Rethinking my childhood atonement theory

When I was thinking about the whole discussion about the ‘how’ of the atonement Jesus brings the cross (I’ve written about the subject earlier in this recent post, and here, and here) I suddenly realised at last that my first basic understanding of it, like I had from my childhood on, was neither penal substitution -Jesus took the punishment for our sins in our place- nor exactly the Christus Victor/ramsom version -Jesus handing himself over to evil/death, which could not take Him, and thereby having victory over it-. It was something even simpler, and now I wonder how I could have not seen that in all these theological discussions my basic version that I have found evindent from my childhood on is rarely adressed.

Surely, the ransom motif in the narnia story has always impressed and inspired me, already as a child. And I must have picked up penal substitution somewhere, maybe in my teenage years, but none of those has actually been my primary understanding of the atonement Jesus brought on the cross, though it’s much closer to Christus victor. It might be more a form of scapegoating though, but I’m not that familiar with that methaphor.

The explanation of how I understood the atonement, as a kid in the pentecostel church, is very simple: Jesus just took all the sins of the whole world on the cross, and also all sickness, curse and death, all our guilt and shame, and carried it for us on the cross, he just took it all in our place. And ‘our’ here is all the people in history, before Jesus, in His time, and after Him. It’s that simple. He just took all of it on Himself, and got killed by it and so destroyed it, but resurrected…

I still kinda like this idea when I think of it. Technically it’s a very primitive form of substitutionary atonement, but not penal substitutionary atonement (PSA) at all. Jesus, the lamb of God, carries the sins of the world himself, not a punisment for them. It differs from the Christus victor and Ransom idea because evil is not explicitly personal here, though it’s much closer to it than PSA. For me it’s very basic and logical, but since I’ve not seen the atonement explained like this in most discussions, I wonder if I’m missing something…

The dangers that can come with this way of thinking are clearly manifested in some pentecostel and charismatic circles: Jesus did that for us, and now we just can claim to be free from sin, pain, sickness, whatever, because Jesus fixed that for us by dying. So you get the whole health and wealth stuff, and the ‘name it an claim it’ nonsense.

Now I know thos story is way too incomplete, so I want to propose some additions/correctives to add to this basic understanding, borrowed from different traditions:

  1. The resurrection, or maybe even the eastern orthodox emphasis on The resurrected Christ: This whole story does not make sense unless we make sense of the resurrection, in which we as christians do share… We do share in the resurrection, and as Paul says, without the resurrection our whole faith is meaningless…
  2. the whole narrative of the bible, starting from genesis 1 to revelation 21-22, and not just from genesis 3 to some assorted romans verses… Humans as ‘imago dei’, or cracked eikon in popular postmodern evangelical lingo, and Jesus who takes all the cracks to deal with them himself in our place so we can be restored as imago dei…
  3. The trinitarian emphasis. The atonement on the cross cannot be only Jesus and the Father… The outpouring of the Spirit of all flesh, as prophecied by Joel and actualised on the day of pentecost, has to be part of this story somehow.
  4. Perichoresis, or the trinitarian dance of the Father, Son and Spirit, in which we as humans get our place again, which we lost in the Eden story is also part of the atonement…
  5. The Kingdom narrative which Jesus Himself called the gospel or good news, the reinforecement of the Reign of God… This is not completed yet, so we also need the vineyard emphasis on ‘already and not yet’: If we look at reality, it is not true that once we become a Christian we stop experiencing sin, sickness, evil, and death. So we have to think of it in ‘already and not yet’ terms. We could also use the D-day/V-day motif from a more cosmic warfare model here.
  6. The discipleship emphasis: We are to follow Jesus; also in this aspect. We are to carry the evil of the world for others, even to death. His example is one of a reconciled life, or how one looks in this fallen world… We don’t have 4 books called the gospels without a reason…

So what do you think? What do I miss here? Is it helpful in any way? Are there terms in technical lingo that I should know to work this out further?




  1. I don’t believe that the gospel can be reduced to any atonement theory at all, not PSA, nor Christus Victor nor the story that I’ve laid out here… So I’m affraid I have to disagree with all those who claim that the penal substitution is the heart of the gospel. Since that theory did not even exist for the first one and a half or so millenium (read the interesting article by Derek Flood in reaction to those who claim to read PSA into the writings of the church fathers)
  2. this is just a basic draft, made in some hours, it’s not comprehensive in any way. I’m just trying to sort out the atonement starting from what I believed as a kid, and not from the theology books…

12 responses to “Rethinking my childhood atonement theory

  1. I think it is worthwhile considering how the roles of Christ – as priest, prophet and king – relate to various atonement models.

    Penal substitution gels well with Christ’s priestly role (with the emphasis here on forgiveness of sin), Moral Influence gels well with his prophetic Christ’s (with the emphasis here on Divine inspiration and example), Christus Victor gels well with Christ’s kingly role (with the emphasis here on the defeat of Satan).

    I don’t think any of these need be seen as mutually exclusive. Rather, I think each reveals a facet of what his death achieved. As for the suggestion that “the gospel can be reduced to any atonement theory at all” I heartily agree. It’s interesting to observe how often the crucifixion DOES NOT take centre stage in the evangelistic preaching of the apostles in Acts. Indeed, if Acts is any guide, its the resurrection and Lordship of Christ that’s the heart of the “good news.” Atonement theology, while important, should not be equated with the gospel in so 1:1 fashion.

  2. Matt;

    Thanks for the comment. Interesting idea to connect the roles of Christ to different atonement theories. I only wonder how the priestly role works with the popular version of Penal substitution, in which Jesus gets all the punishment (the Wrath of God) that we deserve in our place. Jesus would be the lamb then and the Father the priest, but then I don’t see much ‘wrath’ of the priest poured out over the sacrificial lamb.

    so in my ‘childhood atonenemt theory, the focus would be on Jesus as the ‘lamb of God (the phrase the liturgy borrows from John the baptist)

    I wonder if you take the paradox of Jesus himself being both the perfect sacrificial lamb and the perfect (high)priest, what kind of atonement metaphors one could come up with…

    “Atonement theology, while important, should not be equated with the gospel in so 1:1 fashion.” Amen, and it’s interesting indeed that not the crucifiction but the Lordship and resurrection seem to be the emphasis of the good news preaching in the book of acts… The bible does tell a different story sometimes the thing than those who claim to be ‘biblical’ try to narrow it down too…

  3. Thanks Bram,

    I would agree that it is always valuable to consider other perspectives and theories . . . The Atonment like most of Christianity is a theory . . . Belief is a theory . . .

    Do not get me wrong . . . this things are real . . . powerful . . . essential but each person is unique . . .

    To me this is the difference between “religion” and “relationship” . . . religion defines God and relationship reveals God . . .

    To me God’s message to us through Jesus is the most important thing regardless of the metaphor or backstory that we embrace . . .

    It is the “fruit” that is the true test of the validity of the atonement in ones life.

    Blessing my friend and keep up the journey.


    • Tim

      You’re so right… If believing all those theories don’t reconcile us with God, our neigbor and our own self, they are worth nothing, even if the would be cosmic Truth… Thr fruit of our lives is much more imporant. Jesus never suffered, died and resurrected just to have us make theories about how it might save us…

      Now to live the life…



    • Nick;

      the refutation is interesting, but the satisfaction model to me is just the primitive catholic forefather of the protestant penal substitution I’m affraid…

  4. I’m Christus Victor through and through, Bram. You said you don’t believe atonement can be reduced to any theory, and I would have to agree. I wouldn’t want to reduce it to anything. I don’t think there is anything wrong, however, with having something in view that you believe best represents what the Scripture reveals about the work of Christ.

    With that, I don’t think any of the theories attempt to reduce the scope of the atonement. It isn’t really a matter of “x and not y, a but not c,” but rather which thing is the primary focus. Penal substitution doesn’t say we should only understand atonement in terms of Christ taking our punishment from God, but that this is the primary focus, that everything else that was accomplished is best understood through this lens. The same goes for the other views except for one that I’m aware of and that is the Kaleidoscopic view which attempts to hold everything at the same level of significance.

    So all that Christus Victor really says is that atonement is best understood through the lens of Christ’s victory over sin, death, and the devil. Or better yet, that the main thing Christ accomplished was to overcome evil (the works of the devil) through love. “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work” (1 John 3:8b NIV).

    CV doesn’t say none of the other aspects are unimportant, but that they are best understood in light of this truth. There is, however, one exception to this (at least for me). I wholeheartedly reject the legal paradigm of penal substitution. I do not believe it has any place in our understanding of the atonement. Substitution is a legitimate biblical truth, but the penal paradigm is not.

    Here are a few resources that have been helpful to me:
    Penal Substitution vs. Christus Victor by Derek Flood

    The “Christus Victor” View of the Atonement by Greg Boyd

    What do you think of the “Penal Substitution” view of the atonement?” by Greg Boyd

    One more thing: the article Nick posted above, while interesting, is not, IMHO, the right direction. The article refutes penal substitution in favor of “satisfaction doctrine” which, again IMHO, is no better. PS is merely a Protestant outworking of SD. The emphasis is ultimately the same, that is, that Christ’s sacrifice was intended to appease the Father’s wrath.

    • Zach;

      thanks for the links, I will check them out, might even have already read them, I do like both sites… I’ve been linking to Derek Floods article about penal substitution and the church fathers even twice recently…

      I’m closer to a caleidoscopic model than you are, but that doensn’t mean that every truth is equal as the parody postmodernist would say. And I’m affraid I have to agree on the penal paradigm not being legitimate biblical truth, at least not in the way some people preach it. I do understand that some people call that theory ‘cosmic child abuse’… I do believe Love is at the heart of Gods essence, but wrath is not part of His core being, it’s more like a reaction on sin, which destroys His beloved creation, of which we are a not so unimportant part as Christians. So His wrath is part of His love, not part of His essence apart from it. I would be mad too if people’d destroy my loved ones and the art of my hands… but the legal paradigm as main methaphor is just an adaption (synchretism?) to a woldview that isn’t even ours anymore, so I have no connection to it at all… I would not be interested in it as a non-believer either by the way…

      (and indeed, the post-augustinian satisfaction model is just the primitive catholic version out of which the protestant penal substitution evolved… Not the direction to go, we can know from history where it leads to ==> penal substitution)



  5. Hi,

    Thanks for the feedback. Though we might disagree, I don’t believe Satisfaction necessitates Penal Substitution – at most, it’s a distortion of Satisfaction. My biggest reason for favoring satisfaction (without ruling out CV) is that the Bible does indeed mention the wrath of God and the need for it to be appeased. Both in the OT and the NT, God’s wrath is said to be propitiated (appeased, not re-directed onto a substitute).

  6. Nick,

    I’m in agreement that PS is a distortion of Anselm’s SD; the God’s wrath paradigm, as old an widely accepted as it is, is in need of some reexamination though. Much of Anselm’s reasoning behind it was that the prevailing view from the birth of the Church through its first millennium was too sissified; it wasn’t legal or medieval enough to satisfy the thinking men of his day.

    For another take on how God’s wrath should perhaps be understood, have a look at the article I posted before called Penal Substitution vs. Christus Victor by Derek Flood. “Part 1: Satisfaction Doctrine,” as the name makes plain, deals with this specifically.

    I’m often accused of “wanting a God without wrath,” but this couldn’t be further from the truth. The wrath of God is a biblical concept. We just bring to it a thoroughly pagan view of god(s) and don’t see it for what it truly is.

    Bless you.

    stay salty,

  7. Another resources to probe would beRazing Hell by Sharon Baker.

    Also, Greg Boyd, in his upcoming book on the subject will have section on “The Principle of Punitive Withdrawal.” Here’s what he has to say, “When Jesus was crucified, God delivered Jesus up to wicked humans and “the powers.” Moreover, by entering into solidarity with us in our spiritually oppressed and fallen condition, Jesus experienced God-forsakenness. Since all of our understanding about God must be centered on Christ, Jesus’ abandonment and God-forsakenness should form the center of our understanding of how God punishes sin. He does so by withdrawing his protective presence and turning people over to experience the consequences of their decisions — a truth that is confirmed throughout the Old Testament. God’s “wrath” is his withdrawal.”

  8. Pingback: 10 old traditional and/or biblical Christian ideas that are sometimes mistakenly seen as ‘progressive’…’ | Brambonius' blog in english

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