I was in an interesting conversation over at Insanitybytes22’s blog with her post, “A Wrinkle in Time….” The subject was about the atonement. You might be surprised to hear this if you’ve only heard one version of the atonement but, historically speaking, this subject is one the most controversial topics in Christianity.
Before I continue, let me explain something about what I believe. While I’m an evangelical myself, I find various aspects of the Christian faith are better explained by different parts of the body of Christ. I don’t think any one denomination has all the truth, but together we have strengths to add to the whole (if we’re open to it and not politically divisive).
For instance, I believe the Catholics (Aquinas) have the best argument for the existence of God. I think the Protestants have the best view on the priesthood of the believer, grace and faith, and the Charismatics from all these groups have the best explanation for our identity as sons and daughters, our authority in Christ, and spiritual gifts.
But I believe the best explanation of the atonement comes from the Eastern Orthodox Church. They are at least the closest to the early church fathers and make God look like Jesus.
You see, it makes a big difference how you depict God’s nature and character in your atonement theories.
What InsanityBytes was reacting to was a sentiment by another blogger about the nature of God where he said, “the word propitiation refers to the fist of the Father, striking the Son….” I find this comment equally revolting. It’s also one that skeptics and atheists would use as cannon fodder to put God’s moral character into question. And I would heartily agree with them…if the sentiment were true. But I believe this is a gross misrepresentation of God and the atonement. It’s actually the wrong paradigm the way I see it.
There are many atonement theories within the Christian faith. While all theories agree that Christ died for our sins and was raised on the third day, what was actually happening on the cross does not have full agreement.
So, before I continue, it’s important we understand that disagreement between these theories doesn’t put someone outside the faith and, hopefully, should not divide us as brothers and sisters in Christ.
Here’s where there’s virtually no disagreement:
- Christ died a vicarious death on the cross for our sins (1 Cor.15:3; 2 Cor.5:14)
- Sin was condemned in the flesh (Rom.8:3)
- We were forgiven by God and reconciled back to Him in Christ (2 Cor.5:19).
By far, the most popular atonement theory in the West is what’s called Penal Substitution Atonement (PSA). This is sometimes called the “forensic theory” because it sees sin as a violation, breaking of God’s moral law. So, Jesus must pay a “Judge” for our infractions of the rules, so to speak. This theory did not even exist before the Reformation. If you’ve read my blog for long you know I don’t see PSA in a favorable light for several reasons. I suggest you read those posts here for a fuller explanation.
But this doesn’t mean that I don’t agree with parts of PSA. I absolutely agree that Jesus suffered for our sins to reconcile us back to God. But I don’t believe that God had to exact payment in order to forgive us. That makes God beholding to some higher law than Himself! No, God could simply forgive us, like forgiving a friend who owes you money. In fact, didn’t Jesus say He is like this? (Matt.18:23-27). Forgiveness means you just let the offense go. But He did need to fix the damage…in other words, save us.
I believe God’s justice is restorative, not retributive. He didn’t come to get His pound of flesh; He came to rescue us and set us free! (See “The Cross: God’s restorative justice on display.”)
Here’s a clip with N.T. Wright answering questions about PSA and some of the common misconceptions and misrepresentations that surround it. I agree with Wright’s view that the Cross reveals the sovereign love of God, not the anger of God:
Sadly, many evangelicals malign Wright because he disagrees with their dogma. But, again, it isn’t necessary to do this. Just disagree. What are we afraid of? 🙂
The reason I think the Eastern Orthodox have the best atonement theory is because their theory doesn’t pit the Father against the Son and divide the Trinity. Frankly, it’s simply beautiful.
For instance, they don’t see the atonement in a jurisprudence paradigm at all, nor do they believe Jesus was an appeasement to an angry God. They see it as a total victory over sin and death!
Because of the fall, our ability to hear the voice of God and remain in union with Him was damaged. We were poisoned by the serpent in the Garden; we became enemies of God in our own mind (Col.1:21). We had gotten ourselves under the power of the evil one. So Jesus went into the realm of death and hell to set us free from the grave forever and bring us back into union with God. It’s not about retribution, it’s about redemption.
Beloved, the atonement was a rescue mission!
So we see in Orthodox resurrection iconography, not Jesus coming out of the Garden Tomb like with most European art, but Him standing on the gates of hell, pulling Adam and Eve up with Him (representing all humanity). What’s interesting is that Jesus is holding Adam’s wrist which is particularly associated with weddings in ancient Greek art.
It’s about our rescue, our redemption. It’s about love because God is love, and He so loved the world. And Jesus has won His bride! God has done it as He promised. Hallelujah!
19 I will betroth you to me forever;
I will betroth you in righteousness and justice,
in love and compassion.
20 I will betroth you in faithfulness,
and you will acknowledge the Lord.(Hosea 2:19-20 NIV)