Exactly how Christ makes satisfaction for sin is explained in a substitutionary manner by Kierkegaard. Using the figure of Christ as high priest in the New Testament epistle to the Hebrews, he portrays Christ as the high priest who puts himself completely in our place in several ways (WA 113-24). First, he who was God put himself in our place by becoming a human being in order truly to be able to sympathize with us, which only divine sympathy is capable of doing. Second, unlike a merely human sympathizer, who has 'the universal and common limitation of being unable to put himself completely in another's place', the high priest of true sympathy is able to put himself completely in the sufferer's place in the sense of really being able to understand what the sufferer is going through and to comfort that person regardless of the nature ofhis or her sufferings (115). Christ is able to do this because he has suffered more than any other human being ever has or ever will suffer and has been tempted and even abandoned by God. Yet he is without sin, which is the only way Christ cannot put himself in our place and is infinitely different from us, who are all sinners. But Christ is able to put himself completely in our place in yet another way, namely
55 On the woman who was a sinner see further Walsh (2006). On the dialectic of divine and human agency in the communion discourses, see Barrett (2007).
by making satisfaction for our sin and guilt through his own suffering and death, suffering in our place the punishment for sin so that we may be saved and live (123). Addressing the reader directly Kierkegaard asks:
Here it is indeed even more literally true that he puts himself completely in your place than in the situation we described earlier, where we indicated that he could completely understand you, but you still remain in your place, and he in his. But the satisfaction of Atonement means that you step aside and that he takes your place—does he not then put himself completely in your place? (WA 123)
When 'punitive justice here in the world or in judgment in the next' looks for us in the place where we stand as sinners, therefore, it will not find us, because we are no longer there and someone else stands in our place (123). Kierkegaard thus asks rhetorically: 'What is the Redeemer but a substitute who puts himself completely in your place and in mine, and what is the comfort of Redemption but this, that the substitute, atoning, puts himself completely in your place and in mine!'
Another way of expressing what happens in the atonement is to say that Christ hides or covers a multitude of sins through his sacrificial love. Kierkegaard devotes several discourses to the topic of hiding a multitude of sins in Christian love by Christ's followers (EUD 55-78; WL 280-99). In the communion discourse on this topic, however, he focuses exclusively on Christ's love, which hides a multitude of sins by his death. Even though we may be able to hide our sins from the world, we cannot hide them from ourselves or from the conscience that dwells deep within us, leading us to wish: 'Would that there were a forgiveness, a forgiveness that does not increase my sense of guilt but truly takes the guilt from me, also the consciousness ofit' (WA 184). For Kierkegaard, Christ's love does just that. Christ stands at the altar and invites those who want to flee from the consciousness of sin to his arms and literally hides their sin, transforming it into purity and enabling them to believe themselves justified and pure. Just as a mother hen gathers her chicks under her wing and covers them in hiding from the enemy (cf. Matthew 23: 37), so Christ hides our sins with his death, which pays the penalty for sin (185-6). Christ died only once for our sins and for those of the whole world, but the pledge that he died for us is repeated at the communion table, where he gives himself to us as a safe hiding place. Kierkegaard points out that only Christ can do this, for even the most loving person can only mitigate or extenuate our sins, not hide them. In receiving the pledge that Christ died for us, we receive Christ himself, but 'Only by remaining in him, only by living yourself into him are you under cover, only then is there a cover over the multitude of your sins' (188). Kierkegaard thus concludes:
This is why the Lord's Supper is called communion with him. It is not only in memory of him, it is not only as a pledge that you have communion with him, but it is the communion, this communion that you are to strive to preserve in your daily life by more and more living yourself out of yourself and living yourself into him, in his love, which hides a multitude of sins. (188)
As Kierkegaard sees it, then, the atonement or satisfaction wrought by Christ's death is 'the ultimate pledge' that our sins have been forgiven (WA 159). While Christ can be said to have borne the sins of the world even in his lifetime through his life of suffering, we have a comfort that his contemporaries lacked in that 'his death becomes the infinite comfort, the infinite headstart' for those who follow him (159). But a word of judgement also accompanies this word of comfort in that, just as those who love Christ much are forgiven much, so too those who love him little are forgiven little. Forgiveness is a totally unmerited gift of grace that places the sinner in an infinite debt of gratitude to Christ, but Christ's innocent death, which was 'love's sacrifice', also passes judgement on the lack of love for him in response to his offer of forgiveness (171-2). In this sense, Kierkegaard observes, love is more severe than justice, which denies forgiveness because one has sinned too much rather than loved too little. With justice there is no forgiveness at all, whereas with love everything is forgiven, with the result that if one is then forgiven little it is because one has loved little in return, thereby incurring new sin and guilt for one's lack of love.
But does this not revert back to 'the baleful region of meritoriousness' with the forgiveness of sins being based on love rather than works (WA 176)? Kierkegaard thinks not, as that is prevented by 'the blessed recurrence of salvation in love', in which forgiveness is given in response to loving much or little, not as a meritorious consequence of love (176). Love and forgiveness stand in a reciprocal as well as proportional relation to one another, each eliciting and increasing the other, so that if one is forgiven little, it is because one has loved little, not because one has not merited forgiveness. Regardless of whether one is forgiven much or little, everything remains within the sphere of love. In emphasizing a reciprocal relation between love and forgiveness, Kierkegaard again reflects an Abelardian subjective approach to the atonement, but the substitutionary perspective is clearly dominant in his soteriology.
Was this article helpful?