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Toward an understanding of the atonement

For several years now, I’ve been leading a Sunday school class that’s made up largely of ladies older than me, which means it’s difficult to find lessons that will challenge them. They are usually a step ahead of me, to the point that I often consider the point of the lesson to just ask them enough questions to draw out the wisdom they already have.

crucifixion Good Friday Jesus

Kreuzigung (English: Crucifixion), 1868, by Gabriel Wüger (1829–1892)

The Lenten season is a particular challenge, because, like Christmas, it is a season of stories most of us have heard from childhood. It’s hard to dig deep into something we think we know so well.

And yet when we do, we uncover theological truths that are hard to grasp.

I’ve found the works of Adam Hamilton to be of the biggest benefit. A couple of years ago, I used his 24 Hours That Changed the World book and DVD. That book came closer than any other to explaining the atonement, and yet when I finished, I still felt I was missing something.

This year, I pulled Hamilton’s Final Words From the Cross from the church library for our Lenten study. Because of the earlier book, he doesn’t spend much time on the atonement in this one. But what he does say helped me tremendously.

First, he quotes Leslie Weatherhead from A Plain Man Looks at the Cross:

I cannot imagine any author, however great his scholarship or penetrating his spiritual insight, getting to the point where he felt he could so expound the message of the Cross as to leave no question unanswered and nothing unexplained.”

Oh, good. So it’s not just me.

Then, Hamilton advises against just the sort of overthinking that can lead us to paralysis when we try to figure out how the death of Jesus atones for our sins.

I’m a creative person, but I was raised by a pair of very logical and analytical parents (an engineer and an accounting clerk, if you can imagine…) and so I tend, by training if not by temperament, to look for logical explanations. For me it’s not enough to know that a thing works, I want to figure out how it works. (Mind you, the intricacies of the internal combustion engine are largely beyond me, which probably balances out the fact that my brother is a mechanic.)

This message of Hamilton’s in Final Words From the Cross seems designed for the analytical among us, yet they surely resonate with the artists as well:

The cross is not math or science; it is poetry lived out in human flesh. The cross is a divine drama in which God through Jesus is revealing the darkness of the human soul and the relentless grace and love of God for the human race.

For the first time, I approach this day with a sense that it’s all right for me to not understand the how. It’s OK that the divine mechanism that makes the atonement function is a mystery beyond my grasp. It is enough that I believe.


About Kristen Stieffel

Kristen Stieffel is a writer and freelance editor specializing in speculative fiction. She's a member of the Editorial Freelancers Association, Christian Editor Connection, and American Christian Fiction Writers.

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