and freedom from the Father he reveals. After all, while Father is too pure to look upon sin, his Son is free to become flesh, embrace sinners, eat with them and even become sin for us (2COR 5:21). So, if Jesus’ becoming flesh, embracing sinners and becoming sin is not a revelation of the Father, how did we develop our notions of the Father? What happened to, “he who has seen me, has seen the Father” (John 14:9), or “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30), or “He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature” (Hebrews 1:3)?
All of this is to say that on a cold March afternoon in 1980 I found St. Athanasius’ beautiful little book, On the Incarnation of the Word of God, and as I read a single sentence rocked my inherited, legalistic, quasi-trinitarian world. “As, then, the creatures whom He had created…were on the road to ruin, what then was God, being Good to do?” (§ 6) What struck me, and still thrills me every time I read this sentence, is Athanasius’ assumption about the Father’s heart. There is no indifference here, no ambiguity or division in the Father. He loves His creation with an single heart, and is passionate about its blessing. The holiness, justice and righteousness, and the love, grace and mercy of the Father are not opposed to each other, but form an undivided heart, determined to bless us at all costs. Thus, it is unthinkable, Athanasius says, for God to turn his back upon His creation, and to allow us to be destroyed, because it would be “unfitting and unworthy of Himself” (§6).
So the coming of Jesus flows out of the Father’s undivided heart, and the lengths to which Jesus goes—willfully bowing to suffer, not the Father’s, but the human race’s rejection and curse, as we poured our wrath out upon him—reveals the Father’s uncomplicated, single-minded love for us. On the cross, the holiness, righteousness, and justice of God are not at odds with the mercy, grace and goodness of God, but form into one self-sacrificing love, which is prepared to, and actually does, suffer dis-honor and grotesque shame in order to reach us and bless us beyond our wildest dreams. The death of Jesus is not about appeasing an angry God. It is about the Triune God doing the impossible—reaching the human race in its terrible darkness and corruption, where the undivided heart of the Father is unimaginable.
“He who has seen me, has seen the Father.”
For more on my views of reconciliation, see Jesus and the Undoing of Adam, and Across All Worlds, and “Bearing our Scorn: Jesus and the Way of Trinitarian Love,” all available on our web site.