Every Wednesday during Lent, I’m going to explore an alternatives to the penal substitutionary understanding of the atonement, the dominant theory of the atonement in my part of the (theological and geographical) world. You can read all of the posts, and my past posts on this topic, here. I’ve got an ebook on the subject as well.
In another version of the atonement that was quite popular during the first millennium of Christianity, but virtually snuffed out in the West by penal substitution, Jesus Christ is seen as a moral exemplar, who calls us toward a better life, both individually and corporately.
In this view, the Hebrew scriptures record effort after effort by God to get people on the right track. Through personal interaction, the Law, the prophets, and the sacrificial system, God tried to get the people to live morally upright lives. But each of those attempts failed.
So God sent his son, Jesus, as the perfect example of a moral life. Jesus’ teachings and his healing miracles form the core of this message, and his death is as a martyr for this cause: the crucifixion both calls attention to Jesus’ life and message, and it is an act of self-sacrifice, one of the highest virtues of the moral life.
We see Jesus’ death, and we are inspired to a better life ourselves. But there’s more to it than this.