Not So Much With the Atonement

“If it were a snake, it would have bit me!”

This is an expression you use if you’ve been looking for something and can’t find it only to discover it’s been right in front of you the whole time.

I thought of this expression as I studied our scriptures for this week about serpents and poles and whatnot, but it did not come true. There is nothing obvious about our texts today.

We’re going to have to dig a little deeper for meaning.

In our Gospel today, Jesus is trying to explain to Nicodemus who he is. He says, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” That’s John 3:15.

Of course, the verse that everyone quotes all the time and puts on signs at football games is John 3:16, for God so loved the world. But I think this verse right before it bears an equal amount of fruit for us to harvest.

Jesus is referring to the story we read today from the book of Numbers, when Moses and the Israelites were in the wilderness.

The Israelites are misbehaving and complaining to Moses again, and the Lord finally gets fed up and sets a bunch of poisonous snakes on them.

Moses prays to the Lord to have compassion on them, and the Lord tells Moses to take a snake and raise it up on a pole, and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.

The interesting part of this story is that while it does say directly that it is the Lord who set the serpents among the people, which is bizarre at best and just mean at worst, the Lord never says that the serpents are there to punish the Israelites for their sin.

The Israelites draw that conclusion themselves.

Of course what we understand historically is that this story is an etiology, an origin story.

At some point in the history of Israel, the people were using a bronze serpent on a pole in their worship, and there needed to be a story to back it up.

In fact, later on they do realize they’ve drifted into paganism.

In 2 Kings 18:4, we read that “[Hezekiah] removed the high places, broke down the pillars, and cut down the sacred pole. He broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it; it was called Nehushtan.”

Traditionally in the Bible the serpent represents sin and evil.

The Israelites have certainly made that connection.

They pray to the Lord to take the serpents away from them.

But God does not do that.

God instead provides a mechanism for their healing that requires them to stay in relationship with their sin, to look at it and face it and confront it.

Jesus could have chosen any story in the Hebrew scriptures to compare to his crucifixion, and he chose this one.


This is a really important point to pay attention to because here Jesus himself is expressing a Christology.

What is a Christology? A Christology is a set of ideas about who Jesus is and what Jesus means.

For example, one type of Christology is that Jesus was a great teacher but still just a regular human being.

Another type of Christology is that Jesus was and is the Son of God, fully divine and fully human.

And what our Christology is directly influences what we think about salvation.

And the fact that Jesus told this story to describe who he is tells us a lot of important and perhaps unfamiliar truths about the nature of salvation.

Most of us have been taught to think about salvation as a legal transaction.

We have heard over and over again that Jesus died to save us from our sins, but what does that really mean?

The average American Christian has been taught and does not ever question the legal transaction model of salvation, called substitutionary atonement.

This is the idea that God is angry at us for our sins, or another way of putting it is that God’s justice cannot tolerate our sins, and someone has to be punished for them.

God loves us and doesn’t want to destroy us, and so God sends God’s only Son in our place to die for us, as a substitute to atone for us, hence the term substitutionary atonement.

This makes a number of assumptions about God that I actually think are quite problematic.

For one thing, it assumes that God’s number one priority is exacting revenge for our mistakes and wrongdoing, and that God is so small that God cannot survive having our sin in the world but has to fix it like a cosmic math problem.

And then it assumes that God is so catastrophically lacking in creativity that the only solution God can think of is violence against God’s only Son.

That makes God both less creative and less loving than we are, and I am not prepared to characterize God in that way.

The other problem with the legal transaction theology of the crucifixion is that it leaves us completely untouched and uninvolved.

Jesus died on the Cross to fix our blotted copybooks, to put whiteout over our mistakes, to balance our eternal checkbooks.

Isn’t that nice?

Thank you, Jesus, for cleaning up my mess. How nice for me that it doesn’t require me to participate or change in any way.

I simply get to observe your suffering dispassionately and reflect on the violent, revenge-obsessed God the Father who’s watching with equal dispassion while you bleed your life away on Calvary.

Can you see why I don’t like this theology?

Well, I don’t think Jesus would agree with it either, and we get a clue to that in this very story.

Jesus chose this image of the serpent on the pole in the book of Numbers to describe himself.

What was the purpose of the serpent raised up on the pole?

Was it to erase the sins of the Israelites?

Was it to balance their moral checkbook?

No, it was to heal them.

Jesus is describing his crucifixion as an act of healing.

That is a profound shift from substitutionary atonement.

God wants us to be healed from our sin and the damage it does, not have Jesus serve our prison sentence or our capital punishment.

And salvation as healing requires a lot more from us than atonement.

Healing requires us to participate, and it requires us to change, and healing is often painful.

When we are wounded and then heal, we are left with scars.

Jesus illustrates that himself in his resurrection appearance.

The resurrected body is a wounded body that has experienced healing and new life but retains the marks of trauma that were the means of healing.

Understanding that the work of Jesus at the crucifixion was first and foremost about healing transforms our relationship with the Cross.

I think of our lives as lived within a circle around the Cross on Calvary.

Most of the time we count ourselves lucky to stand at the outer rim of that circle, looking with pity on those dragged to the center by tragedy.

Looking at our Lord bleeding his life away on the Cross is like looking directly into the sun.

It is hard to be in the presence of this glory, but sometimes we beg to be blinded by it because we don’t want to see our own lives anymore.

But huddle close to the foot of the Cross long enough, and you finally are desperate enough to reach out and hold on to it.

We all live in the circle of the Cross whether we want to or not.

There is suffering in our lives because we are human.

But we have the choice to hide from it, or shed the light of truth on it and see Jesus standing in the very midst of it.

Jesus refused to turn his back on us in his darkest hour, and we are called to be with him, and let him be with us, in our pain and in that of others.

The Cross is the center of our faith, and the Cross is where we will find the truth of our lives.

The Cross is a place of encountering truth, a place where our pain and our fear are no longer hidden.

Jesus didn’t hide his pain and fear when he was on the Cross.

He cried out his brokenness and betrayal for the whole world to see.

He told the truth, and it was hard to hear.

But truth is the foundation on which healing can be built. And the Cross is above all things a place of healing.

The Lord did not prescribe some complicated medical cure for the snake-bitten Israelites. All they had to do was look at Moses’ staff.

Jesus was telling us the same thing.

Salvation does not require some elaborate formula.

We look to Jesus being lifted up on the Cross, see him dying in his love for us, and know that that same love raised him up on the third day to new life.

The knowledge of that truth heals us not only from this world’s sufferings having dominion over us, but takes us through death itself into our own everlasting life.

Truth about pain that leads to healing, that is what the Cross is all about.

Jesus said it in our Gospel today: “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

And one of those truths that comes out at the Cross is that many of us fear God’s judgment.

We fear not measuring up.

We spend days consumed by regret and wishing we could just be better Christians, just quit making the same mistakes over and over, just quit hurting and being hurt by the people we love, just quit hurting God by our sin.

There is judgment at the Cross, but it is nothing like we ever imagined it would be.

Listen to Jesus’ words in our Gospel today: “And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world.”

That is the judgment.

God evaluates our sin and our shortcomings and our failure to do God’s will and what is God’s answer?

Not condemnation and hellfire.

Not death and abandonment.

God’s judgment and punishment of us is to send Jesus to us, to love and care for and heal and save us.

“And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world.”

I want the light.

I want to be a part of the light so much that it even outweighs my fear.

I want to touch the light so much that I am willing to go to the foot of the Cross, that place where the pain and the healing become one.

Let us go to the Cross together, and together step into the light.





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