In a recent post I suggested that the notion that Jesus died to pay the penalty for our sins is not a particularly convincing notion. This throws many Christians, who, like me, have been raised to think this is the gospel.
A little background might help. On my bookshelf I have the very mainstream evangelical Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. In the entry “Atonement, Theories of the” it states
Each [NT writer] shows that it is the death of Christ and not any human achievement that brings salvation.
But none of them sets out a theory of atonement…View the human spiritual problem as you will, and the cross meets the need. But the NT does not say how it does so.
It goes on to note that there are many theories of how the cross saves that have risen through history. Perhaps the three most widespread are:
The Moral Influence theory – Christ shows us that confronted with all that evil could fling at him, God has nothing but love for us. This moves us to repentance;
The Christ as Victor theory – this focuses on the idea that we are caught in the grip of the forces of evil, sin, Satan, and death, and that Christ conquers these, thus liberating us. In its early forms it suggested that the Devil owned us and that God bargained for our release. He would offer his Son’s life as a ransom for ours. The Devil accepted but God tricked him by raising Jesus from the dead. This theory died out in the eleventh century, but was revived in modern times by Gustaf Aulen, who argued that the emphasis in the Bible is on Christ, by his death and resurrection, conquering the powers that hold us captive;
The Penal Substitution theory – the ransom paid to the Devil notion was discredited by an eleventh century Archbishop named Anselm. He offered a stinging critique of the ransom theory and argued instead that the death of Christ was about the satisfaction of God’s honour. Drawing from contemporary notions that when a king’s honour was offended there had to be something offered in satisfaction, he suggested that our sin offended God’s honour and that Christ’s death was the satisfaction offered to preserve the King’s honour. During the sixteenth century Reformation this theory was modified in light of the growing sense of the importance of law and punishment in accord with the law. Justice demanded that wrongdoing be punished, and Christ offered himself to bear the punishment our sin deserved.
I have already pointed to what I see as the shortcomings of the substitutionary theory. What this brief survey of theories highlights to me is that
- If the penal substitution theory is the gospel, then no-one prior to the sixteenth century Reformation seems to have known the gospel;
- The important thing is that Christ puts us right with God, not knowing how he does it;
- Each of the models offered was strongly shaped by concepts of justice that prevailed in their day. Given the massive developments in our understanding of justice and community formation that have occurred in the last couple of centuries, it would be strange if our understanding of how Christ’s death and resurrection put us right with God did not evolve too.