Atonement, Theoretically

There is movement, these days, in how Christians understand atonement. I hope the movement is away from an image of God as an angry judge who demands our punishment (and who gets us off the hook by punishing Jesus instead), and towards a more historic understanding of Christ's death as the ultimate defeat of death.

For anyone who has studied the classic Christian theories of atonement, (for instance: Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of Atonement, by Gustaf Aulén), it becomes clear that there is no one Theory of Atonment that a majority of Christian thinkers have supported. Among the many theories widely considered are these: The Ransom (Aulén's "Christus Victor"), Satisfaction, Substitutionary ("The Penal Theory" — quite popular today), and Moral Influence Theories. Aulén's claim is that although popular Christianity today leans toward the Penal Substitution Theory (God is a God of justice, we are deserving of punishment, Jesus had to pay for our sins with his suffering and death to appease God on our behalf), that was not the case for the first thousand years of Christianity (before St. Anselm). A more faithful (and Biblical!) way to understand atonement might be to think of Christ's death as a victory over sin and death, and over the forces of evil. God destroys the ultimate power of sin and death by submitting to it, and defeating it. In Christ, death becomes victory, and resurrection becomes a proclamation of God's power.

I'm seeing reference to this in daily internet devotional messages I follow. Here is Father Richard Rohr's message from April 23, 2012:


The Gospel of Mark (and all of the other gospels) leads up to Jesus finally standing alone, without anyone really comprehending what He’s talking about when He teaches on the “Reign of God.” Jesus realizes that He has to do it in His flesh. He’s got to stop talking about it. He’s got to let it happen. Maybe you’ve had the experience that it’s not until someone dies that we ask the ultimate questions, and that’s what we mean when we say Jesus had to die for us. It’s not that He had to literally pay God some price (unfortunately, many Christians understand it that way, as if the Father is standing up there in heaven with a big bill, saying, “Until I get some blood, I’m not going to change my mind about the human race.”). That puts us in a terrible position in relation to God, and it can’t be true. As if God could not forgive without payment. It pulled God into our way of loving and forgiving which is always mercenary and tit for tat.

Quite simply, until someone dies, we don’t ask the big questions. We don’t understand in a new way. We don’t break through. The only price that Jesus was paying was to the human soul, so that we could break through to what is real and lasting.

Adapted from The Four Gospels Center for Action and Contemplation Father Richard Rohn

And here, from Lutheran (and Luther Seminary Professor) David Lose, are some excerpts from his April 23, 2012 devotional on the Meantime:

Abundant Life: Behind the Post

... I say that Jesus comes to tell us that we are loved, that we are worthy, that we are enough. And a huge part of the theology of a lot of Christians is precisely that we are unworthy and definitely not enough; in fact, for these Christians it is precisely our unworthiness that is our defining characteristic. After all, that’s what makes the whole system work. We are, the theory goes, not just undeserving of God’s love but because of human sin we deserve only God’s wrath and punishment. And so Jesus comes to endure that punishment in our place. And if we believe in him – and usually that means believing in him in a certain way – then we can be forgiven and thereby receive God’s love.

But I just don’t get that theology anymore. I say “anymore” because at one time, a fairly long time ago, the logic of that system made some sense to me. It all added up like a nice, neat math problem. But now I can’t quite figure out why, if God loves us, God has to punish us, punish Jesus in our place, or, for that matter, punish anyone. The typical answer is “justice.” “If someone broke into your house,” the argument runs, “you’d want justice.” Maybe, but why is justice only achieved through punishment? Why can’t justice be achieved by the person apologizing, or by the person making amends, or by any number of ways that don’t involve punishment? “Ah,” the questioner counters, “but what if it wasn’t just breaking in to your house, what if it were murder? How can someone amend for that?” Fair enough. But I still don’t understand why the scales of justice must be balanced through violence. Does taking one life really replace another? What kind of justice is that?

... Either Jesus comes in order to make it possible for God to love us – the justice-punishment scenario – or because God loves us – which is what I believe. If that’s true, then we are already beloved. We are already enough.

Notice I said “enough,” not perfect. Sometimes I’ve heard that people that who emphasize God’s love a lot – like me  – don’t take sin seriously enough. But I don’t think that’s true. You can be enough without being perfect. By “enough” I mean worthy of love, dignity, and respect. For those with kids, which of them is perfect? None of them. But which is worthy of our love, care, concern, and respect? Exactly – all of them.

Which is why I think it’s a huge mistake to start your theology with a sense of our unworthiness and lack. Are we perfect? No, definitely not. But are we enough – enough, that is, to deserve love? Absolutely...

I think that behind Jesus’ promise of abundant life stands God’s promise of abundant love. You can’t have one, I’d argue, without the other. So maybe what’s at the heart of all this is a simple question: when you think of God, do you think about God primarily as a kind of cosmic king that demands absolute and perfect obedience, or do you think of God more like a loving parent who will do just about anything to let God’s children know how much they are loved? the Meantime David Lose

This conversation shapes our understanding of atonement, of course, but it also shapes our understanding of God — and our ability to share that understanding with others. Frankly, the better part of the generation that we hope will become the church in the next decades listens to the typical current understanding of atonement (where God says, “Until I get some blood, I’m not going to change my mind about the human race.”), and writes the entire project off as antiquated foolishness.
So... how do you understand atonement? How does the death and resurrection of Jesus affect your relationship with God? These are important questions, for a church that calls itself Evangelical.