Atonement, pt 4

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 part of an ongoing brief survey of ten theories of the atonement, ten explanations for what Jesus’ death achieved. For each theory, I will describe:

  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 conclude each post with my view of how the theories should be used pastorally.

Here, I describe the fourth and fifth theories.


FOURTH: Jesus is our SUBSTITUTE, i.e., he died in our place.  This is the dominant theory in Western Christianity.  I would associate this view with Thomas Aquinas (ca. 1250). N.T. Wright is a modern proponent.

  1. Problem: unless our sin is punished, it is an affront to God’s justice.
  2. Jesus’ death is the punishment that satisfies God’s justice.
  3. God is the judge.
  4. Metaphor: criminal courtroom, criminal trial.
  5. Textual support, etc.: see below under the fifth view.
  6. Strengths:
    1. Takes sin and sinful human nature seriously.
    2. Attempts to build a broad biblical foundation.
    3. Addresses a felt need–guilt and isolation from God–in a biblical, healthy way.
  7. Weaknesses:
    1. More individualistic than the culture in which the biblical materials were written and read.
    2. Ignores Jesus’ life and teachings.
    3. Separates the Christian life from Jesus’ death.
    4. By this reading, Jesus came to fix our problem, not to restore our relationship with God; leads to triumphalism.

FIFTH is a specific variation of number four: PENAL SUBSTITUTION.  This is the dominant theory in conservative evangelicalism.  I associate this view with Calvin and the modern Reformed theologians.

  1. Problem: unless each and every sin of each and every sinner is punished, God is not just.
  2. Jesus’ death pays for every sin committed by every sinner; OR Jesus’ death pays for every sin of the elect.
  3. God is both judge and accountant.
  4. Metaphor: criminal courtroom, criminal trial.
  5. Theories four and five share the same textual support:
    1. A particular reading of the OT sacrificial system.
    2. Rom 6.23: The wages of sin is death.
    3. 2 Cor 5.21: God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
    4. Gal 3.13: Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us.
  6.  Strengths:
    1. Takes sin seriously.
    2. Attempts to build a broad biblical foundation.
  7.  Weaknesses of penal substitution:
    1. Historical readings of the Old Testament have falsified the way advocates of penal substitution read the sacrificial system; that’s not what those texts meant to the original author or readers.
    2. More individualistic than the culture in which the biblical materials were written and read.
    3. Ignores Jesus’ life and teachings.
    4. Separates the Christian life from Jesus’ death.
    5. Misused to justify the victimization of the innocent (slavery, the mistreatment of women, etc.) and to motivate willing submission to abuse.
    6. By this reading, Jesus came to fix our problem, not to restore our relationship with God; leads to triumphalism.
    7. Requires the debt to be paid before forgiveness is possible; where does this leave the Old Testament saints?
    8. Tends to build an unbiblical picture of God, who is here an angry third party rejecting and punishing Jesus (instead of God-in-Christ, suffering in and with him).  What does this view do to our understanding of the fellowship of the trinity?  (See also my note on the cry of dereliction, #10 below.)
    9. Depicts God as angry, vengeful, and petty.  In this view, Jesus’ death doesn’t save us from our sins, it saves us from God.
    10. Misreads the cry of dereliction from the cross.  When Jesus cries out, “My God, why have you forsaken me?”, he is quoting Psalm 22.  He is NOT saying that God had actually turned his back on him.  God did not turn his back on Jesus on the cross.  God was with Jesus, in Jesus, suffering what Jesus suffered.
    11. How can God be pleased by the death by torture of an innocent man?
    12. Makes God subject to an external standard; why can’t he just forgive?  why did he have to go through this process?

Pastoral reflection: you might be able to tell that I have pastoral problems with penal substitutionary atonement.  In their focus on God’s wrath, its advocates tend to paint an unbalanced, unbiblical picture of God.  (This is what happens when Luther’s reading of Romans, itself dominated by Rom 1.18-32, dominates NT soteriology.  If we had a different starting point, our picture might be more balanced.)

In the weaknesses, I mention several times that this view has been used or misused to promote horrible, unbiblical things.  Is this fair?  Can we separate a theological position from the destructive ways its adherents have used it?  Does extreme inhumanity based in a reading (or misreading) of a theological position by itself make that theological position suspect or invalid?

At the same time, substitutionary atonement (non-penal) certainly can be useful in a pastoral setting, particularly in response to extreme feelings of guilt and isolation from God.  But it should be used in tandem with the awareness that extreme feelings of guilt and isolation from God, especially in the believer, are themselves pathological, and must be dealt with pastorally.  God’s not the one who keeps bringing to mind the sins you committed in junior high or college, rubbing your face in them.  That’s Satan.

In a balanced presentation that doesn’t overemphasize guilt to motivate, that focuses on God-in-Christ rather than God-against-Christ, that doesn’t become obsessed with the details of every single sin (“confession porn”), the fact that Jesus died in my place and your place for my guilt and your guilt is a powerful, life-changing statement of God’s love and grace.  

But as you consider using substitutionary atonement in a pastoral setting, please also consider how the next theory–the “governmental” theory–supplements substitutionary atonement as I’ve described it.

Also, a historical aside: people who associate this view with Jonathan Edwards’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” might need to reread that sermon.  The title of the sermon notwithstanding, Edwards’s depiction of God was less extravagant and took less delight in the gory details of God’s punishments for sinners than do many modern advocates of this view.

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