My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world. —1 John 2:1-2
We have sinned. We have missed it when it comes to hitting the mark for which we were aimed. We have left our father’s house and squandered our inheritance. We have eaten the forbidden fruit repeatedly and made ourselves into our own god. We have fled God and found ourselves in the belly of a beast. We have violated the trust God has in us and breached the covenant. We are complicit in the lies and violence that run the world. We feel guilty, fraudulent, incapable, incomplete, lonely, hopeless, needy. We are dying. People and powers are trying to kill us. Our condition disturbs God. Not only is he offended, he is suffering the loss of us. Like a mother, God can’t rest until she is at peace with her children and they are safe and growing.
In Jesus, God provides the remedy for sin that we have committed and which has been perpetrated on us. The work of Jesus is called the atonement.
- the at-one-ment
- the propitiation
- the atoning sacrifice
- the expiation
- the reconciliation for our sins
- the act that turns away wrath
- the exhalation after inhalation
There are many more ways to describe the gift of God in Jesus. How one thinks of the work of Jesus the Christ through the cross and resurrection makes a big difference in how she relates to God and others, and how he discerns what he must do or be.
In some ways the Lord’s work is very clear: God has provided a way to deal with sin and death on our behalf and to bring about our reconciliation. In other ways, the life, death and resurrection of Jesus are so profound, they are beyond our complete understanding. Just beginning with the list of definitions bulleted above shows how varied the images of God’s work can be. We will need to do some theology and keep listening as we move through life.
As we briefly consider most of the different ways the scripture describes the work of redemption in the Lord’s life, death and resurrection, we are not merely moving through a mental exercise. We need to slow down and meditate so we can understand with our mind and heart. We need to pray as only a saved person can – in relationship with the living God! Jesus, the person, is the atonement, not his effective working of a theory; so relate, not just analyze.
Pray: You are my advocate, Jesus. I stand in confidence with you in the presence of God.
The various images of the atonement help us receive the gift of reconciliation with God through the person and work of Jesus Christ. When we put all the theories together, they fill out our understanding of an act which is the daily reality in which we live but which is also beyond our full comprehension since it comes from and is moving toward a reality we can only know in part right now. You may think that one of the explanations is the best one. But you don’t need to decide that. The multiple views enlighten each other and end up broadening our understanding. Each image provides a Bible-based angle and represents the goodwill of the people who offered it. The many explanations of the Lord’s work do not need to stand alone or compete; and they don’t need to be considered equally relevant or applicable. But put them all together and they provide a brilliant revelation to repair our broken souls and guide our way home.
Here is how this teaching works. There are five images of the atonement in the order of their origin. Each section begins with a primary description from the Bible that is a basis for the explanation. There is a brief history, then more scripture to back up the image, then some objections to the explanation, and then we end in prayer. Let’s meditate on the great work of God on our behalf in Jesus!
First image of the atonement: Jesus the example
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.
In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. And have you completely forgotten this word of encouragement that addresses you as a father addresses his son? It says, ‘My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son.’ Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father?” —Hebrews 12:1-12
This first image of the atonement focuses on the power of the Lord’s example to transform us. He is our inspiration; we follow in His steps. It focuses on how humans work and how God’s love moves them. The “exemplar” or “moral influence” view was common among the Apostolic Fathers (ca. 100-200). Later, it was further developed by Peter Abelard (1079-1142).
This explanation suggests that Jesus Christ’s work in life and death is primarily a moral example to humanity. The self-giving love demonstrated by God in Jesus inspires us to leave our sin behind and grow toward union with God. Christ’s atoning work leads everyone to repentance and faith by revealing the true nature of God and the power of self-giving love. The “exemplar” explanation teaches that atonement is not attained through a payment to Satan—as in the ransom explanation. It is not attained by a payment made to restore God’s honor—as in the satisfaction explanation. God’s justice might demand such compensation, but God does not ask for it. Rather, God’s limitless love overrules his need for justice. Jesus’ life and death become an inspiration and an example that draws us to follow and works within us to transform us. The focus of the atonement is not Satan or God as in other explanations. It is on the individual Christian believer seeking wholeness, Love to love.
In this view the story goes like this: the Hebrew scriptures record effort after effort by God to get people on the right track. Through personal interaction, the Law, the prophets, and the sacrificial system, God tried to get the people to live morally upright lives. But each of those attempts failed. So God sent his son, Jesus, as the perfect example of a God-related life. Jesus’ teachings and his healing miracles form the core of this message. His death is as a martyr for his cause. The crucifixion calls attention to Jesus’ life and message. As an act of self-sacrifice, it is one of the highest virtues of the moral life. We see Jesus’ death, and we are inspired to a better life ourselves.
This explanation was the first post-biblical view of the atonement recorded by the earliest church. Many attribute its first articulation to Clement of Rome (ca. 96). He writes:
For [Christ] came down, for this he assumed human nature, for this he willingly endured the sufferings of humanity, that being reduced to the measure of our weakness he might raise us to the measure of his power. And just before he poured out his offering, when he gave himself as a ransom, he left us a new testament: “I give you my love.” What is the nature and extent of this love? For each of us he laid down his life, the life which was worth the whole universe, and he requires in return that we should do the same for each other.
The most articulate defender of this version of the atonement was Peter Abelard, who was opposing Anselm’s “satisfaction” explanation. He rejected how many people described “original sin.” He agreed that all human beings are guilty and sinful but this is not because we’ve inherited some depravity from Adam. Humans cannot be held liable for another person’s sin, Abelard argued; that is not justice. We are inclined toward sin because of Adam, but we are not guilty of his sin. Neither can someone achieve absolution for someone else’s guilt; that is also not justice.
According to Abelard, a human being is not absolved of sin because of Christ’s death on the cross. Absolution is achieved only by confession and repentance. Instead, Christ’s death serves as an example that beckons us to lives of sacrificial love. He writes:
We are joined through his grace to him and our neighbor by an unbreakable bond of love…Our redemption through the suffering of Christ is that deeper love within us which not only frees us from slavery to sin but also secures for us the true liberty of the children of God, in order that we might do all things out of love rather than out of fear—love for him who has shown us such grace that no greater can be found.
Here are some further examples of this angle in the New Testament:
This ancient explanation of the atonement causes problems for some people because they think it downplays the crucifixion. In fact, it can be asked whether the crucifixion is necessary at all if Jesus is merely an example of a good moral life whose teachings are our guide.
In answer to that, Jesus is not merely an example. He’s not merely anything. He does what he does because God is not coercive. God does not demand. Instead, God invites and beckons. The cross is the ultimate invitation to each human being to live the life that God gives us. Jesus the Exemplar does not say we are saved by Jesus’ teachings, but by his example. It is not only what Jesus says that saves us, in this image of the atonement, it is the entire pattern of his life, death, and resurrection. Jesus’ example does not give us a list of instructions, it provides us a trajectory, a paradigm, a narrative to live into. The Lord’s example reframes our entire existence: incarnation, mission, crucifixion, resurrection – these become the sea we swim in, the grammar that structures our every waking moment.
Some ideas for how to use this theory.
Seeing Jesus as the ultimate example may not be a stretch for someone who is new to faith. This atonement theory could quite possibly be the most accessible of all. Many people agree that Jesus is a good teacher, we are helping them move to a place where they believe he is the ultimate example. This may seem too accessible to some, in that it seems to emphasize the Lord’s humanity. In fact, it calls for a radical application that requires the risen Lord to implement.
Pray: I want to know Christ—the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death. Lead me from death to life.
2023 REFLECTION: Jesus left you an example: Take the way of love for Lent
Second image of the atonement: Jesus the ransom
Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many”—Mark 10:42-45
This image of the atonement focuses on the devil and on the holiness of God which requires justice. The explanation was emphasized by the later church fathers who were no longer persecuted and living as accepted members in society, even as leaders. It is first articulated by Origen of Alexandria (185-254), then by Gregory of Nyssa (ca. 335-395), and then by the beloved but often-too-influential-for-our-own-good Augustine of Hippo (ca. 354-430).
This explanation interprets the death of Christ as a ransom paid by God to Satan in order to secure the redemption of humanity, who had been brought under his dominion by sin. According to Origen, the story goes like this: As a result of the sin of Adam and Eve, Satan acquired a formal dominion over, and ownership of, all of humanity and the rest of the world. In order to free people from the grip of Satan, God agreed to arrange the death of Jesus, his son, as a ransom price to be paid to the devil. This formally compensated for Adam and Eve’s sin, and released humanity from Satan’s grip.
Origen wrote: “The payment could not be [made] to God [be]cause God was not holding sinners in captivity for a ransom, so the payment had to be to the devil.” Origen believed that Satan accepted the offer because he assumed that he would end up with ownership of Jesus. The devil didn’t realize that Jesus would escape his clutches. Subsequent writers would point out that there was no deceit on God’s part, since who Jesus is can be known to anyone with eyes to see.
This view was widely taught until the 1100’s. It is still widely taught, especially wherever children are reading or watching or reading the Lion, Witch and the Wardrobe from C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia.
People have always had some problems with this explanation for the basic reason that it is a theory of how the atonement works, not a story. Rather than being a drama or a revelation of mystery, the work of Christ becomes a mechanism to be explained. The teachers are trying to boil it down to answer opponents and one another.
Some say the ransom theory makes Satan a benefactor in the atoning work and describes evil powers as having much more authority than they do – even a role in redemption! There is nothing in Scripture that says Satan was the one to whom ransom was paid.
Gregory of Nazianzus (329-390) went on to show that Christ’s blood was not, strictly speaking, a ransom paid to God the Father either, since it is inconceivable that He should have found pleasure in the blood of His only Son. The truth is the Father accepted it, not because He demanded or needed it, but because in the economy of redemption it was fitting that sanctification should be restored to human nature through the humanity which God had assumed. As for the Devil, he was vanquished by force.
Some ideas for how to use this theory
For addicts or those who feel imprisoned, this is a great theory to use. Jesus frees us from our bondage and the oppression that holds us. It can also be helpful for peacemaking. We wrestle not against flesh and blood but against powers and principalities things unseen. Knowing that Jesus was doing something in the spiritual realm while not fighting people physically can be very useful imagery for people trying to bring justice about in the way of God.
Pray: Thank you for freeing me from my bondage. Make me a servant. Use me to bring freedom from what keeps people in bondage.
2023 REFLECTION: Jesus wants to ransom you: Get rescued for Lent
Third image of the atonement: Jesus the satisfaction
“The Jews answered him, ‘Aren’t we right in saying that you are a Samaritan and demon-possessed?’
‘I am not possessed by a demon,’ said Jesus, ‘but I honor my Father and you dishonor me. I am not seeking glory for myself; but there is one who seeks it, and he is the judge’”—John 8:48-50
This image of the atonement focuses on God and his honor and how humans can be restored to right relationship with their Lord. The idea was the original and inspiring work of Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) in his treatise, Cur Deus Homo (Why a God-man?). It is grounded in budding scholastic logic, the concept of personal honor found in the European feudal culture, the first sprouts of capitalism and the growing penitential system. Thomas Aquinas brings it to the flower that has influenced Christianity ever since.
This explanation finds no reason in justice why God was under any obligation to satisfy Satan. Anselm maintains that Christ’s atonement concerns God and not the devil. Humanity, by their sin, have violated the honor of God and defiled His handiwork. It is not consistent with God’s self-respect or His desire that He should permit His purpose to be thwarted. God will express his honor and achieve his purpose. Though his honor is offended by humankind’s sin, he will provide satisfaction.
Anselm’s work is about human necessity, not God’s. He writes a careful piece of logic to explain it. For humankind’s transgression, human repentance is no remedy, since penitence, however sincere, cannot atone for the guilt of past sin. Nor can any finite substitute, whether man or angel make reparation. Sin being against the infinite God is infinitely guilty, and can be atoned for only by an infinite satisfaction. There needs to be the “God-man.” There is only one way of escape, and that is that someone should be found who can unite in his own person the attributes both of humanity and of infinity. This is brought about by the incarnation of Christ. In Christ we have one who is perfectly human, and can therefore make satisfaction to God on behalf of humanity, but who is at the same time very God, and whose person therefore gives infinite worth to the satisfaction He makes. Anselm says,
“What, indeed, can be conceived of more merciful that that God the Father should say to a sinner condemned to eternal torments and lacking any means of redeeming himself, ‘Take my only-begotten Son and give him on your behalf,’ and that the Son should say, ‘Take me and redeem yourself.’ For it is something of this sort that they say when they call us and draw us toward the Christian faith” (Cur Deus Homo II,20).
Rather than satisfaction being about punishment, satisfaction is about allaying punishment as humanity is offered the means to make their relationship with God right again.
Some read a capitalist viewpoint back into Anselm’s explanation that makes it is too much about payment (see Daniel Bell in The Economy of Desire: Christianity and Capitalism in a Postmodern World), so much so, that they name it the “commercial” theory. Such a capitalist view of the world was just budding in Anselm’s time (and it could be said he was resisting it). These interpreters reduce the idea down to God bringing a suit against a debtor. In Anselm’s time a serf might have insulted and dishonored his lord. In such cases the lord would demand satisfaction, or payment for the dishonoring of his position and status. Since God was so dishonored by humanity’s sin, it was likewise necessary for God to be satisfied by payment for such an egregious action (as if God were constrained by the “invisible hand” of his own rules and as if a lord might not be generous and forgive an offense).
The rendering of the satisfaction explanation by Thomas Aquinas extends what Anselm was teaching. He says the satisfaction explanation is actually a critique of seeing the Lord’s passion in terms of punishment, and sees it rather in terms of restoring a broken relationship through penance. When Thomas Aquinas codifies this in his Summa Theolgica (written 1265–1274) he teaches that Jesus satisfies the moral injustice of original sin, which no person can do, with his superabundance of merit. Once joined in God’s will we can participate in His merit as members of the body of Christ and partakers of the sacraments.
Here are some further examples of this angle in the New Testament:
- Romans 5:6-8
- Romans 3:25
- Philippians 2:2-8
- Hebrews 9: 22-28
- Romans 8:3-4
- Hebrews 10:10
- Acts 5:30-32
- 2 Corinthians 7:10-11
- Matthew 21:33-45
Anselm’s explanation illuminates a divine “economy” characterized by plenitude and generosity that exceeds the strictures of capitalism as surely as Christ burst the bonds of death. No necessity compels God to redeem humankind. God needs nothing. The cross is not about settling accounts. In Christ, God dismisses every debt and gives a gift that far exceeds any imagined payment. The cross is God making good on his intention to create humanity. Sin is an offense to God’s honor because it thwarts his desire that humanity enjoy God and find communion in God. But God is not an aristocrat whose pride is offended; God’s honor is the origin of his loving act to provide a path to communion and wholeness. God’s honor demands not that one pay for thwarting God’s intentions but that those intentions for humanity not be thwarted. Christ is not our offering to God, but God’s offering to us.
The story goes like this: Sin is wrecking humankind. God’s honor in his creation and his superabundant, generous love causes him to act on his desire. Jesus expresses how far God will go to redeem humanity, even to die as the offering humankind is incapable of providing, as a substitution. Christ’s sacrifice is the donation of obedience and praise, a return of love as an offering by the son to the Father. Receiving and participating in the sacrifice opens us to the great pouring forth of God’s grace and transforms our own desire to resemble God’s generosity.
Some ideas for how to use this theory
For those coming from shame and honor cultures, this particular viewpoint is helpful. Jesus takes away the shame of our sin and makes us into new beings.
For a postmodern audience, the question of desire is significant. What shapes our desire? God expresses his desire to redeem humanity and that can shape us. Journal about how you participate with God’s desire for you and the world. Is your faith in your head? Did you make a deal? Or is it in your heart and you live in it?
Pray: I honor you as my Lord. Thank you for the gracious way you use your power to release me from the consequences of my sin.
2023 REFLECTION: Jesus satisfies your debt: Rest in the honor for Lent
Fourth image of the atonement: Jesus the substitute
All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished—he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.—Romans 3:23-26
This image of the atonement focuses on God and his justice. The explanation formed the basis for the great reforms Martin Luther (1483-1546) and John Calvin (1509-1564) forced into the church of their time.
This dominant Protestant exposition of Scripture holds many of Anselm’s presuppositions regarding Christ’s atonement. However, it is modified in one very substantial way. The central cause for the atonement is interpreted not as providing satisfaction, but as absorbing punishment, and so the focus shifts to substitution. The Reformers speak of Christ as having borne our punishment or as having appeased the wrath of God in our place. In this they are taking what they consider to be a holistic view of the entire scripture. They see how Jesus understood his work to be complementary to what had already been established. His work was to be that which would fulfill the law and the prophets and epitomize the sacrificial system of the Jewish Temple rather than something new or unrelated.
Understanding the problem of sin properly—that it invokes God’s wrath— is key to understanding the nature of the satisfaction Jesus secures in the atonement. It is God’s wrath over sin which is in need of satisfaction. The atonement is oriented toward the securing of justice rather than honor.
The story is: God’s law has been broken, invoking his wrath. Being a just God, he demands that payment be rendered for the broken Law. Such payment is not a mystery in the biblical narrative. God prescribed his punitive decision prior to the offense, clearly noting in the Garden of Eden that, “ … you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die” (Genesis 2:17). With justice as a defining attribute of His nature, God cannot simply overlook one’s sin (Leviticus 17:11/Hebrews 9:22). Sin is an offense to his Law; an illegal (penal) action requires a just sentence, which God prescribes to be death to the offender. What Jesus did on the cross was to quite literally apply the payment to God for the crimes of humanity. The atonement was penal in nature, because it provided the means of payment for the breaking of God’s Law. It was substitutionary in nature, because the payment was obtained vicariously by another: Christ. God’s wrath was invoked by man’s sin. His justice demanded restitution. In grace, he provided a substitutionary system of atonement, which Christ completed–once and for all.
Here are some further examples of this angle in the Old and New Testament:
- Isaiah 53:5-6
- John 10:14-15
- 2 Corinthians 5:21
- Romans 8:3-4
- 1 John 2:1-2
- Galatians 3:13-14
- John 3:36
- Ephesians 2:3
The Penal Theory has been severely criticized by some, who attack the entire concept of substitutionary punishment. They hold that punishment and forgiveness are inconsistent ideas. If a person is punished they cannot be forgiven, and vice versa. Under the theory of distributive justice, punishment, being a matter of the relation between individual guilt and its consequences, is strictly untransferable.
Others complain that the imagery is taken too far and accepts medieval levels of violence. It can be more Old Testament than New, seeing the Lord’s work from the view of systematic theology rather than the risen Lord. What’s more, the explanation can make God look like a wrathful father exacting vengeance on his son and so leads to coercive preaching, such as Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) picturing humanity as spiders dangling by a thread over the fires of hell.
The theory’s present-day proponents are often seen trying to rescue the image from becoming an explanation of how the atonement works rather than what it means, since it sometimes descends to a “judicial” doctrine based more on natural law and human codes than on revelation. They teach it as a picture of how humans need to be saved, condemned as they are without a plea in the court of God’s justice. It should not be reduced to a formula by which God must act to forgive. It is an act of forgiveness, freely given. God, himself, becomes one of us to stand in our place.
To remedy criticisms, some people have offered what could be called a “healing” or “therapeutic” substitution. The story goes like this: Sin and death are more or less synonymous. Rather than being forensic (a legal matter), they are ontological (a matter of being and existence). Sin is the disease of corruption, the movement from true existence toward non-being. The destructive chaos that it leaves in its wake is more like “symptoms” than legal problems. God, the Great Physician, in His mercy becomes human, and enters the depths of ontological corruption and destroys them. In His resurrection (which is a necessary aspect of this model – unlike the others), the corruption of our beings is destroyed or rather “put to death” and we receive new life – the eternal life of the resurrection (which is a quality and not merely longevity). Christ becomes sin, that we might become righteous. He dies that we might live. He takes on our death that we might take on His life. He has become our peace so humanity can experience shalom.
Another application of this theory is Hugo Grotius’s governmental theory of atonement, which argues that rather than being punished on behalf of humanity, God was demonstrating in public God’s displeasure with sin by punishing Jesus as “propitiation.” God is able to maintain divine order here but demonstrating seriousness against sin, while also forgiving humanity. This view is a correction of both the Reformers’ substitution theory as well as Anselm’s satisfaction theory. “Because of Christ’s death, then, it is possible for God to forgive sins without a breakdown of the moral fiber of the universe.” “The death of Christ was not a punishment; on the contrary, it made punishment unnecessary.”
Some ideas for how to use this theory
This is, by and large, the most widely held view of the atonement. It’s manifestly in the Bible. Though it might be hard to “sell” it to people coming from a non-faith background, for those who grew up in the church this is their starting point. It has the advantage of being rational and legal, which appeals to people who are not highly processed psychologically, in that it is a good starting point.
This can be used to promote peacemaking among believers who espouse this theory. Since Jesus is the substitute for God’s judgment against the sins of humanity, then any judgment after this on any other human for their sins (e.g. the death penalty, torture, or warfare) cannot be from God. It’s being done in denial of Christ’s work on the cross.
Pray: I receive you as my Savior and accept the forgiveness you make possible. Thank you for taking my place on the cross and fulfilling the requirements of justice on my behalf.
2023 REFLECTION: Jesus our substitute: Receive the grace for Lent
Fifth image of the atonement: Jesus the victor
When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.—Colossians 2:13-15
Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.—Hebrews 2:14-15
This image of the atonement focuses on Jesus, the powers, and the surprising transformation forgiveness brings. The primary question to be asked and answered is not, “What must human beings to do have life or to be reconciled to God?” Instead, the primary question is, “What has God done for human beings?” In 1931 a Swedish theologian named Gustav Aulen wrote a book called Christus Victor, in which he argued that the dominant understanding of the cross of Christ in the New Testament is Christ as one who wins victory. Many people have been expanding on his ideas ever since.
In this explanation of the atonement, Jesus is doing battle on the cross to defeat sin, death, hell and the devil (the “powers”). Jesus’ work is about rescuing us as he triumphs over these oppressors. Aulén argued that theologians misunderstood the views of the early Church Fathers. A proper understanding of their views should focus less on the payment of ransom to the devil, and more on the liberation of humanity. The idea of “ransom” should not be seen in terms of a business transaction (as Anselm was typed as believing), but more in terms of a rescue, the liberation of humanity from the slavery of sin.
Unlike the substitution view, which is commonly seen as rooted in the idea of Christ paying the penalty of sin to satisfy the demands of justice, this view is rooted in the incarnation and how Christ entered into human misery and wickedness and thus redeemed it. Aulen teaches that the early church did not understand the death of Christ as paying a penalty in some transactional sense that only God’s Son could pay. The crucifixion is not, in that sense, cosmically necessary to reconcile God and humanity. The atonement is not so much a rational, systematic theory as it is a drama, a passion story about how God triumphed over the powers and liberated humanity from the bondage of sin. It is the ongoing story of Jesus and his people showing up the powers for who they are through acts of forgiveness and selfless love. In this is resembles the moral example explanation.
The story is: God has taken the initiative in Christ to gain victory over the powers hostile to God and all God’s creation, including sin, death, and the devil. God has been an actor in a great salvation drama from beginning to end: releasing us from captivity, giving us life as salvation, and overcoming the powers of sin, death, and the devil. God’s act of reconciliation is the same as the initiative taken in creating the world — the God who calls into existence things that do not exist also gives life to the dead (Rom 4:17). From beginning to end, God has been turned toward the world for its redemption, for its life. That is what we see in the incarnation of the Word, the ministry of Jesus among his own, his death for us, and the resurrection to life. Sin is powerful; death is powerful; but they are not all powerful. The promise of the New Testament witness to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is that through them God has overcome the powers. They no longer cloud our destiny. We have been set free from sin and death. Christ is the victor!
Greg Boyd says: God accomplished many things by having his Son become incarnate and die on Calvary. Through Christ God revealed the definitive truth about himself (Rom 5:8, cf. Jn 14:7-10); reconciled all things, including humans, to himself (2 Cor 5:18-19; Col 1:20-22), forgave us our sins (Ac 13:38; Eph 1:7); healed us from our sin-diseased nature (1 Pet 2:24); poured his Spirit upon us and empowered us to live in relation to himself (Rom 8:2-16 ); and gave us an example of what it looks like when we live in the kingdom (Eph 5:1-2; 1 Pet 2:21). Yet, I believe all these facets of Christ’s work can be understand as aspects of the most fundamental thing Christ came to accomplish: namely, to defeat the devil and his minions (Heb 2:14; 1 Jn 3:8). He came to overcome evil with love.
“in narrative Christus Victor salvation and justice are no longer based on the violence of justice equated with punishment or violent death. Salvation does not depend on balancing sin by retributive violence. Making right no longer means the violence of punishment. Justice and salvation are accomplished in narrative Christus Victor by doing justice and participating in God’s saving work. There is no longer any need to discuss whether those who killed Jesus were in some way carrying out the will of God even as Jesus was enacting the will of God. And most significantly, God is obviously neither the agent of Jesus’ death nor the ultimate punisher.”
“Identifying with, following, or imitating Jesus may indeed be costly; it may indeed entail suffering and even death. But that suffering is not suffering that is salvific in and of itself, and it is not suffering whose origin or object is God or happens because in some way God needs it without compelling it. This is suffering that is the byproduct of opposing evil, as Jesus’ suffering and death was the result of opposing evil.”
Here are some further examples of this angle in the New Testament:
Some people object that this view can be taken too far at the expense of the substitution explanation, which is manifestly better attested in the New Testament. They note that scripture, even when it momentarily uses Christus Victor language, grounds it in substitution. For example, in the classic Christus Victor passage quoted above — “He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him” — note how Paul sets the context of that victory within substitution: “And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.” Or note again what is said immediately after a passage listed above — ” … through death [Christ] might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.” Later in the same passage we read: “Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people” (Heb. 2:14-17).
Another area worth noting is the social setting in which this explanation arose. 20th century, Eurocentric people began to see they lived in societies where they were victims of huge social or biological forces. At the same time Western culture became increasingly illiterate in the language of guilt, sin, and personal responsibility. People felt victimized and personally unable to do much about it. Detractors of this theory say it helps Americans, who often feel victimized and entitled to be personally irresponsible, undercut their personal guilt, which Jesus assumes to be elemental to their character. Perhaps we see that worked out when Christians live immorally while claiming salvation.
Renee Girard (d. 2015) saw his mimetic theory exemplified in the Bible. His work throws another postmodern light on theories bound in philosophical boxes. Girard came to see true Christianity, not the stream consigned to the scapegoating and ritual murder of “the other” common to all societies, as the way out of the endless cycle of violence in the world. Girard’s seed thought is this: our desires are not innate, they are imitative — toddlers don’t want the toy until some other toddler has it. Using that lens to examine many fields of study, his theory became a powerful way to describe how the world works. Girard, the atheist renaissance man, expected to find the same scapegoating he found in other religious texts when he examined the Bible, but he found the opposite. The theme of the Bible deconstructs the idea that killing the wrongdoer or the one assigned the community’s wrong will save the people. In Jesus we see the ultimate flowering of that project, where the forgiving victim not only shows up the lie in which we live, but rises from the dead to prove it powerless. The key verse here might be: What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures (James 4:1-3).
Some ways to use this theory:
This is a dramatic rendition of the atonement. Jesus not only saved, but is saving all of humanity. For a generation that needs saving from oppression, this is a relief. It arouses conviction that is contagious and stimulates us and others to overcome evil with good.
Girard (and the theologians who apply his thinking) extend the drama further. The atonement is not metaphysical, juridical or individual, it is innately communal and relational. When we see the communion bread broken, we are the ones who broke the body. We are participating in an ancient, flesh-eating ritual as a community. When we take the cup we are truly moving into a new covenant where violence and death are traded for love and life. The real, sinful us appears at the table and the real presence of Jesus meets us.
We can certainly feel the domination of irrational powers these days, whose motives seem purely self-interested and evil. What is your responsibility and how do you exercise it? What’s more, are you in collusion with antichrist powers (unwittingly or otherwise)? What must you accept to be truly free?
Pray: Thank you for freeing me. Help me live my freedom and take my part in exposing the evil powers for who they are.
2023 REFLECTION: Jesus is the Victor: Be recreated for Lent
[This much-edited piece was first printed in 2016]