The Atonement again
All Christians everywhere have taught the Christ’s birth, life, death and resurrection were for a purpose, that they “saved” man. This is called the doctrine of the atonement. What Christians have not agreed on over the centuries is what precisely Christ accomplished, or how, or why. Here are some of the views that have been held, with approximate dates as to when they were invented and popular:
Recapitulation (First Millennia AD)
Humanity’s problem was that sin separated us from God, causing death due to lack of “participation” in God’s immortality. Christ in becoming human and living a human life, combined the natures of God and human in himself, thereby spiritually reuniting man and God, and thus saving us from death.
Christus Victor (First Millennia AD)
Christ “fought” against all the different “powers” that hold humanity in hostage (Satan, death, sin, disease, poverty etc), and “defeated” them. He defeated sickness by healing people, he defeated poverty by helping the poor, he defeated the devil by casting out spirits, he defeated death by being resurrected etc. In this way he waged war against these things, both defeating them himself and inspiring us to do the same and not fear them.
Ransom from Satan (First Millennia AD)
The souls of sinners are under Satan’s power, so in order to rescue us, Christ offered himself to Satan in exchange for our souls. But since Christ himself had no sin, Satan was unable to hold Christ within his power and God resurrected him from death. This view is depicted by CS Lewis in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe.
Moral Exemplar (First Millennia AD)
Christ through his life set an example to inspire and and for us to follow. Through his teachings taught us how to live and what was important. Through his death demonstrated faithfulness to God and his teachings becoming a martyr and setting an example. Through his resurrection he showed that death was not the end and that God approves of those who live like Jesus.
God’s honour was offended by our sin, therefore being infinitely honourable he had to inflict infinite punishment on us to preserve his honour. However through Christ’s perfect obedience to the point of death, God’s honour is restored, and we no longer need to be punished. (Developed to replace Ransom from Satan)
Penal Substitution (1500AD onward)
God is just so he must punish our sins by sending us to hell. Christ died taking on himself our sins/punishment, thereby allowing God to forgive us. (Developed from Satisfaction)
Governmental View (1600-1900AD)
Christ died as a public demonstration by God as to the seriousness of sin, and because it is right that there be punishment for sin. Our sin wasn’t actually transferred to Christ. (A version of Penal Substitution)
The two views most popular today in Western Christianity are Penal Substitution and a variant of Christus Victor / Moral Exemplar which is often labelled the Liberation view. (Eastern Christians hold to a blend of Recapituation, Christus Victor, Ransom from Satan, and Moral Exemplar)
Penal Substitution says that God is just and he has to punish sin. Since we are all sinners, he had to send us to hell. So he transferred our sins onto Christ on the cross. Since Christ suffered in our place God can justly forgive us. This view has been the most popular view among conservative Western Christians for the past 500 years. If you listen to a Gospel presentation today or read a tract, they’ll probably take this view. Most Protestants have had it explained to them that this view is what the bible teaches, and been taught how to understand every part of Christianity in light of the fact that Christ died for our sins, and know that people need to accept God’s forgiveness and believe in Christ in order to avoid hell.
Over the last century there’s been a lot of discussion among Christians about the atonement, and the idea of Penal Substitution has received a lot of criticism. Some people argue that it depicts an unloving God who cannot forgive people without punishing someone. Others complain that the idea of transferring our sin to Christ is nonsense and you can’t transfer sin. They think it is unjust for an innocent man to suffer the punishment of the guilty. They say that the importance given to his death reduces his life into insignificance. They think that the emphasis put on believing the gospel reduces the importance of morality into insignificance. They think that Penal Substitution ignores the importance that Jesus puts on helping those who are in need.
As a result, there are two quite different views of the atonement in Christianity today. There are those who accept Penal Substitution, and those who reject it. The people who reject it do not all hold to a well-defined, clear, and named version of the atonement. But they tend to have a lot of ideas in common. I like to call their view the Liberation view, though it is often just called Christus Victor or Moral Exemplar.
The Liberation view stresses the love of God towards those who are suffering and ensnared in sin. They say that what Jesus came to save us from were sinful ways of living that bring hurt to us. Jesus hence healed the sick, helped the poor, and brought outcasts back into society. Hence the mission of the church in the world is to bring real-life transformation to people. The liberation view focuses on this-world salvation just as much as next-world salvation. They see the Church’s role as being two-fold to bring personal moral transformation – changing people’s character for the better, and social transformation – changing society for the better.
The Liberation view still believes in the afterlife, and believes in heaven and hell and a final judgment. There is an emphasis on the importance of individual goodness and faithfulness in achieving a postive final judgment, so discipleship and sanctification is emphasised. Thus they focus of how to change people’s lives, on social justice, and discipleship. The large number of biblical scholars in recent years who have distanced themselves from the Penal Substitutionary view and adopted some form of Liberation/Christus Victor is really quite remarkable. There is increasing scholarly dissatisfaction with Reformation theology in general and the Liberation model looks like its the best ship to jump to.
There is quite a large range among adherents to the Liberation view, from those who think that Christ on the cross caused a cosmic defeat of evil and through the life of Christ God waged supernatural war against evil powers, through to those who reject such supernaturalistic notions of evil and think Christ's social teachings were simply about combating normal (but real) evil and sufferings in peoples lives and bringing personal and social transformation to the world. The common factor is that God was at work in Christ to oppose evil and help humanity.