By Chuck Queen
Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) was the first to expound the theory that Jesus’ death was necessary for the satisfaction of God’s honor. This evolved into the theory of penal substitutionary atonement, perhaps most elaborately developed by Princeton theologian Charles Hodge (1797-1878).
This theory became so popular in Western Christianity that it came to be equated with “the gospel” preached in the Great Awakening, and in more recent times by renowned evangelist Billy Graham.
Today, a growing number of evangelical and progressive Christians are questioning the truthfulness and viability of this theory. Why is this so?
Two reasons are most often given by interpreters. First, it is suggested that this theory of the atonement makes God look small and petty. What kind of God requires the violent death of an innocent victim? And if God demands a violent atonement, then violence must in some sense be redemptive, which a growing number of Christians believe contradicts the good news of God’s nonviolent rule that Jesus proclaimed and embodied.
It is argued that at its worst, substitutionary atonement makes God guilty of cosmic child abuse; at its best, it lacks coherence and common sense. Even Trinitarian formulations that emphasize the union between Father and Son cannot erase the fact that in all versions of substitutionary atonement the bottom line is that God must save us from God.
Another reason this theory is being questioned today is because it reinforces the unhealthy notion that salvation is simply a legal, juridical transaction between the believer and God. According to most versions of substitutionary atonement, our guilt is imputed to Jesus, and his righteousness is imputed to us. As such, it does nothing to nurture authentic conversion and discipleship to Jesus.
So how might we understand the saving significance of Jesus’ death in more credible, holistic and transformative ways? One, the death and resurrection of Jesus constitute a single event that functions as a paradigm for all authentic transformation. It’s the pattern of death and rebirth, relinquishment and renewal, letting go and putting on. Dying with Christ to the false self or little self (what Paul calls “the flesh” or “sin” in the singular) opens us to a life of righteousness and compassion in the power of the Spirit. Death and resurrection constitute the transformative pattern.
Two, the cross functions as an archetypal symbol of obedience to God’s will as reflected in the passion narratives in the Gospel stories and in the Christ hymn of Philippians 2. Jesus came not to die, but to live an authentic human life, showing us what it means to be truly human.
His death was the culmination of his life — a life lived sacrificially for the good of others. For example, in Romans 12:1-2 Paul urges his readers to present their bodies to God as a living sacrifice, refusing to be conformed to this world and being transformed through the renewing of their minds.
Christ, then, is the quintessential model of how one can empty oneself of selfish ambition and live sacrificially for the good of others.
Three, the way of the cross is the way of peace and reconciliation. In pursuing peace and justice Jesus confronted the status quo and challenged deeply entrenched conventional wisdom and beliefs. Jesus bore in his death, not the wrath of God, but the wrath of the religious and political powers, without returning that wrath. Thus, in his life and death, Jesus offers us a way to break cycles of violence and make peace.
Fourth, the death of Jesus functions as a revelation of divine love. On the cross, in Jesus, we connect with a God who shares intimately in human suffering and becomes the victim of injustice. All victims of injustice have a brother and companion in Jesus.
Advocates of these interpretations contend that we are not changed by believing in a doctrine of atonement but by faithfully pursuing the way of the cross.