The Atonement: A Short Story*
I wasn’t sure whether I was awake or asleep: It seemed too real to be a dream. A vision, perhaps? I was in a great crowd of people radiating out in every direction, as far as the eye could see. At the center of the crowd was a circle of space, and in that circle was a huge throne—a massive throne—fit for a king of unspeakable power. I looked more closely and saw that the King was in fact seated there, and I immediately understood: I was in heaven itself, watching God holding court.
After a few moments, I saw a man from the crowd enter the circle and stand before the throne. I don’t know whether he was pushed forward or went of his own accord, but I recognized him at once. I had worked with him years before, and it was a living hell. Every week he did something wrong against me—often something very wrong—yet, not once did he make an effort to change or even say, “I’m sorry.” As I remembered all he had done, the pain and hurt came flooding back as though I were reliving the agony again. My eyes grew dark and my face slowly hardened into an angry stare. With all my heart, I longed for the King to execute his strong justice.
To my surprise, I saw that the King’s expression matched my own. He seemed to be remembering with me all the wrongs this man had done. And, because he loved me, he too was grieved and angry—as angry as any parent whose child has been mistreated. I looked around and saw that the King and I were not the only ones who felt this way. Though most in the great crowd were expressionless, others here and there must also have known the man—and have been wronged by him in some way. I saw that their eyes, too, were filled with the pain and anger brought by suffering injustice.
I waited, watching the King. Surely, he was about pass sentence on the man and bring full justice to bear! Instead, his gaze turned, and his eyes locked on mine. I found myself slowly drawn into the circle even as the other man was slowly withdrawn. For reasons I did not understand at first, the King’s expression had not changed; the pain and anger at injustice was still there. But then I looked around at the crowd. Most of the people I did not know, but hundreds I did. Among them were many—dozens upon dozens—who stared at me with angry eyes. And I knew why. I could remember how I had wronged each of them, in some cases so greatly I cannot think of it without shame. Like the man before me, I, too, stood condemned. With all my heart, I now longed for the King to demonstrate his strong mercy.
This scene was repeated again and again, one person being drawn into the circle while the other was withdrawn. Each time, the person who entered the circle caused deep pain and anger to enter into certain faces in the crowd. Sometimes this happened with thousands of faces, sometimes with only a few, but it always happened. Everyone was guilty. Everyone deserved the King’s justice to come upon them. Everyone had earned his righteous anger.
At some point, the last person in the crowd made their way in and out of the circle. This should have taken years, with so many people, but time seems to work differently in visions and dreams. The King was now alone again, surrounded by a sea of people who longed for his justice to come for the wrongs they had suffered and yet longed for his mercy for the wrongs they themselves had done. But how could justice and mercy meet? For the King to act with justice would be the end of all standing before him, for all were guilty. But for the King to show mercy would be to deny justice for the countless wrongs that had been done.
The King looked to his right, and from the crowd—purposefully and willfully—stepped someone I had not yet seen. Those around me began to whisper, and it soon became clear that this was the Prince, the King’s only Son, who now stood before the throne. He and the King looked at one another with perfect love. Finally, the King asked, “Are you willing, my Son?”
“Yes, Father,” he replied. “Let the injustices of those you love fall on me. Let me bear the penalty for their wrongs that you might show them your mercy. In my death, show them the terrible price that must be paid for their evil, for harming those made in your image; show them you have not ignored or forgotten it. But help them also to see that in your great mercy, you have allowed another to pay so that they do not need to. Help them understand that what your justice requires, your love has provided. Help them to know you will provide a storehouse of mercy and love to those who trust in me.”
In the next moment, I found myself back in my room, all alone—and altogether changed. I now knew that justice and mercy could meet, in fact, had met, in the death of Jesus, the Prince who died so the world might live. And I burned with desire to share this Good News with the world!
* NOTE: This reflection is taken from Jay Sklar, Leviticus: A Discourse Analysis of the Hebrew Bible, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the Old Testament Series (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, forthcoming).