Dealing with the sinful manifestations of human nature is at the heart of Christian doctrine, and theories of atonement regularly grapple with how this is effected. Many books within the New Testament indicate that their authors are grappling with how best to express the central claim of Christianity, that Jesus enables those who follow him to enter into a renewed relationship with God. The letter for this coming Sunday, the Fourth Sunday in Easter, does just this (1 Pet 1:19–25).
However, I can’t see that the New Testament, anywhere, sets forth a fully-developed, single-focussed theory of atonement. There are a range of metaphors used to describe the process, in various places, by various authors: sacrifice, atonement, ransom, expiation/propitiation, liberation/salvation, reconciliation, disarming the powers, and modelling humility, for instance.
In true systematic theology style, over the centuries, various theological writers have plucked verses from various places in the New Testament, and woven together, with little regard for their original context or intention, to form a developed theory that owes more to rationalist deductive argumentation, than it does to biblical texts. That’s the first thing that I distance myself from.
Paul notes that “Christ died for us”. That’s a short and simple way to describe the significance of the death of Jesus; we find it at Rom 5:6,8, 14:15; 1 Cor 8:11, 15:3; 2 Cor 5:14-15; Gal 2:21; and 1 Thess 5:10. That’s five of the seven authentic letters; the matter of the death of Jesus does not figure at all in what is being discussed in Philemon; and in Philippians, the death of Jesus serves to emphasise his humility and obedience (Phil 2:8), and Paul’s main interest is in his this death serves to effect a transformation in believers (Phil 3:21).
This affirmation, “Christ died for us”, forms the foundation for an intricate and complex system of sacrificial atonement theology which is developed beyond the time of the New Testament. These eight times when Paul says, “Christ died for us”, join with a number of other passing comments elsewhere in New Testament texts, to provide the basis for what would become, over time, a detailed understanding of the death of Jesus as a death made on behalf of, and in the place of, believers. An explanation is developed, drawing especially on the Jewish sacrificial system, in which the sacrifices of animals were understood to be the way by which the sins of people were forgiven.
This area of Christian theology—how to understand the death of Jesus—is known as soteriology (relating to “how we are saved”), with a strong emphasis being placed on atonement (that is, what is the mechanism for bringing us back into reconciled relationship with God). The atonement has become a debated and disputed arena. How do we understand this today?
One concern that is often expressed concerns the way that a religious system has a focus on a violent action at the centre of its belief system. Can it be a good thing to celebrate the way that God causes, or at least approves of, the putting to death of Jesus? We have every right to ask critical and penetrating questions about this aspect of our faith.
Another element of the debate is the claim that can be paraphrased as “Jesus died in my place, he was sacrificed for my sins, to save me from hell”. This is the classic way that I hear this view expressed, and it is often described as the substitutionary atonement theory. It depends on, but moves well beyond, the understanding that was inherent in the Jewish sacrificial system.
In my mind, there are a number of points at which this kind of statement about the death of Jesus (often referred to as Penal Substitutionary Atonement, or PSA), narrows the understanding of faith far too much.
For a start, it focuses intensely on a personal dimension, to the detriment of the wider relational, societal, and political dimensions. Easter faith, to me, is broader, more expansive, more encompassing, than just the focus on my personal eternal destiny. I find this communal orientation expressed very strongly in scripture, both in relation to the atonement as well as in many other broader ways. The narrow expression of atonement is based on an understanding of God who is a wrath-filled, vengeance-seeking God, seeking to impact individual lives in a highly judgemental way. I don’t find that perspective in scripture.
Then, the narrow understanding of atonement plays off the will of God over against the actions of a devil figure. This is a problematic element because it contradicts the idea of an all-loving, all-just God. Is all evil in the world to be attributed to a personified devil? What has the allegedly all-powerful and all-loving God done about this?
Such simplistic dualism is problematic, if we just leave it at this. Hebrew scripture steadfastly resists any temptation to sit in a dualistic worldview, and the New Testament continues in that vein, despite pressures from the Hellenistic worldview, as direct heir of the Platonic dualistic schema.
Appreciating the sacrificial dimension of the story of Jesus dying on the cross is important. Jesus went willingly to his death. He did, in the end, offer his life as a sacrifice. The key verse often cited for this understanding is Mark 10:45 (“the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many). Other verses that relate include Rom 3:25-26, Eph 5:2,1 John 2:1-2, 4:10, as well as the whole argument of Hebrews (see especially Heb 2:17, 9:23-28, 10:12, 13:12).
Understanding the death of Jesus as a sacrifice remains at the heart of our Christian faith. The option of taking up a violent path was rejected by Jesus. He did not stir up an uprising against the imperialist Roman overlords, despite opportunities to do so (on Palm Sunday, for instance). He did knowingly offer his life as a sacrifice. After an inner struggle about this matter (Mark 14:32-35 and parallels in the Synoptics), it appears that Jesus went willingly to his death (Mark 14:36, and reflected in the whole prayer that the evangelist crafts in John 17).
The preaching of Jesus in the period prior to his arrest offered a vision of a kingdom in which righteous-justice is dominant and peace is evident (Matt 6:33, 7:21, 21:43, 25:34-36; Mark 12:32-34; Luke 4:16-19, 6:20-21, 12:31-34, 18:24-25). In this preaching, he signalled his key commitments, which are instructive as we consider what he thought he was doing, when he submitted to death. We need to consider these words as we think about the significance of Jesus for our faith, and for how the sinfulness of humanity is dealt with.
The way that Jesus calls us into faithful discipleship is central to this approach. To enter the kingdom means to live in accord with the righteous-justice that Jesus advocates. The greater picture beyond the events of the cross is hugely significant. The cross, the event of the death of Jesus, points beyond to this greater vision. It is the whole life of Jesus, along with his death, which is crucial as we grapple with how Jesus transforms us from “sinful humanity” to “justified and saved” (to use the biblical terms that have become the catchcries in this debate).
His manner of death was consistent with this vision; the complete commitment of Jesus to this vision meant that his death, unjust and violent as it was, provides a glimpse into the way of faithfulness for each of us in our lives. Following the way of Jesus is treading this path of nonviolent affirmation of the greater vision.
See more discussion of specific texts at
and a general overview at