A Non-Violent Atonement

In an earlier post I challenged the notion that Jesus died to pay the penalty for our sins. Since then, people who read the post have asked me what is an alternate understanding of how God puts us right with himself and how do Jesus death and resurrection figure into that. The best answer I have come across is in J Denny Weaver’s A Non-Violent Atonement, which I am currently half way through. He proposes a non-violent view of the Atonement, that he refers to as “narrative Christus Victor”. Here’s how he summarises his argument:

Is this narrative an atonement narrative? The answer is “no”, if for atonement narrative one means a story that pictures Jesus’ death as a divinely arranged plan to provide a payment to satisfy the offended honor of God or a requirement of divine law or understands Jesus as the substitute bearer of punishment that sinful humankind deserves. Narrative Christus Victor is not an atonement narrative if one requires a change in the relationship between God and sinful humankind based on the assumption of retributive justice that making right or restorig justice happens when evil deeds are balanced by punishment. The death of Jesus in narrative Christus Victor is not aimed at God and does not affect God in any of those ways.

But the answer is “yes”, if one envisions a reconciliation of humankind to God on the basis of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. In discussions of dogma, the classic questions of atonement concern the nature of sin and how Jesus’ death saves humankind from that sin. Narrative Christus Victor accounts for these questions. It portrays sin as bondage to the forces of evil, whose earthly representatives include the structures of imperial Rome, which had ultimate authority for Jesus’ death; the structures of the holiness code, to which Jesus proposed reforming alternatives; and the mob and the disciples in their several roles. All participants in society down to and including ourselves, by virtue of what human society is, participate in and are in bondage to – are shaped by – the powers represented by these earthly structures. Salvation is to begin to be free from  those evil forces, and to be transformed by the reign of God and to take on a life shaped – marked – by the story of Jesus, whose mission was to make visible the reign of God in our history.

In carrying out that mission, Jesus was killed by the earthly structures in bondage to the power of evil. His death was not a payment owed to God’s honor, nor was it divine punishment that he suffered as a substitute for sinners. Jesus’ death was the rejection of the rule of God by forces opposed to that rule….Far from being an event organized for a divine requirement, his death reveals the nature of the forces of evil opposed to the rule of God. It poses a contrast between the attempt to coerce by violence under the rule of evil and the nonviolence of the rule of God as revealed and made visible by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

When evil did its worst, namely, denying his existence by killing him, God’s resurrection of Jesus displayed the ability of the reign of God to triumph over death, the last enemy….

The resurrection as the victory of the reign of God over the fores of evil constitutes an invitation to salvation, an invitation to submit to the rule of God. It is an invitation to enter a new life, a life transformed by the rule of God and no longer in bondage to the powers of evil that killed Jesus…

Narrative Christus Victor is indeed atonement if one means a story in which the death and resurrection of Jesus definitively reveal the basis of power in the universe, so that the invitation from God to participate in God’s rule – to accept Jesus as the anointed one – overcomes the forces of sin and reconciles sinners to God.

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