Why should it matter how we view the atonement?
Do we make the bible overly complicated?
Could it could be stated something like this; "as humans we read the bible and attempt to come up with complex theologies and doctrines for what are really very simple truths."
Take for example the biblical truth of the atonement of Christ for our sins. On the surface, the truth is simple: "Our world is wrecked by sin to the point we can’t help but see it as good or ordinary. God put on flesh and entered the world as Jesus. He died on a cross to atone for our sins." This seems a pretty straight forward thought, right?
The problem is our natural, and very human, curiosity makes us ask why. Why did God have to die to forgive our sins? When the kid I was mentoring stole my iPod neither he nor I had to shed blood for me to forgive him. When our neighbor started yelling profanely and threatening our young children and the teenager who was watching them, I did not need a sacrifice to offer him forgiveness.
Because this kind of sacrifice seems to defy logic lots of really smart people, starting with the writers of the new testament, have taken great pains to nail down exactly what happened in this sacrifice/forgiveness thing that God did for us. For thousands of years commentators, pastors, and theologians have tried to offer explanations to explain it and most often have turned to metaphor to help us understand it.
The thing that makes this so important is the metaphor you believe can shape the way you understand atonement and that can have massive impact on how you view and relate to God and other people.
To better explain what I mean let us look at the differing ways to view the atonement metaphors:
Christ our Ransom or Christus Victor
The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.
This presentation of Christ’s death as a ransom is fairly widespread in the New Testament. The word used here is lytron which means the price for redeeming or a ransom paid for slaves and captives. The word, which we translate ‘ransom’ or redeem,’ is found in two contexts, the above quotation in Mark and the following passage link it directly to Christ’s death:
For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all.
In the medieval period this metaphor of ‘purchase’ or ‘ransom’ gained great popularity. The Devil, it is thought, had as a result of the fall obtained certain rights or ownership over humankind. Freedom from this bondage needed to be won by means of a payment. The Devil demanded the blood of Christ and so God paid it to purchase our freedom.
The problem with this metaphor is those who take it literally must then admit that God is not all powerful since he had to bow to the devil's demands. Why couldn't God simply have removed the devils ownership from mankind by shear will. This view leaves us cowering in a corner in fear seeing the devil or demons at work in the world who are stronger than God.
The Christus Victor is a sub view of this metaphor. In this view God did not bow to Satan’s demands. Instead Jesus died entered Hell and defeated Satan. His victory grants us freedom from the evil one’s claim over us.
This view was developed to attempt to hold the first point of view literally and yet deal with its shortcomings. The problem is it still leaves the Devil holding the atonement cards with God not being all powerful and able to deal with him directly.
Moral Influence Theory
Your New Moon feasts and your appointed festivals I hate with all my being. They have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. When you spread out your hands in prayer, I hide my eyes from you; even when you offer many prayers, I am not listening. Your hands are full of blood! Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight; stop doing wrong. Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow. "Come now, let us settle the matter," says the LORD. "Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool. If you are willing and obedient, you will eat the good things of the land; but if you resist and rebel, you will be devoured by the sword." For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.
- Isaiah 1:14-20
- Isaiah 1:14-20
With what shall I come before the LORD and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of olive oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.
- Micah 6:6-8
The moral influence view of the atonement teaches that humans want to do good but are lost in their sin. In this view the purpose of Jesus was to incite progressive moral change for humanity. This moral change came through the teachings and example of Jesus which show us the way to God.
People who hold this view point out that this reading of these Old Testament verses are supported by Jesus in places like Matthew 25 where He directly links the measure of His judgment with social justice. If taken too literally this metaphor could easily to lead a view of God is a creditor who requires us to build up enough karma through good works to earn atonement.
The problem with the moral influence metaphor is there is no reason for the cross. Jesus could have come here and taught us how to live and then ether just stayed here with us (saving all the time between his first and second coming) or could have ascended and waited for judgment day without the messiness and pain of the crucifixion. It is clear from Luke 22:39-44 that the cross was not desirable but that it was the only way.
Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
... for 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.
God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: "Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole." He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.
The penal substitution metaphor originates from the idea that divine forgiveness must placate divine justice, that is, that God is not willing or able to simply forgive sin without first requiring a payment for it. This metaphor emphasizes that God, in the person of Jesus Christ, by his own sacrificial choice, was punished (penalized) in the place of sinners (substitution), thus satisfying the demands of justice so God can forgive the sins of humanity.
In this metaphor God is a cosmic judge who hears the case prosecuted by the devil against humanity. The case is rock solid and we are easily found guilty. The judge, being a righteous magistrate, has no choice but to convict us. Then at the last minute, the judge himself stands up and says he will pay the fine so that humanity can go free.
The problem is this represents a crude model of justice at best, and suggests that sin is a “crime”, which must be “paid for”. Logically it seems to be an offence against justice that an innocent person should be required to suffer in the place of the guilty. It leaves God looking much like a vindictive bipolar drunk who cannot make up His mind whether to punish us or love us.
For 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.
Then the LORD God said to the woman, “What is this you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.” So the LORD God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, “Cursed are you above all livestock and all wild animals! You will crawl on your belly and you will eat dust all the days of your life. And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.”
To the woman he said, “I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.”
To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’ “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; or dust you are and to dust you will return.”
We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.
Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life? “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?
- Matthew 6:26–30
- Matthew 6:26–30
The metaphor used here gives us a view of forgiveness of sin where God is to be regarded not as an offended judge (as in penal substation), or as a creditor (as in Moral influence), but as the moral governor or care taker of the universe (thus the name governmental). A creditor can remit the debt due to him at pleasure; a judge may punish as he sees fit; but a ruler must act, not according to his feelings, but with a view to the best interests of those under his care. God could not have simply overlooked sin and needed the atonement to appease Him as cosmic king and governor not because He needed it but, because He was responsible for all of creation and it needed it.
The Reconciler or Neo-Orthodox Reconciliation
But you are our Father, though Abraham does not know us or Israel acknowledge us; you, LORD, are our Father, our Redeemer from of old is your name.
"I myself said, " 'How gladly would I treat you like my children and give you a pleasant land, the most beautiful inheritance of any nation.' I thought you would call me 'Father' and not turn away from following me. But like a woman unfaithful to her husband, so you, Israel, have been unfaithful to me," declares the LORD.
For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross
He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.
For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.
This metaphor paints the picture of a divine family. We are all the children of God but that relationship is broken. We are out of fellowship with our divine family. God shows His love and ends the estrangement by taking responsibility for our sins on the cross and welcoming us back to the family. This metaphor seems to be further supported by Jesus parable of the prodigal son who having broken the relationship with his family is reconciled to them without having to do anything to receive that forgiveness.
The problem with this metaphor is there is no real payment for sin. God fixes the broken relationship but there seems to be no real reason for Christ to die to heal that relationship. This metaphor also leaves open the implication that God universally healed the relationship with humanity and thus all are saved.
Whatever the bible says about atonement it does not define it. Instead, it offers a wide variety of metaphors and images to communicate the spiritual truth its significance and the implications.
Jesus is named savior, Shepard, Lord, master, teacher, Bridegroom, foundation, cornerstone, lion, lamb of God, king, priest, prince of peace, the second Adam… The Church is depicted as the bride, the body, the family, the vineyard, the temple…
We don’t expect that Jesus is a literal piece of rock that a literal building is being built on or that He has a lion’s mane . It is the same way with atonement because the work of Christ on the cross is far to enormous in its scope and to rich in its meaning to be captured in a single image or definition. Our words simply fall short of being able to communicate the depths of this spiritual truth.
I believe we should view atonement not as a single metaphor that is better than all the others but we should understand them as all working together to show us a bigger picture of the truth. To explain let me use another metaphor:
A plumber can use a wrench to fix a leaky pipe. A 2 ½ inch wrench works wonders on smaller pipes. It can be used to tighten or loosen pipes under sinks and in basements equally well. No plumber, however, would go to a job with only a 2 ½ in wrench because she knows there are situations where a 3 or 4 inch pipe will be involved. In those cases a 2 ½ inch pipe will be less than useless (trying to use it could damage both the tool and the plumber). She will have a toolbox full of larger wrenches and other apparatuses that better fit the job at hand. This does not make any one tool better than the others. Though some may be inferior, they all are used to accomplish a job.
So it is with the many metaphors of the atonement. They all point to some truth about the mysterious work of God in saving and restoring humanity yet none of them are able to capture the whole truth of who God is and who we are in God. Atonement then has many views, each one agrees that something needs to be done so that humanity can live in victory and have a proper relationship with God and each one is helpful in understanding and communicating an aspect of that truth.