2. Theories of Atonement

2. Theories of Atonement

Conversation #1 – Theories of Atonement

Read Colossians 1:15-22  

Or other versions: (Col 1:20-22 Good News Translation)  (Col 1:20-22 Message Translation) (Col 1:20-22 Amplified Version)

If you like comprehension type questions … how did Paul explain to the Colossian Church the problem that the cross of Jesus solved?  And what was the outcome Jesus’ death on the cross?

Paul in the beginning of Colossians explains the problem – we were alienated or separated from God – and the outcome of the cross – we were reconciled back to God – but doesn’t really explain how.  All Paul says is that through Jesus’ blood was shed (v20) and through the death of Christ’s physical body (v21) that this reconciliation happens. 

The bible calls the discussion about “how” Jesus’ death on the cross brings forgiveness and reconciliation “theories of atonement”.    Atonement is the action of making amends for a wrong, therefore the theories of atonement is the discussion about how through the cross Jesus can forgive our sins.  If you google theories of atonement you find pages of pages of information with a variety of different theories.

Group Exercise:

Below is an outline of five common theories of atonement.  Allocate the theories among the people in your group/discussion and within each group Read through the notes and look up the Bible passages related to the theory.  You may also consider what this theory reveals to us about the character or nature of God.  Present back to the larger group your summary, thoughts and insights on the theory. 

(adapted from an article A Brief Look at Five Views on The Atonement of Christ by Andrew Springer)

#1 — Christ as Ransom / Jesus Pays the Price

In a sentence …
Jesus died on the cross as a ransom paid to Satan for releasing humans from the bondage of sin.

Read: Mark 10:45, Hebrews 9:15 and 1 Timothy 2:5–6.

For the first thousand years of Christianity, most Christians believed that Satan had control over humanity since the fall of man, and only the soul of perfectly innocent Jesus would be an acceptable payment for the return of humanity to the Father.  But unbeknownst to the devil, Jesus was also God and after three days, Jesus arose and now lives with the Father.

This idea of the duality between good and evil was something that sat comfortably in first millennium theologians but modern theologians criticise this theory because “among other things, it threatens the very sovereignty of God.” Basically, in some respects, it makes Satan equal to God. Why would God have to pay Satan anything? Why would God be in debt to Satan?

#2 — Christ as Sacrifice / Jesus is the Ultimate Sacrifice for our sins

In a sentence …
The Torah included instructions for sacrifices prescribed by God in order to atone for sin.  Jesus death on the cross was the ultimate, once and for all, sacrifice for our sins.

Read: Hebrews 9:11-14, Hebrews 9:26, Hebrews 10:1-10, 1 Corinthians 5:7

The Old Testament animal sacrifices were symbols of forgiveness and atonement but have ended because Jesus Christ was the ultimate and perfect sacrifice. John the Baptist recognized this when he saw Jesus coming to be baptized and said, “Look, the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). Even though the animals did no wrong, they died in place of the one performing the sacrifice.  Likewise Jesus Christ also did no wrong but willingly gave Himself to die for the sins of mankind (1 Timothy 2:6). Jesus Christ took our sin upon Himself and died in our place. As 2 Corinthians 5:21 says, “God made him [Jesus] who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

Critics would wonder what this theory says about the character of God, a God who demands the sacrifice of an animal … or ultimately Jesus … in order to forgive sins.  Couldn’t God decide to forgive without the need of sacrifices.

#3 — Christ as Substitute / Jesus takes our place

In a sentence …
God as a fair and just judge cannot let sin go unpunished buy Jesus offer himself as a substitute and takes the punishment for us.

Read:  Isaiah 53 (especially verse 5,6,11,12), Romans 3:21–26

In 1099, St. Anselm of Canterbury suggested that God’s honour that is offended by our sin.  And that offense cannot go unanswered, but Jesus as both divine and human can atone for our sun and restore God’s honour.  Five hundred years after the thinkers of the reformation, most notably John Calvin, would go even further. To them, God as the ultimate judge of the universe, cannot let human sin go unpunished.  But, as humans have fallen so short of God that we cannot possibly come close to repaying God for our sins, only God can. Thus, God in Christ comes to earth as fully human and fully God, receives our punishment, and God’s demand for justice is fulfilled.

This is called the Penal Substitutionary theory of atonement.  This theory was firmly codified in all Protestant confessions of faith by the end of the Reformation and remains the dominant view of the atonement for most Evangelicals.

The main objection by critics, however, is to the nature of God that is assumed in this theories.  A thinker and theologian who lived around the time of Anselm, the French philosopher and ethicist Peter Abelard, wrote this:

Indeed how cruel and wicked it seems that anyone should demand the blood of an innocent person as the price for anything, or that it should in any way please him that an innocent man should be slain — still less that God should consider the death of his Son so agreeable that by it he should be reconciled to the whole world?

#4 — Christ as an expression of God’s Love / Jesus shows us love

In a sentence …
God loves us so much and Jesus birth, life, teaching, and death of the cross, and resurrection is the complete expression of that love – and an example that we should follow.

Read: John 3:16-17, John 15:13, 1 Peter 2:21 and John 13:1,13–16 

This theory is also known as the “Moral Influence theory of the atonement”, where Christ’s life, death, and resurrection shows humans the true nature of love and turns them back towards God.  One theologian describes it this way: The work of Christ chiefly consists of demonstrating to the world the amazing depth of God’s love of sinful humanity… There is nothing inherent in God that must be appeased before he is willing to forgive humanity. The problem lies in the sinful, hardened human heart, with its fear and ignorance of God… Through the incarnation and death of Jesus Christ, the love of God shines like a beacon, beckoning humanity to come and fellowship.

Critics of moral influence atonement argue that at its best it doesn’t sound like atonement at all, and at its worst, dangerously veers into the ancient heresy of Pelagianism.  But more generally, critics say moral influence theology doesn’t answer the question, “what do we need saved from?” One theologian described the lack of an answer in moral influence atonement this way. Imagine siting safely on a pier, in a deck chair, when all of a sudden, out of nowhere, a man flings himself into the ocean and drowns. You later learn he did this because he loved you. You would probably think the man was a lunatic. But if, on the other hand, you yourself were drowning in the ocean, and a man came out to save you, succeeds, but drowns himself, you would understand, yes this is love.

#5 — Christ as Victor / Jesus wins the cosmic spiritual battle

In a sentence …
In the cosmic battle between Good and Evil, Jesus triumphs through the cross and resurrection, and saves all of creation.

Read: Ephesians 6:12, Colossians 2:13-15

In 1930, Swedish theologian Gustaf Aulén reinterpreted the dualism demonstrated in the ransom theory.  The earth and heaven are locked in a cosmic struggle between good (God) and evil (Satan). Creation finds itself in the middle of a cosmic war zone and Christ was sent to battle.  Through the cross and resurrection, Jesus triumph over the elements of darkness and saves all creation.  

The New Testament in several places calls Satan the ruler of this earth, and “everything Jesus was about centered on vanquishing this empire, taking back the world that Satan had seized and restoring its rightful viceroys — humans — to their position of guardians of the earth,” writes one theologian. This view of atonement lies in sharp contrast to other views by its emphasis on the cosmic significance of Christ over the significance of personal salvation. “We are reconciled because the cosmos has been reconciled. Because the rebel powers have been put in their place, we can be presented ‘holy and blameless’ before God.”

Besides the same criticism of dualism in the ransom theory (making Satan equal to God), the most pressing question with this theory isn’t why, but how? How did Christ defeat Satan through the Cross? What was it about the cross that defeated all the elements of evil throughout the universe? And further, if we are freed from evil and sin, why then do we keep sinning?

Discussion Starter:

After hearing a summary and thoughts on these five theories of atonement, which ones sit comfortably with you? Which ones do you have questions about?

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