There is a good bit of discussion and debate today in “emergent church” circles about the Atonement – the doctrine(s) which try explain what Jesus’ death on the cross has to do with our salvation.
Emergent church is not really a church, but a movement, largely of young people, who consider themselves “post liberal” and “post evangelical” and who are trying to articulate the Christian faith for their peers in this “post modern” world. Predictably, they are finding themselves having to re-address or even redefine classical Christian doctrines for themselves (as perhaps every generation does to a greater or lesser degree).
Among the many theories of the Atonement, three have achieved the most prominence historically. The “substitutionary” theory proposes that Jesus died in our place. We deserve death because of our sins and a just God will not allow that debt to go unpaid, so Jesus came to take upon himself that punishment so that we would not have to suffer it. Many people today find this a harsh and intolerable explanation.
The “moral influence” theory proposes that Jesus came as an example for us. He taught us how to live a good life. If we do that, and confess our sins when we do fall short, we overcome sin and the death which is its consequence. Many people find this theory weak and unsatisfactory.
The “Christus victor” theory sees Jesus as engaging in a great cosmic battle with the Evil One, winning the victory by his life, death and resurrection and therefore liberating all humankind from the bondage of sin and death. Many people find this theory just simply unintelligible and bereft of the kind of rational categories understandable to modern (or post modern) people.
Most theologians agree that no one theory is adequate, that each of the three (and other theories) attempt to explain and flesh out the biblical witness and that a number of theories must simply be held in tension as we seek to understand yet another mystery of the Christian faith which may be beyond our ability to articulate adequately.
My own approach comes from the fact that “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself.” Because Jesus was the very incarnation (“enfleshment”) of God, it is not adequate to view God as punishing his innocent son on our behalf. (The caricature of this is sometimes called “cosmic child abuse!”). Rather, God took upon himself, in the incarnation, the full consequences of sin and death.
Because God loves us so much, he was willing to undergo – in the Person of the Son – everything you and I will have to undergo, including identifying with our sin and undergoing death itself, sin’s logical consequence. Therefore, when we cry out to our God we cry out to One who, not only understands us from afar, but who has “been there.”
This effects the “at-one-ment” with God lost so long ago in the mists of human history and the reconciliation with God which leads to abundant life here and eternal life in the hereafter. This is admittedly a somewhat subjective and experiential theory, but at least deserves, in my view, to be held together with the others in a kind of “quiver” of the various approaches to this central mystery of the Christian faith.
In the final analysis, I appreciate Bishop Tom Wright’s observation that “on the night before he died Jesus did not give us a theory; he gave us a meal.” It is in sharing that meal that we perhaps best understand and experience “atonement!”