Atonement – A Few Thoughts

We began our continuing conversation on “salvation” by looking at just a few of the ways in which people have understood atonement over the centuries. We started by summarizing very briefly some of the historical ideas, as follows:

Anselm’s Satisfaction Model:

Anselm of Canterbury (1033 – 1109) developed the idea that sinful humanity owes God a debt and that the death of Christ satisfies that debt. In Anselm’s medieval world, satisfaction and honor were very important, and the world ran on reciprocal obligations up and down a hierarchical ladder. Any obligation to one higher up the ladder by one lower down required satisfaction of that debt, often seen as an offense against the important person’s honor. In his book, “Cur Deus Homo” (Why did God become human?), Anselm wrote, “What is the debt we owe to God? The whole will of a rational creature ought to be subject to the will of God …. This is the sole and whole honor we owe to God …. Whoever renders not unto God this due honor, takes away from God that which is his, and does God dishonor: and this is sin” (1:11). Anselm recognized the argument that God could decide to forgive a debt without any restoration of his honor at all and in response to this argument he wrote, “If [sin] be not punished, it is unjustly forgiven …. it beseemeth not God to forgive …. illegally” and in Anselm’s view, God must preserve “the honor of his own dignity” (1:12 – 1:19). Anselm saw that it is impossible for any person to fully pay his/her own debt or the debt of another because all people are already indebted to God. Only a sinless person would be debt-free and so able to pay another’s debt. Yet, the person would need to be human to pay a human debt while also more than human to make complete satisfaction for the whole of humanity. Thus, only Christ could accomplish this satisfaction before God. In this model, atonement constitutes Christ paying a debt that he did not owe because humankind owed a debt it could not pay.

Abelard’s Moral Influence Model:

Peter Abelard (1079 – 1142) objected to Anslem’s model largely because he saw in the New Testament how Jesus had forgiven people for their sins before going to the cross. Thus, Anselm’s argument about the necessity for the cross in understanding how debts could be satisfied (if this indeed corresponds to sins being forgiven) seemed wrong to Abelard. He instead looked at the life, death and resurrection of Jesus as a demonstration of God’s love that is so powerful that it can move a sinner’s heart to the point of repentance and falling in love with God. In Abelard’s “Exposition of the Epistle to the Romans” he wrote, “…. His Son has taken upon himself our nature …. teaching us by word and example even unto death – he has fully bound us to himself by love….”

[Julian’s thoughts: The notion that humankind can be swayed by Christ’s suffering and love to abandon sinful ways seems to me to be based on a complete misunderstanding of the general human condition. While some people may be so swayed, most seem impervious to human suffering (look at us sitting here while millions die of HIV/AIDs in Africa and we chat about the nature of Christ, how’s that for impervious????) and, further, if some are swayed would it have to be Christ’s suffering that swayed them? Why not someone else’s suffering? And so on ….]

Penal Substitution Model:

In an era far removed from that of Anselm, we find ourselves in a world where justice is almost entirely retributive. In other words, judgment as “guilty” in a court of law is followed by punishment (retribution) rather than by restoration. Given the (American) idea that judgment and punishment are linked together, the penal substitution model of atonement becomes the one most commonly heard in churches in the US. This model asserts that God’s holiness and human sinfulness are incompatible and thus human sinfulness must be resolved if humans are to enter into full relationship with God. Further, God’s sense of justice requires that sin be punished but, as all people have sinned, it requires some special way for atonement to come about. God’s solution was to send Jesus to suffer our punishment for us. Because Jesus has been punished on our behalf, we are now free of the sin that would otherwise prevent us from being in the presence of God’s holiness. The influential American theologian Charles Hodge (1798 – 1878) wrote that God’s justice “demands the punishment of sin” and that “every sin of necessity subjects the sinner to the wrath and curse of God”. Further, Hodge saw that God the Father fully orchestrated and put into place the suffering of the Son, writing, “It pleased the Lord to bruise him”. Hodge’s work on this subject is voluminous and we cannot do justice to it here although the most basic ideas are now laid out (this is a bit worrying as Hodge sees a failure to live up to the standards of justice as requiring punishment!).

The penal substitution model is the one commonly heard in many churches in the form of “Jesus died for our sins”. Common criticisms include: (i) The idea that one person can take on the death penalty in the place of another person who has been found guilty and sentenced to execution is not one consistent with most understandings of “justice” (even here in the US where the judgment/punishment link is very strong, this idea sounds odd). (ii) The idea that God the Father orchestrated the suffering and death of Jesus sounds like divine child abuse and doesn’t paint a very pretty picture of God the Father. (iii) The resurrection becomes unnecessary in this understanding of atonement as it is the suffering and death of Jesus that do the trick in the eyes of God the Father.

We noted how this idea can be helpful to a person who has done something that, in their own eyes, is unforgivable and so that person is unable to forgive themselves, let alone see the possibility that God might forgive them. The notion that “Jesus died for their sins” and that the matter is dealt with, once and for all, gives a person in such a predicament a way to move forward with life and with a relationship with God.

The Christus Victor (Christ the Conqueror) Model:

Irenaeus (ca. 130 – 202; the Bishop of Lyons), writing at a time when Gnosticism was all around, sought to deliver a message that God had created humanity in a unique way because God had granted immortality to humans. This gift was lost in the Fall (through Adam and Eve) and so left humanity in a state from which it could not escape through its own efforts. Irenaeus compared Adam (the originator of human disobedience) and Christ (the originator of a new humanity) and thought in terms of “recapitulation” (the idea that just as all humanity was somehow represented by and present in Adam at the Fall, so all humanity was somehow represented by and present in Christ at the atoning events of the crucifixion and resurrection). Because Christ was fully human and fully divine, he could through the atonement infuse all humanity with immortality and restore what was lost in the Fall. Irenaeus took the general idea that Christ could conquer human sin and added to it other ideas (e.g. he mentions propitiation, ransom, and so on).

Gregory of Nyssa (ca. 330 – 395) built upon the ideas of Irenaeus at a time when society was often plagued by bandits capturing and holding for ransom those whose families had the means to pay some significant amount for r
elease of the hostage. Ideas of ransom and release from captivity were ones that connected well with people and were part of the common experience of life in those days. Gregory saw humankind as held for ransom by the devil and that God tricked the devil by paying the ransom through the death of Christ who subsequently was resurrected. In contrast, Origen of Alexandria (ca. 185 – 254) argued that the devil accepted the death of Christ as ransom for a sinful humanity but the devil could not bear being in the presence of Christ and so had to release him.

As the church and state became commingled after Constantine, the appeal of a model that saw Christ as victor over the forces of evil rather lost its appeal. Today, the concept of atonement as involving a resolution of the conflict between good (Christ) and evil (the various forces of evil at work in the world and at work in individual lives) seems to be coming back to the forefront of atonement theology in some quarters.

Honor and shame models:

In the Greco-Roman culture of Christ’s day, the crucifixion was not seen primarily as an event focused on pain and suffering. Of course these aspects were fully present, but the choice of crucifixion as a punishment by the Romans was made because of the shamefulness of the event. In a culture in which honor and shame meant something, the crucifixion was a dishonorable, defiling, shameful and degrading way to die in the full view of the public where ridicule and contempt were evident. Hence, in a modern-day society, such as Japan, where honor and shame motifs are still apparent, the idea of the crucifixion as a way in which Christ identifies with the shame a person feels when publicly humiliated or the guilt a person feels when they have sinned (and perhaps fear public exposure) resonates well. Note that in cultures where honor matters, to say “I forgive you” to someone is to insinuate that they have done something wrong (i.e. they have “sinned”) and hence the culturally acceptable way to deal with such a situation is not to discuss it all but simply to remain silent. In this atonement model, Christ bore the shame of the crucifixion and in so doing allows those who are shamed to recover their place in society without the degrading loss of honor that forgiveness would entail. The shame of sin is thus nullified without any need for ongoing humiliation.

A good book on the various models of atonement mentioned above, upon which these notes are based, is: “Recovering the Scandal of the Cross: Atonement in New Testament and Contemporary Contexts” by Joel B. Green and Mark D. Baker.

Our good friend, Rick Gaillardetz, encouraged us to also think about two additional points:

(i) Theosis [meaning divinization or deification (to become god), i.e. the call to humankind to become holy and seek union with God] as it has developed in the Eastern Orthodox tradition. We touch on it briefly in the treatment of Irenaeus, where this line of thought has its beginning in Irenaeus’ understanding of anakephalaiosis [i.e. recapitulatio, recapitulation, pointing to Ephesians I: All things in heaven and earth alike should be gathered up in Christ], but it is developed much more in a theological trajectory running through Athanasius (“the Son of God became human that we might become divine”) and finding its term in Maximus the Confessor.

(ii) A more contemporary Catholic perspective, as with the thought of Karl Rahner, who views the entire Christ event as salvifically efficacious in the manner of a sacrament (a real symbol that does not merely point to or remind us of some other reality, but efficaciously makes that other reality present), Christ does not just “model” divine love,” Christ is the efficacious sacrament of divine love that ontologically transforms the human condition, infusing the humanum with grace.

There is a lot to think about here – personally I find it helpful to think about walking around the cross and looking at it from lots of different points of view. Some views may seem prettier to me than others, but it is very much the case that the cross looks different when we stand in different places. It doesn’t necessarily mean that some views are “right” and some views are “wrong”. For me, the categories are “more helpful” and “less helpful” and of course, you might be standing in a different place…….


  1. Brad

    This discussion explored ideas about how atonement was accomplished through the “Christ event”, but not until the end did we actually define atonement. For me, understanding the term makes a big difference in the way I then understand the Christ event. Julian and Dee explained that atonement has something to do with “becoming one with”, in this case, one with God. This is much different than a popular Evangelical conception that begins with penal substitution and from there understands atonement as having something to do with “paying the price for our sins”. The penal substitution theory also emphasizes the death of Jesus, while neglecting the life and resurrection and, furthermore, fails to conceive of the life, death, and resurrection as equally necessary elements of the indivisible Christ event. Therefore, if we are to develop a meaningful understanding of atonement, as it relates to Christ, then we must begin by recognizing that “atonement” means to become one with God, and that the life, death, and resurrection of Christ cannot be seperated from each other, but must be understood as comprising the one Christ event.

    I’ll have more to say later.

  2. Eric

    I have thought a little about the atonement. The issue I have focused on is whether the atonement was necessary. I don’t mean by that whether humans were or are in need of atonement. I meant, was it necessary for God to become human, suffer, be crucified to death, and be raised from the dead? On that, I think the answer is no. Couldn’t God have devised thousands of other ways to accomplish what Anselm, Abelard, and others speculate about what was accomplished by means of the atonement?

    I am sure there is a long argument about that, suggesting that there was no other way. I haven’t studied it enough, so I don’t hold my own view with much confidence.

    So let me offer a speculation as to why in the world God would perform atonement by way of incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection. And the speculation is by way of a story.

    Some eight or so years ago, as a behavior motivator (not all that successful) for my son to do well in school, I told him that if he got an afterschool detention, he would have to walk home from school. He went to a private school seven miles from home. Eventually, he did get an afterschool detention. So what did I do? I had my wife drop me off at his school, and I walked home with him. Did I have better things to do for 150 minutes? Of course. Couldn’t I have dealt with it in other ways? Of course. So why that? I suffered too by his fault, and I too would walk the penalty with him. Did it have an impact? Probably; he never said anything like “wow, I was so grateful that you did that for me.” Still, there was not another afterschool detention (that I knew of).

    I recall having read a work-in-progress by Robin Collins (Prof of Philosophy, Messiah College, PA) on the atonement that I found deeply interesting. If I find the link to it I will post it here.

    Eric Snider

  3. Brad

    Dr. Snider’s question about the necessity of the Christ event for humanity’s atonement with God has also perplexed me. More specifically, I have pondered how the Christ event, or Incarnation, directly affects individuals. I think that to understand this, we must remember that we do not exist isolated from the rest of the universe but are part of the universe. Therefore, anything that significantly affects the universe ultimately affects individuals within the universe. Humanity has inherited a universe fallen from God’s ideal. When humanity, represented by Adam and Eve, chose to rebel against God’s vision, the universe became one that has experienced “sin”. The unpolluted world became polluted. The world, therefore, became a place hostile to an atoned relationship with God. However, the Fall was not the only experience to have cosmic significance – the Incarnation happened. We now live in a world that has experienced atonement, or perfect relationship with God. The world’s hostility was not enough to overcome Christ’s perfect communion with God and humanity. He was able to resist the hostile influence of the world and maintain an atoned relationship through his life, death, and resurrection. Although we have inherited a fallen world, we have now also inherited a world in which God’s presence has triumphed. (I am hesitant to speak too much in terms of good v. evil because that sounds either too simplified or too much like gnostic dualism.) The human condition is thus transformed by the transformed universe into which the human is born. Our own atonement is now more possible, because Christ lived atoned with God, thereby significantly affecting the universe. The polluted universe is now less polluted.

    Here is an analogy: The carbon dioxide of sin threatening the world with the global warming of broken relationship is weakened by the oxygen of Christ emanating from his rain forest of the perfect atoned relationship he had with God. Whoah! I’ll have to think more about that! That was off the top of my head.

    Well, I am still not completely satisfied, but for me this way of understanding atonement, by perceiving ourselves as part of the universe, rather than isolated from it, helps some.

  4. Brad

    However, when considering the wars and awful experiences plaguing our history, the world does not seem less polluted. I don’t know. I think the universe, and consequently the human condition, was altered by the Christ event, but I am still not sure what that means.

  5. Rob R

    Of relevence to our discussion, the following will be available December 22

    Atonement And Violence: A Theological Conversation

    Ed. John Sanders

    This is supposed to be a multiple views book which I believe has taken the form where several authors have submitted their position on the atonement and then they respond to each other.

  6. Rob R

    I think the way the atonement was played out strongly fits the picture that it was necessary. If it wasn’t necessary and if it could have been accomplished another way, then that means that Jesus suffered a horrible death for little to no reason. As to why it is necessary could be a number of reasons as reflected in the variety of explanations for the atonement. I think there is a valid comparison of the atonement with Eric sharing in his son’s discipline, but I don’t see that the lack of necessity carries over.

    For our thoughts on penal substitution, I think in our procedure for discussion, the concept of charity is important here. To scrutinize a view charitably is to deal with it on its best terms available. If the view is to be rejected, the rejection is more powerful when the benefit of doubt has been often where reasonably given.

    I have to object to the notion that any explanation of the atonement cannot focus on the death of Jesus with little to say of his life and resurrection or for that matter, that the value of his life cannot have a significance to the atonement that might obscure the death and resurrection or that an explanation of salvation based on the resurrection might not have much to say about the functions of Jesus death and life (except for the fact that resurrections generally aren’t that impressive unless proceeded by death). For example, because Jesus was raised from the dead, we can be confident that God intends to raise us from the dead so that we can be one with him for the rest of eternity. There are some statements of Jesus that are relevant to this and essential for indicating this point but ultimately, this point is established with little relevance to Jesus’ life.

    I think to insist that all explanations of the atonement should utilize the life, death and resurrection is contrary to Julian’s principle of looking at the cross from lots of different angles.

    Not all explanations of the atonement stand in an either/or relation to each other. I don’t see that penal substitution is at odds with an understanding that the primary point of the atonement is to be one with God. Penal substitution could describe part of the mechanism by which God eliminates that which keeps us from perfect unity with God, the weight of our sins of our rejection of him and his designs for us.

  7. Rob R

    I thought I’d put this on the table further on penal substitution. I mentioned that Brad and I had different intuitions on the subject. I believe that intuition is that the notion of retribution is a natural and not necessarily a bad response to evil (not that I would imply that it is the only response and one that should stand alone).

    That said, whether or not there is still a useful place in the world for retribution, I don’t believe that penal substitution answers that question and could go either way. Jesus has taken all retribution upon himself thus there is no need for it, or one might conclude that because not all accept Christ’s payment, retribution is still relevent.

  8. Bill

    When I have asked Christians why Christ had to die, they acted like they couldn’t believe that I didn’t know. So I feel a little better now.

    For me, discussions about the meaning of the “Christ Event” never get around to explaining why it was necessary (i.e. “no other way”) for Jesus to be tortured to death.

    So, I’m inclined to agree that His death has to be taken in the context of the Christ Event. I’ll go one step further and say that applies to everything He said and did. Seems like a lot of suffering is caused by selecting bits or pieces and giving them meaning out of context.

  9. Brad

    There is value in the examination of the cross from different perspectives, but I think any perspective that does not recognize the cross as only one part of the Incarnation, or Christ event, is narrow and insufficient.

    Rob wrote that “because Jesus was raised from the dead, we can be confident that God intends to raise us from the dead.” How? I don’t see the connection. I was taught this most of my life, but now I question that interpretation of the Resurrection. How do we reason from observing that the Son of God was raised from the dead to asserting that this means we will be too. Did Jesus say that? There may be reason to believe in immortality, but I don’t know if Christ’s resurrection appropriately justifies that belief.

    I want to consider the questions about the neccesity of Christ’s death. Perhaps speaking of it as either necessary or not is to overlook the meaning of the Incarnation, the entire Christ event. The Incarnation transformed the world from one that only knew falleness to one that has experienced wholeness. When this man, Jesus, who was one with God, walked the earth without comprimising his communion with God, his death was inevitable. To live according to God’s ways is to challenge the world’s ways – in Jesus’s day that was to challenge the Roman Empire’s ways. Had Jesus not lived in uncompromising communion with God, he probably would not have been killed, and the world would not have experienced someone overcoming the world’s hostility toward God’s ways. Before he was even resurrected, Jesus had overcome, because he did not succumb. In my opinion, then, if we do talk in terms of good v. evil, evil lost the moment he died, because, even by subjecting Jesus to a tortorous death, it was unable to sumit him to its ways. The idea that Satan rejoiced at his death is a misunderstood idea. For, if there is a Satan – which I doubt – he would have actually wept at Jesus’s death. That Jesus withstood the torture until death made the forces allied against him failures, because they had hoped that through his torture he would renounce his communion with God. But he didn’t, and by enduring he won. God became incarnate so that the world would be one in which the forces of hostility had lost to the forces of love. Jesus’s death was inevitable in the face of the Roman Empire. Perhaps, then, we can say that it wan’t his death that was necessary, but his living unto death that was necessary. Having transformed the world, we now inherit a different world, one in which atonement is closer and more possible.

  10. Bill

    High five, Brad. That’s where I’m winding up. Jesus death was the result of Him practicing what He preached. Jesus said, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.”

    Although, I would point out that He believed in Satan…

  11. Brad

    I have yet to feel comfortable with any explanation of the Resurrection’s function as part of the Christ event.

  12. Rob R

    I’d like to comment on the importance of the ressurection from a different angle than the relevence of our own personal ressurection.

    We refer to the “Christ event” and discuss soteriology and it occasionally seems to me that we have taken it for granted that the latter is necessary to the former. I reject this view in confidence in God as the perfect creator. God’s creation was so perfect and good that he had no reason to believe that the creation would rebel from him! It was so perfect that there was no such truth about a future rebellion. (of course to briefly take a peek at the timelessness objection to this, I would think that eternalism of the world would dissolve the distinction of the creation event and all of history and would thus negate God’s creation as absolutely perfect. Of course as an omniscient God, he would know that the possibility for rebellion existed simply as a result of freedom).

    Since I don’t believe in the necessity of sin from the beginning, some people have offered the rejection that if there was no sin, there’d be no need for Jesus to come. This assumes that the only reason for incarnation is for redemption. Let me suggest that this is an empoverished view of the importance of the incarnation as it leads to notion that the most important event in history needed sin and rebellion from God.

    Scripture suggests other roles for the Son of God other than redemption. Paul speaks of Christ as the bride groom. The author of Hebrews cites the psalmist who sees God making an oath that his annointed should be a preist in the order of Melchizedek. Neither of these roles necessarily have to be in response to sin. Both of these roles have to do with a greater connection to God for both our benefit and God’s. Paul in Ephesians says that our connection to God facilitated through God was always in the plan. “He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we would be holy and blameless before Him In love”

    In short, God’s first reason for incarnation was for greater unity and intimacy with the creation, so that we would know him face to face. And God would know his creation as a member of his creation.

    Even if the whole picture on the atonement ultimately excluded the importance of the ressurection, the ressurection was still necessary or God’s first intentions for the incarnation would have been defeated.

    But what about the ressurection and our own personal I don’t intend to suggest that we can simply go from Jesus’ resurrection to asserting our own hope for a ressurection just from the bare fact of Jesus ressurection itself. The historical context adds force to this notion. Of course the issue of life after death was hotly debated In Jesus day and Jesus sides with the pharisees against the sadducees on this topic. When questioned about it in Mark 12, Jesus cites scriptures that refer to our God as the God of the patriarchs and since God is not a God of the dead but of the living, the patriarchs must also live on some how. This arguement is deductively valid (meaning it’s conclusion cannot fail to be true if it’s premises are all right) though I’ll have to admit that it isn’t necessarily sound as the interpretation of one of the premises are merely about reference. But I don’t think Jesus is merely giving a logically deductive arguement here but is also stating that God is so utterly opposed to death that He cannot abide the death of the faithful and will raise them out of love.

    The faith community early on interpreted the significance of Jesus ressurection as instrumental in our own ressurection as evidenced as indicated in Acts 4 were the apostle’s were persecuted for preaching ressurection “through Jesus”. John portrays Jesus as the embodiment of the ressurection as seen in his interaction with Marry. Jesus told her that Lazerus would rise and Marry had the Jewish concept of ressurection of that time and she said she knew this was so. Jesus told her that he was the ressurection.

    It would be odd if Jesus was the key to the ressurection and yet he never did so himself.

    Finally, it really is the way that the story is going. If you look at it from a classical plot analysis view, at the beginning, the world is cursed with death as a result of mankind’s rebellion. If Jesus is the solution and he remains dead, it’s ironic that he would not be an example of his own solution. If Jesus is the solution and we all remain dead, practically speaking, there was no solution at all.

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