Easter just passed us by and it is the time of year that we reflect on Life….that the life of Jesus was resurrected from the dead. Along with that, we also recognize that Jesus died first, or course, to make a resurrection possible. So, it’s this time of year that people ask questions surrounding the Atonement of Christ. I have questioned the Atonement for years…never coming to any exact answer, but always asking the hard questions. One big questions I have had for many years is, “why does anyone have to die?” See, we have verses like Jeremiah 3:27 that says, “Behold, I am the Lord, the God of all flesh. Is anything too hard for me?” Or Luke 18:27 saying, “What is impossible with men is possible with God“. I mention these verses because we give all the power to God, yet the first problem with all the theories of Atonement is that God is in a box and has to do something….that he is beyond the ability to work outside of a perceived view of justice. I say “perceived” because I see that all the theories of Atonement seemed to be built on a man made foundation of our idea of what justice should be. Yet, the entire religion of Christianity is built on the premise that Jesus died to deal with the justice that God deserves….or demands….or wants. A sacrifice needed to be made to reconcile our sin with God’s righteousness. What if God’s idea of justice is different?
So there are several acceptable views of the Atonement. Yet, here is the kicker in all of this. There is a really good chance that you have never heard, let alone understand and could explain in detail, any other view than the one you were taught growing up in your church. Have you been told that the Atonement view you hold is the one and only truth that is taught by the bible? That’s exactly what those who hold a different view than you say as well. Being that there are many different views of the Atonement, I think it would be beneficial for all people to consider all of them and not just hold to the theory that your church teaches. What if they are wrong? What if your pastor has questions yet teaches what he has been told to teach to keep his job? What if your pastor doesn’t believe at all what they teach?
So here is a summary (there are more views but this is a basic list) of what the different theories on the Atonement are. Check them out and study them….know where they came from and why they were considered. Ask the hard questions like “why does someone need to die”….”why is blood involved”….”why a sacrifice”? Ask if the theory that your church teaches may or may not be a view of who you think God to be. I’ll say this…I grew up on the Penal Substitution view of the Atonement. It never sat right with me…why? Because I cannot equate Love with God having to demand blood to satisfy a debt to his righteousness. And why is there a debt in the first place if God created humans to be the way humans are?
- The Ransom Theory: God deceitfully pays off Satan with a bribe.
- Introduced by Origen in the third century CE.
- The earliest of all, originating with the Early Church Fathers, this theory claims that Christ offered himself as a ransom to Satan, not God.
- The Satisfaction Theory: Jesus appeases God by being a ritual human sacrifice.
- Introduced by Anselem, in the late 11th century CE in his book, Cur Deus Homo (lit. ‘Why the God Man’).
- Jesus Christ suffered the Crucifixion as a substitute for human sin, satisfying God due to Christ’s infinite merit.
- The Moral Theory: Jesus’ death is an example for the rest of humanity to emulate.
- Introduced by Abelard in the 12th century CE.
- Christ’s death was to influence mankind toward moral improvement. This theory denies that Christ died to satisfy any principle of divine justice.
- Teaches instead that His death was designed to greatly impress mankind with a sense of God’s love, resulting in softening their hearts and leading them to repentance.
- The Acceptance Theory: Atonement comes from the arbitrary choice of God
- Introduced by Scotus circa 1300 CE and William of Occam (Occam’s Razor).
- God could have decided of his own free will to save humanity through the work, and perhaps the death, of an angel, of Adam, of any other human being, or even an animal. But he decided, for his own reasons, to achieve atonement through the torture-death of Jesus
- The Penal (a.k.a. Penal-Substitution) Theory: God’s mercy replaces his wrath after the infinite sacrifice of Jesus
- Introduced by Reformation theologians like John Calvin circa 1520 CE.
- Christ died on the cross as a substitute for sinners. God imputed the guilt of our sins to Christ, and he, in our place, bore the punishment that we deserve.
- This was a full payment for sins, which satisfied both the wrath and the righteousness of God, so that He could forgive sinners without compromising His own holy standard.
- Christus Victor Theory: Jesus voluntarily allowed himself to be executed.
- Introduced by Gustaf Emanuel Hildebrand Aulén in 1930 in his book Christus Victor.
- The atonement is viewed as divine conflict and victory over the hostile powers that hold humanity in subjection – a rescue or liberation of humanity from the slavery of sin.
- It is a drama, a passion story of God triumphing over the powers and liberating humanity from the bondage of sin. As Gustav Aulén writes, “the work of Christ is first and foremost a victory over the powers which hold mankind in bondage: sin, death, and the devil.“
Ask questions…ask all of them. God can handle anything you throw out. If you find yourself in a church that doesn’t let you ask questions, then you are in a place that is more about control and being right than living in the Freedom of Christ. You owe it to yourself to be honest and to not be blind to that fact that you have questions. No one has all the answers…but you should be free to search for them. It’s your journey…now live it well.