The atonement is a very debatable theme in theology primarily because of the importance of the doctrine itself. According to Caleb Burge, this very doctrine is “the foundation of all the doctrines of divine revelation which respect the salvation of mankind: the grand pillar on which they are supported” (1822). In other words, the doctrine of atonement is foundational one, on which a number of other doctrines stand. Moreover, it is directly related to the meaning of death of Christ on the Cross. That is why people, especially theologians, are so much concerned about the rationale behind it.
Interestingly, the term “atonement” is of Anglo-Saxon origin, not a Biblical word as such (Bingham, 2001). According to Bingham, this term “acts as an umbrella to cover a number of other words such as reconciliation, expiation, propitiation, and the like” (2001). Besides, reconciliation is “a result of Jesus’ mission in which the enmity or hostility between God and humanity is overcome and set aside so that they can have a good relationship”, expiation – “an effect of Jesus’ death on the cross in which humanity’s sinfulness is covered and set aside so that reconciliation between God and humanity can take place” (Grenz, 1998), and propitiation is Christ’s death on a cross “to appease God’s wrath against sin” (Bawulski, 2012).
Honestly speaking, I never ever engaged in thinking about atonement before having Theology class. In addition, I am still not committed to Christianity for a number of reasons though do believe in something beyond our world so to say. However, there were a lot of Christians in my surrounding including my grandmother and to some extent my mother. I also actually read Bible, even more than once: first time when I was a kid and had Bible in pictures adapted for children, then we were studying some parts of it in school at literature classes, and lastly we were studying Bible very closely at our university. So, I was introduced to idea of atonement but was unaware of the theological debate around it.
What influenced me to choose this very topic to research was not our lesson actually, but an extra-credit assignment on penal substitution theory. Reading an article by Schreiner I first of all got more information about the doctrine of atonement and the theories around it, and also got personal insights concerning this theme. So, when choosing a topic I decided to take one I am already more familiar with and have more thoughts about.
What I think is surely true is that complexity of atonement is a mystery beyond our understanding that nobody is able to explain sufficiently (except only God). Interestingly, Schreiner builds his theological argument on theological concepts that are also arguable, for example the nature of God’s love, and the assumption that forgiving without sacrifice violates God’s holiness. God for some reason needed this sacrifice, but are we really able to explain it?
Interestingly, searching for the meaning of atonement I saw it also has a meaning of compensation. However, as I mentioned above already atonement is purely Anglo-Saxon term, thus, in Hebrew or Greek versions of the Bible there might be no compensation implied.
Nevertheless, the atonement as compensation to the Father (Christ died to satisfy a principle in the very nature of God) is consistent with the Substitutionary or Satisfaction Theory (Keating, 2002).
My idea of the rationale behind the question of atonement (though I do not actually believe any idea can be proved) is that Jesus took the original sin (that was brought to us with Adam that is also debatable though) from humanity, but we ourselves still will have to die, so maybe we have die for our own sins, not the original one, now. Also, Christ’s life and death have a moral effect on us and demand following Jesus’ example. So, my idea is more or less close to Christus Victor theory of atonement and surely reflects the main ideas of example theory and moral influence theory of atonement.
So, among major views on the atonement are: Christus Victor theory, Example theory, Moral Influence theory, Satisfaction theory, Penal Substitution Theory, Ransom theory, Governmental theory, Mystical theory, and Vicarious Repentance theory.
According to Christus Victor theory “in Christ, God triumphed over the law, sin, death and the devil – the evil powers of the world, the ‘tyrants’ under which mankind is in bondage and suffering, and in him God reconciles the world to himself” (Aulen, 2010).
According to Example or Socinian theory, the atonement is “a perfect example of the type of dedication to God that we are to practice” (Keating, 2002).
According to Moral Influence theory, the atonement is “a demonstration of God’s love and should inspire us to love him in return” (Keating, 2002).
According to Satisfaction theory, Christ in his suffering “restores or rehabilitates God’s offended honor and dignity” (Bingham, 2001).
According to Penal Substitution theory, Christ “died for man, in man’s place, taking his sins and bearing them for him that takes the punishment of them, and sets the believer free from the penal demands of the law, thus, the righteousness of the law and the holiness of God are satisfied by this substitution” (Bingham, 2001).
According to Ransom theory, the atonement is “a victory over the forces of sin and evil because Christ’s death ransomed us back from Satan” (Keating, 2002).
According to Governmental theory, the atonement is “a demonstration of divine justice, of what will happen to us if we continue to sin” (Keating, 2002). Bingham says that “God is a governor that determines and requires; he can abrogate the law, or rather its total punishment; Christ on the Cross bears a nominal punishment, thus showing that God views sin seriously, however forgives it having put his safe-guard around his law” (2001).
According to Mystical theory (Gradual Extirpation of Depravity), Christ “entered the world in the flesh of fallen humanity, but brought a new factor, a new kind of life, which destroys original depravity on the Cross, so that a new humanity emerges through Christ; by identification with us, and we with him, man is gradually sanctified, and his sanctification becomes, in fact, his justification” (Bingham, 2001).
According to Vicarious Repentance theory, “perfect repentance is all that is required for forgiveness that Christ showed on the Cross, where he identifies with man under condemnation; man, thus being forgiven, has an impetus to holiness” (Bingham, 2001).
To start with, I want to say that I do not really stick to one position concerning the atonement, or one particular theory, but choose a couple of them that seem to me to be the closest ones to my personal point of view. As I mentioned before, my idea is that Jesus saved humanity from the original sin with his death on the Cross, but as we still have to die, we supposedly are not saved from our own sins. Probably, we have to die to conquer our own sins ourselves following the example of Jesus who conquered the original sin (let’s suppose its trueŠ ). Moreover, the fact that we understand we have to struggle with our sins can be a result of moral influence of Jesus’ death.
So, my support would focus on defending mostly elements of Christus Victor theory, and give some support to Example theory and Moral Influence theory.
First of all, according to Scriptures, the penalty for sin is death – “And the Lord said, ‘The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and leave forever'” (Genesis 3:22). This sentence from the Book of Genesis clearly says that people became mortal as a result of disobeying God, sinning in other words. Consequently, to become immortal again people have to overcome sin. So, judging from the fact that we are all still mortal, Jesus’ death on the Cross did not take all the sins from humanity. Either way, I suppose we would be immortal again. On the other hand, eternal life is promised to people after death. Considering that, we have to die. But death is the result of sin, so we in a way follow Jesus’ example as we die and overcome some part of sin that is still in us that is consistent with Example theory of atonement – “To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps” (1 Peter 2:21).
From the first sight it seems that in such situation Jesus’ sacrifice is not necessary, as we all die in the end, thus, overcome sin ourselves. However, the thing is that we are unable to take the responsibility for the original sin, so something else, that is Jesus’ sacrifice, is needed.
What is hard for me to explain in my theory though is the connection between Adam and Eve’s sin and Jesus’ ability to defeat it. Nevertheless, the very fact that Jesus suffered and died on the Cross implies that there was some connection. This is also evidence for the fact that sin could not be just pardoned “for no one can rationally suppose, that the Son of God would have left the bosom of the Father, and the glory which he had with him before the world was, to take on him the form of a servant in this world, and subject himself to the pains and sorrows incident to human life, if such humiliation had not been indispensably necessary, in order that the purposes of grace, in the salvation of sinners, might be answered” (Burge, 1822).
The idea that Jesus took only original sin from us is similar to some extent to Christus Victor theory – “The Son of God,” we read in 1 John 3:8,” was revealed for this purpose: to destroy the works of the devil.” The works of devil are primarily the deception of Adam and Eve from where the original sin comes.
One may think that if we are free from original sin, why then we continue to sin in the eyes of God. To answer this question I came up with an idea that sinful acts or thoughts are the result of socialization – the process by which an individual learns to live in accordance with the expectations and standards of a group or society, acquiring its beliefs, habits, values, and accepted modes of behavior primarily through imitation, family interaction, and educational systems; the procedure by which society integrates the individual (“Socialization”). At the moment of Jesus’ death people already had a sinful culture so to say that included the possibility of sinning. So, even when people became free of the original sin, they still remained in this culture that is the result of the original sin. Maybe this is the main reason for the necessity of Jesus’ second coming – the need to renew the earth and the heavens that would result in destroying this sinful culture.
The main objection to Christus Victor theory is that “Satan or the “powers of Evil” must be satisfied rather than God, whose command was originally ignored in the Garden of Eden, and who is continually ignored by all mankind” (Glynn, 2002). The cosmic significance of Christ’s work is more fundamental than its soteriological significance (Bawulski, 2012). This objection is consistent with Satisfaction theory of atonement.
However, I do not see any problem with that – in my view, people were unable to give to God his due (that is the definition of sin according to Satisfaction theory) primarily because of the works of Satan. Thus, when evil is defeated God should be already satisfied.
Jesus died on the Cross to defeat the works of devil that is Jesus freed humanity from the original sin. His death and resurrection obviously had an effect on people – a positive moral influence as a result of understanding that righteousness brings eternal life. Also, in order to have this eternal life people should follow Jesus’ example – live a righteous life, die and resurrect then immortal and free of any sin. All of this is consistent with Christus Victor, Example and Moral Influence theories.
My rather innovative idea is that we are released only from original sin, and have to die overcome our own sins. We continue to sin regardless of being free from original sin because of having sinful culture that probably would be destroyed with Jesus’ second coming.
This way to see the doctrine of atonement emphasizes the importance of second coming of Jesus and explains in a way why it has to take place. Probably, it makes no differences in other areas.
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