A Better Atonement: But Does It Preach?

It seems that the penal substitutionary atonement is so well liked in part because it lends itself to some powerful preaching. But I think that alternative versions of the atonement preach well, too. There’s a whole book out about preaching alternative atonements.

Of course, I have a book out about the atonement. And earlier this week, I tried my hand at preaching A Better Atonement to a few thousand freshmen at Baylor University:

Many thanks to the wonderful people at Baylor and at Truett Seminary for having me.

I’d love your thought – does it preach?

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  • Scot Miller

    Help! I think Storify has hijacked your blog….

  • Tony,
    I really liked the challenge that you presented here. I thought you were very authentic and genuine in your delivery. However, I am having a hard time understanding the difference and nuances between substitutionary atonement and the last scapegoat atonement. Isn’t a scapegoat substitutionary by nature?

    I guess I’ll just have to pick up the book? 🙂
    Anyway, I thought it was a challenging and worth the watch.

    • In PSA, God is mad at us (or at least at our sin). Jesus is sacrificed as a substitute in our stead.

      In Last Scapegoat, God is not mad at us. God enters the human situation to show us, once and for all, that violence does not appease God’s wrath. God’s not mad at us. God has to enter the sacrificial system to show it’s bankrupt.

      • Thanks, Tony.

      • Scott

        The system that he set up was bankrupt? Was he just messin’ with the nation of Israel with the system he gave them?

        • The question is whether God set up the system of sacrifice. If he did, then it seems that he learned over time that it doesn’t work.

          More likely, however, is that the Israelites evolved into a sacrificial system over time and then enshrined it in their Law.

          • Brian

            Bell’s “The God’s Aren’t Angry” addresses Scott’s question well.

          • Psalm 50:

            I will not take a bull from your house,
                     Nor goats out of your folds.
            For every beast of the forest is Mine,
                     And the cattle on a thousand hills.
            I know all the birds of the mountains,
                     And the wild beasts of the field are Mine.
            If I were hungry, I would not call to you
                     For the world is Mine, and all its fullness.
            Will I eat the flesh of bulls
                     Or drink the blood of goats?
            Offer to God thanksgiving
                     And pay your vows to the Most High
            Then call upon Me in the day of trouble
                     I will deliver you, and you shall glorify Me.

      • Buck Eschaton

        Jesus as Scapegoat is a substitution. Scapegoats are substitutes for the entire community. The violence that lies within the relationships of each community member is laid upon Jesus by the community/mob. The violence that we would have inflicted on each other is instead inflicted by us on the Scapegoat God provided. So Jesus is the substitute for the people we would inflict our sins/violence on and he also becomes the scapegoat for the violence/sin that is inflicted on us by others.

        So it’s kind of like this:

        Primitive/pagan religion: the scapegoat is both guilty of crimes and is the cause of violence. These religions are based on the ritualization of scapegoat violence, of the original scapegoat murder that brought peace/righteousness to all the community.

        Penal Substitutionary Atonement: is a step higher. The scapegoat is innocent, and the sin lies with community, but the violence still lies with God. So in essence this is an attempt to hide human violence.

        Full Gospel: the scapegoat is innocent and is carrying our sin. The violence, which is the manifestation of our sin, is not with God or caused by God, but with humanity. The sin and violence lie with humanity. So the Gospel sees the Scapegoat as absorbing the sin/violence that we would inevitably inflict on each other.

        So in primitive religion we circle around a victim who is both guilty and the cause of violence, and in which keeps calling us to reenact the same scapegoat ritual. With the Gospels we circle around a victim who is innocent and has fully shown us that it is our sin and violence that has committed murder, and calls us to never do this again.

        • And, Girard says, Jesus is actually not the last scapegoat. He is the end of scapegoating — the end of laying your sins on another in hopes that God’s anger will be assuaged.

          • Buck Eschaton

            He is the end of scapegoating — because we will increasingly, as the Gospel continues to spread, be unable to agree on a scapegoat (form an idol of that scapegoat). During the crucifixion the Disciples stayed quiet, they fell in with the crowd, they turned against Jesus by joining and hiding within the crowd. But after the crucifixion their eyes were opened and they no longer stayed quiet, (St. Stephen is the first example) they loudly and defiantly shouted the innocence of Jesus. So now after the crucifixion people will no longer be able to find unity around a scapegoat that they can violently lay their sins upon. There will increasingly be people standing up for the persecuted. This is how Jesus bring the sword.
            We will no longer be able to form our social unity/righteousness around someone we collectively hate or have killed.

    • Evelyn

      I think the idea is that Jesus was a special kind of scapegoat because he was fully divine as well as fully human. But then if he’s fully divine he can’t really die like we die so God doesn’t really enter into the death experience. God is a bit too anthropomorphized in this fully-entering-in view by being given human attributes – even the divine portion of Jesus is a bit too human. Perhaps a better way to phrase it would be that Jesus’ death on the cross gives us an awareness of the fact that God is with us even in death and suffering and this awareness is a type of atonement. Previous versions of the atonement seem to just pretend that God magically takes away death and suffering but we know that he doesn’t do that.

      • Tim Trussell-Smith

        According to the earliest Christians, it was really important to understand that Jesus really was fully human – so much so that his humanity was in no way tempered by his being fully divine. This is why there was so much argument about whether Christ had One Nature or Two and to what extent those natures were Unified with one another. For those steeped in what is for us “ancient philosophy,” that was a critically important question. But the point for the early Christians is that Jesus really did experience a human death exactly like we will someday. The Apostles Creed confesses “he descended to the dead” – or, more poetically – “descended into Hell.” It is more than an awareness that God is with us in classic Christian understanding, it is actually, literally, God being with us to the very end of solidarity. God isn’t just “anthropomorphized” – metaphorically compared to humans – the Word of God became a human being, quite literally.

  • Nice meeting you at Baylor the other day, Tony. I hope you enjoyed that nonviolent atonement article I gave you, despite some obvious differences of approach between MacGregor and yourself (e.g., innerency). I don’t endorse everything in the essay, but I do think it provides a provocative approach and is especially helpful in speaking about alternative atonement models with more conservative folks. Best, Dave

  • Mike

    I thought that was the whole point in penal substitution theory. God’s not mad at us because Jesus took care of that in the atonement. We tell our people all the time that Gods not mad at them. Doesn’t penal substitution accommodate this message.

    • Phil Miller

      If people really believe God’s not mad at people, they certainly don’t do a good job of conveying it. Saying that God will send people to hell for all eternity because of his wrath against them certainly makes it sound like God is still mad at people.

  • Evelyn

    I consider myself to be a bit of a connoisseur of good sermons and I enjoyed that one very much. I fully agree with the “to obey (or hear) is better than sacrifice” message. But it seems to me that God crosses the chasm to us in the gospel not necessarily in the crucifixion. The more I think about the crucifixion the more it looks like a conversion tool to be used on the Jews of 2000 years ago and any other religious groups who thought they could placate the gods by blood sacrifice (animal or human). That being said, it also gives us a model for human suffering and a vision of hope in resurrection. Unlike the rest of Jesus’ ministry he couldn’t tell us how to suffer or verbally lead us into thinking about it, he had to show us. It was something that Jesus couldn’t accomplish on his own (if you’ll recall he gave up the cup and the bread at the last supper until the time when he would drink it new with us in the kingdom of heaven) but he had to let go of his divine abilities and let the senseless powers of destruction wash over him so he could show us how to respond in faith. That being said, I think most of us should be more concerned with the process of living rather than the process of suffering and dying so the Christian emphasis on the crucifixion, while inclusive of the entire human experience, remains a bit gory for me.

  • Tanya

    Great help. But I can already hear the questions, “what, –you don’t think Jesus knew he was going to rise? . . . and that’s different from us when we’re in despair. He knew God was just being quiet, we don’t know that, it feels like God is really, really gone.”

    This requires us to take Jesus humanity really, really seriously — and scripture sometimes makes that difficult. “For he knew he would rise again in three days.”

    • That’s right. Jesus did not know that he was going to rise. If he had, then his prayer in the garden that the Father might take his cup away from him was a bluff.

      • Chris

        That doesn’t necessarily follow, Tony. If Jesus was fully human it makes sense that the first time that he laughed, then that was a new experience for him, and when he cried, or pooped, or whatever. It’s how it can truthfully be said that he was touched by the feeling of all our infirmities. Entering into great suffering of that magnitude would also be a new experience. One that would cause apprehension. Even if I know that I will come out the other side of some new, dreadful experience in one piece, I still may be wishing like hell that this cup would be taken from me, and that I was somewhere else and that I didn’t have to go through with it.

      • I have been thinking about the remark in your book that in the Wilderness Jesus *really was* tempted; I suppose this is the same situation, if he really was human, then he really was killed and being killed is not like going to sleep. In the Wilderness he fought a real battle with temptation, and we can suppose that after his death he fought a real battle with hell, meaning that he *could* have lost (and maybe God would have had to try something else). Whatever we mean by “temptation” and “hell” exactly. That’s CV, I guess.

  • Colleen

    In the scapegoat atonement, the people let the goat free into in the wilderness to die. Well, isn’t that kind of like sending the goat off to better pastures? And, if the people were so kind as to not kill the goat, that goat is going to come back.

  • Nice… I’d be interested in what you thought about my COFFEE theory of the atonement


  • Jimmy Calle

    Hey Tony,

    I just watched your sermon. It was very helpful and clarifying. I do have some questions, though and while I haven’t read your ebook on it, I was hoping you could clarify a couple points.

    The point of saying that the ransom theory makes God look impotent is very valid but I don’t quite follow you when you that PSA would make him seem so as well Wouldn’t Christ crossing as the great chasm as the God-man, the perfect substitute, be just as loving and powerful as Christ crossing the chasm as the last scapegoat? If you allow in your articulation of PSA that there is some law or universal standard of justice that exists independently of God, which he is trying satisfy, then I can see how you get there. I don’t think many in my tribe would articulate it like that, though. I think most would say that the justice and holiness that makes the sacrifice necessary is simply a property of God’s nature and not something he “must do” to be just or holy.

    Assuming your view of the atonement (and I agree with much of it), I don’t think you’d say that God must adhere to a universal law of love that demands that he identify with us, but rather that the beautiful gesture of God sympathizing and experiencing with us is simply an expression of his nature.

    So if it’s a matter God expressing his nature through the absurd spectacle of the innocent Christ dying on the cross, what makes “God loves us, so he humbles himself to identify with us” any more of a legitimate answer than “God loves us, so he humbles himself to take our place?”

    Both are amazing and awe-inspiring! Why can’t they both be true?!


    • Jimmy,

      Any theory that says, “fill-in-the-blank requires God to act this way” makes God subservient to something other than himself. So, for instance, if God’s holiness demands that God gets a satisfaction for human sin, then God is subservient to holiness.

      God’s freedom is perfect.

      • T. Webb


        Thanks for the post. I’d like to get your book, but I’m so buried with reading that it would take 2 years to get to it, but I’m trying to think through this. God’s freedom is, of course, perfect, and you’re right that PSA theory is bankrupt / flat out wrong because it makes God a servant of his holiness. But if God’s freedom is perfect, why the atonement (whatever it is) at all? If the message of the cross is that the sacrificial system is bankrupt, why submit to it to show it’s bankrupt? It seems to me God is saying, “You Israelites invented a law and sacrifices and stuff purely on your own, but instead of ridiculing it and denouncing it as your false worship invention, I’m going to submit to it to show you it’s false?” It seems to me that Paul (in the letters he actually wrote) sees importance in the atonement as related to the sacrifices of the Hebrew scriptures, as does the writer of the letter of the Hebrews. Note that I don’t know if the latter even should be considered scripture, but it is certainly a representative of a perspective in the early Christian movement that sees a relation between the atonement and the earlier sacrifices. Please help. Thanks!

      • Chris

        “So, for instance, if God’s holiness demands that God gets a satisfaction for human sin, then God is subservient to holiness.”

        As Jimmy suggested that some members of his tribe might explain it, saying that something is an attribute of God doesn’t make Him subservient to it in the sense that you like to cast it, using words like “demands” or “requires” or “subservient.” Am I “subservient” to my physical nature in the sense that I must “obey” it as though it’s something that stands apart from or outside of me? I don’t think so. If God’s freedom is perfect, then it could be truthfully said that he has no nature at all. No wrathful nature, no just nature, no loving nature. Because to describe God as having a nature of any kind you will immediately ascribe attributes which only make sense if God can act consistently within those qualities that we describe in some kind of meaningful way. As I understand it, when God acts within His nature he is not subservient to it.

        But then you also have a problem if you want it your way. If God’s freedom is perfect then He is free to lie, He is free to abuse us for sport, in short he would be a completely capricious god because he must not be subservient to any of those things. It would make Him a God more to be feared (not a healthy fear) and avoided, rather than honored or worshipped. Perfect freedom, as you describe it, is most definitely not a good thing.

      • Jimmy Calle


        Thanks for the reply.

        So would God theoretically be amoral assuming your view? He’s not intrinsically holy because that would limit him nor is he loving because that would limit him as well? He must, by definition, be free to do or be anything? Or are you saying that He does have an intrinsic nature (love, justice, holiness etc) , just not limited it?

        I think this might be echoed at previous comment, but if it’s just a matter freedom and not being consistent with his own nature, why would God have to die via an atonement at all?

        This is a little philosophical, I know. My apologies in advance 🙂

      • Moral nature involves restricted choice; I could do X (or fail to do Y), but it would be wrong. Am I subservient to morality? I suppose it depends on whether I view “morality” as an external code (Law) or something that I identify with, something that I have been born again into. I think we would like to assume that God has a moral nature, although we have to be careful to avoid the notion that we understand what it is, that we can evaluate the choices He makes. (That is (@ Chris), God did abuse Job for something like sport.) I think it is reasonable to assume that God has some purpose which shapes his actions; we might say that his actions are “subservient” to his (logically if not temporally) prior decisions/intentions/Holiness without demeaning his perfect freedom.

        • Was gonna say, this is a “virtue” view of morality, which seems to avoid some of the logic-chopping problems that arise from a deontological view.

        • Chris


          I think to suggest that God abused Job for something like sport only works if you take Job to be something other than a literary device. Even if you do take it literally tho’ I think it’s an unfair distortion. I appreciate what you say that we want to be careful not to make rigid claims that we can make pronouncements as to exactly what God’s moral nature is. But I think the loose (you might say careful) language of “I suppose it depends on ,” “I think we would like to assume ,” “we might say that, ” doesn’t really help but rather only obfuscates things. With each loose turn of phrase you get exponentially further and further from any potential truth.
          As I said I understand the need for humility in these discussions, but getting deeper shouldn’t equate to getting murkier.
          I think my assertion that perfect freedom would make for a perfectly capricious god still holds. But I could be wrong.

  • Tanya

    Thanks, the garden reference is helpful. And I appreciate how generous you have been with the comments, but realize you’ll need to be moving on soon.

    Having slept on the garden story, I realized my listeners would probably come back with “even if he knew he was going to rise, he might have wished he could skip the messy part. ”

    And they’ll point to those places where he predicts his resurrection, or reminds them after the resurrection that this is what he’d told them would happen.

    I know that what he said and what the Gospels say are two different things, but that is a lot to explain when there is so much going on whenever we’re in this material.

    I’m left with a few more loose ends (and maybe I always will be) and conundrums. The words “Jesus died for our sins” that are so dear to so many — are they just completely misleading– because they’re so easily translated into PSA, or is there a way to give those words back to people with a clear and better understanding?

    I read the book and watched the sermon, and I’ll also be working to include Abelard’s “to show us love”and what I think you called the earliest understanding in the book, “to provide an example for us.”

    But thanks, there will be much better sermons out there in the coming week thanks to your work. I’ve ordered the other preaching book you recommended too.

  • Lauren

    Love that frame grab.

  • Bryan

    So no matter how you look at it. My sin caused the death of Christ on the Cross. Correct?

    • Phil Miller

      Not really… I think using the word “cause” in this way kind of reverses the movement of the cross. It wasn’t that we caused God to do anything. I think it’s the other way around, really. Christ’s death makes away for us to partake in the life of the Trinity. The cause of this act is Trinitarian love itself.

      • Buck Eschaton

        I think “cause” is right. I think every little sin we commit, every break in the bonds that hold us together, the envy/jealousy, hate, anger, idolatries that we hold on to gets caught up into a channel or funnel leading to an actual victim somewhere down the line. The sins we commit all get put into a like a funnel and they churn around until a suitable victim is found to absorb them. Jesus is this victim, Iraqi children are the victims, anybody that stands at the end road of our sins is the victim. So Jesus, and now the Saints of God, are charged with intercepting this wrath that is created by our sins and doing away with it before it becomes actual violence.

        • Tanya

          Oh, please tell me that Buck Eschaton is your real name.

    • Nope. God caused it.

  • Gail

    So give me the 3- or 4-sentence version of this to use with elementary kids rather than the “Jesus paid the price for your sins” that the curriculum wants me to use. Seriously. I’m reading your book, but trying to figure out how to present it to kids this Holy Week.

    • In Jesus, God entered the human race. God walked all the way back to us and reunited with us after generations of separation.

      Jesus’ crucifixion shows that God experienced everything that we do, even death.

  • Gail

    That’ll preach. Finished your book on the quick read pass. Will go back to savor and ponder through this week. Jesus’ experiencing godforsakenness rings so true for me.
    Thanks for the quick reply and for your book.

  • Bryan

    So that lightens up the load a bit now doesn’t it?

    Knowing that I wasn’t the one who pierced His side brings me to Love God instead of Fear Him. Humm…

  • Dan Hauge

    I know I’m late to this party, but . . . it does occur to me that Tony’s view of the atonement depends pretty heavily on a very robust Christology–Jesus really is “God entering the human race”. I agree, but it’s pretty different than many of the views of the Incarnation I heard at the recent Process Theology conversation, or stuff I’ve heard from F Leron Shults, emphasizing that Jesus embodied openness to the will of God to such a great degree that we can talk about God working in and through Jesus. I wonder how more liberal understandings of the incarnation either support or detract from this understanding of the atonement?

    • You got that right, Dan. I have no desire to strip the divinity out of Jesus.

  • Jon

    Here is a great link on a long article regarding the atonement.

  • JP

    Thank you for this video. You have offered us a succinct overview of the most common atonement theories, which I found to be very accessible and can be useful with/for the college students I serve. Moreover, I appreciate the way in which you have engaged Girard’s theory of the scapegoat. However, the way in which you conclude your proposal seems as if you are pulling from Moltmann’s work too…i.e. that death enters into the God-head and is swallowed up. This seems to be an important departure from Girard’s theory in so much as God is moved/changed in the crucifixion of Jesus. Furthermore, your proposal is intriguing because of the way in which it could re-narrate what is understood for us in “taking up our crosses.” Could you comment on how a shift in our understanding of the atonement could/should effect the ways in which we live our lives?

    • JP, I am, indeed, trying for a Girard-Moltmann mash-up. If God really reunites with us through the cross, it should affect every aspect of our lives, beginning with our posture toward the Creator.

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  • Joey

    I don’t understand how this view is complete if it doesn’t offer any solution to our sin. I understand that this is “God reaching to humanity,” but if God is omniscient, wouldn’t he know that his other attempts to reach to humanity would fail? This view still doesn’t address the problem that sinful people will one day stand in God’s full glory. I don’t think any views of atonement are perfect, but the problem of sin still needs to be addressed.