Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Theology of the Atonement, Part 2

This is continued from part 1.

Moral influence

“Jesus' death shows the depths of our sin: God came among us, and our only response was to kill him. Jesus' resurrection shows the depths of God's love: even death would not keep him away from us.”

This theory is more popular among some of the more liberal modern-day theologians. Since liberals like it, it's automatically bad, so we'll skip it. Moving on.

Just kidding. Actually, I find this a very beautiful idea, and just because some theologians try to use this to replace penal substitution doesn't mean we should ignore it completely. Jesus came to earth – our Creator, the only truly innocent man, the only one who really didn't deserve anything bad to happen to him – and our response was to kill him. And we didn't just kill him, we picked a pretty awful way of doing it. The folks at Alcoholics Anonymous say that the first step is to admit the problem; seeing our sinfulness demonstrated in this way makes it impossible to not admit it. Jesus' death shames us into recognizing the wrong that we've done.

That's not the end, though. Jesus came alive again. He could have simply stomped out the tomb and gone straight back to heaven. He could have wiped out his recalcitrant creation with a flick of the wrist. Instead, he demonstrated the same love to his followers that he did before his death. Jesus' love spurs us on to do good.


“Jesus became like us so that we can become like him.”

Many of us are familiar with some of the arguments between Catholics and Protestants, but we tend to kind of skip over the third major branch of Christendom, the Eastern Orthodox Church. Orthodoxy has a much different view of humanity and salvation than we do. In Catholic and Protestant thought, our major problem is sin. Adam and Eve sinned, so now we all sin, and so Jesus came to pay the penalty of our sin and to enable us to get rid of it so that we can go to heaven.

In Orthodox thought, though, our major problem is death. Because of what Adam and Eve did, they die. We all die. All around us, the world faces death and decay. Jesus came to earth and identified with us, not to merely take us to heaven, but to overcome death and to enable us to become like God. The early church theologian Athanasius said, “God became man so that men might become gods.&dquo; The Orthodox term for this idea is theosis.

This at first sounds like a very strange idea, and if you take it the wrong way, it sounds blasphemous, but it's Biblical: “he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature” (2 Pe 1:4). Orthodox theologians emphasize that this doesn't at all mean that we become gods rather than human. Instead, they use the analogy of a piece of metal in fire: the metal's nature never changes, but it nonetheless is permeated with the light and energy of the fire. In the same way, although remaining human, we will be permeated by God's holiness. Daniel Clendenin describes it as “believers' real, genuine, and mystical union with God whereby we become more and more like Christ and move from corruption to immortality.”

Our view of salvation is really too small sometimes. We sometimes seem to think of it as merely a “get out of hell free” card or a way of extending the duration of our existence. This is part of it, but Jesus came to earth and died and rose to transform who we are, not to just give us an eternal change of address form. As C.S. Lewis puts it in Mere Christianity,

(God) said that we were “gods” and He is going to make good His words. If we let Him – for we can prevent Him if we choose – He will make the feeblest and filthiest of us into a god or goddess, dazzling, radiant, immortal creature, pulsating all through with such energy and joy and wisdom and love as we cannot now imagine, a bright stainless mirror which reflects back to God perfectly (though, of course, on a smaller scale) His own boundless power and delight and goodness.

Christus Victor

“By becoming human and dying, Jesus entered into battle with all of the enemies of humanity: sin, death, and Satan. His resurrection proved his victory over these enemies.”

This is actually an old view. A different form of it was possibly the view of some of the earliest Christians, before they'd worked out all the theology of penal substitution and so on. By becoming a human, Jesus enters the battleground of this world. Over the course of his ministry he fights all of the aspects of the world's fallenness: oppressive government, corrupt religious leaders, broken relationships, disease and suffering. He dies and battles death and Satan themselves, on their home ground, and emerges victorious.

The Bible also talks about this view. “Our Savior, Jesus Christ, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Tim 1:10). “When he ascended on high, he took many captives and gave gifts to his people. What does ‘he ascended’ mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions? He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe” (Eph 4:8-9). “For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive… Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Cor 15:21-26).

Steve Green's song, “He Holds the Keys,” expresses all of this better than I could:

Because sin is defeated, we can change.

Because death is defeated, we know that death is not the end, and so “we do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope” (1 Thess 4:13).

If Jesus defeated these great enemies of humanity – sin, death, and Satan – then we don't need to worry about lesser enemies – unemployment, dysfunctional politics, allergies, parenting stress.


Penal substitution reminds us of the seriousness of our sin and the cost of what Jesus did for us.

Satisfaction theory reminds us of the honor and glory that God deserves and the greatness of what Jesus did.

Moral influence reminds us that God's love, not fear of punishment or a set of rules, is what motivates us.

Theosis reminds us of our goal: we are to be transformed to be like Jesus, not merely to live as we are with extended lifespans.

Christus Victor reminds us that Jesus defeated death, sin, and Satan.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Theology of the Atonement, Part 1

Let's talk theology. In particular, for this Easter season, I'd like to talk about the theology of the Atonement – in other words, our understanding of why Jesus became a human and was crucified and rose again and how this brings about our salvation.

Theology sometimes has a reputation of being dry or impractical. From medieval theologians' supposed debates on “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” and “Can God make a rock so big he cannot lift it?”, to the sometimes abstruse philosophies of 19th and 20th century thinkers, it's sometimes earned this reputation. It doesn't have to be this way, though. C.S. Lewis compares good theology to a map of the ocean. If you've seen the vastness of the ocean and the power of the wind and the waves, a map can seem dry by comparison – but if you want to sail someplace, you won't get far without one. Similarly, to follow God, we need to experience God, but without knowing anything about him, we won't get far. Theology is simply knowing about God.

There are two ways of approaching theology. The first is to view it as almost a sort of science, figuring out as much as we can about God and explaining as much as we can about God. There's obviously nothing wrong with this – God is kind of an important topic to understand. This first approach is how my mind works; I tend to think along rational and intellectual lines, and I'm uncomfortable with not knowing or with mystery or uncertainty.

The problem with this first approach to theology is that God is God, and we're not, and so we can pretty quickly run into the limits of how much we can know and how much we can explain about God. The second approach to theology is to let our learning about God bring us face-to-face with God's greatness and his transcendence and his majesty and to realize how far beyond our understanding he is, and so to bring us into worship.

So, the theology of the Atonement. I imagine many of us have been taught the traditional view, that because we sinned, we deserve the penalty of death, and Jesus became human and died to bear this penalty, so we can live forever. This traditional view is a good view – it's the best single explanation I've heard – but, throughout the centuries of Christianity, not all Christians have subscribed to this understanding, and Christians still sometimes disagree, so I'd like to take some time to look at other views as well. I'm not interested in just making a list of these theories of the Atonement, all ready for a Bible college test, and I'm not interested in arguing over which view is right. Instead, I think that because we have “so great a salvation” (Heb 2:3), we sometimes oversimplify things by insisting on viewing Jesus' death through the lens of a single theory – especially one that many of us have grown up with and may accept without much thought. I think that looking at some of these other viewpoints can bring us to a new appreciation of Jesus' death and resurrection and so bring us into worship.

A quick warning: I'm probably oversimplifying some of these positions. I'm not a professional theologian, and I'm more interested in how I can better appreciate what Jesus did for me than I am in trying to prove one view or the other correct. If you're interested in a more systematic and thorough treatment, Wikipedia is not a bad place to start.

Penal substitution

“Our sin carries the penalty of death. By dying, Jesus accepted our penalty, so that we are freed from the power of sin.”

As I mentioned, this is the traditional view. Sin isn't just breaking a rule; it's rebelling against God, the source of our life. The consequence is death. God can't simply ignore this rebellion; it violates his justice, and if he permitted his creation, which he sustains, to remain in rebellion against him, he wouldn't be true to himself. So Jesus, by living a sinless life (so that he deserved no consequence of sin himself) and bearing the consequences of our sin, removes the penalty from us.

Knowing this is immensely freeing. I have this nagging voice in the back of my head, “Did I do okay? Did I do enough? Am I good enough?” Jesus death answers that question – it's all been taken care of. Every burst of anger? Paid for. Every selfish deed I've done? Paid for. Every lustful look I've permitted myself? Paid for. Every good deed I've left undone, every encouraging word I've left unspoken? Paid for.

The penal substitution view can kind of get distorted into saying that God is vindictive, that he's angry at us for our sin, like I sometimes lose my temper with my kids when they disobey but blown up to a cosmic scale, and that he takes his anger out on Jesus. That's a warped view, but God's wrath is real: “the wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness” (Rom 1:18). I like how my NIV Study Bible describes God's wrath: “not a petulant, irrational burst of anger, such as humans often exhibit, but a holy, just revulsion against what is contrary to and opposes his holy nature and will” (p. 1709). It's the response of an exterminator to a termite; the response of a surgeon to cancer; the response of a police squad to a meth lab. I'm not saying this to try and scare us into repentance, to go all “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” on us, it's just that appreciating just how serious sin and God's wrath are let us recognize how even Jesus' death and God's love are even greater.

Satisfaction theory

“Our sin robs God of the honor due him. By obeying to the point of death, Jesus renders supreme honor to God, so that we are freed from our debt.”

This is similar to the idea of penal substitution, but the emphasis is a bit different. Penal substitution emphasizes the penalty for our sins and how bad what happened to Jesus was and how that covers our penalty. Satisfaction theory emphasizes the offense to God's honor and how good what Jesus did was and how that repays the offense. This was popularized in the 11th century by a guy named Anselm. I don't generally think in terms of “honor” and “satisfaction,” and when I first heard about this, it seemed like an odd idea, however...

I've been a Christian my whole life, but it wasn't until the last couple of years, when I read a little bit by a modern Christian author named John Piper, that I felt like I started to get a glimpse of just how great God is. And theologians argue that, if you commit an offense against a being, then the greater the being, the greater the offense. This makes sense, intuitively. If you go up to a low-life criminal and spit in his face, it's not polite, but he probably had it coming. If you go up to some random person on the street and do the same, it's a pretty mean thing to do; the person deserves it less, so your offense becomes greater. If you spit at some loving, saintly person – your grandma, maybe, or Mother Teresa – then now we're talking about a pretty despicable act. Now imagine a Being who's greatness towers over Mother Theresa like Mount Everest towers over an ant, and who therefore deserves all the honor that we'd give our grandmothers or Mother Teresa multiplied a thousandfold, and realize that our actions are robbing him of the honor due him.

And this isn't a debt that we can just pay back. If you're behind on a project at work, you put in overtime to catch up. If you're doing poorly at school, you can do extra credit work to boost your grade. If you're worn out from the work week, you sleep in on Saturday. There's all kinds of ways to do extra to make up for a shortcoming, but there's nothing extra we can do to pay off our debt to God, because everything is already God's. “The earth is the Lord's, and everything in it” (Ps 24:1). “‘The silver is mind and the gold is mine,’ declares the Lord Almighty” (Hag 2:8). God “gives breath to all living things” (Nu 27:16). “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).

This is why, according to the satisfaction theory, Jesus became human. Only a human could pay back the debt, because the debt was humanity's. Only God was capable of paying back the debt, because humanity had nothing more they could give. Therefore, Jesus came as a man, and by obeying God to the point of death, he satisfied God's honor and repaid our debt.

Our descriptions of Jesus' death usually focus on how terrible it was, and it was pretty terrible. But I like this idea from satisfaction theory about how good, in a sense, it was, about how much Jesus honored God through his obedience and his sacrifice. This is a very Biblical idea. Hebrews 5:8 says that Jesus “learned obedience from what he suffered” – not that Jesus came to know something he didn't know before, or did something that he didn't know how to do before, but he took on a new experience, he demonstrated something new. Philippians 2:5-11 has perhaps the most beautiful statement of this idea.

Have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
     did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
     by taking the very nature of a servant,
     being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
     he humbled himself
     by becoming obedient to death—
     even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
     and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
     in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
     to the glory of God the Father.

Jesus glorified God by obeying him, even to the point of death, and now Jesus is glorified to the highest place.

Part two covers three more views: moral influence, theosis, and Christus Victor.