Some views on Atonement Part 1

This is the next series, it’s on the theology of atonement. It’s the last of my heavy lifting at least for a while. keep in mind that these were written weeks ago, and I’ve since decided to take a break. please feel free to skip this series if you’d like, it’s more of a personal reflection on some things anyways.

Here are some views on salvation/atonement. There are quite a few out there, but I’m going with the ones that i feel need to be addressed. If you’re not interested or don’t want to do the heavy lifting, skip this post, and then we’ll move on to my proposal.

Economic Atonement:

This view focuses on the death of Jesus as payment, to someone or something, thus the general heading economic atonement.

The idea that the angry sky-man needed to punish someone to fulfill the requirement of the law he established and its blood sacrifice. This view, I’ll admit my bias here, is crude. It’s totally anti-biblical, because it’s missing the jewish mindset that wrote the bible. The apostles didn’t praise God that they escaped punishment, though that was included, they celebrated that God had been faithful to his covenant, and had delivered the world from the bondage to sin.

This view is based on an erroneous assumption about justice. It’s the idea that justice can somehow be achieved if someone is beaten or punished for errors. However, we all know that truly the only thing that takes care of spilt milk is a rag to do cleanup. Beating a toddler for spilling milk i cruel, but somehow people aren’t afraid of seeing God as doing this very thing to Jesus. They excuse it by saying, well He was god, maybe he didn’t feel it, or he knew all along he’d be resurrected, or various other buffers to legitimate the senseless violence inherent in this view.

If justice is setting things right, which it is, then beating the person responsible (or a substitute) no more sets things right than letting them off the hook.

Some General Weaknesses:

This view does little to actually deal with the real issues in the law about sin and the overall Jewish worldview of God’s faithfulness being what justice means.

This view does not account for the celebration that Paul attributes to this act. Some people say, well in the ancient world this was acceptable and we’re better than that now, so we can easily see Paul agreeing with this and if that’s how he saw it, then that’s how we see it. But, this view was generated by Luther’s rather horrific interpretation of the bible and a full neglect of the Trinitarian participation in the project of redemption, which is really what atonement is all about. Atonement is not about punishment, it’s about redemption.

We’re not saved from God’s justice, we’re saved by it, so that we are finally free to live life in the Spirit of its creator, free for beauty, free for truth, free for goodness, free for neighbor.

Ransom to Satan:

I think that there’s a decent amount to be said for this view, but it also is weak in a few areas. This one sees God having to pay the devil to buy the world back from his sway. This view tends to lead to dualism, setting up God and Satan as opposing entities, bound to some prior agreement between them based on some court of law or something. The idea of a ransom to Satan is generally out of fashion because most Christians even evangelicals have a rather low view of the devil. But some Christians still adhere to this, and it is an ancient view, originating rather early in the Church’s ideas about atonement.

The problem is, there’s little scriptural support for it, and while popular with some, it’s mostly looked over as a theory nowadays, because of the problematic nature of God owing Satan some sort of payment. It’s primary weakness is in again focusing on atonement as something primarily economic, and secondarily redemptive.

I grouped both these views under Economic atonement, because they’re focus is primarily on atonement as payment, either to god’s law, god’s desire for blood, or satan. All these views I think are wildly popular in the developed world because of our economically cultured minds who see everything in terms of punishment and reward, payment and economics.

Legal Theory:

Because Christ paid the penalty for sin, it is possible for God to legally forgive those who accept Christ as their substitute.

Basically this view concentrates on the power of the Law, but all it does is create a non-biblical account of Jesus, who while fighting the misinterpretation of the law at every point, must now submit Himself as a sacrifice. What’s the point of teaching “I have desired mercy and not sacrifice,” if it’s not upheld by Jesus Himself? Often many with this view are celebrating that there need not be another sacrifice, but they’re not very merciful or loving. This view opposes the Father to humans, and simply doesn’t allow for a personal desire to forgive when taken to its logical conclusion.

The idea herein becomes God forgives us legally, but not actually, he lies to Himself and only sees us through the blood. The problem is, God knows everything about us, and understands our sinfulness, Jesus understands what it means to be tempted and so the entire Godhead in some way knows what it means to be human. However, God knows who we are and already sees us as loveless selfish sinners, and yet desires that we should be, according to His call, beloved children.

This view is simply not very understanding of what God was doing with the law in the life of Christ. For those of us who adhere to the belief in the resurrection as part of Christ’s teaching, we understand that Jesus was liberating the law from the power of sin and death, so that the justification might be made by faith, something that both Protestants and Catholics believe. Jesus has rightly redeemed humans from sin and death, not the power of God’s opposition to us. God is indeed holy, however, this holiness has always been connected intimately to creation, not abstract ideas about sovereignty. The Jewish mind always connects God’s holiness to the covenant that He swore to Abraham, and God’s faithfulness to manifest that promise. The legal theory is (un)fortunately based on some cooked up terms about the nature of Jewish law people have created a theory where God is bound to his courtroom books.

Jesus was interpreting the law rightly, fulfilling the heart of the law, establishing mercy, justice, salvation. The focus is not on how Christ is a substitute so that I don’t have to die, but that Christ suffered rightly, showing me what it means to worship that God whom I would call Father. The point is that I too must die to myself and be alive to Christ. I too must enter this process of growth into holiness. Legal theory spends lots of time looking scriptural, but having little to do with the actual theology of scripture’s vision of who and what Jesus is all about. But we’ll get to that in the other part of this series.


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