[Please start with part 1 here]
In the previous post, I made some introductory remarks about the doctrine of atonement, the importance of getting it right and the difficulties in communicating the vital biblical truths about atonement to those who come from a very different cultural background to us. I would like to elaborate further in this post and go into some further detail.
The way we express atonement in Western evangelicalism along with the way we talk about sin (and the relationship between the two) seems heavily shaped by a Western legal framework we’ve inherited from Roman culture and Roman Christianity. Penal Substitutionary Atonement addresses the common notion of sins as a legal transgressions: offences against God’s law; crimes which must be punished. We break the law, disobey God’s commands and commit unrighteous actions and each one adds to the list of indictments that will lead to our eternal condemnation for our sins. Jesus perfectly obeyed the Law, embodied what it meant to be righteous in God’s sight and died in our place “the just for the unjust” (1 Pet 3:18). He “cancel[ed] the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.” (Col 2:14). And the Scriptures clearly testify that Christ’s death directly addressed the issue of our trespasses and transgressions against God and His commands (see for instance, Isaiah 53, Rom 4:25, Eph 1:7, Col 2:13, Heb 9:15). There is no denying that this emphasis is biblical and vital to our understanding of atonement. However, the proclivity some of us evangelicals have for focusing almost exclusively on the legal aspects of the atonement is probably still linked to Protestantism’s emergence out of the legal Roman cultural and religious traditions.
There is some evidence from church history that suggests this might be the case. In Eastern Orthodoxy, which had a different cultural milieu to Western Christianity and was less influenced by Roman culture, sin is thought of more as “falling short” of one’s divinely-intended human potential (suggested by the Greek hamartia, translated as sin in English, which was originally an archery term) and therefore the work of Christ was largely understood to be a restoring of humanity to their full potential (namely theosis, or participation in the divine nature). The Eastern omission of the penal element of atonement makes their view grossly defective from the perspective of an evangelical like myself, however it allows us to see how different aspects of sin and atonement might be emphasised in non-Western forms of Christianity.
In expressing the atonement in a non-Christian religious climate and non-Western cultural environment like Japan, evangelicals should never be satisfied by an understanding like that of Eastern Orthodoxy that omits essential truths we know to be biblical. However, we should also not be satisfied by expressing Christ’s work in terms that are more apt at addressing a Catholic religious context or a Western cultural mindset. This means that while it is never acceptable to downplay or omit the legal aspect of the atonement, it may be necessary to appreciate other aspects of the atonement more deeply in a complementary way, in order to communicate the biblical truths effectively to people of different cultures.
In the Japanese evangelistic context, the word most commonly used to translate sin/hamartia is tsume. This has long caused difficulties for foreign evangelists and Japanese Christians when sharing the gospel, as the word is most commonly used for criminal acts and many Japanese are conscientious citizens who find it difficult to accept the notion that they have committed a “crime” against a God they have never known. While I believe that Japanese must accept the truth that they have violated God’s standards of righteousness (and acknowledge that many people in other societies find the notion that they are “sinners” or “transgressors” offensive!) – I have come to wonder if we must help them get to that point by presenting aspects of the atonement that are more relatable to the Japanese mindset as the first point of contact.
Missiologists, along with other students of Japanese culture, have identified the concept of wa (和) as essential to Japanese culture. Wa is difficult to translate precisely, but it is in many ways analogous to harmony. Social conformity is a highly valued virtue in Japanese society, because it preserves the wa between people within small groups and the nation. Participation in community religious festivals is also largely driven by a commitment to social harmony, but naturally a sense of harmony with nature and the Shinto gods is also a feature of Japanese society and religion.
Relevant questions to ask at this point are: “Does the biblical presentation of Christ’s atoning work have something to say to the core Japanese values system?” and “Does the Japanese emphasis on wa have potential as an idea Christians can engage with in a biblically faithful way that will help Japanese understand the gospel?”
While I don’t think I’ve arrived at a fully-formed perspective on these questions, after some early thinking, my tentative answer is yes to both. In the remainder of this post, I’ll give a brief explanation as to why.
I suspect the biblical worldview and the Japanese worldview can intersect if the transgression of Adam and Eve is explained (at least partially) as a violation or disruption of the perfect harmony that existed in Creation prior to the fall. The everything of creation that God saw and declared to be good included the reality that absolute wa existed between Creator and his creatures. This understanding of creation is closely related to the biblical ideas of shalom as the peace available under God’s perfect rule and the Kingship of God over His creation (as presented, for example, as the starting point of the 2 Ways to Live gospel presentation). When humanity chose to “go their own way”, we became the original destroyers of divine harmony; we dishonoured God instead of giving Him the honour He deserved as our Great King and although we have attempted to create our own societies and live together independently of God – our wa is always a broken one, our peace always fragile and we are unable to restore the divine harmony we breached.
Death, disease, destruction, despair, frustration, fragility, fear and fighting are all reminders that we are not at harmony with the divine, that God’s anger is directed towards us due to the way we have dishonoured His name and rejected His rule. Hell is a place of eternal disharmony and discord, where God consigns us to feel the weight of our rejection of Him, our inability to repair the dishonour we have done Him and to experience an everlasting existence without hope of seeing our lives restored to a harmonious relationship with our Creator.
When Christ’s work of salvation is understood through the grand lenses of atonement (i.e. “at-one-ment” as described earlier) and reconciliation, I believe the reality of our severe disharmony with God is powerfully addressed at the cross. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. (Col 1:19-20, ESV)
In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. (Eph 1:7-10, ESV)
Christ’s incarnation, death, resurrection, ascension and second coming all work together to reconcile corrupt humanity and the fallen universe to God, His perfect rule, order, plan and blessing. The harmony that Japanese culture extols as the greatest value can only be realised in Christ. And the attempts of the Japanese to form harmonious societies independently of God and irrespective of the broken relationship between humanity and their rightful king, is part of their rebellion. Because I don’t think the death of Jesus can be explained without delving into issues of guilt and culpability, penalties and consequences, at this stage I think I would try to demonstrate how our violation of God’s created harmony is simultaneously disobedience to His rule and commands that made such a peace possible. The notion of sin as treason may work well in communicating this.
While I still have a fair bit of fine tuning to do (which I anticipate will come through further interaction with Japanese Christians, Japanese non-Christians and missionaries serving in Japan), I expect a gospel presentation like 2 Ways to Live can work quite well as a tool for communicating the good news to Jesus, so long as the wa aspect is adequately communicated throughout the presentation.
Do you have any experience communicating the truths of the gospel and Christ’s atoning work to people from non-Western cultures that lack a Catholic/Christian heritage? What have you found helpful or challenging as you seek to be faithful to the unchanging gospel, whilst being understandable to your audience?