At the heart of the Christian story is the life, death, and resurrection of the Son of God. How his followers understand that story is what separates us into the many different expressions of faith that can be found today. The significance of Christ's atonement for sins (the very basis of his name and his mission) is what makes Christianity truly Christian: a religion with Christ at its redemptive center. The way that evangelical Christians have spoken of the atonement has usually centered on Christ's sacrifice for us, a substitution, to satisfy the demands of divine justice, thus making his death a penal substitution. Why have they spoken this way? The overwhelming testimony of Scripture-from the promise of a redeemer for Adam and Eve, through the Jewish sacrifices, the prophetic hopes of a Messiah, the birth narratives of Jesus, and the epistles to the earliest churches-have affirmed that through the death of Christ God's people are put into right relationship with God, sin is forgiven, and new spiritual life is born.
It is becoming increasingly popular, however, for evangelical Christians to wonder if more should be said about the atonement than the traditional formulation of "penal substitution." Are there other biblical motifs of the atonement that can be considered together to fill out the song of redemption? Are there notes missing from the language evangelicals have used in the past for articulating and understanding the Atonement?
Two things should be noted before discussion gets underway: First, the different atonement motifs in Scripture should not be set against each other-as if they represent conflicting accounts of the death of Christ and its effect. Rather, each biblical motif is part of the "surround sound" beauty of Christ's work for us, both in his humiliation and his exaltation. Second, no integrated atonement picture is complete unless it includes Christ's perfect life, horrible death, bodily resurrection, heavenly ascension, and high priestly session at the Father's right hand. That is, of course, the problem with doing theology: one can't say everything at the same time! But, Christ's death doesn't make sense, nor can it be said to be effective in any way, unless we consider the life he lived before the cross and the resurrection joy of Easter morning.
With these ideas firmly in mind, what are some of the atonement motifs Christians have held throughout the centuries?
Generally, Reformation-oriented churches are known for their emphasis on the penal substitutionary character of Christ's death. This means that God's justice requires eternal suffering for sin, but because of God's love and compassion, the Son took humankind's place, suffering in their stead, and secured eternal redemption of their sins. According to this view, both the life and death of Christ have redemptive significance since the Son stands as humanity's federal representative and must provide positive righteousness as well as atone for unrighteousness. The end result, then, of Christ's life and death is not merely a right judicial standing before God, but also a relationship with God as adopted sons, partakers of the divine nature, and joint heirs with Christ. In light of his work of redemption, we are called to emulate Christ by taking up our own crosses, choosing to suffer for what is good, and participate in the work of reconciliation that God is accomplishing through Christ.
While the judicial character of Christ's death may play a central role in our thinking, it isn't the only motif worth considering. One of the earliest theories of the Atonement was the Christus Victor (or "Christ the Victor") motif (early proponents of this theory include Irenaeus and Augustine, 3rd and 5th centuries, respectively). The dominant idea here is that the conflict which began when Satan rebelled against God, and which took on a human dimension in Satan's tempting Adam and Eve, is finished on the cross. God's Son is killed, granting Satan and his minions an apparent victory, but the resurrection constituted a victory of God over Satan and the seed of the Serpent, securing God's rule and reign. The Christus Victor motif has enjoyed a renewed popularity in recent years and for good reason. It seems especially inherent to the redemptive historical narrative of Scripture and an amillennial eschatology. Variations on this theory, however, are troubling.
Some people equate Christus Victor with the idea of a ransom being paid to Satan (an early proponent of this theory was Origin, early 3rd century). The ransom theory holds that with the Fall of Adam and Eve, the souls of humankind were bound over to Satan. Jesus' death, then, is a sort of ransom payment that secures their release. Although Scripture does speak of Christ's death as a ransom (Rev. 5:9) and of redemption as something "bought" (1 Cor. 6:20), nowhere is Satan understood to demand payment from God. Satan's reign through sin is overthrown, not compensated, by Christ's death.
The Reformation leaned upon Anselm's explanation of the death of Christ in his famous work Cur Deus Homo, "Why the God Man?" (late 11th century). Using Anselm's insights, the theologians of both the Lutheran and Reformed branches of the Reformation developed the ideas which led to the way we speak about vicarious atonement today. But, their appeal to Anselm has led some to equate the Reformation's doctrine of the atonement with Anselm's satisfaction theory. This idea states that sin robbed God of the honor that was due to him as Creator and King. This insult to God's honor introduced disorder in the universe, affecting even the nonhuman creation, causing it to "groan" while eagerly awaiting the day of redemption (Rom. 8:19). Jesus' death satisfies God's honor and restores the created order. Certainly, there are ideas here worth preserving: sin is an insult, humanity's rebellion did introduce chaos into the world order, Jesus' death and resurrection is the hinge upon which the "world to come" breaks in on the world that now is. But to agree with these aspects of the theory does not mean that we embrace the underlying idea that sin is chiefly a debt to God's honor or that Jesus' sacrifice merely placates God's honor without reference to the guilt and pollution of sin or the wrath of God.
At roughly the same time as Anselm was formulating his theory, his contemporary, Abelard (early 12th century), was thinking in a different direction. Abelard's theory became known as the moral influence theory of the atonement. The theory has come to mean that the death of Christ on the cross is a demonstration of God's great love for us and his hatred of sin. Giving Jesus to die does not actually accomplish redemption but is used by God to move humans to repentance.
Closely related to the moral influence theory is the example theory put forth by Socinius (late 16th century). This theory maintains that Jesus' death did not atone for sin but rather was an example of true obedience to God (which is the way of salvation) and now inspires his followers to lead a similar life.
In an attempt to provide a "third way" between the Reformation's view of the atonement and Socinius's example theory, a Dutch theologian named Grotius (early 17th century) advocated the governmental theory of the atonement. The governmental theory states that through the death of Christ, God revealed to his creatures the nature of his law and his wrath toward sin; Jesus served as an example of sin's consequences. But advocates of this theory maintain that Jesus did not suffer the exact penalty for sin. God adjusted what his law required and accepted Jesus' sacrifice as a token payment, thus ensuring that he maintained his moral rule over the universe.
Recently some evangelicals are looking east to find alternative theories of the atonement. Many of the theories which are influenced by Eastern Orthodox theology can be summed up under the general heading of an incarnational theory. The chief element that these theories seek to uphold is the idea that Jesus' death is the culmination of a life lived in identity with the creature and the cross was his experiencing the alienation from God that sin introduced in human life. By faith, humans are united to Christ and participate in the full life of God (the Greek Orthodox idea of theosis). Again, there is much to commend this idea: Jesus did, indeed, live our life for us; he was the Last Adam, our federal head. And, as we are united to Christ, we do share in the divine nature (2 Pet. 1:4). But more than just an existential identification with us (sharing our pain and trouble), Jesus as the God-Man enters into our lives to redeem us from our sin and rebellion. We must not lose the idea of guilt incurred by our sin for we are not only victims, we are also victimizers.
So, where do we go from here? Should the penal substitution devotees challenge the Christus Victor devotees to a Bible Drill? Are the Christians who support an incarnational theory to be driven out of the camp? How do we weave all of these various motifs together? Better yet, should we? Mark Dever, frequent MR contributor and pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., reflected on this question in an essay for Christianity Today last year:
While a victor may have moral influence on those for whom he conquered, may he not also be a substitute? While Christ's example of self-giving love may also defeat our enemies, may he not, by the same act, propitiate God's wrath? Each of the theories conveys biblical truth about the atoning work of Christ.I don't doubt that we have more to learn from Christ's death than simply the fact that he died as a substitute for us, bearing our grief and carrying our sorrows (Isa. 53:4). Peter, for instance, teaches that we should follow Christ's example of suffering for that which is good (1 Pet. 3). Any biblical understanding of the Atonement must take into account our having been united to Christ by faith, adopted and regenerated in him. As those who belong to him, as his temple and his body, we expect the fruit of his Spirit to be evident in us. Because of the Atonement, we expect a new quality to our lives (Rom. 6; 2 Cor. 5; Gal. 5; 2 Pet. 1). The Atonement is not merely moral influence, but it surely results in moral improvement.Rather than pitting these theories against one another, couldn't they be evaluated together? A Christ who wins victory over the powers of evil, whose death changes us, and whose death propitiates God is not only conceivable, he seems to be the Bible's composite presentation.
Of course, Dever is right: each biblical atonement theory conveys part of Christ's complex mission on earth. Thus, a complete understanding of Christ's redeeming work is represented more accurately by viewing the different theories as harmonizing parts of the same song, rather than as solo melodies.