A Modified Theory Of The Atonement: Why Modify?


The apparent illogic of the notion of God suffering for man’s sin is captured nicely in “Life of Pi”:

Humanity sins but it’s God’s Son who pays the price? I tried to imagine my Father saying to me, “Piscine, a lion slipped into the llama pen today and killed two llamas. Yesterday another one killed a black buck. Last week two of them ate the camel. The week before it was painted storks and grey herons. And who’s to say for sure who snacked on our golden agouti? The situation has become intolerable. Something must be done. I have decided that the only way the lions can atone for their sins is if I feed you to them.”

“Yes, Father, that would be the right and logical thing to do. Give me a moment to wash up.”

“Hallelujah, my son.”

“Hallelujah, Father.”

While the character who finds the story of Christ’s Atonement so illogical does eventually find it meaningful and valuable, he does not resolve the illogic. And that is fine for a character who appreciates Christianity, in common with every other religion, as a set of beautiful stories that contain truth. But for a person like me, who considers Christ himself to be the Truth and Christianity to not only contain truth but to be true, the apparent illogic grates on the mind.

By far the dominant atonement theory is some form of “substitution” theory: Christ “pays the price” for our sins, whether that price is pecuniary (“paying our debt”) or penal (“bearing our punishment”). I have never found any form of substitution theory satisfactory as more than a metaphor–and a problematic metaphor at that. In the case of “bearing our punishment,” the metaphor seems problematic, to say the least, because whipping an innocent party for the misdeeds of another person would not seem to advance either justice or mercy. And similarly, the “paying our debt” metaphor fails because neither sinning nor suffering are fungible commodities remotely analogous to money. For this reason among others, sinning is not very much like spending borrowed money, and it is difficult to see how God could be “paid back” by the torture of his son–surely the torture of his son at the hands of his own people would only add to the “debt” of evil. Any form of substitution theory is persuasively challenged by the simple adage that “two wrongs don’t make a right.”

As a missionary, however, though not without discomfort, I taught non-Christian Taiwanese people that Christ “paid for our sins,” lacking any better metaphor, and considering the metaphor to be (a) useful, and (b) supported by scripture and other authorities, which it certainly is (e.g., “He was bruised for our iniquities . . . and with his stripes we are healed . . . and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all,” Isaiah 53:5-6). The main value in the metaphor, as I see it, is that it captures something of the self-sacrificing love manifested in the atonement–a love that voluntarily undergoes immense suffering to save foolish and unworthy sinners from their sins. After all, the “debt” or “punishment” was willingly accepted by the Son. But why would the Father exact it? Or, in other words, how could God being punished in man’s place be just, merciful, or redemptive? 

Merely transferring suffering from a party who deserves it to one who does not is not just; and nor would the mere avoidance of deserved suffering seem to have any tendency to heal or save sinners. This line of thinking suggests one solution that I find unacceptable: that God’s acceptance of torture was a dramatic proof of his love that was designed to generate reciprocal love, and that it is the reciprocal love that saves the sinner, not the acceptance of torture. This theory makes the cross analogous to the poison a rejected suitor agrees to drink in hopes of persuading his love to accept his suit. This “moral influence theory” of atonement has obvious problems, including the manipulative nature of God’s behavior. Accepting unnecessary suffering is a low form of rhetoric. And more importantly, this theory finds scant support in the gospel record: Jesus was crucified by Roman soldiers at the behest of the Sanhedrin after praying that the cup might be removed. Also, only if God’s torture was necessary for some other end than persuading man to love him might it even be expected to achieve that end. A man who takes my punishment (if such a thing were possible) deserves my gratitude; a man who gratuitously accepts a whipping to prove his friendship deserves at best my pity, and perhaps my contempt. Christ did not accept gratuitous torture, but necessary torture. And that is the whole problem–how could his torture be necessary for man’s salvation? 

And so we are back where we started.

I believe it is best to admit that Christ’s suffering, merely as such, did not and never could yield any person’s salvation. The suffering of an innocent party itself can neither satisfy justice nor advance mercy. George MacDonald has to my mind conclusively refuted the simplistic notion that sin demands suffering as payment to satisfy God’s justice in his essay “Justice,” which everybody interested in the Atonement should read. If my essay can be a worthy response to MacDonald’s, then I will be surprised at my success. In responding to him, I am not, for the most part, disagreeing with his rejection of the penal substitution theory as the literal truth about what Jesus did. As he says, “Strange that in a Christian land it should need to be said, that to punish the innocent and let the guilty go free is unjust!” With MacDonald, I reject penal substitution as anything more than a problematic metaphor that, despite being problematic, is so pithy and accessible as to be useful–and which therefore is used metaphorically by, among others, Isaiah. Nowhere do the scriptures or any other authority demand that we accept penal substitution as more than metaphorical, and I am firm in the conviction that we should not do so. But I do somewhat disagree with MacDonald on the issue of justice and mercy, which he asserts cannot be in the slightest tension with each other. I define “justice” somewhat differently than he does, and in my sense of the word, I believe that the Atonement does reconcile justice and mercy. And I hope to give greater clarity and specificity to a certain sense in which, in the process of reconciling justice and mercy, Jesus did indeed “pay the price” for our sins, though it is neither a penal nor a pecuniary “price.”

If suffering as such cannot satisfy justice, then what I think follows is that the Atonement of Christ must have accomplished something practical–that what satisfies justice is not suffering itself, but the completion of some task (clearly involving suffering) that was necessary for the healing of people and the reconciling of people with each other and with God.

It is probably impossible for humans to give an adequate account of this task, or any other truly eternal event. But the attempt may still be worthwhile, even though it must necessarily rely upon metaphors, as does every existing explanation of Christ’s Atonement. Even if it only advances our understanding incrementally, such progress may serve to render more intelligible a doctrine that has caused many minds, like mine, to recoil, mingling the bitterness of confused inaccessibility with our worship. Even small progress may serve at least to bring hope that the alienation of the mind may not itself be eternal. The next post will therefore begin by exploring the situation from which it was Christ’s task to save us.

5 thoughts on “A Modified Theory Of The Atonement: Why Modify?

  1. Brian, thanks for sharing these thoughts on the Atonement. I agree that while metaphors help us to understand something that is, in total, beyond our understanding, they break down if we take them too far. As I pondered your thoughts on substitution theory, I thought of a third option – neither pecuniary nor penal – that helps me broaden my understanding of the atonement. I haven’t thought of the right name – maybe consequence substitution?

    Every choice we make has a consequence, and consequences can sometimes include suffering. This is true not only of sin – where we know the will of God and act contrary to it – but also of mistakes and mortal limitations. The Savior is able (I don’t know how!) to step in and take those consequences upon himself, that we would not have to suffer them. Payment and punishment approach that meaning, but don’t capture it fully. He can, by faith, shift the consequences to our good. I think that may be the task you’re referring to. It is a miracle!

  2. I am reminded of a Korean Buddhist who critiqued our attempts to teach him the doctrine of the atonement of Christ with a story. There were two brothers: the elder devout and younger worldly. When asked if he had no fear of the consequences of his worldly ways, the younger brother would reply that his older brother had virtue enough for both of them. When his older brother heard of this, he invited his younger brother to dinner. At the meal he started eating double portions of everything and gave no food or drink to his younger brother. When the younger brother protested this treatment his elder brother replied, “If I eat enough for both of us, why should you still be hungry?”

    1. I didn’t really have any direct answers then, and I’m not sure I do now either. I’ve just taken it mostly on faith that there is an answer and it’s ok if I don’t fully know or understand it right now. It feels like you’re taking on the same question though and I look forward to seeing what you make of it.

      1. I’d be interested to know if you found the following posts at all helpful. I don’t pretend to have any definitive metaphors, but the ones I propose work better for me.

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