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Thoughts about Atonement

Thoughts about Atonement March 24, 2021

Thoughts about Atonement

  1. The English word “atonement” was coined by William Tyndale for what Jesus Christ accomplished to reconcile us to God and God to us. It is a combination word out of two words and a syllable: “at,” “one,” and “ment.” “Atonement” simply means “at-one-ment” with God. It is traditionally used in English to refer to Christ’s passion—his suffering and death—insofar as that made reconciliation with God possible.
  2. According to the New Testament and Christian tradition, Christ’s “work”—what he did for us sinners to reconcile us with God—has many facets and dimensions. Our authors focus on three—Christ as victor over the devil, sin and death, Christ as transformer of our lives by example and influence, and Christ as substitute who took our place and suffered the penalty we deserve for our defection from God. They use the term “satisfaction” for the third idea—especially insofar as it has been turned into a theory.
  3. What some theologians call the “satisfaction theory” of atonement is better and more often called penal substitution theory. In a nutshell, it is that our sin requires punishment and, out of love, the Son of God, as the man Jesus, suffered that punishment in our place so that we can be forgiven and reconciled with God. There are many versions of this theory. Sometimes it has been distorted—especially in hymns and Christian songs and in sermons.
  4. This theory has, in recent years especially, been labeled “divine child abuse” and an example of the “myth of redemptive violence.” Behind every one of those criticisms is the idea that Jesus Christ was an innocent human being on whom God took out his wrath. These critics forget that, in traditional theology, Jesus Christ was God voluntarily suffering our punishment because he loves us and wants to forgive us.
  5. So the question arises, why couldn’t God just forgive us? Why did there need to be a sacrifice for sins? Why did Jesus have to die for God to forgive us?
  6. The substitutionary theory of the atonement builds on New Testament passages that make use of the “Suffering Servant” of Isaiah 53 and apply that image or person to Jesus Christ. Isaiah 53 says that he was wounded for our transgressions and bruised for our iniquities and he was smitten by God, etc. It also builds on Jesus’s own “cry of dereliction” on the cross—“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And it builds on the several verses in the New Testament that talk about Jesus as our “hilasterion”—literally “mercy seat”–usually translated into English as “propitiation” or “expiation” for sins.
  7. According to some theologians this substitutionary view of the atonement is the “hard core” of the Christian doctrine of Christ’s work for us. He did much more than this, but this is the center of Christian belief about why and how Christ made reconciliation between God and us possible.
  8. This is the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church as it is the official doctrine of many Protestant churches—not to the exclusion of “Christus Victor” or “Moral Example” but those do not get at the heart of the matter—namely that we stand guilty before God and God cannot forgive without demonstrating how seriously he takes sin.
  9. Most advocates of the substitution theory or model of the atonement do not go this far, but I will go this far: God loves and wants to forgive us, but he can’t without demonstrating how seriously sin offends his holiness. There is a “clash” between God’s love and God’s holiness/justice—within God himself—brought about by sin. Apart from our sin there would be no tension between God’s attributes; it is our sin that causes that.
  10. But love found a way to satisfy God’s holiness and justice—the cross. On the cross God himself suffers the godforsakenness that we deserve in our place so that he can forgive us without neglecting his holiness, justice and righteousness. The cross is the necessary demonstration of God’s love and justice brought together in harmony.
  11. Some have called this the “Governmental Theory of the Atonement” and it was first developed by Arminians in the Netherlands in the 1600s. It is a version of the penal substitutionary atonement or satisfaction theory but without the idea that Jesus suffered your punishment or my punishment. If that were the case neither you nor I could be condemned. It would be unjust for God to punish the same sins twice—once on the cross and again in hell. If the atonement is universal and penal substitutionary, then all people would be saved by it. But if the cross was God, in the person of his Son, Jesus, voluntarily suffering a punishment equivalent to the one we deserve, then the shadow of universalism is removed from substitutionary atonement.
  12. The “shadow” of “divine child abuse” is removed from substitutionary atonement by the fact that Jesus was not just an innocent man but God himself voluntarily suffering rejection by God his Father, experiencing the punishment sinners deserve, in order to make God’s loving forgiveness of repentant sinners just.
  13. So what was the motive in the death of Christ—according to substitutionary sacrifice theories? It was both love and justice—but ultimately God’s desire to forgive us. God’s love caused him to want to forgive us but his justice required him to display how seriously he takes sin. “Love found a way”—not divine child abuse but God himself, God the Son, incarnate as Jesus Christ, voluntarily suffered godforsakenness on the cross—which is what we deserve—to show how seriously God takes sin and to make it possible for God to forgive us without indulgence of our sinfulness.
  14. Of course, Jesus’s death on the cross had other dimensions and results. His death and resurrection defeated the evil powers and principalities that held us captive. This is the “Christus Victor” dimension of the cross (and resurrection). His death gave us a perfect display of God’s love and influences us to be sacrificial in our service to others. This is the “moral example” dimension of the cross. But neither of these dimensions (and theories that build on them) explains how the cross event deals with our guilt and our condemnation or our need for righteous forgiveness. Neither of them explains the New Testament’s use of the Suffering Servant motif of Isaiah or why Paul says that Christ became sin for us or why Jesus Christ cried out on the cross “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
  15. The atonement was multifaceted and ultimately a mystery we cannot fully comprehend, but the substitutionary dimension should not be thrown out just because it is seemingly offensive and widely misunderstood and misrepresented as “divine child abuse.”
  16. So, did God kill Jesus? No, God voluntarily came to die for us. Roman occupiers of Palestine killed Jesus. So, did we kill Jesus? No, but our sinfulness required Jesus’s death for God’s love to win over his justice and wrath against sin.
  17. Perhaps the most popular and controversial view of the atonement right now (2020/2021) is that presented by J. Denny Weaver, a Mennonite theologian, in The Nonviolent Atonement. There he argues that Jesus’s death was simply a martyrdom, not intended or orchestrated by God, but used by God to “unmask” the powers and principalities of evil and darkness which he interprets along the lines of theologian Walter Wink’s and philosopher Rene Girard’s ideas of domination systems (Wink) and scapegoating (Girard). Because Jesus was absolutely innocent, his death, which was basically a kind of lynching by powerful authorities devoted to evil, “unmasked” these horrible powers and principalities—displaying them for what they are. God uses Jesus’s death as a revelation of the evils of domination and scapegoating and defeats them if we recognize Jesus’s death for what it was and join God in fighting against them. This hardly does justice to the many New Testament images of Jesus’s death as substitutionary for us. It is an attempt to “get God off the hook,” so to speak, for “killing the innocent man Jesus” and assumes that Jesus was not God but only an innocent man who became a scapegoat. It removes any divine intention in the cross event; it says about God only that he used this man’s martyrdom.
  18. There is a kind of theological “war” going on around the atonement. Theologians are lining up around theories of why Jesus had to die (if he did have to), and how his death saves us (if it does). Defenders of some version of substitutionary atonement include Hans Boersma, Richard Mouw, Ronald Sider, and many other even moderate-to-progressive evangelical theologians. Defenders of some version of Christus victor include Gregory Boyd and J. Denny Weaver (although they disagree about the details). Defenders of some version of moral example/moral influence include virtually all liberal theologians including John Shelby Spong and Marcus Borg.
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