Last updated: 5/28/2023
Thesis: Atonement represents not an affirmation of justice, but rather instead its unraveling.
Note: This essay is a work in progress.
It is commonly claimed by the religious that without God, one cannot have a sense of morality. That if there stands no supreme measure of Good beyond us, that everything would be permitted: murders, rapes, arsons, what have you.
Many others will regard this as a ridiculous claim, looking at their own secular lives and seeing no such drive. That if they were to be dropped into a law-less Purge situation, they wouldn’t somehow spontaneously develop the desire to murder and steal.
The religious man would be wise to not hastily dismiss this sentiment as misguided, but instead take this intuition within the common man seriously and consider what it actually tells us about human nature.
Independent of religious code, human beings still tend towards cooperation and some level of order. If you were to look at a non-religious society, you wouldn’t see an entirely unmoored band of crazed chimpanzees or a war of all against all, but still a very definite sense of boundaries and order. If this were not the case, there would not be civilizations in the first place, as civilizations inherently require cooperation to build and maintain.
Instead, through our observations of human nature, we can use this to get a better sense of what is actually meant when we use words such as “morality”, “law”, or “justice”. None of these things need derive their authority or definition from above, because they at their core are defined as a relation between people.
What is permitted, what is moral, is defined by what best allows us to live in cooperation with other human beings most effectively. This is most easily seen in the notion of the “social contract” upon which all liberal societies are founded, which literally sees the law as a collective agreement between men. An atheist knows murder is wrong, because murder is an infringement upon another person’s boundaries, and undermines the whole system of cooperation which maintains peace and order. If everyone murdered everyone, society wouldn’t function, so murder is wrong. If nobody paid their taxes, society wouldn’t function, so not paying your taxes is wrong. The entire system is self-regulating.
Even criminals have their own system of cooperation and order. Criminals don’t exist entirely dispersed as lone-wolves, but rather instead form gangs and organizations with their own rules and expectations for cooperation. Once again, there is a set of restrictions: it’s wrong to snitch, it’s wrong to defy orders, it’s wrong to unnecessarily start fights. All of these laws once again, are based upon what is necessary for continued cooperation and stability.
It’s also why the most secular of societies are the societies most likely to insist most explicitly upon these boundaries, to hold — not transcendent virtues — but interpersonal ones such as “tolerance” and “consent” to be supreme. Without religious abstractions, one recognizes that all that remains are men and thus the greatest good shows itself to be that which seems the most optimal for the most men.
And where that cooperation is undermined, where someone has faced a loss at the hands of another, balance must be restored. If things go unbalanced, cooperation will fall apart, and with it the whole system. Justice and atonement, in the human sense, could be defined as the theory of this balancing between men.
When a person is offended or experiences a loss, justice exists to ensure them that all will balance out, that they won’t be the loser of the interaction. If someone stabs out my eye, balance can only be realized if he also loses his eye.
This sort of justice, which has remained intuitive to all kinds of men throughout history, cannot be spoken of as transcendental. In each step of the process we an intensification of mankind’s own self-reflection, own self-resolution. Justice exists among men, not beyond them.
Yet curiously, it is the religious who often most heavily insist upon it. To sin is to do wrong, to violate the law, to disrupt balance. In turn, atonement stands as a balancing: for the Israelites, an offense against God must be repaid in blood.
Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the sons of Israel, saying, ‘If a person sins unintentionally in any of the things which the Lord has commanded not to be done, and commits any of them, if the anointed priest sins so as to bring guilt on the people, then he is to offer to the Lord a bull without defect as a sin offering for his sin which he has committed. (Leviticus 4:1-3 NASB)
He shall then put some of the blood on the horns of the altar which is before the Lord [k]in the tent of meeting; and all the rest of the blood he shall pour out at the base of the altar of burnt offering which is at the doorway of the tent of meeting. And he shall remove all its fat from it and offer it up in smoke on the altar. He shall also do with the bull just as he did with the bull of the sin offering; he shall do the same with it. So the priest shall make atonement for them, and they will be forgiven.
This motif of blood sacrifice carries on into Christianity, where Christ has taken the place of the animal in this process of mediating sin.
The former priests, on the one hand, existed in greater numbers because they were prevented by death from continuing; Jesus, on the other hand, because He continues forever, holds His priesthood permanently. Therefore He is also able to save forever those who come to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them. For it was fitting for us to have such a high priest, holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens; who has no daily need, like those high priests, to offer up sacrifices, first for His own sins and then for the sins of the people, because He did this once for all time when He offered up Himself. (Hebrews 7:23-28 NASB)
Many Christian commentators will read this connection as straight-forward. Christ’s purpose was to fulfill the law (Matthew 5:17-18), so should we not understand Christ’s sacrifice as a “scaling up” of the Israelite system?
It is in these terms Protestants have come to conceptualize atonement. Our sin against God may have been so great, so impossibly large in magnitude, that no amount of animal sacrifice could possibly restore the balance, but the core notion of balance itself goes unquestioned.
From this perspective, the Lamb of God is almost as a “super-lamb”: Christ has the equivalent value of an arbitrarily large (or infinite) number of lambs stacked on top of each other, or that during his time on the Cross he was suffering through an arbitrarily large number of “Hells” that we would’ve otherwise been sentenced to in order to re-balance the offense.
Atonement is a subject squarely within the realm of theology, but that is not to say that all of this has only abstract or secondary relevance. Rather instead, it’s quite the opposite. Atonement, at its core, is about how do we, as human beings, reconcile ourselves with God? How we answer this question will force us to reckon with what it means to offend, and what it means to be “made right” not just in a religious, but also an interpersonal sense.
When Christ employs The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matthew 18:21-35), he does so with the message of forgiving others as you have been forgiven. Most readers give focus to the passage as moral instruction, but more abstractly we could also see it as establishing a direct connection between divine and interpersonal justice. If we are to forgive others the way the Lord has forgiven us, does that not mean we must even first establish what it means to atone?
So let us reverse the direction of our investigation. Rather than starting with divine justice and projecting that onto our daily lives (as the passage does), let us see what an investigation into human justice tells us about the ultimate work of atonement.
1. The Theory of Procedural Justice
In traditional societies, this justice would be carried out either personally or through the extended family unit in blood feuds. If you or someone within your kin has been slighted or hurt, you are expected to enact vengeance. An attack on my brother is an attack on me, blood can only be repaid with blood. To fail to do so reflects not on your mercy but on your weakness.
Honor is a kind of status attached to physical bravery and the unwillingness to be dominated by anyone. Honor in this sense is a status that depends on the evaluations of others, and members of honor societies are expected to display their bravery by engaging in violent retaliation against those who offend them (Cooney 1998:108–109; Leung and Cohen 2011). Accordingly, those who engage in such violence often say that the opinions of others left them no choice at all…. In honor cultures, it is one’s reputation that makes one honorable or not, and one must respond aggressively to insults, aggressions, and challenges or lose honor. Not to fight back is itself a kind of moral failing, such that “in honor cultures, people are shunned or criticized not for exacting vengeance but for failing to do so” (Cooney 1998:110). Honorable people must guard their reputations, so they are highly sensitive to insult, often responding aggressively to what might seem to outsiders as minor slights (Cohen et al. 1996; Cooney 1998:115–119; Leung and Cohen 2011)… Cultures of honor tend to arise in places where legal authority is weak or nonexistent and where a reputation for toughness is perhaps the only effective deterrent against predation or attack (Cooney 1998:122; Leung and Cohen 2011:510). Because of their belief in the value of personal bravery and capability, people socialized into a culture of honor will often shun reliance on law or any other authority even when it is available, refusing to lower their standing by depending on another to handle their affairs (Cooney 1998:122–129).
Under this conception, the essence of justice is retribution. This was the predominant attitude in Ancient Greece, Ancient Israel, Feudal Europe, and even the early Southern USA. This is the conception of justice spoken of in the Old Testament, and the justice of the Jews and Romans in Christ’s time.
The Middle Ages, from beginning to end, and particularly the feudal era, lived under the sign of private vengeance. The onus, of course, lay above all on the wronged individual; vengeance was imposed on him as the most sacred of duties … The solitary individual, however, could do but little. Moreover, it was most commonly a death that had to be avenged. In this case the family group went into action and the faide (feud) came into being, to use the old Germanic word which spread little by little through the whole of Europe—’the vengeance of the kinsmen which we call faida’, as a German canonist expressed it. No moral obligation seemed more sacred than this … The whole kindred, therefore, placed as a rule under the command of a chieftain, took up arms to punish the murder of one of its members or merely a wrong that he had suffered.
The biggest shift away from this would come with the Enlightenment and its notions of due process in criminal proceedings. Justice became less about retribution and more about process. Rights must be assured, fairness realized, and all men must be equal before the law. Such a level of consistency could only be possible by delegating the task of executing justice to a central State; vigilantism would increasingly come to be seen as equated with barbarism as time went on.
But, regardless, balance did not go away. The social contract which forms the basis of any society exists as a balancing of interests. As an individual, I enter into the contract, and by extent agree to cooperate with others, because I trust that my interests will be reasonably filled. One of these interests is justice.
If a crime is committed against me, I don’t immediately lash out because I trust that the State (which enforces the contract) will properly balance things on my behalf. The State might value process, but at the end of the day, what I am paying attention to is whether or not the one who offended me gets the due retribution.
On the flipside, criminals are deterred from acting out because they also have that confidence that if they do, they will receive appropriate and just harm due to due process. He may not like or comply with it, but he recognizes it as legitimate anyways.
Legitimacy is ultimately a collective perception, and as long as it exists people will be willing to peacefully cooperate, even if begrudgingly. Individual men may have their own short-sighted impulses, but in the long-term the wiser judgement of the State and its process will prevail, and people will have enough of a share of satisfaction to preserve order and balance.
1.1. Procedural Justice in Practice
That’s how the theory has gone, but it is still pure theory. Institutions are not above men, for institutions are products of men, no matter how cleverly designed. The State, deriving its legitimacy from the collective will of the people, also acts as a collective crystallization of their sin.
In many parts of the world, we see vigilantes and blood-bound groups reappear once again due to the weakness and corruption of the State. Whether it be through family units or more recently, organized crime, “honor” returns as the primary method of dispensing justice. Where the State shows its failure to mediate the whole of society, people retreat to their cliques. Even in the very same prisons an “orderly” society condemns its prisoners to, we see justice administered on the basis of racial gangs. They’re out of sight of respectable society, but the State has functionally abandoned them to their own devices.
Even in a respectable society, this ideal of full justice remains elusive:
- For every 1000 incidents of sexual assault in the US, it is estimated that 25 will actually lead to any form of incarceration. This is only among reported incidents, as victims are often discouraged due to both long been not having been taken seriously by authorities and fear of retaliation (an example of this is how 62% of those who report their own abuse in the military experience some form of retalitation).
- Going off of exonerations, African-Americans make up approximately 14% of the population, but 47% of all wrongful convictions. In other words, an innocent black person is seven times more likely to be convicted of murder than an innocent white person, 3.5x more likely to be killed by a police officer while unarmed. Accountability is difficult, especially since reports are handled internally, settlements are paid with tax dollars, most union contracts have provisions which undermine disciplinary action.
These problems aren’t the only ones, and a lot of them have complex roots behind their cause, but they’re some of the ones most highlighted in today’s political discourse. It’s easy enough to point out that these problems are difficult to disentangle (such as with sexual assault being difficult to prove in court alongside presumption of innocence), and defend the rationale of any given process, but at the end of the day what we see is that the process is not what is of fundamental interest to people.
It’s the question of balancing once more: if I as an individual, see that the State is failing to provide justice for me, what reason do I have to participate in the social contract anymore? A contract is meant to be mutually upheld, and entered into out of self-interest. If I am sexually assaulted and see my offender entirely get off the hook for what is one of the most heinous crimes a person can commit, I inevitably am going to view the law and the State’s capacity to carry out justice as less legitimate. If I and my community are experiencing disproportionate targeting or bias from legal institutions, I inevitably will begin to distrust those same institutions. Compound this over the course of decades or generations and the pessimism becomes deep-seated.
In both cases, the desire for justice has not gone anywhere, all that has changed is the venues people begin to look to when the default option is exhausted. People lose their patience and take justice into their own hands since nobody else will. It’s here where we see moments such as the Watts Riots or #MeToo, whereby the concept of “process” liberalism prides itself on proves insufficient. Whether we talk about directly trying to out and blacklist suspected sexual predators or burning down buildings, this balancing is fundamentally self-directed and outside of the State’s management or promise of consistency.
One can bemoan this, and list all the long-term benefits of due process and speak of disorder, but ultimately it’s futile, as this desire for justice comes down like a dam waiting to burst. If the current compromise was tolerable for a given group, there would not be riots; water always flows towards the path of least resistance. Can one really reasonably expect a person continuously getting the short end of the stick to stand by and watch it happen? A person or a group of people to martyr themselves so others can enjoy “law and order”? Is that a reasonable demand?
Despite the high-minded (and in some ways respectable) commitment liberalism has to putting process first, its process is only as valued as its ability to deliver justice as retribution. What we see in practice is still the same zero-sum dynamics which define human nature.
2. The Theory of Social Justice (in-progress)
The absolute neutrality upon which liberal promises of “equality of process” bases itself is flawed in that it implicitly treats justice as an external reality. There is an expectation that people will adjust themselves to the process, that the process is capable of realizing a justice above their own perception, rather than the process existing as a crystallization of the actually-existing sentiment.
If we are to distill justice down to an singular essence, it could be considered a psychic one: justice is a framework we use to mentally structure the world of cause and effect.
In addition, it presumes that the public is a neutral body (whether as an aggregate of independent persons or a collective “people”), as opposed to distinct and un-equal identity groups. For it is also in human nature to seek out a particularized form of loyalty and sympathy: worldly love extends to only those I see as similar to me. Either those in my family, those in my race, those in my religion, those who share my cultural or political views.
If the white man sees himself as a white man first and foremost, it becomes of no concern to him what the colored man faces. If the man primarily defines himself as a male, why should he care for justice on behalf of the female? The same social boundaries which make this concept of “rights” possible also end up precluding the question of responsibility.
2.1. Social Justice in Practice
3. Justice in Covenant Law (in-progress)
The meaning of “justice” is inseparably tied to the Law one speaks of. Human law, whether we speak of through a modern state or through customary “eye for an eye” speaks of offenses between human beings. The law it speaks of rests upon the assumption that righteousness exists upon men. That the “gains”, “losses”, and “balance” we speak of stem from a moral currency among men. The State spoken of in the social contract can only be trusted as a legitimate arbiter because men have an innate conception of righteousness.
This is unsurprising, given that a key theme of the Enlightenment (the origin of the social contract and the modern State) is the inherent goodness of men and their ability to reach God.
The Bible states otherwise:
What then? Are we better than they? Not at all; for we have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin; as it is written: “There is no righteous person, not even one; There is no one who understands, There is no one who seeks out God; They have all turned aside, together they have become corrupt; There is no one who does good, There is not even one.” “Their throat is an open grave, With their tongues they keep deceiving,” “The venom of asps is under their lips”; “Their mouth is full of cursing and bitterness”; “Their feet are swift to shed blood, Destruction and misery are in their paths, And they have not known the way of peace.” “There is no fear of God before their eyes.” Now we know that whatever the Law says, it speaks to those who are under the Law, so that every mouth may be closed and all the world may become accountable to God; because by the works of the Law none of mankind will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes knowledge of sin. (Romans 3:9-20)
The purpose of the Law is to bring awareness of sin, not bring about a balancing, because this is something unbalancable.
Many Protestants, undeniably influenced by the Enlightenment ideas of their time, applied this logic to the law of sin (Romans 8:2). They endorsed a theory known as “penal substitionary atonement”. They painted the atonement as an exchange, a form of balancing.
It goes as such: God is perfect, and by extent God is also supremely just. We, having sinned under the Covenant of Works, must now bear the appropriate punishment in order for things to be properly even. If God were to fail to do this, he would lose his “honor”. So instead, he offers himself up (in the form of his Son) and bear the sentence on our behalf. The punishment is dished out, God’s honor is upheld, and the balance has been restored. This is justice being served.
One issue with that narrative: that’s not at all how justice has ever worked. This is the part where I often see other Protestants really begin to paper over the cracks.
The best way to really get across what I mean here, is to bring this out of the realm of the abstract and back into common experience. Imagine for a second that some man commits some horrific offense against you, such as slaughtering your entire family.
You’re furious and your first thought is going to be one of two things: either you want to see this man behind bars or you’re going to kill him with your own hands. Now imagine for a second that some completely innocent person, maybe even your own son, pleads with you to kill him instead. Are you going to accept this offer, completely satisfied with the actual murderer walking free and this completely innocent person having to bear the consequence? Does that sound just?
The mistake made here is neglecting that because human law is interpersonal, this balancing is not just a matter of magnitude but also the target. Nowhere in the United States law are you going to see a judge allow a murderer to walk free on the grounds that someone else is willing to occupy his prison seat. If such a thing were to happen, it would spark outrage, because it’d be terribly unjust.
In this sense, Christ’s death is the ultimate injustice:
However, it was our sicknesses that He Himself bore, And our pains that He carried; Yet we ourselves assumed that He had been afflicted, Struck down by God, and humiliated. But He was pierced for our offenses, He was crushed for our wrongdoings; The punishment for our well-being was laid upon Him, And by His wounds we are healed. All of us, like sheep, have gone astray, Each of us has turned to his own way; But the Lord has caused the wrongdoing of us all To fall on Him. He was oppressed and afflicted, Yet He did not open His mouth; Like a lamb that is led to slaughter, And like a sheep that is silent before its shearers, So He did not open His mouth. By oppression and judgment He was taken away; And as for His generation, who considered That He was cut off from the land of the living For the wrongdoing of my people, to whom the blow was due? (Isaiah 53:4-9)
Where in this description do we see anything which would yield closure, a sense of satisfaction, or balance? If anything, as the murderers who walk free on another’s blood, the guilt should weigh on us twice as much. How could we possibly look ourselves in the mirror knowing we had killed God?
There is no resolution, just an intensification of the pre-existing crisis. This theology may promise us salvation from Hell, but not salvation from Sin. So, we are not really saved at all. The murderer remains a murderer, just one who gets to live outside the prison walls. Whatever freedom he has is punctuated by an overwhelming sense of “wrong-ness”.
Religion, as the means by which men attempt to bring God down to Earth, avoids paradox and seeks to explain away crisis. Therefore it can only speak of “true justice” as an extension of already-existing justice, as an affirmation of the world as is. Allah promises balance on a Scale of Deeds, one’s karma influences one’s rebirth, etc. Christendom is no exception, with its continuous obsession with otherworldliness and heaven/hell. To the lay Christian, they defer the resolution of evil to to an indefinite future, one whose shape exists in the realm of personal imagination, away from all accountability and action. Heaven and hell, viewed from such a lens are little more than a cope, a divine mediator by which
Gospel is different from religion, Gospel offers no escape apart from confronting the paradox, the Crisis as is. It provides us with a picture of the God who elected himself to damnation, the Eternal One who entered into History with a concrete, bounded form. To speak of any of this is heresy, Christ crucified is a stumbling block to the Jew (1 Corinthians 1:23).
Christianity would remain a moral atrocity if the Crucifixion was the last word. But it was not. God may have been killed but he did not die. Just as the Resurrection cleared the confusion of the Apostles, so does it clear the confusion of our atonement and salvation. Not through any clean logical synthesis, but rather instead an intensification of the contradictions through its polar reversal.
The Resurrection takes the ultimate injustice of the Crucifixion and turns it into a justice beyond justice. Darkness becomes light, death becomes life. The God who was killed by the weight of sin now has come to conquer sin itself. Where sin has abounded, grace will abound much more.
The Resurrection is symbolic of a genuine salvation, in that it represents Christ’s victory over sin itself. Sin and death are continually spoken of in parallel in Scripture, because just like death, sin comes for all. Yet, Christ has overcome both.
John 16:33, Christ states “Take courage, for I have overcome the world!” It is not that justice will be realized in some future eschaton, Christ’s victory is in front of us.
No longer are we bound under the Covenant of Works, the Law of Moses, the Law of Men. We see the end, the telos of all of what this Law has led up to in the Covenant of Grace. Remember what Paul said in Romans 3, “for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin”. It is through our total inability to meet the Mosaic law and the absurdity of Christ’s sacrifice, that we are left with no other recourse but to completely rethink of how we conceive of justice. A new law brings with it a new definition of justice, a new definition of sin.
Sin is not merely an offense, it is a sickness, a set of shackles which binds all of humanity. The supposed “gain” of sinning is in reality a loss, an un-freedom.
Contrast this with human law, which assumes full freedom of the offender. Under it, the criminal can be considered justly segregated from society because he consented to the social contract which declared a life for a life. The 13th amendment, which outlawed slavery, carved out an exception for prisoners. Why? Because in the eyes of civil law, the idea of a prisoner as a slave is absurd. What kind of murderer needs to be saved from murdering, he just needs to choose to not murder.
So Jesus was saying to those Jews who had believed Him, “If you continue in My word, then you are truly My disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” They answered Him, “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been enslaved to anyone; how is it that You say, ‘You will become free’?” Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave of sin. Now the slave does not remain in the house forever; the son does remain forever. So if the Son sets you free, you really will be free. (John 8:31-36)
This concept of choice only holds because of the underlying framework of contract. Covenants on the other hand, are obligational. God was obligated to Abraham, hence why no matter how many times the Israelites failed to keep his laws as commanded, he continued to deliver them.
A contract is entered into out of self-interest, but the covenant is borne out of love, a concern for the other. He who was offended, betrayed by his own people, never once forgot his promise to Abraham despite having every “just” reason to do so.
In his victory of sin itself — as opposed to purely the consequences of sin — Christ compels us to follow in his image, to extend the same love to humanity that he did (John 13:34).
The true, higher justice realized by the cross is a justice which no longer divides humanity into the “offender” and the “offended”, the hell-bound and the heaven-bound, but rather instead unites us under the collective curse of sin, and in turn the collective gift of salvation.
We are called to evangelize, not because it moves us up on the Scale of Deeds, but because we recognize that our fellow human beings are part of our collective body.