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.

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