shame in the garden

With Easter a few weeks ago, Jesus’ atonement on the cross is still somewhat fresh in peoples’ minds. One of the dominant atonement theologies of American Protestantism is a penal subsitutionary view. This is pretty much the language used by many Baptist and Reformed pastors and Bible studies. Sin is shameful in the sight of God, and humanity is pretty much worthless with this irrevocable stain. Purification can only come through the imputed righteousness of Christ crucified.

Other than Christ’s ability to make us lovable once more, I think God in this cosmology is mostly condemnatory. It’s God who casts shame on sinners, from Adam and Eve post-Fall to us today. God is holy while we are vile. It’s interesting how evangelicalism depicts this view of atonement as the only logical and orthodox way of thinking. With such a focus on individuality, it reeks of modernism and Westernized virtues. Note how Christ on the cross is limited to a transaction between individual souls and God. Such a view rarely peers into deeper matters of salvation, other than a relationship between “me and Jesus.”

Penal substitution is also problematic because it adopts a mostly Americanized understanding of justice. Justice, in this view, happens when someone gets his or her comeuppance. It might be painful to carry out but it is necessary. We have wronged God through sin, and the only way this is rectified is through divine retribution against Jesus as the spotless sacrifice. Penal justice also does not consider the upside-down “strength in weakness” dynamic of God’s power that Paul frequently explores throughout his epistles. I would say that there is something deeper at play here.

Adam and Eve by Frank Rakoncay

Adam and Eve by Frank Rakoncay

I want to quote Elaine Heath at length to share a different way of looking at atonement. Here are some thoughts from We Were the Least of These on Adam and Eve in the garden:

Before the fall, Adam and Eve are like children, naked and unashamed. They are playful and free in their abundant garden. They live in peaceful community with one another and God. The only boundary given for them, according to the text, is the tree of knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 2:9). They are not to eat of its fruit, God warns, or they will die. Adam and Eve cannot know what “die” means, because they have not eaten of the tree. To know evil is to participate in it, which is something they have not done.

Adam and Eve are blameless, naive, beautiful, and like all children, capable of being deceived. They are vulnerable, which means they are capable of being wounded.

When Adam and Eve eat the fruit, they swallow a cancerous shame that begins with their sexuality. The lead of the fig tree is irritating to human skin, not unlike stinging nettles. Adam and Eve press fig leaves against their genitals, covering their vulnerability with punishing leaves.

Heath develops a theology that greatly contrasts with shame-filled penal theories. When experiencing sin we are wounded. Wounding is imperfection, so such a theology does not deny the brokenness of our world. Instead of being filled with hatred, however, God looks at the world with pity and compassion. I think this theology is much more constructive in articulating our relationship with God.

What about you? What does atonement mean? Do you think shame ought to play a role in atonement?

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