Saturday, January 08, 2011

Across the Spectrum: Chapter 8 - The Atonement Debate

Previous posts have commented on:
Chapter 1 -
The Inspiration Debate
Chapter 2 -
The Providence Debate
Chapter 3 -
The Foreknowledge Debate
Chapter 4 - The Genesis Debate
Chapter 5 - The Divine Image Debate
Chapter 6 - The Human Constitution Debate
Chapter 7 - The Christology Debate

Chapter 8: The Atonement Debate
Position 1: Christ died in our place (Penal Substitution)
Position 2: Christ destroyed Satan and his works (Christus Victor)
Position 3: Christ displayed God's wrath against sin (Moral Government)

This is an interesting one. There are aspects of all three positions that appeal to me, and other aspects of all three positions which I can't agree with. I was surprised to learn that Position 1 (which is the dominant view in the Evangelical world these days) was, essentially, an invention of the Reformation and was not how the church viewed the atonement for the first 1500 years of its existence. When you come across statements like that you have to sit back and think (although, to be fair, the introduction to the chapter was written by someone who holds to Position 2, so maybe a bias crept in).

The Penal Substitution view holds that we all need to die to pay for our sins against God. "The wages of sin is death". What I've noticed for a long time is that we all do die eventually, so we all get those wages! Maybe we all deserve a horrible death to atone for our sins, and Jesus did this in our place so that some of us can die peacefully in our sleep, but I don't think that's what's going on here. Somehow, the death of a perfect sacrifice is required to pay for our sins. That it is the one who has been wronged (God) who pays the debt (to himself) makes no sense. I'm sorry, it just makes no sense. However you phrase it, there is always an element of non-sense in there. Once again, I've got to the point of rejecting the beliefs I was raised with.

At the core of the Penal Substitution view is the understanding that we are fallen and so our understanding of the atonement is fallen - it seems unjust to us and yet, in reality, it was perfect and just from God's point of view. So we have a theory that believes itself to be corrupted and flawed, and yet this is the theory we are asked to believe. In our fallen-ness, we cannot understand it, so we are asked to just believe? Sorry. I can't go for that. If you want me to believe something it has to at least be internally consistent, and preferably consistent with my perception of reality too. This view isn't.

But the Christus Victor view doesn't cut it for me either. The main thing Jesus apparently did on the cross was destroy the works of Satan. Now I've been through this before. Satan in the old testament is not a fallen angel, he is 'the adversary', the accuser who works for God but tests God's people, on behalf of God. This continues into the gospels - when Jesus says to Peter 'get behind me Satan', he is saying 'stop playing the role of the accuser, I'm not going to give in to this temptation'. So there is no demonic Satan to be defeated on the cross! The NT understanding of 'the Devil' is a melding of Satan, Baal-zebub (God of the Philistines) and Ahriman (the evil God of Zoroastrianism), and we only view it all through the lens of the superstition of the middle-ages. Now I am not saying that there are no demons (more on that in a future post), but I am disputing the very existence of the 'Prince' of demons. But if you take him out of the picture, the whole concept of Christus Victor falls apart. What remains is quite a vague 'Christ destroyed the works of evil' concept, that I actually quite like, but the theory that goes with it is far from compelling.

Finally we get the Moral Government view - that Christ's death was to 'show righteousness'. Of the three positions, I find this the most compelling in all aspects apart from the central one. How does Jesus's death show God's righteousness? How is God's righteousness demonstrated by the death of a sinless man? It is certainly not demonstrated if you hold that God required the death of Jesus, that only seems to show injustice. Maybe (though this is not explained in the book) the point is that it shows the depravity of humanity, through the way humanity deals with the only truly righteous man - by killing him in a terrible way? Maybe I need to read that explanation again...

So what did Jesus achieve by dying on the cross? That is still unclear to me, but none of the proposed answers is fully compelling.

1 comment:

Paul D. said...

I was interested to learn that historically, the Orthodox church never really had an atonement theory at all. For them, it was the resurrection that was important. I'm beginning to think there is something to that. Jesus died because he was human, and all humans die. It was his resurrection that was truly special.