Over the past few years I have been asked for my position on the Christian doctrine of atonement. Every time I want to link to the lovely blog I wrote a few years ago. Every time I go searching for it and realize that I never wrote such a blog. The subject is tricky and deserved a fuller treatment, but I decided that I should sketch something out in the meantime. In my last post, I introduced atonement – how Jesus mends our separation from God. In this post, I tackle some of the most popular theories for how this works.
How Does Atonement Work?
The interesting question for most of us is personal. How do we become at-one with God, neighbor, and world? The answer to that has to do with what faith, hope, and love look like in practice. It’s a big topic because there are so many ways to do it. One of them is research, reflection, and conversation about reality – which I’m attempting here. Other ways have to do with repentance, community, and forgiveness. For now, I will look at the traditional question of how Jesus brings about atonement.
Once we start looking at the details, atonement can be both confusing and troubling. This is one of the few areas that I do not consider myself orthodox. Despite finding them useful, I simply cannot accept the prominent Christian explanations. Let me explain why (with excruciating and problematic brevity). [Better yet, read this scholarly yet approachable summary.]
Ransom Theories (Christus Victor)
(“All your soul are belong to us.”)
- Humans are in bondage (to death) because we sold ourselves to the Devil.
- God ransomed us by offering Jesus in exchange for us.
- Having captured Jesus, the Devil found him impossible to bind (keep dead).
- Now we and Jesus are free.
- Why did God set things up so people could be bound?
- Who trades away their son? Isn’t God being a little deceptive?
- Why doesn’t God simply command the Devil to set us free?
- Does this set up the Devil as somehow equal to and in competition with God?
- Did Jesus actually do anything?
Moral Exemplar Theories
(“Jesus show me the way.”)
- Humans are clueless.
- Jesus showed us how to behave to find God.
- AND Humans are weak.
- Jesus actions strengthened us so that we can follow.
- Why are humans so clueless and weak?
- Why did Jesus teach us in such an unpleasant manner (abandonment, torture, and crucifixion)?
- Shouldn’t there be other (easier) ways for us to learn?
- If Jesus action is a teaching and and empowerment, why does the Bible talk so much about priesthood, sacrifice, and penance?
(“Help, I’ve Fallen and I can’t get up.”)
- Humans offended God and thus owe a debt (to God).
- We cannot earn more.
- We cannot pay off the debt.
- Jesus, being divine, can pay.
- Jesus, being human, can pay the debt of humanity.
Technically, that’s pecuniary (monetary) substitution, but the same idea applies to penal substitution – we’re in jail and can’t let ourselves out – etc. The most popular version invokes the dignity of God, which we have trespassed by not respecting God properly. To modern ears, it might sound better to say we are at a party have said something so offensive that the room went silent out of shock. We are too flustered to say anything more and they are all too aghast. (You know you’ve been there.) Jesus steps in and saves the friendships. In any case, it all comes back to an un-repay-able; only the currency changes.
- Who set up the banking system?
- Why doesn’t God forgive the debt?
- Isn’t cruel to take money from someone who can’t earn more – even if is “just”?
All three types of atonement theory set God up to be a bit of a jerk – to the Devil, to us, and to Jesus. If God is wholly in charge, why is the system seemingly rigged. I will admit, I think this is the sort of thing that may be beyond human comprehension. That’s not just an easy out; perhaps we are messed up precisely because our condition blinds us to both reality and justice. Still… I want my theory of atonement to be helpful. Once I admit that I don’t understand it, I can go back and say, “Let’s pick a theory that is least obnoxious and most useful.” With that in mind, I introduce my own take in the next post.