My Atonement Theology

This was definitely not an easy write. For about 4 years, I have off and on been wrestling with the traditional understanding(s) of the atonement, particularly the problems that flow out of the penal substitutionary view that I had been taught was the same thing as “the Gospel.” Now that I have finished The Nonviolent Atonement by J. Denny Weaver and have incorporated some of his thought into my working theory, I decided it was finally time to put the pieces together here. I’m not loading this up with biblical references or even academic references; I decided I wanted this to be as succinct as possible, which is still not very succinct.

The Problem: Knowledge of Good and Evil

As per satisfaction/penal theory, I believe that the problem is that we have been separated from God. But unlike in that theory, it wasn’t God’s honour or God’s demand for punishment which created the separation. Instead, it is our desire to eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. In this way we play God, deciding between good and evil. But unlike God, when we try to judge between good and evil, we are not able to extend grace and work toward a restorative justice and instead settle for feeling ashamed.

We can see this right from the Fall narrative. Previously Adam and Eve were naked and unashamed, but now their nakedness is revealed to them by their new knowledge and they become ashamed. Suddenly they don’t think they’re good enough for God and go into hiding. But here’s the fascinating point: God goes after them. He isn’t ashamed of them even though they’re ashamed of themselves. It wasn’t the sin in and of itself that separated Adam and Eve from God, as per the Anselmnian view; it was their reaction of running away.

I also should say here that I think there is often the flip side as a result of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. While shame is judging ourselves to say that we are not good enough for God, pride is judging ourselves and saying that we don’t need God. Either way, we’ve created separation between ourselves and God based on our Good-Evil judging. I tend to gloss over that part because the church is usually very good at pointing out the problem with pride but often in the process settles for shaming, still missing the amazing grace offered by Jesus.

Missing the Point: The Religious Impulse

Adam and Eve respond to their eating of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil with shame, putting a perceived gap between their flawed selves and the perfect God. It doesn’t take long for humanity to decide that they need to invent religion in order to bridge this gap. As my teaching pastor Bruxy Cavey has put it, religion was humanity answering a problem that we ourselves invented.

Religion comes in a variety of flavours, of course. In its most ancient forms, present since Cain and Abel, it was usually related to ritual sacrifices, what Rene Girard’s atonement theory would call scapegoating. It can also manifest through other rituals, through ethical or social rules, through separationist tendencies, or most common in the modern world, through doctrinal understanding that align you with the right group. Once you’ve done whatever the requirement is, you can safely say you’ve bridged the gap. All the while, we are still governed entirely by the legal framework.

How Satan Fits In

The name Satan never appears on its own in the Hebrew Bible. It is instead always Ha-Satan, which means The Accuser (Ha = The, Satan = Accuser). Satan isn’t just his name, it is his title, his very identity. It shouldn’t be hard to draw the line from here to the original sin of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Just as we were tempted to play judge, Satan’s very identity is one who plays judge, constantly drawing us into the legal paradigm and encouraging us to go away from God. My theory does work without a personal Satan – as in J. Denny Weaver’s formulation, for instance, where Satan is replaced with societal and personal impulses instead – but in my case, I do believe that a personal Satan makes the most sense of the Scriptural text as well as of the way that the world operates. In other words, Satan is always behind the scenes ready to pull us away from God’s ideals as much as possible, including using tactics of pride and shame which the church has often fallen for in droves.

The Life of Jesus

Most atonement theories, other than perhaps Abelard, have little room for Jesus’ life and teachings. This is not that surprising considering the history of atonement theory and how it was often used to support the status quo while Jesus’ life was anything but status quo. As in Weaver’s theory, though, I think that the life and teachings of Jesus are absolutely essential as the declaration of the Kingdom, the inauguration of the Kingdom, and the invitation to join Jesus in enacting the Kingdom. Of course, that doesn’t make sense if you don’t consider the Kingdom – what Jesus called the Gospel – to be all that important. Jesus’ life and teachings don’t just give us a moral list, though, instead calling us toward a radically new life.

The Death of Jesus

Onto the turning point, then. One of the Church Fathers likened the death of Jesus on the cross to a hook with a worm on it catching the fish Satan. Satan bites at the opportunity to kill Jesus but is caught by the hook and thereby defeated. I’d like to nuance it more than that but I do think it is going in the right direction.

Jesus’ life was teaching something radically different from the ways of the world and the ways of Satan. This threatened Satan and the powers of the world and they responded in the only way that they knew how: violence. That is how problems are solved in the world of judgement, the world of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. We see it all the time, including in the thought of Christendom: if you are the good guys, you have the right to punish the bad guys. Sometimes you’ll be right about who is committing good and who is committing evil and sometimes you won’t. Unfortunately we almost always think that we are the good guys and they are the bad guys, so we get to kill them or at least judge them as inferior to us, including doing so in the name of the nonviolent and grace-filled Jesus.

Satan then, working through the powers of the world, was the architect of Jesus’ death. It was not God’s requirement that somebody die as punishment, as per PSA. It was humanity’s, specifically Rome’s in the defense of the Pax Romana (Roman Peace, peace through victory). Roman leadership, with the Jewish religious elite by their side, felt that they had to put down this revolutionary who wanted to mess with their status quo. That’s the only way that they knew how to operate and they don’t see that Jesus was really bringing something else. Look at pretty much any world conflict before or since and it is pretty clear this is our default method. It is much like a fish will instinctively bite on a worm without noticing the hook underneath that leads to its own death.

The Resurrection of Jesus

Victory is sealed with resurrection. While the ways of Satan and the powers of the world think they win by causing death on those who they judge, the self-sacrificial love and grace of Jesus triumphs over that. Death, the perpetual cost of continuing that original sin of judgement, can be overpowered through love. “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” (1 Cor 15:55). Ironically, the Accuser himself has been defeated through the accusations he believed would be necessary to continue his rule of the Earth.

What About Us?

While penal substitution leaves you in a place somewhere between fear of the angry legal God at worst and gratitude that Jesus would get in the way at best, this understanding of the atonement continues from Jesus’ life by beckoning you into joining the Kingdom life now. We are invited into a way of life in which love is better than hate, grace is better than judgement, and love of enemy is better than violence. We are invited to repent – change our hearts and minds – away from the ways of the world which rely so heavily on lording power over others and toward something completely different. It is an atonement theory that has radical life-changing implications.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.

  • I like this… still need to process some of the language of the letters of Paul and the book of Hebrews that suggest “the perfect sacrificial lamb” which invokes the scapegoating “blood to wash sins” kinda ideal… but I think this leaves room for folks who appeal to that atonement theory.

    I lean Christus Victor myself when it comes to atonement… but I also lean a bit more towards the Eastern view where it wasn’t just the death that did the atoning, but Jesus life. As McKnight put it in his Jesus Creed book, Jesus plowed the deep snow ahead of us, snow that we couldn’t plow ourselves, so that we can get to the clearing where we can dance with the snowflakes…

    • Yes, for a while I wanted to completely scrap any of the language associated with PSA. I realized, though, that some of that language is in Scripture and I couldn’t completely ignore it. As I heard more about Girard, for example (still haven’t read him directly), I came to realize the truth in his claim that it is a human instinct. Instead of with PSA saying that the sacrificial/scapegoating instinct is good because God demands it, though, I came to see it as far more in line with the character of Satan and the powers of the world. Therefore I would see this understanding primarily as a form of the Christus Victor motif.

      • Acts4Verse12

        I’m a novice to non-PSA theories, so please excuse my ignorance. In a nutshell, how do you people deal with the sheer weight of Pauline reference to sacrifice-based, law-fulfilling, wrath-averting language?

        • The big difference between how I would understand those texts and how PSA would come down to who it is that is demanding the sacrifice, the law, the wrath. PSA says that it is God who demands those things. My theory, built up from Rene Girard and others, would say that it is humanity and/or Satan who demand those things. So yes, Jesus did save us from the sacrificial system, from the law, and from wrath, but that doesn’t mean that those things are fundamental to God’s character or were ever his idea.

          This Christus Victor understanding was the dominant view for the first 1200 years of the church but Anselm felt like it gave Satan too much power. Then Calvin – a lawyer – made it even more of a legal binding that comes from God. I believe that Paul has been heavily misrepresented as a legalist God proponent in the 500 years since.

          If you really want to dig in deeply, I recommend The Nonviolent Atonement by J. Denny Weaver, one of the many inspirations that got mixed into my working theory above.

          • Acts4Verse12

            Thanks, Ryan. I appreciate your time and effort. I’ll get hold of the Weaver text and go from there. Blessings to you.

        • I’m going to add a bit more to my original reply displaying below. In the early 20th century a man named Gustav Aulen revived talk in atonement theory by categorizing in 3 basic ways: satisfaction (including PSA), moral influence, and Christus Victor. His way of dividing the categories basically comes to this question: who is the object of Jesus’ death? In satisfaction, it’s God; in moral influence, it’s humanity; in CV, it’s Satan and/or evil more broadly. I have some elements of the second but primarily fall in the third. In very broad terms, today you’ll most often see satisfaction in Catholicism and its derivative PSA in evangelicalism, moral influence in the Protestant mainline, and CV in Pentecostalism and Eastern Orthodoxy.

  • Rchee Bereckla

    I follow and I don’t follow…

    You always give me things to think about =)

    • Considering you were one of the first – maybe the first – to make me realize that not everybody accepted PSA, you had your own small part to play 🙂

      If you have follow-up questions just come back to comment here or shoot me an email.

      • Rchee Bereckla

        really?! cool =D

        Huh…I don’t even know what PSA is exactly…but you know me, I don’t ever know exactly how to verbalize what I believe, but I know what I agree or disagree with =P haha

        I definitely will, I have a bunch of marking and reports to do but after I will re-read this and do a bit more thinking =D

        • PSA in short: God demands penalty to be paid for our sin. Jesus paid penalty on our behalf, thereby saving us. Minor variations/emphases like whether it was more a matter of God’s wrath needing to be released or an abstract demand of retributive violent justice that God was bound to submit to. Developed by John Calvin in 16th century as a variation of satisfaction theory developed by Anselm in the 12th.

          Before that the dominant view was what you told me: ransom was paid to Satan (rather than God). There are a crazy number of variations of this motif, called Christus Victor, and how it worked out but that’s the general idea. See one of my replies below about Gustav Aulen and his 3-part categorization as a really basic starting point to atonement thinking. You (accidentally, perhaps) introduced me to that CV motif.

          • Rchee Bereckla

            Huh, that’s cool =)

            Now I’m going to think about this even more – break is coming up, so I’m quite excited =)