Sunday, March 24, 2013

What did Jesus' Death Accomplish?

As much of the Christian Church begins Holy Week (our Orthodox sisters and brothers will not celebrate Easter this year until May 5), the topic of atonement returns to the forefront of my mind. I don't regularly ponder this, but over the past year I have revisited much of my theology, questioning and examining it in light of my experience and learning over the past several years. I find that in some places my theology no longer fits as it once did. In places it pinches, in others it is too baggy. Some spots now appear threadbare. The time has come to refresh this theological garment.

When I last seriously considered my theology I was in my mid-twenties, with no children, attending seminary classes part-time while living and working in a medium sized American city. Since that time a lot of water has flown under the bridge. I have experienced new cultures. I have walked through many joys and sorrows. I have seen two children born and grow into their teen years. I have found and embraced feminism as a key element of my worldview. I have returned home from years of cross-cultural living feeling defeated and deeply wounded. I don't see the world and I don't see God in the same way that I did some twenty years ago.

Rarely do Christians stop and consider the act we refer to theologically as “atonement.” We understand and affirm that in his life, death and resurrection Jesus Christ altered the fundamental relationship between God and humanity. But how, exactly, did he accomplish this? To phrase the question in other terms, why exactly did Jesus have to die? Could God have altered the divine-human relationship in another manner? Thomas Oden, in the second volume of this systematic theology trilogy The Word of Life, provides a nice, relatively concise, summary of four key streams of thought among Christians concerning this question. He labels these four motifs as:

The Exemplar or Moral Influence Motif
The Rector or Moral Governance Motif
The Exchange or Satisfaction Motif
The Victor or Dramatic Motif

The Christian traditions in which I have spent most of my life have overwhelmingly embraced the exchange or satisfaction motif. In this motif, the death of Christ serves as penal substitution for human sin. It satisfies God's holiness. Oden writes: “It is in keeping with God's justice that sin not be cheaply remitted, but must be punished, or some satisfaction offered. Since sin is an infinite offense against diving holiness, the satisfaction for sin must be infinite. Either satisfaction or punishment was required by God's very nature.” This motif comes through regularly, although perhaps without our explicitly recognizing it, in many popular Christian songs that speak of the blood of Jesus cleansing us of sin.

One can find support for this motif in certain passages of Scripture, but I have come to question whether this view sufficiently describes the need for and enactment of atonement in Christ's death. This motif seems to emphasize a divine, angry, judgmental God who must have “his pound of flesh” but out of mercy directs this wrath upon his own son. As Oden writes in pointing out objections to this motif: “Too much is made of the divine majesty being offended, neglecting the fact that God can show mercy and forgiveness without harming his honor or majesty.” The emphasis on blood, on satisfaction of righteousness, on paying a debt through the sacrifice of another seems to run contrary to the idea of God as loving and merciful Creator. Again, I do not deny that certain passages in Scripture use this language and we must somehow account for it in our understanding of the divine-human relationship. But if we hold primarily or exclusively to this motif, do we adequately or, perhaps more importantly, appropriately capture the nature of atonement? At the same time, does my hesitancy to affirm this teaching arise from an inadequate appreciation of God's holiness?

I appreciate Oden's volume of systematic theology because, unlike many Protestant systematic theologies, he doesn't insist on a single understanding of the atonement. He asserts the need to hold all four motifs in tension. (Due to space I am not going to explore all of the motifs here.) The evangelical Protestant American churches that I have been a part of in my life rarely did so, at least not explicitly. I find myself looking for an atonement theory that deemphasizes wrath, judgment, violence and punishment and that emphasizes love, mercy, reconciliation and restoration. I cannot say that I have yet come to an adequate understanding. This threadbare part of my theological garment remains under repair.

Although Oden does a good job of looking back to the church fathers in his review of Christian theology, I wonder if he adequately examines traditions outside of Protestantism. I would be very curious to know how the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church understand atonement in light of their whole theologies. I would gladly hear from someone who could enlighten me in this area. Even within the Protestant church traditions, I would love to learn more from someone whose church emphasizes something other than penal substitution, whether their understanding fits within the four motifs offered by Oden or not. I wonder in particular how the Quaker (or Friends, to refer to them in their own terms) tradition understands the death of Christ.

Ultimately I am able to live with ambiguity in this area because I recognize that, however it is understood, the basic reality remains that in his death and resurrection Jesus Christ did fundamentally transform the relationship between God and humanity. Somehow, in the cross-event and the resurrection event, we now have the opportunity to be restored to what God created us to be, and not only as humans. In the death and resurrection of Christ God has initiated (and culminated in some sense) the renewal and restoration of creation. The power of evil has been broken. The world need not remain enslaved to it. There can be no better news, however we understand this to have been accomplished.

Today in worship we sang a new-to-me song that captures well the victory of Jesus that we celebrate in particular this week:

Sing to the King who is coming to reign
Glory to Jesus, the Lamb that was slain
Life and salvation His empire shall bring
and joy to the nations, when Jesus is king

How do you understand the death of Jesus Christ? Are there ways in which the way you have traditionally understood atonement that now pinch or are threadbare?


  1. Andrew, good to hear someone else who is happy to live with the tension between these different aspects of the one event!

  2. As a Quaker (or Friend, we're comfortable with both designations at my meeting), I know that there is a fair amount of writing that has been done on the topic of non-violent atonement models. I don't purport to be an expert on this, so I would point you to the literature for the deeper discussion, but I will share a couple of thoughts.

    I know that there are those amongst the peace-testimony churches who argue that the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus weren't absolutely necessary. Inevitable? Yes. But necessary? No. In other words, if mankind had been ready to receive Jesus when he came, the Kingdom of God would have both started and been fulfilled at the same time. But because of human sinfulness we had the Crucifixion, the Resurrection and the proof of God's power over death, sin and evil. Nothing fundamentally changes at this moment; we simply see the evidence of Christ's divinity in a new and dramtic way. It is a challenging idea and one I am still wrestling with in my own mind.

    We also had an interesting discussion on this topic during open worship this past week. One thing that came out was that perhaps the Crucifixion had to do with the death not of Christ as a substitution for mankind's sins, but of sin itself. In other words, the irony of the Cross is that the Powers that Be, embodied in the Roman state, thought that they could kill God or good-ness by crucifying Jesus. Instead, sin was killed on the cross and Jesus, being immortal God and holy, triumphed over the grave. But sin remained dead. Forever. Oops. It's almost as if evil eats its own tail, but God-ness and good-ness go on forever.

    The classic book on the topic is, I think, "The Non-Violent Atonement," written by a Mennonite scholar, Denny Weaver.

    Hope this helps!

    1. Thanks Mark. I thought you might have some good suggestions on this topic. I'll have to look into the book you mention. I appreciate that there are alternative viewpoints out there and would like to promote healthy discussion of them within the Church, although most churches don't seem to want to engage in that type of conversation.