How Does Jesus’ Death Save Us?


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!”          

19 Responses to “How Does Jesus’ Death Save Us?”

  1. Jamie Says:

    Thanks for your clear thoughts on this; it has been a topic that I have been thinking about a lot for the last year or so. I have generally come to the conclusion that the Christus Victor model makes much more sense to me than that of substitutionary atonement (as does a lot the traditions from Orthodox theology lately). I suppose one comment I would make about your description of this model is that you should be sure to include the ascension. That model’s full inclusion of the ascension along with the incarnation, passion, and resurrection of Jesus as part of the whole story of God’s saving work among us is something that I have only recently begun to appreciate and understand.

  2. ecubishop Says:

    Thanks, Jamie. Yes, I think you are right. I am rather “Johannine” in my understanding that Jesus, being “lifted up” draws all to himself (and therefore to the Triune God). I see his lifting up on the cross, resurrection from the dead, and ascension as all one great movement of taking our humanity into the Godhead and therefore “reconciling all things unto himself.” But, it deserves to be named specifically.

  3. thomas bushnell, bsg Says:

    i find the christus victor language most helpful, and in my experience, so do most people i’ve ever told it to: i’ve never heard them propose the philosophical objections that the 12th century brought up, which make it “untintelligible” and “bereft of rational categories”–though i admit as well i have no response to those objections either. i think that, in fact, the christus victor talk is exactly right, however.

    i wonder if actually the alleged lack of intelligibility that christus victor supposedly has comes from the same sort of rigidity which the emergent church is desperate to escape.

    what i like about christus victor talk is that to use it, one must fundamentally reorient ones categories. one must see the salvation of the world as being of the world and not just me, not just humanity. one must become comfortable with a different way of talking entirely.

    i have found that, to my surprise, this “different way” of talking preaches extremely well, provided one do it without apologizing to a secular age in the process.

  4. Jason Powell Says:

    I’m going to jump onto Thomas’ post. What I like about CV is that it resonates epically. The two obvious great epics that jump to mind are The Lord of The Rings (LOTR) and the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. Both of these tales, which are HIGHLY theological due to their authors, point to a battle of cosmic proportions…and one that is waged for “the hearts of men” (little LOTR movie reference!!) C.S. Lewis refers to Azlan’s death as defeating the witch by going back to the “deep magic” (a magic that undoes all magic).

    In these postmodern times we are experiencing the death of metanarrative (global driving stories). I find it remarkable that as this occurs, as pluralism, and hyper-individualism attempt to try to isolate and break us…that a theory like CV could re-emerge on the scene and say….

    “NO, look, you love the great stories when you read them, when you watch them….why do you love them? Because they point to something real!!! There is epic evil and you’re bound to it and it wants to kill you (just like in the movies)…..but this evil has been defeated and love, hope, grace, justice, and mercy WILL OVERCOME!!!! ”

    I just think it sounds right….but I love a good story

  5. ecubishop Says:

    Thanks, Thomas and Jason! Perhaps the “different way of talking” to which Thomas refers IS Jason’s “good story” (epic). Food for (at least my) thought!

  6. rwk Says:

    I guess this leaves me the odd man out. I find the substitutionary atonement the most intelectually comprehensible within the framework of Scripture. It is certainly the Pauline of the three — You can argue amongst yourselves whether Pauline is necessarily Christian. 🙂

    In all seriousness, substitionary atonement outlines in all clarity the serious of sin, the holiness of God and the depths of His love for us. I was once asked by a young Sunday school student…”What if only Eve had sinned?”. It was an interesting question but it brought to mind the idea that Christ would have died solely for Eve as he would have died solely for me had I been the first to desire “to be like God”.

    As for the caricature of “cosmic child abuse”, it should not warrant comment but as it is a regular sound bite thrown out by some I will just say that I see the use of such a comment as reflecting a very poor understanding of the Trinity…but that is another discussion altogether.

  7. ecubishop Says:

    No question but that a strong doctrine of the Trinity helps with making sense of the substitutionary theory. But that takes some sophistication. The plain language of Scripture in describing this approach is still problematic for many, including myself. The Orthodox seem to be able to “major” in a trinitarian approach without needing to resort to substitution.

  8. rwk Says:

    Thanks, but I won’t put “substitutionary atonement” outside the pale of orthodoxy, which I am not sure you were trying to do. Study of the issue does focus the mind and heart on our own sinfulness and inadequacy. Reconciliation is critical — although belief in a substitionary atonement as the manner of reconciliation is not a problem for me. On the other hand, if these were easy issues you would have chosen another topic.

  9. ecubishop Says:

    Right, certainly substitutionary atonement is “orthodox” with a lower case “o”. I was speaking of the Eastern Orthodox churches (2nd largest group of Christians in the world) for whom this theory is virtually unknown.

  10. David Xinidakis Says:

    For Jamie:

    I’m just curious – why does the Christus Victor model make more sense? I think some times we are more prone to gravitate to theolgy that ‘fits us’ rather than accepting certain things because the evidence compells us that it is in fact true. I guess my point is that the main source for the substitutionary atonement of Christ is also the main source of historical evidence about Christ’s life and teaching – the New Testament scriptures. I would only ask you to look objectively at the scriptures and see which model is taught and represented.

    God bless You!

  11. Richard Perales Says:

    Thank you for your thoughts on this subject. I am a practicing Christian. My job (government) has taken me around the world to many third world countries and places filled with the destitute and the suffering. I myself have found myself during these travels in situatlions where faith alone pulled me out of the bowels of darkness. I am embarrassed to say that I have never quite really understood how the Lord could have saved me from my sins 2000 years ago when I wasn’t around. It really bothers me that I can’t seem to comprehend or understand that. I find myself telling others of hope and salvation through Christ but never really tell them about how He died for our sins because I don’t really understand that myself. Every time I speak with someone about this they repeat per vatim what is universally preached. That I know. What I am looking for is understanding myself the words. You have partially answered this and put me in the right direction to find my answer. Thank you.

  12. Theodore A. Jones Says:

    I don’t think anyone has previously registered a positive comment to my teaching. Thank you for this. However it is not the Lord who saves you for he has only by his crucifixion perfected the Way you must use to save yourself, “make every effort to use it.”

    “It is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.” Rom. 2:13
    The small narrow gate that must be used to gain access into the kingdom of God is a law that has been added to the law. This law has raised the crucifixion of Jesus, the sin of murder caused by bloodshed, to the level of unilateral accountability as a sin.

    Therefore righteousness is only imputed to the individual who confesses directly to God that he is sorry Jesus’ life has been lost by bloodshed when he was crucified and is baptized into this Way of faith for the forgiveness of past sins. But it is only the forgiveness of past sins that can be resolved this Way. For not to obey God this Way is a disobedience of law that does not have any possibility of resolution since Jesus cannot be crucified again.
    The crucifixion of Jesus is not a direct benefit.

  13. David Witt Says:

    Jesus’ death with its saving power is best understood with Jesus know as the second Adam. Death was put in affect due to the sin of “Adam the first”, and death past to all men. The Spiritural Law of sin and death was irreversible with out a reversing action. This act came as the Second Adam was born of a virgin without sin, not being under the Law of sin and death. The Key is HE DIED. God had to allow his death on the cross to reverse the Law of sin and death. The Spiritual life given by God as a result of Repentance toward God and faith in this death brings the Eternal life of God to us.

  14. Theodore A. Jones Says:

    Isn’t the term “born under the law” a contradiction against your assumptive?
    It is true that Jesus died, but his death by the hands of wicked men is classified as the sin of murder caused by bloodshed according to the Scripture. Essentially your assumptive is the sin of murder has resolved all sins, but what about the sin of his murder? Regarding that you acknowledge that Repentance of a sin or sins is necessary before Eternal life is granted isn’t the murder of Jesus also accountable?

  15. David Witt Says:

    Father forgive them for they know not what they do. No one takes my life from me; I freely give it.
    Many sins were committed there that day. In fact every action or inaction, every thought or idleness of mind that does not proceed from the divine nature (which we become partakers) is sin. We can and will do nothing but sin outside of the “new birth”.
    The murder of Jesus was predicted throughout the Bible. Jesus himself stated it many times. This action was the total rejection of the very nature of God walking among them. The “the law” is fleshed out in its fullness, in ways that the sons of “Adam the first” could not do.
    A new creation is produced (according to the Bible) unto all born of the Spirit.
    His (Jesus’) vicarious death was the very point (moment in time) that the power of the curse was broken in contrast to the moment in time that Adam turned from God to serve his flesh and consequently the serpent.
    The sinless one (on that day) crushed the head of the serpent while only bruising his own heal.

    Yes the very murder of Jesus’ by the representatives of all men (the Jews whom God raised to carry His name, and the Roman gentiles) was a vital part of God’s marvelous plan.

    ! Cor 18-31 For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God.
    For it is written, I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and will bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent.
    Where is the wise? where is the scribe? where is the disputer of this world? hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world?
    For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe.
    For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom:
    But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness;
    But unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God.
    Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
    For ye see your calling, brethren, how that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called:
    But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty;
    And base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are:
    That no flesh should glory in his presence.
    But of him are ye in Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption:
    That, according as it is written, He that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord.

  16. Dave O'Brien Says:

    The death of Jesus does not save anyone. We are saved by receiving His life by grace through faith. His death made that possible.

  17. Theodore A. Jones Says:

    “Vicarious death”? No. The crucifixion of Jesus was first degree murder and cannot be a direct benefit to anyone. His crucifixion is only a benefit to the person who has the faith to repent of it, but whoever refuses disobeys a law that has been added to the law. Salvation is predicated upon your obedience in regard to Jesus’ crucifixion as a sin by law.

  18. Zoe Says:

    I cannot yet decide which theory best fits my opinions but love the fact that atonement perfectly breaks down into at-one-ment, meaning that we, through accepting Jesus’s gift, can become at one with the King of Kings.

    • David Witt Says:

      The death of Jesus can best be understood in comparison with the two Adams of scripture.
      The Bible teaches that death came because of the sin of Adam the first.
      Now the second Adam (Jesus) born of a virgin was a new head of mankind. His sinless life and total obedience is one of two keys here. He could have lived even to this very day (in the flesh), but the second key here is that HE DIED. This death breaks the curse and as we desire to come to God we receive a new birth and renewing of the Holy Spirit of God, being a partaker of the Divine nature.
      This repentance toward God and faith in Jesus his son saves us from the wrath to come and brings us into His everlasting Kingdom.
      Now the life key going forward is to know the God we are to serve. If we fail in this we are living a lie and in truth have no repentance toward God at all

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