Beginning with this introductory post and the ones to follow, I will be seeking a deeper understanding of the meaning and significance of Jesus’ death and in what sense it is ‘atoning’.
Jesus Death Saves Us
Followers of Jesus across the spectrum of traditions have learned to speak of Jesus’ death as God’s way of somehow solving what was broken with humanity and the world we live in.
Atonement Through the Ages
When investigating the history of Atonement theories over the last 2 millennia, you will discover that there are basically about 3 main categorical theories; Christus Victor, Moral Influence, Satisfaction. To be sure, there are more subsets and sister theories to these 3. If you have not yet looked into this topic too deeply yourself you may be in for a twisting and turning roller coaster of a ride! I certainly have been.
Which Atonement View Is Right?
But when we are asking how atonement works, what the mechanics of it are, how can a person’s death (specifically Jesus’ death) actually resolve things? -The answers actually vary quite broadly.
At first I didn’t know there were ‘other’ explanations. I thought there was just the one, and that it can be boiled down quite economically to a single paragraph of elboration. At least that is how it was first presented to me; atonement boiled down to a 3′ x 5′ 2-3 page illustration & text ‘gospel’ tract. This gospel tract atonement theory was soon reinforced in quick summary most Sunday mornings at the tail end of the sermons. This particular view which I first learned falls within the Satisfaction view of the atonement but has been shaped and refined in a particular fashion by John Calvin and since then has come to be known as the “Penal Substitutionary View” of the atonement (P.S.A.).
The P.S.A. explanation does help in some ways in communicating truth & meaning about Jesus death and what that means for us, but it also created many problems for me as well. And with problems became questions, and in time, those questions forced me to consider that there might be ‘other’ atonement explanations more satisfactory. ; ) But, once I learned there were other theories about the atonement, I thought to myself, “I need to figure out which Atonement theory is the right view”, with my added assumption that in declaring to myself that one of them is ‘true’, by definition out rules all of the other views of being true.
Truth In Part
But, after deciding upon one view as being the “right” one, I quickly found myself wanting to double back on that decision because suddenly a different one sounds more convincing.
I couldn’t find a single atonement view which by itself appeared to express the complete meaning and significance of Jesus death. Each view left to itself, seemed to come up short in explaining the full weight of what was going on. And each of the Atonement views appeared to have at least some truth. Anyway, why must only one view be right?
I resolved to settle on the idea the we may very well need all of the perspectives to help round out the fuller picture of Jesus’ atoning work.
You might imagine one person seeing one unique thing and another person sees another thing, each explaining in their own way, informing us what they see. It is a reasonable enough idea to think that quite a few explanations, similes, and metaphors might be needed to capture a richer and fuller understanding of the significance of Jesus’ death.
Metaphor & The Real Thing
After all, most of the Atonement views employ metaphor to explain the significance and meaning of Jesus’ death. And a metaphor being a metaphor, isn’t by its very nature the real thing which we’re getting at, is it? A metaphor is a linguistic device, a tool which seeks to point to something beyond itself, merely a representation, a likening -to the real thing.
The real thing in this discussion, of which the various atonement metaphors are pointing to, is the real-in-person death of Jesus on a Roman cross. The real facts on the ground, so to speak. All that real stuff which led to Jesus death. The context surrounding it all. The different historical actors within the drama. Asking the questions, “Who killed Jesus”, and “Why did they want to murder him?” are necessary to make any plausible conclusions. Also, What role did God play in his death? Who is responsible for killing Jesus? Was it a just or unjust death? How did Jesus understand the meaning of his own death?
We might say the real thing of which the metaphors are merely pointing to, are detailed within the Gospel accounts themselves, in the narrative historical events and explanation of his death.
If the Gospel writers themselves were asked what their Atonement views are, they might each simply hand you their own books.
All Views Equally Valid?
A generous orthodoxy might welcome all atonement theories, every perspective, all views, and thus be saying, “they are all equally valid”. I had come to this conclusion- for a short while.
But then I began to realize that in spite of having concluded that the multiple views are all necessary in their own way because of their individual strengths in highlighting each of their particular truths, there is also a noticeable and stark incompatibility between these views and their various metaphors. That is to say, even though the various atonement views have so much that is solidly compatible between them , some of them are at times claiming things that are incompatible or contrary with the others. Sometimes when affirming truth in parts of one atonement theory, then by reason, at least some elements of a different atonement theory cannot also be true. One truth may very well excludes another.
This incompatibility is the space that I am currently wanting to continue my search for understanding: with further questions, observations, and conversation..