Atonement, FINAL Pastoral Thoughts

For the summary and evaluation of the ten theories, see my previous post.

Now, having surveyed the ten theories and analyzed strengths and weaknesses, I conclude that we have six viable theories. They are:

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

I don’t think any of these views stands alone: my friend Tracy Farthing suggest that these are like the different facets of a jewel.

All of them have biblical support, although the nature of the support differs.  One is explicitly supported by a few verses (moral influence).  Several arise from theological reflection on multiple passages from the Old and New Testaments (e.g., governmental, general substitution).  One is based in the gestalt of large blocks of scripture (the death of violence).

Each of the six has legitimate pastoral use.  I do not think any of them stands alone, in isolation from the others.  They present for us a complete, multicolored picture; a tray full of tools for pastoral work.

Christus Victor

  • Many people in the world, especially but not exclusively outside the West, believe that the existential threat they face is the dark forces, demonic and personal, that control the world.  These people know that they are not in control of their lives.  They may be in systems that emphasize appeasing the dark forces, but such appeasement costs them their souls, their happiness, their peace, but it seems to be the only way to survive.
  • Jesus’ victory in the events of his crucifixion and resurrection defeats those dark forces.  It breaks their power.  And we, by becoming part of him, can experience that victory as well.  Sin’s power over us can be broken, and the Holy Spirit living within us can give us new lives of obedience and freedom.
  • Held by many in the USA as a modern alternative to penal substitution; Brian Zahnd, Gregory Boyd.

General Substitution:

  • Many people, especially in the West, believe that the existential threat that they face is that their personal sin and guilt separate them from God.  This can become pathological, especially in mature believers.
  • 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 truth of Jesus’ death in my place and your place for my guilt and your guilt is a powerful, life-changing affirmation of God’s love and grace.
  • Sometimes established, mature believers continue to be haunted by guilt, losing their joy and peace because they still feel alienated from God.  In these cases, general substitution can be helpful in tandem with the awareness that extreme and ongoing feelings of guilt and isolation from God are themselves pathological, and must be dealt with pastorally.  God’s not the one who keeps rubbing your face in the sins you committed in junior high or college.  That’s Satan.
  • N.T. Wright is one of many modern evangelicals who holds this view.


  • For many people, the existential threat is that the universe is chaotic, unjust, and (apparently) amoral.  Everything is going to hell around us.  These people feel like they are not in control of their lives, but the threat here is chaos more than dark forces.
  • God has punished Jesus for our sins; he is our substitute.  But that’s not all that he did.  Like Aslan at the Stone Table, Jesus’ death has begun to set the moral order of the universe to rights again.  This “setting to rights” is not complete; it is growing.  Jesus’ followers are to live as agents of this correction.
  • Roger Olson is a modern exponent of this view.

Moral Influence:

  • From the beginning, Christians have had a hard time NOT living like the world.  God doesn’t miraculously heal our selfishness, the hurts and shame that drive us.  He gives us the scripture, the Holy Spirit, and other believers to help us grow and mature, but there are many false starts along the way.
  • Jesus in his death is the supreme, blanket example for how we should live.  Love as he loved.  Forgive as he forgave.  Sacrifice as he sacrificed.  “Have in yourselves the same mind as Christ Jesus, …”
  • This is the first corrective for Christians who are mistreating one another.  It should also be a regular part of our teaching and preaching; the flesh is strong, we are prone to forget what we know in this area without reminders.
  • I believe I see this in twentieth-century “mainline” theologies that wrestle with the crucifixion.


  • Some cultures are very backward looking, always longing for past glory, strength, independence, etc.  And some people are similarly consumed.  The existential problem–maybe threat isn’t the right word here–is that something essential has been lost.  No matter how hard they work, or what they try, they can’t recapture what is missing.
  • We participate in Jesus’ death, burial, resurrection, and ascension.  As such, we are now included with him.  Our shame is replaced by his honor.  Our lost glory is replaced with his present and future glory, which is beyond compare.  The image of God with which we were stamped at creation is restored and is being restored as we live in the light of our participation in him.
  • CRU’s Honor Restored (on the God Tools App, and elsewhere) is a good presentation of the gospel from this perspective.  I’m sure there are current theologians working from this perspective, but do not know them.

The Death of Violence:

  • The 20th and 21st centuries have seen humanity reach new levels of inhumanity and violence.  For many people, this is a source of great, perhaps overwhelming anxiety.  Some of these people have themselves experienced great violence.  They may suffer from post-traumatic stress, etc.
  • God-in-Christ took all the world’s violence, all the fear and suffering, onto himself and killed it.  As we live in him, learn from him, and live like him, we are freed from this fear and anxiety and called to free others.
  • John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas are the best known proponents of this view.

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