One of the most peculiar statements relating to the Atonement can be found in Revelation 13:8 where Christ is descibed as the “Lamb slain from the foundation of the earth.” In a similar fashion we read in 1 Peter 1:18-20:
You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your fathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot. He was destined before the foundation of the world but was made manifest at the end of the times for your sake.
It is part of the wonder of the eschatological use of time in the Scriptures that they can speak of Christ (the Alpha and the Omega) in terms in which He, whose sacrifice is foreshadowed in the sacrifices of Israel, is Himself sacrificed, a forshadowing before even the foreshadowing began.
One of the questions raised by this Biblical statement is fairly obvious: which lamb of sacrifice does this verse foreshadow? Of course no simple answer can be given, no one-to-one ratio in this heavenly typology. He is the Lamb, while all other sacrifices are only lambs. The same distinction can be made concerning all other sacrifices within the sacrificial system of the Old Testament. Christ is not only that which those sacrifices looked towards, but is also that Prototype of which they themselves can only be shadows.
Here the system of sacrifice within the Old Testament becomes of less importance for me. The Lamb slain from the foundation of the earth is a declaration of God’s primordial purpose. He had always known that our creation would also be followed with our treachery and our turning away from Him. As well, He had always known that He would come for our salvation and that our rescue from the power of death would involve His own entrance into death, the sacrifice of the Lamb.
This revelation – that the Lamb was slain from the foundation of the earth – is also a revelation of Who God Is. The God Who Created Us is also the God Who is Slain for Us. Just as He is the God who enters into death in order to rescue His creatures, so is He the God Who creates out of nothing. Life from death is not simply a rescue operation – but an act of making those things are not to be as though they were.
This same wondrous pattern in found through virtually every action of God throughout the Scriptures. This weekend we marked the feast of the Conception of St. John the Forerunner, whose mother, Elizabeth, had been barren. She is part of a long list of barren women from whose offspring God brought salvation to the people around them. The whole of salvation history is an impossible account of God bringing from nothing, or as good as nothing, things that are wondrous and working of salvation. This is another way of saying that the great miracle of Pascha is the pattern revealed in all the actions of God on behalf of His world – from its creation from nothing – to its resurrection from the dead.
This, to me, is the great act of atonement. The concentration on deeds done amiss and debts owed for sin are almost a distraction from this greater existential crisis of all creation. Not only do we do things amiss – we are collapsing into the nothingness from which we came. Our deeds only reflect this drive towards nothingness. Every murder is only a fiendish attempt to make something into nothing – to make death reign over others.
The great atonement is the rescue of our very selves and our world from its mad course towards non-being. St. Athanasius in his wonderful De Incarnatione uses this very imagery to describe our reconciliation with God. For me it has always had the advantage of its obvious universality. I can read from Scriptures and tell someone that “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” For some, such a statement has an impact. For others, less so.
But for all, the statement that we are all moving towards death, and are even threatened with nothingness has an undeniable quality. If there is to be an eternal life, it will only be an atoned life. Only the life that God rescues and gives back to us again can be called eternal life. The gracious God has rescued and given life to all. The immediate question for us is whether we will live this atoned life in a manner that is in union with God or whether we will choose to make of this re-gifted existence an eternal alienation from the very source of its being.