Have you ever loved a really self-destructive person? It seems like no matter how many times you try to make things new with them, there is always that part of them that wants to destroy things with you, destroy them, and maybe even destroy you. There is this utterly sabotaging resistance that makes it painfully and frustratingly impossible to ever be close to them. It's like there is this thing in them that needs to die, that needs to go away, in order for you to have them. But it is part of them -they are willing captives to it. So, it can't really go away without them going away... and that is the crux of the matter. You love them so you want to be with them, but they only cause you pain and anger and suffering. So you must be away from them. But then you lose out on having them. You watch them go on with their life and build relationships with others that are not you. Either way you lose.
But if you were God, what if you could somehow have them die and come back to life anew, without that thing in them that incorrigibly wants to destroy them and keep them away from you? What if your love could effect something so profound, so reality-shifting, so reversing that it would overcome all of their resistance toward you and toward leaving their resistant captivity behind? What if you could love them and be close to them with hope and a future, without your pain and anger constantly being provoked by their refusal to receive you and without them constantly running and destroying things?
I believe that is what God did toward us. We are all the sabotaging, dysfunctional people. He acted concretely toward us. His forgiveness is not abstract or "up in heaven". He came to us in His Son. Jesus entered our world, our insanity. He stepped into our shoes. He walked under the yoke of our captivity, the curse which on one hand haunts and threatens us but on the other hand we love and hold onto like a dysfunctional sickness because it means keeping Him at a distance. There is no changing it. There is no fixing this system we live in. There is no fixing us. There is no patch-job that will do. Before something new can come it has to be put to an end. Before we can be new, we need to be put to an end. The only way out is through it, to follow it out to it's bitter end... a cursed death. So, he lived out under our curse to its fullest end, a criminal's death. Though He knew no sin He became sin for us. He became our curse for us.
But it did not end there. The curse did not win. He rose from the grave to be the first of something new, a new creation. And in Him, by faith, we are put to death and made new in Him. God gets what He wants: us. Wrath, the obsverse of his love and mercy towrd a people running from Him, is averted and satisfied because reconciliation is accomplished through the old us dying and a new us coming to life in Christ.
This is, I believe, what the atonement is about "from above." There is no other way because of us, not because of God. The curse needs to be put to an end, but we will not let go of the curse without being killed and made new. There is no room for improvement, for a scheme of improvement brings nothing new -it only builds upon the same system of curse and law which proves us cursed. We must die. And in Him, we did.