Sunday Meditations: The Atonement Story

By far, the oldest Christian theology of the atonement produced by actual theologians is what is known as Christus Victor.  The idea here is that Jesus’ death and resurrection defeats sin and death – the main tyrants and oppressors over all mankind.  The debates in this school of thought tended to revolve around whether Jesus’ death liberates mankind from these forces as external oppressors, or whether his death actually changes the nature of humanity, itself, to remove the tyranny of sin and death.  This is the view of the atonement we get from the early church fathers, such as Irenaeus.

It is a whopping thousand years later when Anselm presents the idea that the issue is actually with God’s justice.  Man’s sins incur a debt, and either that debt must be paid, or mankind must be punished for failure to pay up.  Later theologians, like John Calvin, will blend the death and the punishment as one thing – because of God’s justice, he must punish mankind for sin.  In this scheme, Jesus takes on the punishment to himself that mankind deserves.  This is generally called the penal substitutionary doctrine of the atonement.  The debt version is the theological view we get from the Roman Catholic church after it splits from the East, and the mandatory punishment version tends to be more Reformational.

In contemporary times, Protestant theologians have found the ideas behind penal substitutionary atonement distasteful and not quite as biblically warranted as it might seem, and in this vein have either gone back to more of a Christus Victor view or developed other views, such as Jesus’ death being a challenging moral example of what it means to give our lives for others, or an event that mankind participates in, becoming mystically united with Jesus in his death and resurrection such that we have died and risen in his own death and resurrection.

These are all interesting stories, and they all have a certain mathematical consistency to them.  They answer the question, “Why did Jesus have to die?” although they do not do a great job of explaining why he had to live, other than living so that he could eventually die someday.  But the way I see it, they all suffer from two issues.

One issue is the assumption that there is some underlying logic as to how Jesus’ death “works” that we need to figure out.  It is as though there are some laws of the universe or laws of God’s own nature that somehow necessitate Jesus’ death the same way that heat is necessary to melt ice.  It is not enough to say that Jesus gave his life as a ransom for many; we have to figure out how that could work.  I don’t fault theology for this, because this is sort of what theology does, but we may be asking questions that the Bible isn’t really keen on answering.

The second issue, which I think is far more problematic, is that none of these explanations take into account the rather large, pre-existing framework that is intended to flesh these concepts out – namely the story of the Old Testament.

In the Old Testament, we have Israel – the special people of the living God.  God promises to oversee their growth, prosperity, and safekeeping, and in exchange, they will be a living testimony to His reality and power as well as a blessing to the world by living the way He prescribes for them in the Law.  Sometimes, this goes well, and sometimes, it doesn’t go well at all.

In the story, Israel’s failure to keep up her end of the bargain results in an array of disasters such as being ruled by unjust kings, exile from the promised land, destruction of the Temple, and rule by foreign powers.  God’s prophets explain to Israel that if they will turn from their sins, repent, and embrace faithfulness to their God who has blessed them so much, that God would redeem them.  They would become His people, again, and the testimony they were always meant to be in a restored relationship.  Their past transgressions would be forgotten, and a new world of safety and prosperity would be brought into being with the establishment of the kingdom of God.  In some segments of prophecy, the Gentiles – notably Israel’s historical enemies – will see this and turn to their God and will also become His faithful people enjoying the benefits thereof.

Note the differences in assumptions behind this story and the stories of later theologians:

Greco-Roman Theology Old Testament Story
  • Abstract, spiritual problems
  • Israel will be saved as a result of belonging to creation/mankind
  • Being redeemed is a spiritual state inaugurated now that will be realized in some more concrete way in the future
  • Redemption is applied to individuals
  • Concrete, historical problems
  • The nations will be saved as a result of Israel being saved
  • Being redeemed is a historical state of affairs that either exists or doesn’t
  • Redemption is applied to nations

If we’re going to talk about what the death of Jesus means, we have to put aside our own theological questions and concerns and ask, “In what way does Jesus’ death facilitate the concrete, historical deliverance of Israel and her restoration and reclamation for YHWH?”

If we start with a question like that and look at how things play out on the stage of history, we may decide that Jesus’ death as a death does very little, but what it motivates God to do is rather huge.

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