Atonement: A Primer

A few weeks ago I did a Sunday School class on theories regarding atonement. Since it is Passion Week I thought I'd post my notes. Nothing original here, just a synopsis if anyone is looking for a quick primer on the history of atonement theology.

i. The word "atonement."
What happened at Golgotha? When the New Testament authors spoke about what happened at the Place of the Skull one common way they viewed the event was through the Hebrew Day of Atonement. According to Leviticus 16 the High Priest would slaughter a goat as a "sin offering" and then sprinkle the blood on the Mercy Seat, the cover of the Ark of the Covenant. The word for "Mercy Seat" comes from the Hebrew kapporeth which means "cover." But "cover" here is twofold, a literal cover and also the place where sins are "covered" over.

The Hebrew kapporeth comes down to us as hilasterion in Greek. Hilasterion is the word that is translated as "atonement." Hilasterion has many shades of meaning. Two of the most important meanings are the words propitiation and expiation. Propitiation refers to making something propitious or favorable. That is, something that is an object of wrath or judgment is now considered to be favorable. Thus, propitiation involves notions of satisfaction or appeasement, disfavor or wrath is turned away and is replaced with favor. Expiation refers to making amends or the compensation for a wrong done.

All in all then, hilasterion has two shades of meaning: Appeasement/satisfaction (propitiation) and making amends (expiation). No single word in English captures both of these meanings. "Reconciliation" comes close, but William Tyndale coined the word "atonement" to create a theological term in English that could capture the shades of meaning inherent in hilasterion and kapporeth. Some scholars have contended that "atonement" may be the only significant theological term that is of English origin.

ii. What we all agree on.
What happened at Golgotha? Christians generally agree on this: We were saved at Golgotha. That is, there was something about the death of Jesus of Nazareth that created an atonement, a reconciliation, a peace between God and humanity. This atonement saved us, rescued us.

Now beyond this general consensus little else about Golgotha is agreed upon. Worse, once we get outside this consensus much becomes very controversial.

The issues revolve around the How? and the Why? of atonement. Why, exactly, did Jesus have to die? And how, exactly, did Jesus' death effect the atonement? The answers to these questions have been diverse. What follows is a rough, historical overview of the theories

iii. Ransom theory.
For the first thousand years of the church ransom theory was the dominant view of the atonement. Because of this some scholars call ransom theory the "classical" view of the atonement.

To start, we observe that some of the New Testament writers use the image of "ransom" in describing the events at Golgotha:

Mark 10.45
"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."

1 Timothy 2.5-6
For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all men—the testimony given in its proper time.

The question, obviously, is if Jesus' death was a ransom who got paid? The classical theory had it that Satan was paid the ransom. On this view, due to humanity's sin Satan held humankind captive. To release humanity from Satan's rightful claim Jesus gives his life in exchange, as a "ransom."

I like to call this The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe view of the atonement because it follows the logic of C.S. Lewis' story. Readers will recall that the Witch (the Satan figure) has a rightful claim to the traitor Edmund. However, Aslan gives his live in exchange for Edmund's, thus saving him.

(There is a curious history involving the ransom view. Specifically, why did Satan make this exchange? Interestingly, C.S. Lewis offers the same answer many of the church fathers did: Satan (or the Witch) makes the exchange because he was tricked into it.)

Although ransom theory appears archaic to modern ears (more on that in a bit), facets of the classical view have been revived in what has been called Christus Victor theology. According to Christus Victor theory we should not understand Jesus to be paying a ransom to the Devil. Rather, we should see Jesus as defeating the Devil. The cross is a victory, the defeat of sin, death, and Satan. Satan and the power he represents--sin and death--are still central features in this view but Satan is seen as a vanquished enemy rather than as a bamboozled bargaining partner. The Eastern Orthodox church never significantly moved away from the Christus Victor themes of the classical atonement position. A good example of this is their emphasis on the harrowing of hell, with its depiction of the defeat of the devil and death, at Easter time.

iv. Satisfaction theory.
Around 1027 Saint Anslem published his treatise Cur Deus Homo? (Why did God become man?). In this treatise Anselm rejected ransom theory on the grounds that it gave Satan too much power. God doesn't have to haggle with Satan about the fate of humanity.

But if Satan isn't getting the ransom, who is getting "paid" in Anselm's theory? It is with Anselm that we see the now common move that it was not Satan but God who was "satisfied" at Golgotha.

According to Anselm human sin was an affront to the honor of God. However, humans, due to their sinfulness, cannot pay the price to restore God's honor. But Jesus, due to his sinlessness, can die in the place of humanity to provide a "more perfect sacrifice" to restore God's honor. This theological move--Jesus takes our place to satisfy God--is the beginning of what is known as satisfaction theory.

With John Calvin and others Anselm's satisfaction theory eventually gets morphed into what is known as penal substitutionary atonement. This is the dominant view of atonement in most Protestant churches. "Penal" notes a change from Anselm's theory in Cur?. Specifically, penal substitutionary atonement is a crime and punishment model. The broad outlines are as follows (and they are well known): Death is the just punishment of sin. Jesus, being sinless, accepts death in our place. Thus, the love and justice of God are parsimoniously satisfied in Jesus' sacrifice.

Penal substitutionary atonement is growingly controversial in many Christian circles due to its view of God (e.g., God requires blood sacrifice to be "satisfied"). However, there is another substitutionary model that I, personally, find more viable.

The governmental substitutionary model harkens back to Anselm's original focus on God's honor. In this model, God is "governing" the world. He wants his rule to be both just and loving. However, in the face of sin God is presented with a problem. God wants to punish and he wants to forgive. The trouble is that if God too easily forgives sin humanity would recieve the message that sin is "no big deal." This is particularly problematic given that God should care about the voices of victims. Some sin is horrible and God should not easily forgive it. So how does God express his concern for victims and his anger at sin? God chooses to inflict a wound on himself. In this, Jesus "dies for us" but not because God's nature demands our death. God needs to demonstrate both wrath and love but he handles this internally, within his own nature. The cross is a demonstration, forever answering the question: Does God hate human sin? The cross clearly says yes. And it is by grace that we are not in Christ's place. In short, the cross demonstrates God's wrath at sin and this allows him to forgive us in a way that doesn't make God look "light on sin." Clearly, sin cost God dearly. But he paid the price to make that message clear. We did not. Thus, the cross functions as a dual symbol: Wrath and love intertwined. The cross shows us how much God hates sin yet how much he is willing to suffer to forgive us. The cross shows us that God's grace is costly.

In sum, I like the governmental model as it keeps all the decent pieces of penal substitutionary atonement while removing the problematic facet of God's nature demanding death as "satisfaction" for sin.

v. Moral Influence theory.
A final perspective on atonement is that the cross brings reconciliation between God and humanity by showing humanity the path of peace. Jesus hints at this perspective when he says:

Luke 14.27
And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.

The notion here is that the cross is a path, a way, the dharma, a trajectory, a goal, a life. And it is this path--the Cruciform Way--that saves us.

Further, the cross can function as an exposure and an unmasking that is aimed at halting the mechanisms of human evil. On this view, the cross is aimed at humanity rather than at God (as it is in penal substitutionary atonement). Of these theories I am particularly sympathetic to Rene Girard's scapegoat theory.

vi. An oversimplified synopsis.
As I reviewed the historical theories I summarized them for myself this way:

The cross saves us from...
Satan (ransom theory)
God (substitution theory)
Ourselves (moral influence theory)

vii. Metaphors and Theories
What happened at Golgotha? Most Christians agree that we were saved at Golgotha. Like the Mercy Seat, the cross is the "place of atonement," the locus of the event. But what exactly happened at Golgotha? And why did it have to happen in just that way?

All the New Testament writers offer us are metaphors. Ransom. Victory. Crime and punishment. Discipleship. But none of these are worked out in a systematic way.

The systematization occurred when theologians took a particular metaphor, wove it together with bits of Scripture, and then constructed a theory. The metaphors seem viable. But the post hoc theories often look more suspect.

The point, it seems to me, is that the cross refutes systemization. The cross is too big to be captured. The cross cannot be reduced, pigeonholed, or packaged. There is no final catechesis for the cross. The best we can do is metaphor. And lots of them.

In the end, it seems that the only language for the cross is poetry.

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

14 thoughts on “Atonement: A Primer”

  1. I was wondering myself why you left recapitulation out. That is, Christ, by becoming incarnate and living sinlessly through the stages of human life, reversed the effects of Adam's fall. "God became man so that man might become like God." It's possible to interpret this in a way that makes it a form of moral exemplar (moral influence), but generally it's understood ontologically: Christ via the Incarnation metaphysically united humanity to divinity, saving us from death (as Rachel said). From what I've heard, this plays a big part in Eastern Orthodox understandings of the Atonement.

  2. For all those jumping in and point out the theories he left out - he got the most prominent ones and there are too many to cover in an introductory course. I think he did a great job actually.. particularly his little 3 sentence summary, which was nicely done - and it demonstrates to me why you need a sort of patchwork of atonement models because they hang together and are incomplete without each other. We most certainly need saving from ourselves, the devil and God.

    As for your "governmental substitution" model - it is an improvement, but I don't think it is a complete fix for the problem. Crucifixion is really horrific. If God is seen to will that kind of suffering on anyone (even himself) it is very problematic for what that says about the character of God. Indeed, it posits a dangerous model for victims of abuse to subject themselves to self-annihilation for the sake of the offender.

    Also, how does a violent death in anyway redeem former sins? By punishing criminals do we actually accomplish any form of recompense to victims? Does retribution serve any purpose, but to encourage and affirm horrible behaviors and attitudes in people, that lead to the justification of almost anything in repayment for past transgressions?

    Far better would have been if Jesus had "repayed" all of this sin by demonstrating how a sinner could make recompense in this life through acts of penance. Death can't be an act of penance because it precludes repentant transformation.

    For all these reasons I still think the cross is best dealt with through the defeat of evil motif...

  3. Thanks all,
    No doubt I left tons out (and I'm still learning myself), but I had only 30 minutes for the class and hit the very high points. And, I was focusing on the cross which does leave out other modes by which Jesus saves us (e.g., his Incarnation, his life and teaching, his resurrection).

    Aric, reading through your comments I see you point about the governmental model and find myself backing away from it as I write.

  4. Long time reader; first time poster... I recently read a book entitled "A Community Called Atonement" by Scot McKnight. When I read today post I thought you might be interested in his take on this topic.

  5. Hi Dean,
    I did read McKnight's book, but too quickly. I need to go back over it more slowly. Three aspects I liked about his book:

    1. The golf club metaphor: Asking what atonement theory is "correct" is like asking what you favorite golf club is: It defends upon what situation you are in on the golf course. Each club and atonement theory has a use.

    2. His big question: Does atonement work? I like this pragmatic focus as most atonement theologies are very metaphysical, having effects in far distant places (e.g., the devil's abode, the heart of God). Whatever atonement is it should make a difference in how we live.

    3. His communal focus: Atonement is enacted in community.

  6. Very helpful summary. . . using some of this in my Good Friday mediation. With respect to pragmatics David Kelsey wrote Imagining Redemption where actively pursues how redemption happens (from a systematic perspective). Contra McKnight (who I haven't read) Kelsey has a very limited role for community. Redemption is the work of God (full stop).

  7. To be fair, not everyone agrees that it is the cross specifically or only that saves us, and to place that as the central moment of atonement is already to favor certain theories.

    For example, moral exemplar theories focus on Jesus' way of life and his teachings, with his handling of death as one climactic instance of that. Incarnational theories place a big emphasis on, well, the incarnation. For those theories, Jesus' birth is a pretty big deal for atonement, as God's step into human experience, with Jesus' death functioning as a climactic part of that.

    As far as your take on metaphors vs. theories, I suspect we are asking too much out of theories. I think there is value to systematization, but we have to ask first what the such theories are for vs. what the metaphors are for, what the songs we sing and the prayers we pray are for.

    If we do that, I think the first thing we note is that theories don't touch reality directly, but they do frame our understanding of reality explicitly. It's ok if our theories have to develop and change with new information, say, about what justice is, or about the nature of conflict and reconciliation for human beings.

    Anyway it's looking like this is going to be my thesis topic, so I'll let you know what I come up with :P

  8. Great post... definitely a lot of good meditation stuff here. I guess I've never thought about the various imagery for translating Christ's death.

  9. Richard,

    Thanks for your reprise on McKnight's book. I liked it for the very same reasons you noted and the general charitableness and breadth of the treatment of the subject.

    I've enjoyed your blog for something close to two years now and have read almost everything on it. I have more of a theological emphasis in my education but the interplay with psychology that you provide has been very beneficial to my critical thinking and spiritual exploration.

    Thank you!

  10. I appreciate your blog and this discussion on atonement in particular. I guess I have a more basic question, and that is...on what basis does God deserve to demand atonement from mankind? Is it because of his status as creator? Doesn't that very status make him responsible for the evil in the world? Also, if you believe in a God who chooses when to intervene and not intervene in this world, do we have the right to demand atonement when God allows unspeakable evil to occur?

    And please don't tell me it has anything to do with free will. Remember, Job was BLAMELESS and still God allowed unspeakable things to happen to him (whether you believe Job is literally true or not - the fact remains that the innocent suffer and die every day in this world).

    Sorry, but I'm struggling with this and I feel like all of my rationalizations have painted me into a corner.

  11. Kris,
    I have no real answers for you. I struggle with this exact question.

    It seems to me that there are two kinds of religious journeys. Most Christians center their religious experience on soteriology: The questions orienting around securing, possessing, and living in salvation. Another group centers their religious experience on the experience of theodicy: How can I call God good and serve him given the experience of evil in the world?

    I make this contrast as, in my experience, these two groups don't communicate very well. When the theodicy Christians hear the soteriological Christians speak of heaven or hell they just shake their heads. The don't get it. They just don't care that much about going to heaven or hell, at least until they determine God's ultimate goodness. I mean, if God is good then heaven is a great destination. But if God is a fiend, well, rebellion and hell seems to be the authentic choice.

    The best move I've seen to overcome this disjoint is to synthesize the soteriological and theodic issues, to make the work of the Christ (soteriology) to be the problem of pain (theodicy). The best attempt in this direction is Marliyn McCord Adams' book Christ and Horrors. (And, you'll be please not note, she has a low view of free will defenses.) See my sidebar to get some introductory posts on that book.

    In the end, you'll not find answers here. But at this blog you'll find some fellow travelers.

  12. Very nice summary. I have moved away from penal substitution (which of course gets me labelled a heretic in many places) to Christus victor, as well as what Abigail called recapitulation. Eastern Orthodox theology makes more and more sense as I read deeper into the bible - the idea that we can now participate with God's divine energies because of Christ's victory over death seems implicit throughout the Gospels, particularly John. It also gives more understanding to the concept of "now but not yet" - we participate in furthering God's kingdom on earth here and now because we have been reunited with God, but the Kingdom will never be fully realized yet because we are still being perfected by God's love.

Leave a Reply