Atonement, pt 2

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.

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.

FIRST: Jesus’ death as RANSOM; this view is at least as old as Origen (died 254).

  1. What’s the problem? Satan holds us hostage, perhaps as prisoners of war.  We belong to an unfit owner.  God could “steal” us from our owner, by fiat, but does not want to act unethically.
  2. With his death, Jesus pays the ransom for us.
  3. God is our ruler who pays the price to free us.
  4. Metaphor: captivity.
  5. Textual support:
  6. The depiction of Satan in Job.
    1. 2 Cor 4.4: The god of this age …
    1. Eph 2.2: … the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient.
    1. Mark 10.45: “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
    1. 1 Tim 2.5: For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all.
    1. 1 Cor6.20: You are not your own, you were bought with a price.
    1. Heb2.14-15: Since the children have flesh & blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.
  7. Strengths:
    1. Attempts to integrate texts from the whole Bible.
    1. Appropriate view of sin and sinful nature.
    1. Holistic (cosmic) view of the effects of sin, though not as strong as Christus Victor (unpacked below).
  8. Weaknesses:
    1. Near dualistic view of Satan lacks biblical support.
    1. As the details are worked out, God appears to deceive Satan into “taking a bad deal” (bait and switch).
    1. The biblical support is ambiguous.
    1. Doesn’t deal with the Christian life.

SECOND, Jesus’ death as VICTORY; “Christus Victor.”  This is both an ancient and a modern view; see Gregory Boyd for a modern example.

  1. What’s the problem? Satan controls the world (including us.)
  2. Jesus’ death is the beginning of a decisive battle for control, which culminates in victory with his resurrection.
  3. God is the ruler who sends our hero (Jesus) into battle on our behalf.
  4. Metaphor: military victory.
  5. Textual support:
    1. Col 2.15: And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he [God] made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.
    1. 1 Cor15.56-57: The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
  6. Strengths:
    1. Biblical support; takes Jesus’ life and words seriously.
    1. Appropriate view of sin and sinful nature.
    1. Holistic view of the effects of sin; in other words, the effects of sin and redemption are not limited to us but include the whole creation (“Cursed is the ground because of you,” Genesis 3; “All creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed,” Romans 8.)
    1. Stronger implications for Christian life than ransom theory.
    1. Focuses on Jesus’ resurrection (not just death).
    1. Balanced, consistent depiction of God.
  7. Weaknesses:
    1. Exaggerates Satan’s power.
    1. Individual guilt, shame, and sin are less important than corporate.

THIRD, Jesus’ death RESTORES HONOR; this is known as the “satisfaction” theory.  It comes from medieval feudalism, where rich landowners protected the people who lived around them (their vassals) and the vassals were obliged to give honor and service to the landowners.

  1. What’s the problem? Our sin offends God’s honor.  Our sin is a public dishonoring of our master.  Either we must restore the honor (which we are incapable of doing) or we must be punished (which we cannot survive.)
  2. By his death (i.e., taking our punishment), Jesus removes our shame and restores God’s honor.
  3. God is our ruler, whom we have offended.
  4. Metaphor: dishonored king.
  5. Textual support:
    1. Heb12.2: [Let us look] to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.
  6. Strengths:
    1. Takes sin seriously.
    1. Gave the 12th century church a metaphor they could relate to.
    1. As a modern Westerner, I have a hard time “plugging into” the honor-shame world of the New Testament.  I suspect that this explanation would ring truer to the authors and original readers of the New Testament than it does to us.  As it is, I cannot adequately evaluate it.  I’d rather continue to try to read the New Testament with this view as part of my “tool kit.”
  7. Weaknesses:
    1. Direct biblical support seems shaky.
    1. Appears to make God subject to external standards.
    1. Depicts God as angry and punitive.

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