Atonement, pt 9: Summary & General Evaluation

In this series, I have examined ten different answers that theologians, including the Bible writers, including Jesus himself, have offered to the questions, “Why did Jesus die?  What was achieved by his death?”

Here is a quick summary of the series, again in roughly chronological order of their proposal by theologians:

  1. Jesus’ death as ransom (the “ransom” theory): Satan holds us hostage, as slaves or 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.  Jesus, by his death, pays our ransom.
  2. Christus victor: Satan controls the world (including us.)  Jesus’ death > resurrection is the decisive battle for control of the cosmos.
  3. Jesus’ death as the restoration of honor (satisfaction): Our sin offends God’s honor, it is a public dishonoring of our master. We are not capable of restoring the honor on our own, and we cannot survive the requisite punishment. By his death (i.e., taking our punishment), Jesus removes our shame and restores God’s honor.
  4. Jesus is our substitute (general substitution): Unless our sin is punished, it is an affront to God’s justice. Jesus’ death is the punishment that satisfies this side of God’s nature.
  5. Jesus receives our specific punishment (penal substitution)or the specific punishment for the elect: Unless each and every sin of each and every sinner is punished, God is not just and there is no salvation.  Jesus’ death pays for every sin committed by every sinner; OR Jesus’ death pays for every sin of the elect.
  6. Jesus’ death restores moral order (governmental): Sin threatens the universe’s moral order. Jesus’ death reestablishes the moral order by meeting justice’s requirement. He receives a punishment equivalent to what we deserve, a penalty that makes punishing us unnecessary. This moves us from sin’s realm into God’s realm.
  7. Jesus’ death as example (moral influence): We do not know how to live as we ought. Jesus’ death is the perfect example of love, forgiveness, etc., which we are to imitate.
  8. Jesus’ death > ascension, by our participation therein, restores the imago dei in us (participation): We were created in the image of God (imago dei). Sin distorts the imago dei and ruins our fellowship with God, so that our character is warped and our lives are to varying degrees overtaken by sin. Now we are alienated and separated from God. Jesus’ death, burial, resurrection, and ascension are together a single epoch-making event in which we participate. We are incorporated into him, carried with him through the cross and tomb, and into his ascended reign. This restores the imago dei and reestablishes our fellowship with God, and allows us to participate in resurrected life with the Spirit of God who now lives through us.
  9. Jesus’ death is the death of violence (peace church): Sin separates us from God and makes us selfish and violent. In his death, Jesus takes all the world’s selfishness and violence on himself and kills it.
  10. Jesus’ death is a tragic inevitability (modern prog Christianity): We have forgotten God’s way, which makes us selfish and violent. Jesus came to show us how to live as God wanted us to live. The authorities of his day rejected and crucified him. His death was not God’s will, but was the result of him confronting the powers of his day. He dies for the WAY of God, not the WILL of God.

General evaluation:

It’s interesting to note how the theories changed as European society (and European Christianity) changed.  The ransom theory would make sense in the earliest church.  The satisfaction theory was well-suited to Christianity under the feudal system, as the governmental and penal substitution theories were to their historical contexts in the centuries that followed.

It’s also interesting to note how theological developments match the lives, personalities, and life situations of the theologians.

  • If Luther hadn’t been studying “forgiveness of sins” while building his polemic against the sale of indulgences, would we read Romans the way we do?
  • If Luther hadn’t suffered from depression and an unhealthy obsession with his own guilt, would we read Romans the way we do?
  • If Paul’s letters were arranged in our Bibles in chronological order (rather than length), beginning with 1 Thessalonians, how would our view of NT theology differ?
  • Calvin was a lawyer; we see a “lawyerliness” to his theology.
  • Calvin was by personality harsh and legalistic; just ask Michael Servetus.  His soteriology, including this thinking on atonement, is the most legalistic thing that could ever be labeled “grace”.
  • Grotius was a lawyer working to design the legal systems by which governments interacted; we see this reflected in his view of atonement.

Of the ten, I discard 1 (ransom) and 3 (satisfaction), because other theories seem to have the benefits without their baggage.  I have no use for 10 (modern prog Christianity), because of the view of scripture that it requires.

I have already explained my reservations about 5 (penal substitution) and its unhealthy effects.  It’s strengths are better covered by other theories, without the baggage.

This leaves us with six theories.  All of which have biblical support, some more explicitly supported in specific passages (e.g., moral influence), others in the gestalt of large blocks of scripture (e.g., the death of violence).  All seem to me to have strong pastoral value.

  • Christus victor
  • General substitution
  • Governmental
  • Moral influence
  • Participation
  • The death of violence

So what is the pastoral value of the six remaining theories? That’s our post for tomorrow (Thursday) or Friday, the final post of the series.

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