Within churches across the western world, many of us will be singing this line today- from the modern hymn by Stuart Townend, ‘In Christ alone’. The whole verse goes something like this;
In Christ alone! who took on flesh
Fulness of God in helpless babe!
This gift of love and righteousness
Scorned by the ones he came to save:
Till on that cross as Jesus died,
The wrath of God was satisfied –
For every sin on Him was laid;
Here in the death of Christ I live.
It is a great hymn, deeply emotional and soaring in its melody. However I increasingly find the one dimensional nature of it’s theology really difficult. It is this one line about the wrath of God. It conjures up the idea of some kind of unstoppable force of holy hate and destruction in the universe that was narrowly averted only by the torture and death of Jesus.
This is another one of those underpinning assumptions of Evangelicalism that most of us accepted as unassailable truth- Jesus died the horrible death on the cross that was rightfully ours and because of this, God was able to undertake some kind of divine conjuring trick for some of us. This was the only way to overcome the natural forces of justice in the universe. It was the only way to deal with the wrath of God.
For non theologians like me, the fact that this kind of understanding of the atonement of the cross is not the ONLY way of understanding the central drama of the Christian faith might come as a surprise. Recently of course, a number of hugely controversial books have emerged taking a new look at the issue. The authors of these books (Rob Bell, Steve Chalke, Brian McLaren) have often been subjected to the outrage of the faithful.
So, on this Good Friday, I thought that it might be worth examining some of the other understandings of atonement- the other ways that followers of Jesus have attempted to come to terms with the enormity of a God who would come to earth to die such a death.
The name given to the theory of atonement outlined above is ‘Substitutionary atonement’ or sometimes ‘Penal Substitution’. However rather than talk more about I think it would be useful to take a journey through atonement in church history.
Firstly, there is a summary of some of the ideas in this clip by Tony Jones, along with some of his own hard hitting alternatives;
There are other theories of atonement, but here is a quick summary of the dominant ones again;
In this view the core of Christianity is positive moral change, and the purpose of everything Jesus did was to lead humans toward that moral change. He is understood to have accomplished this variously through his teachings, example, founding of the Church, and the inspiring power of his death and resurrection.
This was the atonement theory dominant in the early church in the second and third centuries and was taught by the Church Fathers. It was also popular into the middle ages and beyond.
Jesus liberates mankind from slavery to Satan and thus death by giving his own life as a ransom. Victory over Satan consists of swapping the life of the perfect (Jesus), for the lives of the imperfect (mankind).
Here Jesus is not used as a ransom but rather defeated Satan in a spiritual battle and thus frees enslaved mankind by defeating the captor. This theory continued to influence Christian theology for a thousand years.
This theory grew from the work of the 11th century theologian Anselm. Mankind owes a debt not to Satan, but to sovereign God himself. A sovereign may well be able to forgive an insult or an injury in his private capacity, but because he is a sovereign he cannot if the state has been dishonoured. Anselm argued that the insult given to God is so great that only a perfect sacrifice could satisfy and Jesus, being both God and man, was this perfect sacrifice. Here we see the influence of earthly politics projected onto the heavens.
The Protestant reformers developed Anselm’s theory. Instead of considering sin as an affront to God’s honour, rather sin is regarded as the breaking of God’s moral law. Placing a particular emphasis on Romans 6:23 (the wages of sin is death), penal substitution sees sinful man as being rightfully deserving God’s wrath with the essence of Jesus’ saving work being his substitution in the sinner’s place, bearing the curse in the place of man (Galatians 3:13).
A variation that also falls within this metaphor is Hugo Grotius’ “governmental theory“, which sees Jesus receiving a punishment as a public example of the lengths to which God will go to uphold the moral order.
Some would argue that all these theories contain part of the truth, and (in the absence of certainty) I think I would agree with this.
Apart from this thing that we call ‘the wrath of God’.
I would contend that our theological projections of God are always partial, always incomplete and always emerging from our cultural perspective. So it was natural for the children of the modern enlightenment to see God as embodying a force of logical, highly technical justice. It seemed like the elevation of mankind towards democratic freedom mediated by the purity of the law was a process ordained by God, and so this must also be the character of God himself.
God the judge- stern, inflexible, bound by the fine detail of the law, but able to save a narrow few through a technicality.
But today we remember the death of a man Jesus.
The scandal of the cross.
The unreasonableness of the cross.
The injustice of the the cross.
The laying down of all power and majesty, the ultimate vulnerability of the cross.
The end of all our hopes on the cross.
The defeat of the cross.
The humanity of the cross.
And the mystery unfolds within us.