This week’s sermon is a little out of the ordinary for me – more of a brief lecture on atonement theories than a sermon. So, instead of my usual manuscript, below you will find more of a detailed outline. A few of the online resources I used are linked at the bottom, and I’ll be coming back later in the week to suggest some books for more extended reading in case anyone finds themselves interested in more in-depth study.
In today’s reading from the Gospel of John, Jesus answers two questions that no one in the text asks, but they are two questions that Christians have been asking and answering ever since – because as usual, Jesus’ answer is…not exactly unclear, but also perhaps does not fill in all the gaps we wish it would. Without prompting, Jesus starts to talk about his approaching death. He is very clear about a couple of things.
- First, that his death will accomplish something. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” Something will grow out of his death. And he also says “The ruler of this world will be driven out,” which here means the devil, and “I will draw all people to myself,” which relates back to last week, when I was talking about John 3:17 and Jesus’ purpose being about ALL people. His death accomplishes something..
- Second, he is clear that he is going into his death willingly and intentionally. This is not some accident of ticking off the wrong people; his death is part of his identity as the Christ.
But he doesn’t explain exactly why he is going to die willingly, and he doesn’t go into detail about what it will accomplish. So that leaves us with the two questions that Christians have been trying to answer for the last 2,000 years. Why did Jesus die? And what did it accomplish?
The Bible says several things about this topic, and none of them are a single, simple answer. But humans tend to like single, simple answers, so over time there have been a number of ideas developed about why Jesus died and what it accomplished, called atonement theories. And now we’re going to go through four broad categories of atonement theories very, very quickly. This is not a comprehensive review, but I hope it will provoke some thought and perhaps some future discussion. Each of these theories explains how Jesus’ death responds to a particular problem.
Satisfaction/Substitution Theories (ransom, redemption)
Problem: Sin creates a debt that needs to be paid, usually to God, although in the earliest versions to Satan. Based on ancient Israelite sacrificial system.
Solution: Jesus’ is a stand-in for us in paying the debt for our sin. His death is the final sacrifice that makes the sacrificial system unnecessary.
Penal substitution – Jesus is punished in our place to satisfy God’s wrath against human sin – most common Presbyterian view, key in the Reformation.
Problem: Humans live immoral lives on our own and need guidance.
Solution: Focuses on not just the death of Jesus Christ, but his entire life. Saving work of Jesus is not only in the event of the crucifixion, but also in all the words he spoke and the whole example he set. The cross is merely a ramification of the moral life of Jesus. He is crucified as a martyr due to the radical nature of his moral example. The death of Christ is understood as a catalyst to reform society, inspiring us to follow his example and live good moral lives of love.
Problem: The powers and principalities of evil, sin, death, and oppression. God does not need to be satisfied, but the overwhelming systems of evil need to be defeated.
Solution: Jesus’ death and resurrection defeats death and releases the world from bondage to evil.
Problem: Reacting against theories that see God as wrathful and in need of satisfaction through death or violence, or that emphasize the narratives of people in power. The problem is injustice, oppression, violence in the world.
- Scapegoat theory – Jesus is not a sacrifice, but a victim. Structures of power punish scapegoats to justify their own behavior, and Jesus allowed this in order to overcome our violence and be in solidarity with people who are punished for the sins of their society.
- Some feminist and womanist scholars: cross is a symbol of tragedy, surrogacy
- Liberation theology – Jesus as proclaimer and inspirer of liberation for all marginalized people. Social nature of sin and salvation. Social justice and the liberation of the poor is paramount. The cross is a picture of one who gave his life for the kingdom.
- Cross as labor in which Christ’s body is broken in order for the church to be born
- Non-violent atonement (Walter Wink) – Jesus did not take up the sword in his own defense, and changed the rules by exposing the violent system, by being willing to die at its hands. “Violent revolution fails because it is not revolutionary enough. It changes the rulers but not the rules, the ends but not the means.”
The more practical minds among you are now wondering, what difference does all this make? Well, some people would tell you that you have to choose one, or they would take this opportunity to tell you which one is right. It probably doesn’t surprise you that I’m not going to do that. I think all of these theories have the potential to enrich our understanding of what God was doing in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ – and that is to understand a bit more about the character of God. Each of these theories is trying to say something specific about who God is. We have four gospels and 21 epistles that all say slightly different things and help us understand aspects of God in slightly different ways, so I don’t see why atonement theories can’t be the same way.
Substitution theories – tell us that God is entirely holy. While the wrath part makes me squirmy, I also need to be able to see a God who is working on a different standard than humanity. As wonderful as humans can be, we also routinely make a mess of things. And these theories also tell us that God is entirely loving. They hold holiness and love together in tension, and show us that God works out that tension so that love wins. This is also a God who is personal, who cares about us as individuals. That’s very good news.
Example theories – tell us about a God who understands the human predicament and in fact is willing to participate in it and show us a better way to navigate it.
Christus Victor theory shows us a God who overcomes everything that seems to bind and limit us, even death. This is Christ with cosmic implications, who is ultimately ruler over all things, who gives us hope that all fear and violence and injustice will someday come to an end, and invites us to be part of making it so.
More contemporary theories encourage us to look at the aspects of God that have been hidden in the long history of the church and that are rarely seen by those who hold power and write the dominant narrative: a God who does not endorse violence but turns it on its ear; a God who suffers in solidarity with the marginalized; a God who inspires liberation.
I know I’m a pastor and I’m supposed to tell you this, but theology matters. How we’re able to think about who God is deeply impacts how we think about ourselves and others, and how we act in the world. I think we’ve seen plenty of people who can only see the holiness of God but not the love or the universality or the moral example, and many of us have felt how that causes real rejection and hatred. That pendulum swings both ways, and we lose something when we focus too much on any one aspect of God.
So as we try to answer the questions that have been asked for millenia, why did Jesus die and what did it accomplish, it’s important to remember that Jesus himself left a great deal of space for us to understand what happened at the cross. Perhaps the scope of Christ is big enough to include all of these, and even more.
Links for brief related reading:
Womanist Theology by Emilie M. Townes
7 Theories of the Atonement by Stephen D. Morrison
Did Jesus Really Die for Our Sins? by Christian Piatt
Atonement of Christ on Theopedia
Models of Atonement by Ted Peters