Redeeming Atonement: Good Friday and the Prodigal Son

By Dr. John Bowen

The camera always lies. Yes, yes, I know it’s not what we were taught, but think about it. 

Here is a photo of a child bawling his eyes out. How insensitive — to photograph a child in the midst of such pain or grief! But what we don’t know is that just outside the frame is his big sister, who is pulling hilarious faces at him. Those are not tears of pain, but those of helpless laughter. A photograph always frames the scene — and leaves important facts outside on the margins. 

Why does this matter? We’re only talking about photographs, after all. But the principle has a wider application. Soon it will be Holy Week, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter. Easter is great— Good Friday, not so much. 

It’s partly that the scene of the crucifixion itself is so uncomfortable, to put it mildly. One lifelong Anglican friend said to me recently, “Why can’t we just get rid of the cross altogether? The Christmas scene is so much more positive and life-affirming.” And yes, of course, he’s right. 

But the problem is more than the horrible imagery of crucifixion. There is also that doctrine that goes along with it, one that many Anglicans love to hate: the atonement. The idea that “Jesus died for our sins” smacks of what one friend recently called a “monster god.” Here is a God (probably elderly, male, and white) who is furious at the failings of humankind and determined to inflict violent vengeance on us. Fortunately, however, there is the loving Jesus who is willing to interpose his body between us and the supposed justice of this god. No wonder some people call this divine child abuse. Indeed, it is. Or it would be if it were the whole story. 

But (so often there is a but), what if the camera isn’t telling the whole truth? What if we are seeing only a part of the whole scene, a part it is easy to misinterpret if we don’t see the realities outside the frame? Sure, but where are we going to find that bigger picture? 

I suggest we begin in what may seem like an unlikely place—the story of the prodigal son in Luke 15. Let’s note first of all that there is no cross in the story. Yet Jesus seems to tell the story as if it summarises his understanding of God and his understanding of his own mission. Human beings go astray, they realise the folly of their ways, they return to a loving and forgiving Creator, and all is well. No cross there, and certainly no atonement. What a relief.

But wait. Not so fast. Consider the psychology of the story. The younger son’s actions pain the father very deeply. When the son comes home, what should the father do? One New Testament scholar, Kenneth Bailey, spent time in the Middle East, in villages where the culture has not changed much in 2,000 years. There he told the story of the son who leaves home and then comes back, and he asked that exact question. The answer was unanimous: the father should beat the son. 

On one level, one can understand the response. It’s a perfectly human one. You have hurt me: I will hurt you back. An eye for an eye. Make the punishment fit the crime. Justice would suggest that the father should visit on the son a punishment that would make him feel the same degree of pain the father had been feeling. That would teach him a lesson. And the father would feel better — perhaps. 

I don’t need to tell you that’s not what happens. Instead, the father runs to meet the boy, hugs him to his heart, isn’t interested in his speech of apology, and throws a feast for him. And what of the father’s pain? The father keeps it inside. He chooses not to turn it outward and inflict it on the one who actually deserves it. He abandons justice, and shows mercy and grace instead. 

You see where this is going? I know this is a human way of talking about God, but it’s the best we can do: we have hurt our Creator—by our treatment of God’s world and its inhabitants. Where to begin? The poor, the disadvantaged, our indigenous brothers and sisters. And what about those in our own families? Have we never said anything unkind, done anything unkind, at home? Sometimes, we have even treated ourselves badly! And I haven’t even mentioned the natural environment … 

What is the Creator to do? It would have been understandable if God had said, “I’m done with that planet. I’m going to dump it in the cosmic garbage and make me a nice new world instead.” That would have been just. If we saw the situation from God’s point of view, we might well agree with the verdict. 

But what we learn from Jesus is that that is not the Creator’s way. “There was once man who had two sons …” Where is the cross in that story? It’s not absent, it’s just invisible. The cross is in the heart of Father. And what we see on Good Friday is the pain we have caused to our Creator — no longer an abstract idea, but visible in the suffering body of God incarnate. This is why Paul says, “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself.” 

John’s new book, God is Always Bigger: Reflections of a Hopeful Critic, with a Foreword by Bishop Susan, is now available on Amazon.