I understand there is currently a debate between orthodox and progressive theologians on the doctrine of the atonement. I always considered this a cornerstone of Christian theology. Can you encapsulate the arguments?
THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:
A tough one, and this mere journalist has long pondered how to reply. Tough because the meaning of Jesus’ crucifixion stands right at the heart of the Christian faith — indeed the cross is its universal symbol — and so is vitally important, sensitive, a highly complex concern of many great minds the past 2,000 years, and ultimately beyond human comprehension. But here’s a rough attempt at an answer.
Like many people, Christians see the reality of good and evil, believe this awareness tells us God is holy, seek to live morally, yet admit they fall short due to an inherent sinfulness in themselves and humanity in general. Theologians call this “original sin.” Finally, they believe Jesus’ agonizing death by crucifixion somehow overcame humanity’s sin problem and offers salvation.
That belief originated with the Bible. Jesus himself said the Son of Man came “to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45, Matthew 20:28), and that the Christ should suffer and “repentance and forgiveness should be preached in his name to all nations” (Luke 24:46-47).
Paul the apostle wrote: “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3). “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them. . . For our sake [God] made [Jesus] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:19,21). “God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we are now justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God” (Romans 5:8-9).
Christians agree on such essentials but there’s no one, universally accepted and detailed definition of how Jesus’ death saves sinners. Most folks probably don’t worry much about the various facets emphasized by theologians in different times and situations, for instance: In the church’s early centuries many embraced a “ransom” theory, using Jesus’ own word, in which God offered his own Son to rescue captive humanity and, some said, to pay the ransom to Satan. Another early thinker, Irenaeus of Lyons, stressed “recapitulation,” in which Jesus is the sinless new Adam who counteracts the sinful disobedience of Adam.
The widely accepted “satisfaction” scenario was formulated especially in the 11th Century by Anselm, archbishop of Canterbury. He proposed that due to human sin the righteous God’s honor could only be satisfied by Jesus’ sacrifice because he was both God and perfect man. Later Protestant Reformers developed this into “penal substitution” in which Christ bore the punishment due for sin, taking humanity’s place, and satisfying the moral justice of God, also supplanting Jewish ritual sacrifices of animals.
Traditional concepts trouble revisionists like Tony Jones of Solomon’s Porch, an experimental congregation in Minneapolis. He’s part of the “emerging church” movement that emerged from U.S. evangelicalism and retains its style but questions some of its substance. Jones assails much of atonement theology in “Did God Kill Jesus?: Searching for Love in History’s Most Famous Execution” (HarperOne).
On that title: Of course the Romans killed Jesus, with support from Jewish leaders of the day. But Jones’ point is that the all-powerful God could have prevented the execution and, more important, that Christian tradition directly involves God the Father in the death of his own Son. Modern Christians can be squeamish about those animal sacrifices and don’t want God to permit bloodshed, even in an infinitely good cause. Mainline Protestant Rita M. Brock famously accused God of “cosmic child abuse.” More mildly, Jones worries about “a dysfunctional image of God.”
However, what if Christian doctrine is right that Jesus is fully divine as well as fully man, as Jones affirms? Then God was giving of his very self in the crucifixion, entering into human suffering as an act of pure love made on humanity’s behalf. As Jones puts it, “Jesus was God, fully immersed in the human experience. In suffering and death, God found new solidarity with humanity, and especially with those who suffer.” Mind-boggling as it is, the Bible records that Jesus even experienced the absence of God when he cried from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
An Eastern Orthodox catechism from France, “The Living God,” takes up the question. “Can God abandon God? Does God abandon himself? This is the unfathomable mystery of our salvation. . . The Son of God has to experience the anguish of God’s absence so that all men who die might recover the presence of God: This is salvation.”
Since this is the bare beginning of explaining what Christians say, and from an ill-equipped news writer, Christians and curious non-Christians who want to really work through thoughts of their sin and salvation would be wise to sit down with a well-educated pastor.