Atonement Theory

Some philosophersThe Crucifixion and theologians in particular argue against the notion of vicarious punishment on the grounds that it is both ineffective and unjust for an innocent person to voluntarily suffer in order to remove the guilt of an offending party. This argument is then used as a reason to reject the traditional doctrine that Jesus of Nazareth suffered a divine penalty for sinners, by dying on a Roman cross. Do you find this argument convincing? Can you think of any unique examples from everyday human life in which an innocent person rightly stands in for a penitent offender by bearing her penalty?

2 thoughts on “Atonement Theory”

  1. When evaluating atonement explanations we must be careful not to confuse them with the thing itself. What must be believed is that through Christ we are reconciled to God. It is in Him, not our theological understanding, metaphors or formulae that we put our trust. That being said, understanding is important and knowledge is an important foundation for trust, so here we go. My thanks to all those who have helped me work through this; I’m in debt to them for their explanations and some of the phrases I’ll be using below.

    One way to explain our need for the atonement is by beginning with God’s wrath that burns against the sinful world and all its inhabitants. We imagine God’s wrath to be like ours, an unbridled rage, an overwhelming anger that cries out for punishment, that demands: “someone must pay” in order for Him to feel better. The bloody Old Testament sacrificial system is often understood in this way and used as a pre-figurement of the Cross of Christ. In this scenario, an infinitely good and perfect “someone” is needed to receive God’s overwhelming wrath instead of us. We imagine that the Son reluctantly offers or (worse) is persuaded by the Father to step in the line of fire, letting the lightening bolt of the Father’s wrath hit Him instead of us. We imagine that after watching Jesus suffer, God has gotten rid of His anger and is then able to love us.

    The problems, however, are several:
    1. It pits the Father against the Son, which cannot be, for the Father and the Son share one heart. In the atonement (as in everything) the Father and the Son are not reluctantly persuaded but act freely, motivated by abundant life and overflowing love for fallen man.
    2. It imputes to God a human kind of wrath. God does have wrath, but His wrath is not unbridled rage. It is His being against that which is against us: sin, evil, even death itself. God’s wrath is directed at that which harms the people He loves, not at people. His default attitude towards people is love (for indeed, He is love) and His love for people necessitates His wrath against that which would destroy us if left untouched.
    3. It suggests that the God’s wrath against sinners is the problem that has to be solved, rather than the broken relationship between God and man caused by sin. It is as if God can be satisfied with us after He’s been rid of His anger by taking it out on Jesus. But this doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t fit with God’s holiness or His justice to punish an innocent instead of the guilty (even sinful humans won’t stand for that) and then let the guilty off, as if sin wasn’t really all that bad. Jesus’ suffering has no impact on our fitness for God’s presence in and of itself. It cannot be understood as an end, only an intrinsic means to the end of reconciliation.

    I think a better understanding of the atonement is one of substitution at a cost because it avoids these three problems without diminishing the problem of sin or ignoring God’s holiness, righteousness or justice. And is actually in line with how the Jewish people would have understood the sacrificial system. The sacrificial animals weren’t sent to suffer in the place of people, in order to somehow make up for sin. Instead, they were sent to make things right (for making things right is what a righteous God does) between the people and God, to reconnect the people to God, the very source of their life. Yes, the animals paid a cost, but they were not being punished. Their blood did not represent death or pain but life, life willingly poured out on behalf of the people whose sin had separated them from God and thus condemned them to death. They were not innocents being forcibly punished instead of the guilty, but innocents who (like people who donate blood) willingly poured out their lives so that the dead might have life again. In this system, God provided (albeit symbolically through the animals) what He Himself demanded but the people had failed to give: lives lived fully unto Him.

    Of course, the sacrificial system was only a temporary placeholder for Jesus, the One who would truly make things between God and man. Motivated not by unbridled anger, but by love, God himself shared our humanity to provide what He demanded: a human life lived in perfect union with and obedience to the Father. It was for us (not some divine emotional catharsis) and on our behalf that God Himself shared our humanity and poured out His life for us, not only on the cross, but every moment of his life. He battled against the temptations that we face, shared in our sufferings, experienced a death like ours, went even unto Hell and then rose again, inaugurating a new humanity. This work he came to do was hard work, work that only the Son of God could do. It came at a cost, but it was a cost He paid not under coercion, but willfully, not out of anger, but in love. It necessarily involved suffering, but suffering that he endured for the joy set before Him. In Christ, God’s wrath is satisfied, not on account of His suffering, but because in Christ, that which stands against people is conquered: sin is destroyed, evil is defeated and death is overcome AND those who unite themselves to Christ join in his new humanity, a humanity that can inhabit the presence of God and therein find the life for which they were made.

    1. Hi KMK,

      Thank you for your well-thought-out reply! I appreciate you taking the time to craft these paragraphs!I have a few thoughts in reply.

      First, the bulk of what you have said about the sacrificial system is spot on, especially as it pertains to the meaning of Christ’s death within the larger canvas of God’s dealings Israel and subsequently the Church. The ideas of the Father and the Son not being at cross purposes, God’s wrath stemming from his love, and reconciliation being the ultimate goal are all important. I would, however, qualify what you’ve said about God’s wrath by saying that, in Scripture, human people (not only sin, evil, and death) seem to be objects of God’s wrath as well.

      Moreover, the early Christian understanding of the atonement included sacrificial categories, but it also transcended them by including the notions of penalty and curse. For me, three factors point in this direction: (1) good exegesis of Romans 3:25 indicates that God’s offer of his Son involved delayed punishment, since in His forbearance God left the sins committed before Christ unpunished. (2) Paul argues in Galatians 3:10-13 that the cross was the climax and conclusion of the covenant curses which were God’s penalty for Israel’s infidelity (these are listed at the end of the book of Deuteronomy). Whether these curses were directly inflicted or the natural consequence of Israel’s rebellion or both is up for debate, but again Paul’s idea here is of the Jewish Messiah voluntarily and vicariously taking the national curse on himself, in order to redeem his people. (3) I find support for the penalty motif in Matt 23:37-39 where Jesus’ prophetic warnings of impending divine judgement against corruption culminate in his lament over Jerusalem. Jesus declares that he longs to gather his people “as a hen gathers her chicks under its wings”. According to N.T. Wright, the picture here is of a hen covering and protecting its chicks from a scorching fire that burns the hen but saves its little ones underneath. If Wright is correct, then Jesus probably saw his immanent death as a way to save wayward Jerusalem from impending divine judgement, or “fire” as the metaphor suggests. Unfortunately, Jerusalem would not repent and we all know what happened in A.D. 70.

      So KMK, I would affirm most of what you’ve said about the sacrificial system and how that context applies to the biblical understanding of Jesus’ death, but I would argue that additional evidence from the biblical texts (outside the sacrificial context) suggest other motifs that include penalty and curse.


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