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Understanding Atonement

At Easter we remember the death and resurrection of Jesus. On Good Friday especially we remember the story of the cross and that Jesus died for us. But what does Jesus death actually mean for us?

The answer lies in the doctrine of the atonement. Somehow through Jesus death we can now be reconciled to God and made at one. One way to remember it is that atonement is at-one-ment. But have you ever stopped to think how exactly that works?

Penal Substitution

The dominant understanding of the atonement in evangelical circles has been penal substitution. This basically says that God punished Jesus for our sins on the cross.

Looking back at Church history this interpretation of the Bible can be traced back to Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) who developed an idea that the atonement involved God’s honour being satisfied by Christ’s obedience where before God had been dishonoured by human disobedience. This was refined further by Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) who saw the atonement as Christ making a substitution for us – suffering for us. John Calvin (1509-1564) went even further with penal substitution – Christ was legally punished by God instead of us and so it is God’s wrath that was satisfied. This has been largely accepted as orthodox evangelical belief but recently as questioning of this really come to the fore.

In recent years a number of evangelicals, most notably for us in the UK, Steve Chalke have spoken out against the implications of penal substitution. Steve Chalke raised the hackles of many evangelicals by referring to this idea as “cosmic child abuse” in The Lost Message of Jesus (2004).

Christus Victor

An alternative view of the biblical teaching of atonement that is being embraced by an increasing number of evangelicals is called Christus Victor. This view emphasises Christ’s victory over the devil (e.g. Col 2:15).

In his 1931 book Christus Victor Gustaf Aulen argues for a theory of the atonement which he sees as the classic view held by the early church for a thousand years until superseded by satisfaction. Although held by Martin Luther (1483-1586) it did not make its way into Lutheran orthodoxy and was not systematically put together until Aulen did so in his book.

The basic idea of Christus Victor is that Jesus death on the cross defeated the devil liberating the world from the devil’s rule by paying the ransom due to Satan (e.g. Matt 20:28). You see, according to this theory, the Bible teaches that devil ruled mankind and the earth because of Adam’s fall but Christ’s payment set humanity and the world free from the curse but the devil was tricked as he could not keep Christ in the grave so he ended up with nothing.

David Matthew has some quotes and comments about Christus Victor on his website here.

Christus Victor has been held by a few evangelicals since the book was published most notably C.S Lewis. You may recognise the imagery from Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. This appears to be a very powerful view however some have found the idea of God deceiving Satan to be an unpalatable idea and penal substitution remained the prevailing view.

More Than One Explanation

Despite their misgivings not many evangelicals are willing to throw out substitutionary atonement altogether. But a growing number, such as Scot McKnight in 2007 in A Community Called Atonement and subsequent Christianity Today article, are now admitting that there can be a number of legitimate approaches.

Some are beginning to say that penal substitution is only part of the explanation, Christus Victor another part and even the moral example view can be seen as a third part and so on. The moral example view is that Jesus died as an example for us. He sought to influence us morally in showing us how to live a life of sacrifice culminating in his death on the cross. However this doesn’t really explain how sin is dealt with and may not really take sin seriously enough.

Nevertheless appealing to a number of stories of atonement, rather than just one, is an answer that I like i.e. ‘both/and’ rather than ‘either/or’. It is well illustrated here by one church in 2006 when one writer Mark Dever was arguing for penal substitution alone.

The Debate Continues

In this 2011 Christianity Today article Mark Galli looks at and critiques the rise of the Christus Victor view over substitutionary atonement. For instance, he points out this model emphasises that we are victims that need rescuing from the powers evil whereas substitutionary atonement emphasises that we are guilty and need forgiveness that liberates us from our sin. Also rather than just individual forgiveness it emphasises the redemption of the cosmos. He comes to the conclusion that though Christus Victor language is there in the Bible the overwhelming emphasis is on substitution. Perhaps the emphasis on Christus Victor can be understood in a society where we are acutely aware of being victims but becoming less aware of our own failings.

A good response to this can be found on Bramboniusin’s blog here where he questions the dichotomy that Galli draws between Christus Victor and substitutionary atonement without mentioning penal substitution. Doesn’t Christus Victor include the original idea of substitutionary atonement as it is all about Christ dying for us? Perhaps it would be more precise to see Christus Victor as a rival to penal substitution.

And anyway I still wonder if there may be a good case for embracing more than one of these explanations in order to fully understand what it means that Christ died for us. In a post from 2009 blogger Mike Morrell having analysed and critiqued the models of the atonement had a go at putting it all back together again here.

I can see that this is far from as simple as I once thought. Nevertheless even if I haven’t got all the detailed sussed this Easter, this I do know: Jesus died for me!


I originally posted this article last year on my blogger blog here where it attracted two or three comments.
Related post: What is the Gospel

April 6, 2012 at 8:19 am
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