The Atonement Debates

Thomas Andrew Bennett

In contemporary Christian theology, accounts of the atonement are very much in flux. In what follows we will take a look at the two major conversations, the first about the “center” of atonement theology and the second about the role of violence in atonement. We will sketch positions in both and, where possible, point the way forward.

One Christ, Many Models

In 1931, the English publication of German theologian Gustav Aulén’s Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of Atonement (Macmillan, 1931) made quite a splash in atonement theology because it offered what appeared to be a new and better theory. At the time, the question was about “which type of theory is right.” The choices were “objective” theories, in which Christ did something in the world, actually paying the penalty for human sin or something like it; and “subjective” theories, in which Christ’s death was thought to be an example of divine love and worthy of imitation. Aulén reintroduced the classical notion of Christus Victor, a cosmic war in which the cross and resurrection constitute God’s ultimate victory over the evil demonic powers that had enslaved the world. The reader will notice what Aulén and his opponents all assumed: Christians must choose the right theory and defend it against the wrong one(s). One major flashpoint in contemporary atonement theology asks the question whether this basic assumption is in fact the case.

Most theologians now argue that atonement theology ought to be both diverse and spacious, endorsing a number of models and metaphors. There are three major reasons for this line of thinking. First, the NT absolutely does not speak about atonement in just one fashion. Joel B. Green and Mark Baker’s Recovering the Scandal of the Cross: Atonement in New Testament and Contemporary Contexts (2nd ed.; IVP Academic, 2011) dedicates two chapters to observations about the multiplicity and variety of atonement language in the NT. If even the apostles had not settled on a once-for-all atonement theory, the thinking goes, why should we?

Peter Schmiechen (Saving Power: Theories of Atonement and Forms of the Church [Eerdmans, 2005]) does for the history of atonement theology what Green and Baker do for atonement language in the NT. Not only does the Bible not speak in only one atonement parlance, neither does the church. Schmiechen detects no fewer than ten “theories” of atonement, that is, theories of the way Jesus’ career saves us, puts us right with God and the world. Second, then, if the church has never settled on an atonement theory once and for all, why should we do so now?

Lastly, theologians who specialize in the philosophy of language have noticed that our speech about atonement is always metaphorical. That is, Jesus was not literally a sacrifice — for he was not slain by a priest on an altar. Nor was he sentenced to death in God’s heavenly law court to pay for human sins. Instead, he was tortured to death for blasphemy and sedition by the Roman Empire. For that matter, his death was not literally a victory, for what battle did he literally win? The empire was not overthrown and powerfully corrupted institutions continue to be both powerful and corrupt to this day. The point is that our language does not quite fit whatever has transpired between God and humanity in the person of Jesus Christ. As Colin Gunton has argued in his now-classic The Actuality of Atonement: A Study of Metaphor, Rationality, and the Christian Tradition (T. & T. Clark, 1988), that event is too much for human language to adequately speak and so we use metaphors and models to get a tenuous — though nevertheless real — grasp on what exactly God has done.

For these reasons Christian theology is beginning to embrace variety. Scot Mcknight (A Community Called Atonement [Abingdon, 2007]) has argued that we should think of atonement metaphors like golf clubs: Whatever situation we find ourselves in we ought to select the most appropriate metaphor (e.g., ransom, sacrifice, victory, etc.) to communicate how it is that Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection address these particular circumstances. This sort of view even allows for fresh, creative proposals such that Adam J. Johnson (God’s Being in Reconciliation: The Theological Basis for the Unity and Diversity of the Atonement in the Theology of Karl Barth [T. & T. Clark, 2012]) has recently developed a “temple theory of atonement,” wherein Jesus’ career is itself a recapitulation of both the temple’s function and theological significance. Insofar as the temple mediates God and human beings, Jesus life and death act as a sort of temple for all. One supposes that Green and Baker, Schmiechen, and Gunton would all agree that this is the right way forward.

Unfortunately, not all do. Some continue to insist that there is a “center” to atonement, one story or image or metaphor or theory that fully or essentially captures the content of what God has done at the cross. Some, like J. Denny Weaver, Anabaptist and author of The Nonviolent Atonement (Eerdmans, 2001), insist that no model of atonement that explicitly or implicitly condones any kind of divine or human violence be accepted as Christian. These bristle at the notion that there could be a legitimate place for something like a substitution view. Others, like Roger Nicole (“Postscript on Penal Substitution,” in The Glory of the Atonement: Bibical, Theological, and Practical Perspectives [InterVarsity, 2004], 445-52), suggest that we must “stress the crucial importance of substitution as the major linchpin of the doctrine of the atonement” (p. 445). One supposes that only extended reflection on the significance of metaphorical language would be able to breach the impasse brought about by views held with such tenacity. Interestingly, mentioning Weaver and Nicole brings us to another critical topic in contemporary atonement theology: violence.

Violence in the Atonement

The cross is nothing if not violent. Though more heinously painful tortures have surely been invented by human beings, crucifixion is certainly unseemly, even vile by contemporary moral standards. The violence it represents is not primarily about pain, however. As Green and Baker note, “Death on a cross was associated with such shame that it was not a topic for polite company” (Recovering the Scandal, 22). Here they follow the pioneering work of biblical scholar Martin Hengel, whose short but influential study Crucifixion (Fortress, 1977) sets Jesus’ cross firmly in its Greco-Roman context. The cross was a punishment for slaves and criminals — an embarrassment. It dehumanized Jesus, demonstrated his weakness utterly, and condemned him to a slow and agonizing death. One might be forgiven for wondering whether a good, loving God could possibly endorse such behavior. And endorse God must if certain kinds of substitutionary views of atonement are in view. Beginning in the latter half of the twentieth century, located critiques — coming primarily from feminist, liberation, and Anabaptist theologians — began to question the role that violence plays or played in the atonement. Is God the Father really torturing his Son to death? Is the central symbol of the Christian faith implicitly endorsing child abuse? Much less provocative but still apropos, what does God think about human violence? If we understand the cross to be the instrument by which God reconciles the world to himself, then God appears to be complicit in a particularly grisly act. How do we reconcile this God to the Father of the man who preaches unconditional love of one’s enemies?

At one end of the spectrum we find Anabaptist critiques and those associated with French anthropologist Rene Girard (e.g., I See Satan Fall Like Lightning [Orbis, 2001]). S. Mark Heim’s Saved from Sacrifice: A Theology of the Cross (Eerdmans, 2006) nicely recapitulates Girard’s central argument: scapegoating is “the prototypical ‘good bad thing’ in human culture, a calibrated dose of unjust violence that wards off wider, unrestrained violence” (64). Jesus was scapegoated by human beings; God was not involved. On these views, God simply cannot be God and be associated in any way with violence. We might say that advocates of a “nonviolent atonement” like Weaver understand the cross to be something that human beings did to God, that God allowed, and then God used to expose, undermine, and ultimately eliminate sacrificial systems altogether. The thinking is that Jesus’ ministry functioned as something like a successful military campaign against systems of injustice, sickness, and exclusion. In human societies these have been the sovereign realms ruled by demonic powers; Jesus waged utterly nonviolent and wholly successful combat against them. Where Jesus saw captives, he brought release. Where he saw expulsion, he brought restoration, where illness, health. The corrupted and corrupting institutions of the enemy feared ultimate defeat and, as with the prophets that had gone before him, planned for Jesus an end to ministry marked by humiliating death. But where the enemy was strongest, God showed Godself stronger, raising Jesus from the dead, exposing demonic violence to be — contrary to all appearances — powerless and affirming and vindicating the divine source of Jesus’ mission. Jesus’ ministry frees all who believe from the bondage of sinful systems and ushers in a new era of peaceful rule in the kingdom of God. Jesus’ ministry — the cross included — atones by demonstrating the sort of kingdom life that Christians are now free to live. This is a life that excludes economies of power, oppression, and violence, a life attuned to the Triune life of the Godhead in which self-giving love rules eternally.

Nonviolent interpretations of the atonement fly in the face of many of the strands of atonement theology found in contemporary American churches. That is, in many American — especially Reformed and evangelical — congregations, “atonement” has often been treated as synonymous with penal substitution. The tale of atonement told in these pulpits focuses less on Jesus’ power to liberate human beings from the stranglehold of sinful systems and more on the way in which the cross puts an end to legal guilt and the consequences of that guilt before God. In its most exclusive and reductive formulations, penal substitution conceives of all sin as something like the breaking of God’s law. Violating God’s law requires restitution — something that mere mortals cannot provide an infinite God. Thus, in God’s unending love and mercy, the eternal Word incarnates as the man Jesus of Nazareth and, at the cross, endures the death penalty on humanity’s behalf. Where before we were guilty, now we can be acquitted because the price of sin — death — has been paid once and for all by Godself.

We can see immediately why this view is rejected so vehemently by those who abjure violence in any and all forms. For on this telling God is the initiator of the system of sacrifice/payment, God receives the sacrifice/payment, and God is pleased to do so. In its crudest forms, penal substitution is easily caricatured as the story of a bloodthirsty tyrant god bent on satiation since “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Heb 9:22; cf. Lev 17:11). Of course, many proponents of penal substitution are able to develop nuanced formulations that avoid the obvious pitfalls. For example, Kevin Vanhoozer (“The Atonement in Postmodernity: Guilt, Goats, and Gifts,” in The Glory of the Atonement: Biblical, Theological, and Practical Perspectives [InterVarsity, 2004], 367-404), reasons with postmodern philosophers like Jacques Derrida and Paul Ricoeur, suggesting that part of a robust notion of penal substitution is the overturning of the idea of retributive justice itself. Here Vanhoozer adopts some of their insights into language such that economies of vengeance that seek to establish “justice” are themselves crucified with Christ. Hans Boersma (Violence, Hospitality, and the Cross: Reappropriating the Atonement Tradition [Baker Academic, 2004]), another defender of the Reformed tradition, takes up themes of hospitality and exclusion, arguing that meaningful hospitality requires meaningful — and therefore enforceable and coercive, which is to say, violent — boundaries. At the cross, God associates with violence, yes, but “hospitality bespeaks the very essence of God, while violence is merely one of the ways to safeguard or ensure the future of his hospitality” (p. 49). The “wrathful god who tortures his only son” is a figment of human grotesquery; the God of the Bible is involved with violence because he is involved in a violent and corrupted world where one must sometimes roll up one’s sleeves to get anything done.


It is becoming increasingly clear that atonement theology is moving from a context in which narrow commitment to a central theory is the norm to an environment wherein diversity, variety, and capacious freedom reign. Appreciating and utilizing the multiplicity of approaches found in Scripture and the tradition makes contemporary atonement theology exciting and robust. Moreover, as the various Protestant traditions reevaluate and reformulate their own preferred models, problems like God’s relationship to violence promise to be nuanced and rethought, opening once parochial doctrines to widespread adoption. There is, of course, much work to be done, but we may end on a hopeful note. Vociferous and often heated debate has paid its dividend: today the church in North America has a wider, deeper, and fuller appreciation of the way(s) God reconciles the world to himself on a cross than it has ever had before.

Posted Sep 24, 2014