Without a doubt, becoming a parent has revolutionized how I think about God’s love. Before my daughter was born, the concept of God as “Father” had a very one-dimensional nature to it as I filtered this metaphor through my own experiences of being a son. However, when my daughter was born, God as “Father” suddenly blossomed into a much fuller concept for me, for not only could I think of this in terms of God as “Parent,” but now my own experience was impacted as God, as “Father,” began to have meaning for how I am a “father” as well.

And it is precisely these experiences which make popular theology about sin, atonement, and forgiveness so unpalatable and inexplicable to me. Earlier, I described briefly the structure of atonement as envisioned in popular theology, complete with the notions of “penalty,” “guilt,” and what-ever-else. What I find so striking is that, from a parental perspective, these concepts have absolutely no meaning to me when I apply them to my relationship with my daughter.

The Personhood of Forgiveness

For example, consider the notion of “penalty.” Although I, as “father,” do give “laws” that my daughter should follow, her periodic transgressions of them do not EVER produce within me a blood-lust to punish her for her behavior. And while there are appropriate times for me to correct her behavior through negative consequences, there is nothing within me that feels compelled to punish her in order to “balance” some incorporeal scales of justice within our family, and I don’t feel as if “justice” or “propriety” has been undermined because I do not systematically punish her for each and every transgression (which is precisely what much of popular theology thinks about God’s relationship to us…). In light of this, I have a hard time reconciling theological belief that would envision God–as Father–demanding that which I–as a deeply flawed and imperfect father–would never dream of demanding of my own child.

But most striking to me is how forgiveness plays in all of this drama. Although I am by no means a perfect “forgiver,” I am, nonetheless, capable of forgiving my daughter for each and every wrong that she does–without exception. She has never done anything, nor can I imagine her EVER doing anything that I would not forgive. But here’s the rub: my forgiveness of my daughter is not based on anything that she does. She does not have to somehow “make up” the transgression to me through some arbitrary number of obedient deeds. Nor does she have to be punished in order for me to feel released to forgive her. In fact, as wild as it sounds to ears deafened by theological obfuscation, my daughter does not even have to ASK me for forgiveness. Quite to the contrary, before she could do, ask, or say anything to me, my forgiveness is already reaching out to her, seeking to embrace her and restore our relationship. The bottom line is this: my forgiveness of my daughter is not based on anything she does or does not do; it is not based on “justice” being served through punishment; and it is not based on some requirement being met whereby I am “freed” to forgive her. No, it is based solely on my love for her, and my forgiveness necessarily precedes whatever manner of reconciliation comes to pass within our relationship.

In light of these admittedly experientially-derived ideas, my question is this: If we–as a fathers and mothers who are “evil” and imperfect–forgive our sons and daughters in this way, why is our understanding of God’s perfect love and forgiveness not informed by this same character of love and grace? If we exhibit such freedom and unconditionality in our love and forgiveness of our children, why do we restrict the nature of God’s forgiveness by such curious and convoluted theological structures?

So if I can be so bold, let me offer a reimagining of the drama of forgiveness and atonement as seen through this different lens.

Refreshing the Atonement

In this creative theological space, we see the primal invasion of creation by God–the Incarnation–as the great trumpeting of the eternality of divine forgiveness. Rather than being “born to die” a fundamentally utilitarian death for the “opening” of the divine to the possibility of forgiveness, the coming of God in the person of Christ is, in fact, the great pronouncement that God has chosen grace and mercy, not punishment and penalty. Christ, as the great Revelator, is the embodiment of divine favor and forgiveness, incarnating in his own person the eternal reality of divine love and compassion for humanity. Again, his is not a mission to somehow enable God to overcome ancient animosity for human transgressions through the punishment and chastisement of Godself; to the contrary, the very arrival of Christ in the midst of human history is the heralding of the grand promise that God has already forgiven–in this, Christ is both the mechanism (as reconciler) and messenger of this profound gospel.

In this great drama, then, the cross loses many of the connotations attached to it while gaining a richer set of metaphors. Since forgiveness is no longer something to be pried out of God’s hands by Christ’s bloody corpse, the strange and dissonant notions of “penalty” and “divine punishment” that are so often latched on to our theologizing about the purpose of the cross begin to vanish. Rather than being understood as something which God plans for, or imposes upon Christ as a mechanism for the pacification of divine blood-lust for the sins of humanity, the reality shifts to something much more dreadful and, therefore, realistic.

We begin to see in the cross not the rampaging anger of God, but the annihilating force of human sinfulness. We realize that the cross is not God’s doing, but ours–it is our act of “gratitude” for the great promise of forgiveness heralded by Christ’s coming and life among us. In the cross we see not the “justice” of God, but the true depravity of our own hearts, hearts that respond with hatred, violence, and destruction to the free and deeply gracious gift of life and reconciliation offered by the Creator in the person of Christ. In his death, Christ truly takes our sinfulness into his own person. However, this “transfer” is not for the object of deflecting divine wrath and punishment, but so that we might be freed from sin’s annihilating clutches. In the cross, the full force and negation of the history of human sinfulness is gathered against Christ to serve the finishing blow in humanity’s rebellion against God, but is extinguished finally and forcefully by the power of God through Christ’s vindication in his resurrection to the newness of life in God. With the inevitability of self-destruction and annihilation broken forever, we are now freed, through Christ, to enter into the everlasting forgiveness and grace to which he testified in his advent, his life, and even in his death.

All told, the story of advent, atonement, and resurrection is not about “penalty” or “justice” or “punishment” or “setting things straight.” Nor is it about how God “gets over” whatever divine anger and “need” for justice God is presumed to have over human sinfulness. Rather, it is simply and beautifully the unfolding of the most ancient story ever told, the grand revelation and completion of divine forgiveness poured out on God’s creation. Christ’s advent, life, and death are the trumpeting of the endless bounty of God’s grace and mercy. They are the consummation of the free gift of God, unmerited either by human OR divine action, the eternally natural out flowing of the divine being in response to that which God has created and loves with an everlasting, unconditional, and unconquerable love.

Read Part I

Read the Postscript