Throughout the Lenten season, we will be writing about various atonement theories.
And some of you might have just gone, “huh?”
Atonement is defined as “at*one*ment with God” or “the reconciliation of God to humankind through Jesus Christ”. That’s the black and white part of atonement. The more gray area resides in the fact that The Bible isn’t clear on how atonement takes place. The majority of the Evangelical Church will answer that question by saying, “Through Jesus who spilt His blood as the ultimate sacrifice for our sins on the cross.”
Actually… that’s ONE of SEVERAL theories.
Various authors of the Books of the Bible used various metaphors/similes to try to illustrate how atonement took place, which in the end, lead to various views and thoughts on the topic. Typically, at any given Evangelical Good Friday service, a sermon will take several atonement theories and wrap them into one. Since we are so immune to Christianese (or Christian verbiage) we aren’t even aware that these several atonement theories are contradictions to each other and cannot all be true. For example we might hear: “Jesus came to die on the cross to pay the ultimate price for our sins. God hates sin so much, He could not forgive us or look at us without the blood of Jesus. It was the blood that paid the price, so that we could become part of His family. Now, when God sees us, He sees Jesus. That is how much God loved us! He sent His Son to save us–for the whosoever to believe in Him and have eternal life.”
So… is atonement a sort of “legal transaction”? Was God so repelled by our sin, that Jesus was forced to die so He could pay the price to God for our sins with His blood?
Or… is atonement more of a love story? Did Jesus die on the cross because of God’s love for us and paid the price to Satan so that we could be reconciled to Him?
Those are completely contradictory ideas. One places the motive on an angry God that demands payment, and the other places the motive on a loving God… so which one is it?
And speaking of which, who exactly was the price paid to? God? Satan? Us?
And is God a mean, old, grumpy dude in the Old Testament, and then Jesus comes along and suddenly God turns into this loving God? Is God bipolar? How can He have a change of heart after Jesus if He is the same yesterday, today, and forever?
And how can God say to us, ‘thou shalt not murder’ and then murder His Son on the cross? Does that make God a hypocrite? I thought hypocrisy was a sin and God was perfect…?
And did the atonement even take place at His death? What if it took place at His birth instead? Or what happens if it takes place at the resurrection?
Is atonement attached to the Old Testament’s celebration of the Day of Atonement or is it attached to Passover?
And on and on, the questions go, one after another, after another, after another…
When dealing with theology the first question people like to ask is: Does this affect salvation? Because if it doesn’t affect salvation, then we don’t need to worry about it.
Uh… that’s totally the wrong question.
When dealing with theology the wise question to ask is: Does this affect how I live my life today? Because if it does, then I need to know what I believe and why. Not for the sake of argument, but for the sake of my own personal convictions, and for the sake of how I interact with God and others.
Does our belief in any given atonement theory affect how we live our lives today—YES!—especially in our understanding of God’s character, how He reaches out to humankind, and/or violence (even though we may be completely unaware of it). And just for clarification purposes ANY and ALL theology affects how we live today, because we naturally live out what we believe, and theology is what we believe about God.
So, your next question might be, is this worth arguing about? Maybe… In some circumstances. Is it worth being educated on? YES!
For those who are in the same denomination as me, we typically embrace the Ransom Theory (aka Christus Victor Atonement Theory) which will come across our blog in March with a guest post. Our doctrine specifies that atonement took place with Christ’s death, the rest is just as vague about how it all takes place as it is in Scripture.
The big picture is that we must agree that we are reconciled to God through Jesus Christ in order to be Christians. However, in regards to what we believe how and when that reconciliation took place, we can be Christians who agree to disagree agreeably. Even the Early Church who wrote the Nicene Creed and the Apostles’ Creed left out this topic, because they didn’t find atonement to be a crucial topic for us to be in agreement on as the Universal Church.
So as we go throughout this series, our purpose is to educate on the various views of atonement. This may leave you asking questions, doing your own research, or it may even change your perspective on atonement, and for that I say, go for it! We are hoping this is simply a tool to help you discover and understand Lent, Easter, and atonement a little bit better this year and in the future.
So… let’s dive in!
For a look at Penal Substitution theory, click here.
For Recapitulation theory, click here.
For Ransom/Christus Victor theory, click here.
For Governmental theory, click here.
For Feminist Theories of atornement, click here.