Atonement pt 1: Why Did Jesus Die?

I’m going to “geek out” on theology for the next few days.  Consider this a cheap and amateurish introduction to systematic theology.

I’ve been meaning for some time to publish the following material, which I originally presented at Stijena Spasenja (“Rock of Salvation”), an Evangelical Pentecostal congregation here in Zagreb.


Why did Jesus die? What did his death achieve?  When we attempt to answer those questions, we are discussing “atonement”.

These questions have spawned a great deal of discussion over the past 2,000 years. Different Bible writers, including Jesus himself (I call Jesus a “Bible writer” because he is the source of the material attributed to him in the gospels), have explained the significance of his death. And their explanations do not completely agree.

Did Jesus die as a “sacrifice of atonement” or as an example for us to follow? Was he the sacrificial lamb or the Passover lamb or the ransom that bought our freedom?

The New Testament does not present us with a single view. It does not even suggest that one view is better, or should “rule over”, the other views.  Instead, it presents us with several views and shows us how those views might be used in different pastoral settings.

Likewise, theologians have presented a variety of views.  They differ because the theologians who formulate them start from different starting points, from different careers and perspectives, to address different pastoral problems.

  • Martin Luther’s soteriology was forged when he was arguing against the Catholic practice of indulgences.  That is why he began searching the New Testament for the how of the forgiveness of sins; his motivation was polemical.
  • John Calvin, the head from which most writing on penal substitution theory of the atonement flows, was trained as a lawyer.  It shouldn’t surprise us that his controlling metaphor for understanding atonement is a courtroom.
  • Hugo Grotius, the primary early formulator of the governmental theory of atonement, also wrote the laws and books that became the foundation of European international law, the dictates that nations follow when dealing with other nations.

This is a brief survey of ten theories of the atonement, ten explanations for what Jesus’ death achieved. For each theory, I will state:

  1. The problem that Jesus’ death addresses.
  2. How Jesus’ death fixes the problem.
  3. What depiction of God sits in the background of the theory.
  4. What metaphor best summarizes the theory.
  5. Some of the biblical texts that support the theory.
  6. Each theory’s strengths as I see them.
  7. Each theory’s weaknesses as I see them.

I will approach the ten theories in roughly chronological order, starting with Origen (died 254) and ending with a view widespread in “modern progressive Christianity”.

  • Each of these theories is a church leader’s pastoral attempt to apply scripture to the needs of their churches.
  • Their teaching may or may not have effectively addressed those needs.
  • Their teaching may or may not effectively address the needs of OTHER cultures.

As you read these, consider: which of these ways of talking about Jesus’ death would speak most effectively to YOUR culture? Which addresses the needs of the people around you?

(Tomorrow: the ransom theory, “Christus Victor“, and the satisfaction theory.)

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