Growing up Fundagelical, I was taught that Jesus died on the cross for my sins. You were probably taught the same thing. However, as I got older and began to unpack the theology in that statement, I became more and more ill at ease with what it implied.
The statement that Jesus died for our sins can be understood in different ways. I was taught the Penal Substitution theory of atonement. Since I have sinned and the wages of sin is death. (Romans 6:23. Yep I can still recite from the Romans Road to Salvation) Jesus willing dies in our place. (That’s the substitution part) satisfying justice so God can show mercy.
Unpacking this bluntly means that God kills his Son. This death satisfies justice (as long as a penalty is paid it doesn’t matter who pays it? Is that justice?) now that God’s blood lust is satisfied, he can be nice to us. (Of course, if you don’t believe this God will torture you forever.) God can’t simply forgive; he is bound by justice. (Does this make justice stronger than God?) I wonder since Christians are called to forgive others, are we allowed to forgive without demanding justice first? Penal substitution atonement theory wasn’t taught in the early church. It’s a product of Luther, Calvin, and the Reformation.
The early Church taught the Ransom theory of atonement. That humankind through disobedience had “sold” ourselves into slavery to Satan. Jesus then pays the ransom to Satan for humankind’s freedom. Jesus willingly dies at Satan’s hands for our redemption.
I find that one easier to accept because God isn’t a blood-lusting psycho. Satan is the bad guy but that’s OK he’s always been evil. Jesus is killed by Satan and not God.
Lately, I have been drawn to non-violent atonement theory. What’s that? Let me quote Ben Pugh, author of Atonement Theories: A way through the maze. He wrote a wonderful brief article at the Church Times website.
WE NOW come to a fourth, and very recent, way of looking at the work of Christ. This last way of looking at atonement has been more or less dominated by the French literary critic René Girard, who was converted to Christianity by reading the Gospel accounts of the crucifixion. He brings two fresh insights to these accounts.
First, there is “mimetic desire”: desire that is brought about by imitating other people. We desire something, for example in an advertisement, because others have made it look desirable. We mimic other people’s desire. But Satan then puts what Girard calls “stumbling-blocks” in the way of some of our strongest desires, so that we cannot obtain those things. Mimetic rivalry ensues, in which we see others as a threat. As this process carries on, and frustrations intensify, whole communities can become enflamed with violence. It is a war of all against all.
Satan’s next tactic is to offer an answer to the cycle of violence which he himself caused, and here is the second insight. Satan presents to the community a marginal person who is slated as being the true cause of all the unrest. The whole community then turns on that person to destroy him or her. It is now a war of all against one. A temporary peace is achieved by this. This is called the “scapegoat mechanism.”
In the Gospels, we see Jesus fully absorbing all this community violence, but, crucially, it is not God who does the scapegoating. In non-violent atonement theories, God is not violent. He is on the side of the victims of scapegoating. Christ was then vindicated by his resurrection, thus fully exposing our scapegoating tendencies for what they really are.
But we are not saved by a sacrifice: people have been trying to achieve that from time immemorial. We are saved from sacrificing. We are saved from the very idea that the answer to bad violence is good violence, which we see never-endingly played out in global politics (and Hollywood) to this day.
To simplify, humans killed Jesus in an unspeakable act of violence. Jesus breaks the cycle of violence with loving forgiveness. God shows His solidarity with victims by vindicating Jesus through resurrection.
Which theory is correct? All of them have Biblical support. I’ll just go with C.S. Lewis who said that we don’t know how atonement works, but we do know that we need it.
Thanks for reading. Have a blessed Good Friday.