Saving the Atonement

6a00d8341c511c53ef01127946ed5928a4-800wiI am speaking this week in Mississippi, in a place where Orthodoxy is thriving, but not a place where you would expect to find it. The parish (a former Presbyterian facility) has a sign with variable letters, where a changing “message” can be displayed. It reads something like, “Father Stephen Freeman speaking Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday on Salvation, Heaven and Hell.” Those are indeed the topics, but the sign fits so well in the culture of Mississippi that it brought a smile to my face.

I spoke this evening on “Saving the Atonement.” I was not discussing how to fix a doctrine, but rather how to speak to a culture that increasingly doesn’t care about the Scriptures or even know them. I suggested that we are more like St. Paul in ancient Athens than St Paul in Jerusalem. The arguments that spoke well several generations back fall empty today.

And it may seem strange to think of Orthodoxy in such a context – a world that has become a stranger to the gospel encountering the Church that wrote the gospels. But that is precisely where I think we are. My experience of Orthodoxy has not been with a new way of arguing the same old things (though it is possible to force it into such a position). Rather, reading and praying the fathers has been a path back to something prior to all of the arguments.

I used passages from St. Athanasius to guide my thoughts tonight – and was struck particularly by something he said in On the Incarnation of the Word: “Man was in danger of disappearing.”

He was describing the existential position of the human race after the fall. Refusing communion with the only truly existing God, we began to fall back towards the nothing from which we were created. Either we are sustained by grace and flourish, or we increasingly cease to exist.

I can see that human life is almost always in such a danger. I have lived all of my life under the shadow of complete, planetary destruction. Mine was the first generation to live with such a possibility. The end of the world has never just been a cosmic theory. It has always been a clear and present danger. I have also lived during a time when Western culture has been rushing headlong towards a changing future that appears less “human” somehow, such that “man” in a primary sense is in danger of disappearing. C.S. Lewis described this as “men without chests” (an image that never quite made sense to me).

But these and other forms of disappearance have felt palpable and real for me. And as I age, the same disappearance becomes quite personal. I can see rather clearly a personal end that I once only imagined. It is not frightening nor morbid, but sobering and concrete. The existence which matters for me cannot be those things that once mattered to a younger man: my job, my family, my place in the community, my writing. And now I’ve learned that my ego itself is not so precious and that if something of me is to exist it is not the “me” I prize so deeply.

Crucified with Christ, a different me now lives, and if I am to live at all I must find that me and unite myself to Him, or disappear completely. Though I suspect that the finding of that “me” comes in finally disappearing. “For it does not yet appear what we shall be…”

And so I’ve been speaking on “saving the atonement,” finding a way to understand our reconciliation with God that is not the same set of arguments (wrath, debt, justice, etc.), working from the same set of tired, misused Bible verses. What has God done in order for us to not disappear? What does it mean to disappear? What would it mean that we should appear?

And to all of these things Orthodoxy bears a rich witness. And the richness of that witness is beautiful. For, as Pavel Florensky rightly wrote, “Beauty is the criterion of truth.” For the first tell-tale signs of disappearing come in the forms of ugliness. For our existence, from the beginning, came in the form of the image of God, the truly good and beautiful.

God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, who took upon Himself our ugliness that we should take upon ourselves His beauty. It is a tell-tale sign of my sinfulness that I would be satisfied (I lie) with an existence that is mere appearance – that I should merely not disappear. But God will not be satisfied (and this is the true satisfaction theory) with anything less than my appearance in beauty and truth, for to exist in anything less than beauty is to begin to disappear.

And knowing this is part of “saving” the atonement. For hearts everywhere cry for beauty even as they pursue something less. Something less always has the nature of idolatry (which is why the icons are not idols). Though the culture shifts and forgets its original roots in a Christian view of the world, man himself does not shift. He abides (God is merciful). And the disappearing man knows and fears that he is disappearing even as he rushes headlong towards it.

His knowledge and his fear are gifts from God, echoes and memories of paradise. Saving the atonement is changing idols into icons. Just as Christ the Pantokrator saved Zeus, and the Theotokos saved a thousand variations of the Mother with her child.

It is the greatest irony that God made Him to be sin who knew no sin that we might become the righteousness of Christ. And richer irony that even the shape of our sin never completely obscures Christ Himself for He Himself has entered sin that He might reshape us. Strange wonder, the Atonement saving the atonement.


  1. It was such a blessing to hear the truth proclaimed with grace and good humor! Thank you for the good word.

  2. It is a wonder to me that God goes to such lengths to keep us from disappearing and drawing us toward beauty and life. The sensible thing to do would just allow the committed nihilists to disappear. Indeed that is what many versions of atonement seem to preach.

    However our Lord does not do that. Not only in general but in very intimate and specific ways He reaches into the crevices of our heart, finds the beauty there and brings it forth if we allow it.

    The boundlessnes and patient persistence of His Love confounds my mind and (when I open enough) reduces me to tears and wonder. Like Peter I want to say: “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man”

    But He continues to honor my initial invitation to Him to help me.

  3. I love this focus on God’s purpose as keeping us from disappearing. It reminds me of one of my favourite quotes from Emanuel Swedenborg: “In all His combats of temptations the Lord never fought from the love of self, or for Himself, but for all in the universe, consequently, not that He might become the greatest in heaven, for this is contrary to the Divine Love, and scarcely even that He might be the least; but only that all others might become *something*, and be saved.”

  4. As is usual for me, I look forward to your writings and REAL attention to REAL issues!
    However, being relativity “new” to Orthodoxy ( Baptized Jan 1, 2012, after 12 months of intensive reading and very good Catechism, getting answers to 30 years of questions, that were never answered in denominational searches and wanderings!), there are occasionally ideas, theologies and statements that totally throw me off!
    What do you mean by; “Just as Christ the Pantokrator saved Zeus,(???) (and the Theotokos saved a thousand variations of the Mother with her child.)”
    This is way beyond my comprehension and understanding, and at first glance I am tempted to ignore dealing with my ignorance. However, I must know what you mean by this. Please explain both of these statements as I am needing clear understanding of this! 🙂 Adios, DM

  5. Dennis,
    It was not uncommon among some of the fathers to see in the paganism prior to Christianity a “feeling after God” (in St. Paul’s words). Rather than writing all of it off as the product of demons, they also saw evidence of human longing for God.

    Zeus was traditionally portrayed in a manner that is pretty much the basis for the icon of Christ Pantokrator. Zeus was false, and represented a false image (idol) of rule. But Christ is true and represents the fullness of divine rule. The icon “redeems” the idol.

    Also, there were plenty of false images of “mother goddess” etc. They led often to some very dark places. But whatever that longing might have been, all that was good or true within it is rescued and saved by the Theotokos. She is no goddess, but until Christ came, nothing was truly clear.

    CS Lewis once described the old pagan myths as “good dreams sent to us to prepare for the coming of Christ.” The “shadow” of the truth revealed in the OT (that was how the fathers described the OT) were far clearer than the pagan myths, but even those shadows cannot be rightly understood until Christ comes as the Truth. Truth is only revealed and fulfilled in Christ.

  6. Like Dennis, I occasionally puzzle over teachings that seem to conflict with the concept (truth) of an all-loving God; e.g,

    “For our existence, from the beginning, came in the form of the image of God, the truly good and beautiful” compared with

    “who took upon Himself our ugliness that we should take upon ourselves His beauty. It is a tell-tale sign of my sinfulness that I would be satisfied (I lie) with an existence that is mere appearance….”.

    What I wrestle with is the connection between physical beauty (the human body, which God designed and pronounced “good,” the human spirit/soul/person–also “good”) and our moral “ugliness,” which we are taught is the inevitable result of our first parents’ sin. But how could God take on our ugliness, since He is not capable of sin, without also taking on our free will, which presupposes the option to sin? He did take on our humanity, eventually conquered death, appeared again in a mysteriously physical “form,” and lives on in that form–yet we believe that form (which I take to mean the material world as experienced through our senses) is not real, not truly beautiful.

    Perhaps I should not waste time asking these questions. I am not even sure that I am framing them satisfactorily. Still, they keep coming up when I read or think about the idea of atonement. Maybe I will do better to stick with the prayer of the Church (Divine Liturgy) and consider such thoughts temptations, or at the very least, distractions. I don’t see how it is possible to explain mystery. Nevertheless, I am also drawn to as well as challenged by your reflections, Father Stephen.

  7. Thank you! Very clear and concise explanation. Gradually filing in the holes caused by the erosion of untrue beliefs! Thanks be to God! The depths of what is available in Orthodoxy never ceases to awaken, amaze, and ground, and assure me despite so many years of ignorance. Thanks for bringing these perspectives and truths to light! Adios, DM

  8. “Christ the Pantokrator saved Zeus, and the Theotokos saved a thousand variations of the Mother with her child.”

    As a neo-Platonist, I might say instead that Zeus and Venus are dim and distorted reflections of the true Forms.

  9. Ms. Linsley, I would also say that icons are the work of an authentic priesthood of transformation rather than a shamanistic propitiation. (at the risk of a total misunderstanding of what I have read on your web-site).

    It is the Incarnation of God that allows for it, demands it even. The true form has taken flesh and dwelt among us. He has taken on our form and substance and revitalized it. Our sin still darkens it, but we are able to see much more clearly nonetheless.

    It is part of the salvation of the entire creation.

  10. The mystic neo-paganism of our time no longer has the “feeling after God” however. It is a ideological attempt to flee from God with the true object of worship being humanity.

    Thus it is nothing but idols, occult and walking in demonic temptation.

  11. Michael, it appears that you have misunderstood. Shamanic practice and priestly practice has been distinct from the earliest days of these offices. Both offices serve as mediators, but their worldviews are entirely different. The priest is forbidden to enter trace like states to communicate with and gain information from spirits. There is only one Spirit that never lies and that same Spirit inspires the drawing of icons.

  12. Albert,
    God can take on our ugliness (our sin), because it is the effect of sin (like death). In dying Christ takes on our death, though He sinlessly takes it upon Himself.

    Free will is not the same thing as the “option” to sin. The “option to sin,” was itself the first abuse of free will. “You may eat of any tree in the Garden” (free will). “But of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil you may not eat, for in the day you eat of it you will surely die” (this is the abuse of free will).

    Christ takes on our freedom, but does not abuse it.

  13. Ah… thank you! Don’t we say, “Christ appears when the priest disappears”? This is a good reminder… to let Him overcome our fears.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *