Tag Archives: evangelicalism

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?

Shalom

Bram

notes

  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…