by Allan R. Bevere
Atonement is the overarching word Christians use to refer to what it is that Jesus Christ has accomplished for the world in his death and resurrection. It literally means “at-one-ment,” and denotes the reconciliation, the bringing together of God and humanity and by extension the entire world and cosmos. Through the centuries Christians have disagreed over the exact nature of the atonement, that is, they have debated the mechanics of Christ’s atonement—what exactly did Jesus accomplish in his death and resurrection? In other words, they were asking how the atonement works.
Some have suggested that ancient theologies of atonement—specifically theories that involve Jesus’ death as a sacrifice or as a substitution, or as providing satisfaction to God—no longer speak to the human situation in the twenty-first century and they, therefore should be disregarded in favor of understandings that speak to current sensibilities. And while, I believe wholeheartedly that the significance of Jesus’ work should speak to current concerns that by no means requires a rejection of the theological wisdom that we have inherited through the centuries. In other words, the meaning of Paul’s words that “Christ died for our sins according to the Scripture” (1 Cor. 15:3) cannot be understood in the twenty-first century if we cannot understand its meaning in previous centuries. So do I believe that classical atonement theories speak to the human condition today? Yes, indeed they do. I offer several reasons in defense of my position.
First, the atonement that Jesus brings is so rich and multi-faceted that we find several theories in the New Testament and the church in its wisdom never took an official position on which theories were right or more central.
It is true that individual theologians rejected various atonement theories in favor of others. Peter Abelard (1079-1142), for example rejected the idea that Jesus’ death made satisfaction to God and paid a ransom and instead embraced the moral influence theory in which Christ’s death provides a moral example for his followers. Others embraced the various theories of atonement, but put a particular one at the center as being the most significant as did the Protestant Reformers in reference to penal substitution.
But the point that must be made is that the church universal has never issued an official ecumenical statement on the exact nature of atonement. Why? Simply because the several aspects of the atonement can all be found in Scripture, and the work of Jesus Christ on the cross is so rich and vast in scope that it speaks to and offers salvation to all the sordid ways human beings find themselves to be broken and estranged from God. The various theories of the atonement are like the facets of one diamond that sparkle no matter how one looks at it and from what direction one views it. No one facet captures the beauty of the whole diamond, but each facet is necessary to maintain its beauty. To reject one or more theories to focus only on one or two facets is to attempt to cut a diamond that already sparkles threatening to turn it into a rock that hardly shimmers.
Second, every theory of atonement has its strengths that illuminate the work of Christ for our salvation, and every theory, if taken too far or focused on at the expense of the other theories distorts the meaning of the death and resurrection of Jesus. The problem has not been any of the different theories of atonement, but the over-emphasis on one at the expense of others.
For example, in regard to ransom theory, it can be shown that the image of our salvation as being purchased through Jesus, who paid the price through his death is found throughout the New Testament (Mark 10:45; 1 Corinthians 6:20; 7:23). Its strengths emphasize that fact that sin deceives and enslaves people. We do not have the power to free ourselves. Sin has kidnapped us, or better, we have allowed ourselves to be kidnapped by sin. The problem with this theory is when some have gotten lost on the question as to the object of the ransom. This is to take the theory too far. The focus is on the price paid by someone else and the victory of resurrection.
If the ransom theory emphasizes that human beings are enslaved to sin, the satisfaction theory focuses on the truth that we human beings are perpetrators of sin. Both theories held together expressed the complexity of the human condition—we are both victims of sin and its perpetrators at the same time. The problem, however, is that if satisfaction is pushed too far God ends up sounding like an over-bearing ruler concerned more about his honor than the humanity he created.
Penal-substitution reminds us that God is righteous and requires righteousness according to the law that God has established. Sin breaks the law and such violations bring consequences. Sin is a serious matter. It causes injustice and God is just. On the cross, Jesus Christ is the justice of God (Romans 5:2; 2 Corinthians 5:16-17; Colossians 1:19-20). The problem with penal-substitution taken too far is that too often the motivating factor of Christ’s death is the Father’s forced sacrifice of his Son and not the Son’s free choice to die for humanity (more on that below).
The moral influence theory rightly emphasizes God’s love as the basis for Christ’s work. It reminds us that apart from God’s love God and humanity would have no hope of relationship. If God did not love us, there would be no basis for divine suffering on our behalf. The problem with moral influence when pressed too far is that it emphasizes God’s mercy at the expense of God’s justice. When God’s justice is eclipsed we lose the proper context in which God’s love is demonstrated.
So, the point here is that the problem is not with traditional atonement theories in and of themselves, it’s how atonement is distorted when we put all of our “theological eggs in only one atonement basket.” And that leads to my third point.
Third, all too often when individuals reject certain atonement theories what they are reacting to is not the best theological articulations of those theories, but the caricatures of those theories. I quote Scot McKnight,
About a decade ago it became avant garde theology to contend the classical Christian theory of atonement was nothing less than divine child abuse. That is, the image of a Father punishing a Son, or exacting retribution at the expense of his own Son, or punishing a Son for the good of others—each of these became a way of deconstructing classical atonement theory.
Unfortunately, this approach works from a very simplistic image: a father, a son, and a brutal death and attributes intention to the father as one who brutalizes a son. As an image, it connotes abuse. The image, however, abuses the Bible’s image.
If the critics were to say each time that they are criticizing not penal substitution theory itself but the caricatures of PSA, then one might be more sympathetic for there clearly are abuses of the theory and imagery. But the critics do not frequently say that; in fact, my read is that the Father requiring death for sin (the consequences of sin), and putting the Son in the place of others, is an image of the Father using violence against the Son. So I’m not convinced the “caricature of a caricature” theory solves the problem. If there are consequences for sin (death, suffering, etc.), then there is some kind of “punishment” theory at work in sin-language and atonement-language.(1)
So the problem is that all too often critics of penal substitution are not responding to the best and deepest theological reflection given to the church through the centuries, but to those whose accounts are as theologically suspect as those who offer the critique. The cross of Christ is not what the Father perpetrated on the Son, but it is the freely chosen offering of the Son. In both Western and Eastern theologies the cross is a Trinitarian act of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Fourth, when critics of classical atonement theories say that they do not speak in the twenty-first century, they provincially mean that they do not speak to twenty-first century Western autonomous individualists that don’t really believe they’re all that bad, and know little of real sacrifice.
Zimbabwe pastor, Qwinyai Muzorewa writes of how the sacrifice of Jesus, the firstborn Son speaks to his African context not infected with modern autonomous deceptions:
The firstborn son is prepared to sacrifice for the sake of his family’s spiritual and physical well-being. He is cognizant of the fact that he will receive blessings and yet also shoulder curses on behalf of his family. A responsible firstborn son would rather die than watch his father perish before his face…. Bluntly put, he holds a position that comes with glorious benefits and rewards, but also with great responsibilities. What pleased God was not the death but the atonement; Jesus’s death was not punishment by God or payment to God for the sins of the world. Rather; it was the saving act that only the firstborn Son could perform efficaciously. Thus, it was the Son’s pleasure to save everybody in the family. It was an act of self-actualization. It was an accomplishment, rather than punishment imposed on him by his father.(2)
The irony here is that such atonement theories are usually rejected by those who complain the loudest about colonial attitudes, but all too often Western liberalism is the worst form of paternalism there is because it disguises itself as enlightened.
Fifth, one cannot separate the work of Christ from the person of Christ. Soteriology (the doctrine of salvation) can only be coherent in the context of Trinitarian doctrine and a Christology that affirms Jesus as the God-Man—truly divine and truly human.
All too often critiques of classical atonement theories separate too widely what the cross means from who Jesus is. In the early centuries, questions concerning the person of Christ were always placed within the context of the work of Christ. “If we say this about who Jesus is, what does it mean for our salvation—what Jesus has done? Jesus must be truly divine for only God can save, but Jesus also must be truly human for in the words of Gregory of Nazianzus, Jesus “cannot save that which he has not become.” All too often contemporary critiques of classical atonement lack the theological depth of the rich wisdom passed on to us by those who thought about these matters in ways that truly speak to the human condition in every age. We throw that wisdom out at our peril.
After all, the human condition hasn’t changed over two thousand years. We still believe we know better than God what we truly need to be saved—actually like previous generations we are not so sure we actually need to be saved. Instead of preaching Christ and him crucified we affirm humanity and it improved.
The cross remains a scandal to Jew and Greek (1 Corinthians 1:23) and to all the enlightened cultured despisers of classical Christianity.
- (1) Scot McKnight, “Atonement and Divine Child Abuse.”
- (2) Mark D. Baker (ed.) Proclaiming the Scandal of the Cross: Contemporary Images of Atonement. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), pp. 165, 167-168