The pastors have been thinking and writing a lot about atonement lately. What is atonement exactly? Well, it’s a word that actually has English etymology. If you break it down, you can see it as “at-one-ment.” Being one with God. The act that makes us one with God. I love this definition from our pastors: The at-one-ment, propitiation, the expiation, the act that turns away wrath, the exhalation after inhalation. You could call it the calming. The payment. It is what saves us. How the cross of Jesus works. Why his death and resurrection free us. It works with meaning, interpretation, and story.
How we think about Jesus’ work on the cross creates different ways of how we relate to him and each other, and what he calls us to do and be. It’s easy enough to get: God has provided us with a way that helps us overcome death and sin, to make us one with him. But the action itself is so profound and full of meaning we cannot expect to understand it in its entirety or formulaically.
So as I offer you a few basic ways to understanding the redemption of Jesus’ work, let’s move out of our minds and into our bodies, spirits, and hearts, as well. The images I am offering you help us see a complete picture of Christ’s salvation.
This was initially developed in the first and second centuries by the Apostolic Fathers—the first Christians, really. The logician and theologian Peter Abelard developed it further. This explanation basically says that Jesus’s life and death is a moral example to humanity. He inspired us to leave our sin behind and his main work is leading everyone toward repentance and faith. Though God’s work may demand “compensation,” the Lord doesn’t ask for it. God’s endless love overrules his need for justice.
Israel has long needed a moral example, so the root of this theory is in Jewish history. Through many means—the law, prophets, sacrifices—God tried to get his people to do the right thing. Eventually he had to send his son, the perfect example, to show the way. The crucifixion is a selfless act of sacrifice, and the demonstration of the highest virtues of the moral life.
Of course, the opposition to this is rooted in the fact that this theory downplays the crucifixion. Is the crucifixion necessary at all? Does Jesus just need to be moral? Isn’t he like Gandhi then or something? But proponents argue that Jesus isn’t just an example, or just anything, God is simply not coercive; he merely models and invites and beckons.
The image focuses on the devil and God’s holiness. Formed, in part, by Origen of Alexandria and Gregory of Nyssa and then, of course, by the beloved but too-influential-for-our-own-good Augustine of Hippo. People in this school of thought see Jesus dying as a ransom paid to Satan for saving humanity. Adam and Eve sinned, and then Satan gained control and dominion over the whole world. It was only through God’s sacrifice of his son that Satan’s dominion ends.
This view was widely taught in the 1100s and it is still influential. Children who read The Lion, Witch, and the Wardrobe may find it in the story.
People have had trouble with this explanation because it’s a theory for how atonement works. It isn’t a story or a revelation, it’s a technique that can be articulated. It’s too systemic for some.
It’s also unusual that Satan seems to benefit from the death of Jesus. Did Satan’s satisfaction have a role in world redemption? Scripture never articulates that Satan was the entity to whom the ransom was paid. Others have argued that God wasn’t the receiver of the ransom, but he accepted it because in how redemption works it was fitting that humans should be redeemed through the human one God provided.
This theory famously comes from Anselm of Canterbury and it focuses on Jesus and honor. It’s not surprising that it comes from the feudalistic honor society. Thomas Aquinas elaborated further on it.
It is similar to ransom theory, but Satan has nothing to do with it. Humankind has sinned and defiled God’s handiwork. So, because God is self-respecting, he does not allow His purpose to be thwarted. God, simply put, was offended by human’s sin and needs to maintain his honor. This is totally borrowed from the feudal culture that surrounds Anselm. A sacrifice or repentance or any sort of penance isn’t enough because God has been infinitely offended, so he needs an infinite sacrifice.
Humankind needs to be punished, and the only way out is through an infinite sacrifice. That is why God brought about the incarnation of Jesus. Jesus is the reparation through which humankind is redeemed. Aquinas agrees with Anselm and says that after absolute repentance, humans can receive satisfaction through penance or punishment.
Critics argue that it is not God’s honor that is injured, but his justice. Furthermore, God is too much like a king whose dignity has been offended. How insecure is he? How defensive can he be? Can’t God forgive who he wants when he wants? And even though not many hold to Anselm’s view precisely, it paves the way for other theories down the line.
Jesus the Substitute is one of those theories that it influenced. Without a doubt, this is the most dominant explanation in the Protestant church. It’s rooted in Isaiah, and many other places, in the scripture. Arguably it is the most manifestly Biblical of all the explanations.
The reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin are the main teachers of this theory. It borrows a lot from Anselm’s satisfaction theory, but it altars it significantly. God doesn’t need to be satisfied, but his punishment needs to be justified. The reformers talk about Jesus taking the punishment God has intended to give us. He absorbed the wrath intended for us.
Some consider this a holistic view of the whole scripture. His work fulfills the law and prophets. Sin invokes God’s wrath, and his wrath must be satisfied. Put another way, God’s law has been broken, his wrath needs to be quenched. God’s punishment needs to be paid. God is just and can’t overlook your sin. Sin requires a just answer. Christ took the justice from God instead of us, the payment was obtained vicariously through Jesus. He died for us and on our behalf, once and for all.
This theory has been severely criticized by many. They argue that punishment and forgiveness aren’t compatible ideas. If a person is punished, forgiveness is impossible. The point of forgiveness is that punishment is curbed. That punishment, furthermore, if it must be satisfied, is not transferable.
It is also more judicial than explanatory. It doesn’t illuminate the other views, it stands on its own. It doesn’t play well with others, because it tries to explain how atonement works. Others say, it’s simply too violent, and uses medieval images of violence. It makes God look like a wrathful father exacting revenge against his Son—so it leads to coercive preaching, as we find in the Puritan tradition.
This image focuses on Jesus and his power over evil. Gustav Aulen in 1931 wrote a book called Christus Victor, but its origin might be even earlier. Jesus is a God who wins.
Jesus is literally doing battle on the cross to defeat sin, death, and hell—all of the “powers” out of this world. He rescues us from sin, death, and hell. The key is to focus not on a payment to the devil but on the liberation of humanity. Jesus frees us from the slavery of sin. It is like the ransom story, except the good guys don’t pay the ransom, but save the hostage.
It isn’t about substitution or satisfaction. Jesus entered into the misery of humanity and redeems us. The crucifixion according to Aulen is not rationally necessary to reconcile God and humanity. It is not a rational theory, in fact. The crucifixion is a drama, and a passion story of God triumphing over the powers and liberating us.
Christ’s death is God’s victory over sin and death. God conquers death by fully entering into it. God conquers Satan by transforming the very means employed by the Evil One to deform. Thus, the crucifixion is not a necessary transaction to appease a wrathful and justice-demanding deity, but an act of divine love. God entered fully into the bondage of death, turned it inside out by making it a moment of victory, and thereby liberates humanity to live lives of love without the fear of death. For Jesus-followers who are robustly Trinitarian, this explanation maintains an egalitarian view of the Trinity—one in which the Son and Spirit are not junior partners in the atonement.
Critics argue that it takes too much away from substitution, and substitution is clearly more in the New Testament than this theory. Even when Christus Victor language is used, substitution follows. Also, under this theory, Americans, who often feel victimized and entitled to be personally irresponsible, might undercut their personal guilt which Jesus assumes to be elemental to their character.
I personally subscribe to a kaleidoscopic view of the atonement. The work of Jesus is far too big for our finite minds. A theory isn’t going to explain it. And, frankly, it doesn’t need to be explained. But it needs to be believed and people need the story. They need narrative that they can relate to. Maybe you’ll invent the next atonement theory that leads us to a radical revival. These theories are nothing if they don’t evangelize. They don’t work if we aren’t using them to help people follow Jesus. So find out who you are talking to and ponder which of these ideas works best for them. Find out which theory moves you and tell that story. Find out what will move others and use that one. Just like example worked for the early church, the ransom for its time period, satisfaction for the feudalistic culture, substitution showcasing medieval violence, and even Christus victor showing us that we can overcome the evil powers today–one works for our time period, and it might need to be a new one. So let’s ponder that together and see what happens.