Drowning in pictures

My 7-year-old, Ian, gets theologically frustrated with me.  He asks me why Jesus died and how it saves us, and I reply with the various metaphors for how atonement works.  My 5-year-old, Brendan, enjoys the metaphors, because he thinks in pictures like I do.  Because of our conversations, he paints some odd pictures, which we sometimes discover strewn about the house.  There is one I especially like, a finger-painted picture of “Death Jail” next to a picture of the key that unlocks our jail cell.  There is also a helicopter in that picture, but Brendan says it has nothing to do with the atonement; it just seemed a good space to put a helicopter.

Anyway, these talks are not entirely satisfying to Ian, who is very left-brained and can spot illogic 10 miles away.  When I float off into word-pictures about the atonement, he says “DAD, I don’t want to know what it’s LIKE; I want to know what it IS.”

Can I give him what he wants here?  I honestly don’t know. 

Back in the day, Anselm had a similar issue.  He dealt with it by taking one of the metaphors (the legal courtroom drama) and saying “This is not a metaphor.  This is what’s actually going on in the atonement.”  The thing is, I don’t think that turned out very well, because that metaphor breaks down in several important places.  Just like how my “Death-Jail” (Christus Victor) metaphor breaks down.  Just like any metaphor would.

In my reading of Torrance and others, I sense they are trying to talk about the atonement beyond mere pictures.  Torrance is a scientist, after all.  Whatever metaphors and images he uses, he uses them so that we will stop looking at the picture and come face-to-face with the Reality.

When we talk about Jesus adopting us by assuming our humanity and healing it from the inside-out, is THIS the Reality that the various word-pictures are trying to describe?  Or is this just another metaphor?

I’m trying to stretch my my mind today, but I may be getting a cramp.  Help!

1 comment so far

  1. Pastor Jonathan on

    I think these are really important questions, and since I have kids close to the same age as yours – plus the kids I work with at church – I have to struggle with them too.
    I think there is a literal reality of something happening to humanity and I think that literal reality is much more like the christus victor and healing of disease images than it is like the legal courtroom drama metaphors. In fact, I’m beginning to think that the verses that Anselm and others have thought are speaking of a courtroom aren’t even trying to create that metaphor. In other words, it’s not just that Anselm’s metaphor breaks down it’s that his metaphor isn’t even Biblical. I think when Paul and others used words like “righteousness” and “justice” and “atonement” they had in mind the “shalom” (i.e. restoration to relational wholeness and peace) of Yahweh’s covenant relationship with Israel, but when Anselm read these words 1,000 years later he gave them definitions taken from the Roman criminal code, feudalism, and Angol-Saxon concepts of justice like wergeld (blood-money). All of which were not at all in Paul’s mind when he, a Jewish Rabbi who believed in the Trinity, used those words.
    At any rate, I have tended – with both kids and adults – to take some of these images pretty literally. If someone said to me “is it like we were captive to the devil and Jesus set us free or is that what really happened?” I think I would say “yes, we were really captive and he really set us free.” Of if someone asked “is it like we were sick or were we really sick?” I would say “we were really sick with sin and Jesus really has healed, is healing, and will heal us of that sickness from the inside out by becoming what we are and thus transforming what we are.”
    I guess what I’m saying is that I think the truly Biblical, Christ-centered, Trinitarian images of salvation are actually pretty literal. We were sick and in prison and Jesus is healing us and setting us free.
    I really appreciate you raising these questions because I hadn’t even realized myself how literally I am taking this stuff, but I find I am comfortable doing so.


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