Concluding this series is not easy. There is so much more to know and understand. The more I know the less I know, it seems.
Let’s first do a quick recap on the atonement theories that have been presented:
Penal Substitution: Man sins against God. God is justly angry at the sins of His creation and man is condemned to separation from God. God becomes man and dies as our substitute so that mankind does not have to die. “Divine love triumphed over divine wrath by divine self-sacrifice” – John Stott
Moral Influence: Man is sinful. God becomes man in order to reveal Himself to mankind so that they can follow Him as an example of how to live a Christian life. He reveals Himself to us and teaches us about His character by coming to live and die as one of us.
Christus Victor: Mankind is held captive by sin, Satan, and death. God became man, lived, died, and rose again in order to defeat these evil forces and free mankind from captivity. We have victory with Christ.
Recapitulation: In Adam all have sinned. God becomes man, thus uniting God with mankind. As God lives on earth as the second Adam he does right in every instance that Adam previously did wrong. Christ recapitulates all of humanity and we are redeemed by His life, death, and resurrection. Christ defeats sin and death and redeems mankind through unity with Christ incarnate.
There are many positive aspects we can gain from all of these theories. In fact, my current professor said, it is better to look at these as images rather than theories. C. S. Lewis explains further in Mere Christianity:
“The central Christian belief is that Christ’s death has somehow put us right with God and given us a fresh start. Theories as to how it did this are another matter. A good many different theories have been held as to how it works; what all Christians are agreed on is that it does work. I will tell you what I think it is like. All sensible people know that if you are tired and hungry a meal will do you good. But modern theory of nourishment – all about the vitamins and proteins – is a different thing. People ate their dinners and felt better long before the theory of vitamins was ever heard of: and if the theory of vitamins is some day abandoned they will go on eating their dinners just the same. Theories about Christ’s death are not Christianity: they are explanations about how it works. Christians would not all agree as to how important those theories are. My own church – the Church of England – does not lay down any one of them as the right one. The Church of Rome goes a bit further. But I think they will all agree that the thing itself is infinitely more important than any explanations that theologians have produced. I think they would probably admit that no explanation will ever be quite adequate to the reality” (55, emphasis mine).
This is not an either/or situation. Every one of these images says something true about God and I believe there is much we can learn from each one. The truth of the matter is that we cannot even begin to grasp how God was able to atone for our sins. We know that He did. And these different images help us understand, if only a little, what has occurred.
I do think some images are more helpful than others. And perhaps the ones that are helpful to me are not helpful for you, and visa versa. The two that make the most sense to me are Recapitulation and Christus Victor, which I like to think of together as one image. I believe that these images provide us with a greater sense of what it means to be a Christian more so than the other theories.
Moral influence theory leaves Christian life in a state of moral achievement and legalism. Penal substitution leaves us thinking that since Christ paid the price to God for our sins, we are now free to sin ever more. Of course, Christians would never say that, but there definitely does not seem to be much reason in this theory for me to live a godly life. Sanctification seems to lose it’s ties to the atonement. Why live a holy life if my sins are already paid?
On the other hand, Christus Victor and Recapitulation teach us that since Christ united humanity with God through the incarnation, Christians now have a clear goal in mind. That is, through communion with God (which occurred when we were reconciled to him) we are given freedom be truly human (as Christ exemplified in His life) and to live according to God’s will, no longer bound to sin. Rather than a religion based on laws and morals, Christianity is for the purpose of reconciling the world to God. As Jens Zimmermann states in Incarnational Humanism:
“Our propensity [is] to seek security in rules for the Christian life, which is probably why even today “how-to-do-Christianity” seminars prevail in evangelical churches over actual gospel proclamations. For Bonhoeffer such an attitude is an abrogation of responsibility and a failure to enjoy the liberation effected by Christ to be fully human before God. Slaves need rules and lack initiative, but sons and daughters of God freely and responsibly enact what they know to be their Father’s will: the reconciliation of the world with God for the sake of true humanity” (278).
Lewis explains the atonement by showing that mankind needed to repent but that because man is bad they are unable to repent. However, with God’s help, they would be able. That is, if God put into us a bit of Himself. “We now need God’s help in order to do something which God, in His own nature, never does at all – to surrender, to suffer, to submit, to die. . . . God can only share what He has: this thing, in His own nature, He has not. But supposing God became a man – suppose our human nature which can suffer and die was amalgamated with God’s nature in one person – then that person could help us. He could surrender His will, and suffer and die, because He was man; and He could do it perfectly because He was God. You and I can go through this process only if God does it in us” (58).
We can see that in the “Lewisian” version of recapitulation, meaning for Christianity is formed even after justification. Because we are united with Christ and share in His life, we are now free to live in surrender to His will. Sanctification is in direct correlation to justification under this viewpoint.
Now, not to say that Lewis was promoting this view against all others. He clearly states: “Such is my own way of looking at what Christians call the atonement. But remember this is only one more picture. Do not mistake it for the thing itself: and it does not help you, drop it” (59).
My purpose then in researching, reading, and posting these different atonement theories was twofold. One, so that I could gain a better understanding of what Christ did for me and how it affects my life, and two, so that we as Christians would not dogmatically hold onto a view as absolute fact but would be willing to understand the atonement from a new and different perspective than perhaps we are usually do.
Please feel free to comment below with your own thoughts on the different theories. Which theory do you find most helpful and why? Do you hold onto one theory as dogma or do you find them all to be useful means of exemplifying the atonement? Are there other theories not mentioned that you find helpful?