Atonement theory comes up a lot in churchy circles around Holy Week, and this year was no exception for me. Perhaps it’s been on my mind even more than usual because our women’s group was reading David Lose’s excellent group study Making Sense of the Cross. But varies blogs always pop up in my pastor friends’ Facebook feeds about how we can make it through Holy Week without resorting to the penal satisfaction theory of atonement, and I tend to dive into this topic around this time every year.
I recently had a question from a parishioner about theories of atonement. He wrote: “I struggle with the concept that the only pathway to a right relationship with God is through the suffering and death of God’s Son. Are there alternative ways of conceptualizing this act of love on our behalf? How does a religion who’s basis of being reconciled require suffering and death point us in a better direction [than the religious violence of the world]?”
With atonement theory coming at me from all sides, it seems like the only thing to do is write a blog about it. To be clear, what follows here is just a primer (not even a primer, really), about a very big topic. A topic that has captured the theological imagination of Christians ever since the event of the cross itself. Perhaps it will spur further reading, inquiry, and conversation on your part. But it’s a start.
As Julie Andrews taught me the very beginning is a very good place to start. So, what the heck is atonement theory? It’s basically theological speak for how human beings and God end up in a right relationship with one another. Unlike most theological words, which tend to be Latin, Greek, and German, atonement is actually from the English. At-One-Ment. How humanity and God become at-one.
The first question posed for us, “Are there alternative ways of conceptualizing this act of love on our behalf” could also read, “Is there more than one theory of atonement?” Borrowing from the site Hacking Christianity, here’s a pictorial representation of quite a few:
One of the things you’ll notice about some of the different theories is that they are placed at various points in Jesus’ life. The ones we hear the most about, especially at Holy Week, tend to focus on the crucifixion. These are called Substitutionary Atonement theories. They became popular in the Middle Ages, and have been one of the dominant forms of understanding atonement ever since.
The basic premise is this: God loves humanity, but humanity has sinned, which is a crime against God. The appropriate punishment for the crime is death, but God doesn’t want to do that. So insert God’s Son, Jesus, who stands in for human, receiving the punishment for our sins. This payment makes satisfaction for our sins, so God no longer requires us to be punished.
You hear a lot of this theory surrounding Good Friday—in the readings, in the hymns, in the way we talk about the cross. Personally, this theory doesn’t do much for me. It isn’t congruent with the God I’ve come to know through Jesus and scripture, and it doesn’t present God as loving or forgiving. Also—it doesn’t even mention the resurrection.
Luckily for me (and maybe for you, too), there are other ideas about atonement. For time’s sake, I’ll focus on one other: Christus Victor. You’ll notice from the graphic, it starts from a different place than Substitutionary Atonement. What it finds most critical to God’s redemptive work is not the cross, but the manger. It is in the incarnation that atonement begins, although it will not be finished until the resurrection. (Christus Victor and Ransom/Captive, the ‘resurrection’ theory in our graphic, have a lot in common.)
From the Latin, this theory literally means: Christ the Victor. This theory was very popular in the early church, up until the Middle Ages. It has come back into the conversation with a Swedish theologian of the 20th c., Gustaf Aulen. In this theory, humanity is held in captivity to various forces that go against God: sin, death, and the powers of evil.
Christ entered our humanity at the incarnation, and those same forces tried to claim Christ for their own on the cross. But, in this theory, the cross is seen as triumph, rather than punishment, because it is where Christ becomes victorious over sin, death, and the grave.
In the resurrection, Christ, and all of humanity, are forever freed from the sinfulness that had held us bound. Jesus death serves not as a sacrifice for humanity, but as a liberation of humanity. Just as Good Friday hymns and readings tend to present a substitutionary understanding of atonement, you’ll find a lot of Christus Victor language in Easter hymns. Words like ransomed, won, victory, fought appear frequently.
So, two theories of atonement, two contrasting understanding of what Jesus’ death on the cross means. And I haven’t even begun to talk about four of the theories listed in our graphic. The book our women’s group read ended by focusing not on theory, or how we think about atonement, but on how we live and experience atonement.
Theories are great for many things, but they seldom change lives. If you’re interested in atonement theory, talk to me, because I find it fascinating. But I’d like to close by wondering about how you experience atonement. Does the good news of the resurrection break through the darkness of the world for you? Can you live as an Easter person, knowing that death does not have the final answer in our lives? Theories are most helpful when they provide an opportunity to examine how what we believe truly affects our lives.
This was a long post, and, as I said, just a start. If you’ve stuck it out this far, you might be interested in reading more. Here’s a good site for overviews of the various theories: http://www.theopedia.com/atonement. If you’re interested in the book the women’s group just finished let me know, I have a few extra copies. I will also go on and on about Gustaf Aulen to anyone brave enough to get me started. Thanks for making it to the end, faithful readers!