The cross is meaningless to those who are perishing. Christ crucified is a stumbling block for Jews and foolishness to Gentiles but to us who are being saved it’s the power and wisdom of God seen in Jesus Christ. In this manner of redeeming us God’s foolishness proves wiser and His weakness stronger than we can conceive. I began in faith simply knowing God gave Jesus for me and that believing I would experience His life.
However as time moved on there was an underlying disturbance in my soul over the explanation I was receiving of how Christ was given for me. The picture emerged gradually that Jesus agonising death on the cross was in order for God the Father to punish Him for my sins so that I could be released from the punishment I deserved.
Love for Christ was the response whenever I considered His suffering, but accompanied with that unease. How could this work, conscious doubt was notpossible, the concept of Christ dying for this purpose was so pervasive in the church I dare not question it. The explanations that the cross satisfied Gods demand for justice and exhausted His wrath against sin by inflicting it on Jesus only made things worse. What sort of justice is this that kills the innocent in order to let the guilty go free? Is God schizophrenic, needing to vent his anger before He can offer His forgiveness? Is the Father actually forgiving if the Son is paying the debt? The explanation was totally unsatisfying butwas not to be considered.
When we live with un-answered questions they can have a corrosive effect on faith. Fortunately I knew enough of Christ for the cross to act as a magnet of love towards Him despite the year’s long, un-voiced question over what I was obliged to believe in order to hold onto Him. I was unaware of other explanations of how the cross might work but the power of it still drew me to Him. I was not equipped to consider the dilemma between my feelings and intellectual dissatisfaction with the explanations, so the matter lay dormant. I did not know that the explanation I had received had a name ‘Penal Substitutionary Theory of the Atonement’ (PST) or that it was rather poorly represented and just one theory amongst several. My dilemma came to a joyful end as I encountered other explanations of the cross and learned that many claimed that PTS was not heard of before the fifteenth centuryand others advised to treat it carefully.
This was good news for me, it actually was Gospel! I began to study and consider other views and the theories of ‘ransom’, ‘recapitulation’, satisfaction’, ‘moral influence’, ‘government and Christus Victor. Once the field opened up I was free to think my suppressed thought of PTS as it was often spoken of, it seemed completely repugnant and intellectually bankrupt. One recent Baptists writer caused a stir in amongst British evangelical by quoting in reference to PST, when presented as the Father’s punishment of the Son that it was like “cosmic child abuse” and I found myself in agreement.
I now consider such views an obstacle to faith for many non-Christians and particularly so in confronting Islam, that questions “Why cannot God just forgive”. The question of the atonement is tied closely to that of the Trinity as it required the incarnation and the sacrifice of the God-man. If this can be clarified for Moslems we may make headway on the Trinity.
Several atonement theories are fully compatible with one another and may be combined along with insights of other theories. Let us consider Paul’s Words: – “The cross is foolishness to the Gentiles”. If we start with Paul’s perspective in our evangelism that the cross appears foolish when misunderstood or if misrepresented, perhaps we (I particularly refer to evangelicals whose practice I know best) may do a better job in disclosing the meaning of the cross. I feel our failure to do so is part of the reason we are losing ground and that this is one element that we need to address in order to meet with greater success in the evangelism of our societies. This post is presents from a subjective point of view in order to illustrate the personal effects of atonement theory and how a simplistic ‘one brush fits all’ approach may also be unsatisfactory for many we seek to witness to. An overview of each theory and its history can easily be achieved by other means.
That which satisfies me and which I would use as appropriate in evangelism is the Christus Victor, Recapitulation and Moral Influence Theories with insights from others. My hope is that the post will prompt consideration and discussion producing more light than steam.
Perhaps I might initiate discussion in two ways. You could indicate which theories you find most satisfactory and why, and which if any cause concern.
Jesus said He came to give His life as a ransom to many, giving rise to the ‘ransom theory’ popular in the early church and supported by a number of Fathers until Anselm’s satisfaction theory became more popular. How do you understand the‘ransom’ Jesus spoke of? Who was the ‘ransom’ paid to if indeed to any?