Some Further Thoughts on the Atonement
- Some Further Thoughts on the
by Fr. Stephen Freeman
One of the most peculiar statements relating to the Atonement can be found
in Revelation 13:8 where Christ is descibed as the "Lamb slain from the
foundation of the earth." In a similar fashion we read in 1 Peter 1:18-20:
You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your
fathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the
precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot. He
was destined before the foundation of the world but was made manifest at the
end of the times for your sake.
It is part of the wonder of the eschatological use of time in the Scriptures
that they can speak of Christ (the Alpha and the Omega) in terms in which
He, whose sacrifice is foreshadowed in the sacrifices of Israel, is Himself
sacrificed, a forshadowing before even the foreshadowing began.
One of the questions raised by this Biblical statement is fairly obvious:
which lamb of sacrifice does this verse foreshadow? Of course no simple
answer can be given, no one-to-one ratio in this heavenly typology. He is
the *Lamb*, while all other sacrifices are only *lambs*. The same
distinction can be made concerning all other sacrifices within the
sacrificial system of the Old Testament. Christ is not only that which those
sacrifices looked towards, but is also that P*rototype* of which they
themselves can only be shadows.
Here the system of sacrifice within the Old Testament becomes of less
importance for me. The Lamb slain from the foundation of the earth, if a
declaration of God's primordial purpose. He had always known that our
creation would also be followed with our treachery and our turning away from
Him. As well, He had always known that He would come for our salvation and
that our rescue from the power of death would involve His own entrance into
death, the sacrifice of the Lamb.
This revelation - that the Lamb was slain from the foundation of the earth -
is also a revelation of Who God Is. The God Who Created Us is also the God
Who is Slain for Us. Just as He is the God who enters into death in order to
rescue His creatures, so is He the God Who creates out of nothing. Life from
death is not simply a rescue operation - but an act of making those things
are not to be as though they were.
This same wondrous pattern in found through virtually every action of God
throughout the Scriptures. This weekend we marked the feast of the
Conception of St. John the Forerunner, whose mother, Elizabeth, had been
barren. She is part of a long list of barren women from whose offspring God
brought salvation to the people around them. The whole of salvation history
is an impossible account of God bringing from nothing, or as good as
nothing, things that are wondrous and working of salvation. This is another
way of saying that the great miracle of Pascha is the pattern revealed in
all the actions of God on behalf of His world - from its creation from
nothing - to its resurrection from the dead.
This, to me, is the great act of atonement. The concentration on deeds done
amiss and debts owed for sin are almost a distraction from this greater
existential crisis of all creation. Not only do we do things amiss - we are
collapsing into the nothingness from which we came. Our deeds only reflect
this drive towards nothingness. Every murder is only a fiendish attempt to
make something into nothing - to make death reign over others.
The great atonement is the rescue of our very selves and our world from its
mad course towards non-being. St. Athanasius in his wonderful *De
Incarnatione* uses this very imagery to describe our reconciliation with
God. For me it has always had the advantage of its obvious universality. I
can read from Scriptures and tell someone that "all have sinned and come
short of the glory of God." For some, such a statement has an impact. For
others, less so.
But for all, the statement that we are *all* moving towards death, and are
even threatened with nothingness has an undeniable quality. If there is to
be an eternal life, it will only be an atoned life. Only the life that God
rescues and gives back to us again can be called *eternal* life. The
gracious God has rescued and given life to all. The immediate question for
us is whether we will live this atoned life in a manner that is in
*union*with God or whether we will choose to make of this re-gifted
eternal alienation from the very source of its being.
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