Reflections on the atonement and the questions that perplex us
Atonement is about “getting together again,” wiping the slate clean so that a relationship is restored. It is a tragic irony that conversations about Christ’s death and resurrection sometimes drive Christians apart. Unfortunately, where there are controversies there is often a great deal of miscommunication.
The Bible provides a rich diversity of images that help us grasp the great miracle of reconciliation with God that Jesus’ death and resurrection accomplish. What a tragedy when, in our attempts to be faithful to the Bible’s authority on this central aspect of our faith, we end up speaking past each other, shrinking the Bible’s teaching to one narrow theory or quickly charging people with unfaithfulness to Scripture just because we do not quite see eye to eye.
This article is my attempt to make sense of what is going on. I pray it will be helpful in clarifying our communication and moving us forward. It might even help us get together again.
What does atonement mean?
“Atonement,” both in the Bible and in theological discussion, has many facets. Yet the meaning of the word itself is pretty clear—it is about parties becoming “at one” (i.e., at-onement happens). The word is usually used to talk about restoring the relationship between God and people, and that is the focus of this discussion though the Bible also speaks of the restoration of all creation.
There are many aspects to a restored relationship with God, and as a result discussions about the atonement can become complicated. Theologians have put a great deal of effort into working out precisely how the death and resurrection of Jesus accomplish the atonement. Unfortunately, defenders of various views sometimes use the word atonement as though it means their view.
When I use the word atonement, it means simply “becoming reconciled with God.” Christ’s death on the cross and his resurrection are not the atonement, they are the means of the atonement. Theories about how this all works are also not the atonement, they are simply our attempts to explain the atonement. What seems clear in Scripture is that there is more than one way to talk about what happens through the cross and Jesus’ resurrection.
What brings about atonement?
The Bible is very clear: Christ accomplishes the atonement and does so most centrally through his death and resurrection. On the basis of Christ’s salvation work, we can be reconciled to God. Even Old Testament saints were reconciled through Christ’s work, though they lived before it was accomplished and at a time when they could not have understood all this. Their reconciliation with God sometimes involved animal sacrifices and sometimes did not (e.g., Leviticus 4:26; Psalm 32:1-2; Isaiah 6:7).
In New Testament times we can also be reconciled with God without fully understanding how Christ’s finished works accomplish the atonement. We are called to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. We are clearly taught that Christ died for us (Rom. 5:8). Probing further, we find that the Bible gives us diverse responses and that theologians formulate diverse theories and doctrines.
What are atonement theories?
This may be oversimplified, but the main atonement theories that have been proposed throughout church history—including Mennonite history—can be differentiated like this:
- Ransom theories focus on the fact that humans (and the rest of creation) are enslaved to the wrong master until, through Jesus’ death, they are set free. The dominant image here is “manumission”—the act of setting slaves free. God ransomed Israel from Egyptian slavery and set them free. So also, through Jesus’ death, we are set free from slavery to sin and death. Some texts speak of Jesus buying us so that we can be made slaves of a new master, our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 7:23; Col. 1:13; 1 Tim. 2:6; Rev. 5:9).
- Combat theories focus on the fact that through Jesus’ death and resurrection God won the decisive victory over the evil powers: Sin (not merely my personal sins, but Sin as a power), Death and behind all of these, the Devil. The Latin expression Christus Victor is often used to speak of this (2 Tim. 1:10; Heb. 2:14; 1 John 3:8). Some theologians combine these first two theories into one theory.
- Penal satisfaction theories focus on the penalty for sin that God’s righteousness demands and on the fact that Jesus took our place, satisfying God’s demand for justice (Isa. 53:5; Rom. 3:25; 5:9; 1 John 2:2). This is probably the most widely accepted theory among many conservative evangelicals today, but it has not been the most widely accepted theory by the church through much of its history.
- Moral influence theories focus on how Jesus, by willingly accepting even death as an expression of love, leads others also to choose a life of love and self-sacrifice in response (1 John 4:10,11,19).
Why pluralize “theories”?
Some readers will have noticed that I talk about “theories” in each of the four categories above. These are not four theories but four types of theories. Within each of them there are variations on a theme, sometimes even contradictory claims.
Ransom theories sometimes speculate on who was “paid off” to set us free from slavery. Did God pay Jesus to the devil? Did God trick the devil by taking the payment back again in the resurrection? Early church theologians often wisely stopped short of working out all the details—after all, it is an image, a metaphor, not an exact explanation of some salvation mechanism.
Combat theories sometimes focus mostly on the death of Jesus, emphasizing how Jesus exposed the futility and helplessness of the systems of evil and behind them, God’s ultimate enemy (cf. Col. 2:15). Others focus mostly on the resurrection as the place where Death and the ultimate Death-dealer, Satan, are decisively defeated.
Penal satisfaction theories emphasize God’s just demands and the dire consequences of rebelling against them. Jesus’ atoning sacrifice builds a bridge across the gap that our sin creates between humanity and God. Sometimes the focus is on how Jesus’ death covers our sin and changes us; sometimes it is on how Jesus’ death satisfies God’s honor and changes God’s disposition towards us.
Moral influence theories highlight the way Jesus served as a model of love, challenging us to learn to live up to that ideal. This view is inadequate as a theory of the atonement, and I will leave this category of atonement theories out of the rest of this discussion. Nevertheless, we throw out important biblical teaching if we do not emphasize the modeling function of Christ’s sacrificial death. Christ’s death was not only in our place; it was also a visible demonstration of how we also are to respond to others (1 Pet. 2:21).
In what sense is Jesus our substitute?
The Bible presents the atonement through Jesus’ death on the cross as a “substitutionary atonement.” When Jesus died for us, he died to take our place, to do what we could not do, to accomplish what we could not accomplish. Now this is the most important point I want to make: All the major atonement theories present Jesus as our substitute!
Ransom: We could not buy back our own freedom from slavery to sin and death, so Jesus paid the price and set us free—free to be Christ’s slaves. Jesus did what we could not do; in paying the price he was our substitute!
Conquest: We were too weak to defeat our enemies (and of course God’s); only God acting in and through Jesus could defeat the power of Sin and Death, could defeat the archenemy, Satan, and therefore deliver us from Satan’s dominion. Jesus did what we could not do; in overpowering the enemy, he was our substitute!
Penal Satisfaction: The penalty for sin is death; if we had needed to pay for our sins, death would have been our final fate. But Jesus paid the penalty for us; he became our substitute.
Why so confusing?
There are two reasons why all this gets confusing at times. First, many who prefer the penal satisfaction theory call it “substitutionary atonement.” That is very unfortunate, because in fact all three of the theories are about the atonement and all of them present Jesus as our substitute. To charge those who favor other theories over penal satisfaction with denying substitutionary atonement is just plain wrong.
Second, because some theologians defend only one theory and argue that only that one theory can be right, they typically highlight the positive aspects of their chosen theory and exaggerate problems with the ones they reject. That makes it very difficult for ordinary Bible readers to know who’s right. It is hard even to know what the main theories are because they are described so differently by supporters and by critics. Fighting tooth and nail for a theory obscures the fact that the Bible majors on images, symbols and narratives, while we split hairs over philosophical concepts and formulas.
Does the Bible favor penal satisfaction?
Those who favor the penal satisfaction theory often claim it is the central picture, the main story line, what really happened. Other images are not rejected but interpreted within the penal satisfaction framework. What I find in Scripture is a strong focus on all three major theories and references to many more symbols and images besides these.
Some respond, “But does the Bible not say over and over again, ‘Christ died for our sins’ implying penal satisfaction?”
The answer is that it does not. Most of the verses in the New Testament that say, “Christ died” end with something like “for the ungodly” or “for us” or “for all” or “for the brother” (e.g. Rom. 5:6,8; 2 Cor. 5:14; 1 Cor. 8:11). Only a few refer to sins, and when they do they sometimes explicitly define a theory of the atonement other than the penal satisfaction theory.
A clear example of this is Hebrews 9:15: “He has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins.” Moreover the Old Testament sacrifice that is most closely associated with Jesus’ death on the cross is not the “sin offering;” it is the “Passover lamb.” And that sacrifice was not to atone for Israel’s sins; it was a substitute for the firstborn.
God accepted Israel’s Passover sacrifice and thus defeated their enemies (combat theory) and rescued them from slavery (ransom theory). Yes, Jesus died for our sins. But Jesus also died to defeat Sin, and Jesus died to set us free from Sin.
What really happened is that God accomplished the atonement through the death and resurrection of Jesus. It is something like an innocent party paying a legal debt for the truly guilty, something like a victorious warrior defeating Sin and Death, something like a new master ransoming someone out of slavery. Out of these images and metaphors we construct theories and doctrines. But the theories and doctrines need to be responsive to all the biblical images and metaphors in order to offer a balanced statement of what God did through Christ.
Some suggest that the penal satisfaction theory must be the main theory, because Jesus’ death is portrayed as a sacrifice. But not nearly all sacrifices in the Bible have to do with removing sin. The Passover sacrifice was more about combat and liberation than about paying the penalty for sin. Some animal sacrifices were acts of thanksgiving and praise. Some were part of a cleansing ceremony. Some celebrated covenant making.
When sacrifices were about sin, the focus was on removing the sin or satisfying God’s justice more than it was on appeasing God’s wrath. Actually, outside the book of Hebrews, Jesus’ death is called a sacrifice very rarely: once in Romans 3:25 where a form of penal satisfaction may be in view, once in 1 Corinthians 5:7 where a ransom theory is implied and once in Ephesians 5:2 where neither theory is clearly present (compare Eph. 5:2 with Phil. 4:18).
So where do we go from here? We dialog about these things by trying to communicate as clearly as possible. We listen charitably to each other and refrain from crying heresy as soon as someone appears to reach conclusions we have questions about. We go back to the Bible and see what it says.
And if you ask me, we allow the Bible to use a variety of metaphors and images of the atonement. I think we are better off if we accept the best of all the theories than if we limit Scripture by pressing all its claims into our narrowly defined boxes. “Jesus died for us!” That is the main thing.
Want to know where to go for the best concise statement on the atonement that I can find anywhere? Go to the Mennonite Brethren Confession of Faith, Article 5. Our denomination has adopted this statement, and it is a good one. It encourages us to accept the breadth and depth of the whole witness of Scripture to this central aspect of our faith.
Tim Geddert is the academic dean of the MB Biblical Seminary Fresno (Calif.) campus and is professor of New Testament. He is a member of the U.S. Conference Board of Faith and Life. This article was also published in the June 2009 issue of the MB Herald, the English-language publication of the Canadian Conference.