The Atonement

“For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.” Matthew 7:14

Think of this article as suffering. You have to suffer through it, but in the end it builds character 😉

The Christian doctrine of the Penal Theory of Atonement gives us a deeply-moving view of the self-sacrificial love which Christ had for mankind, but on the other hand it has deeply-negative implications about the nature of God. This article argues that we can understand the mission of Jesus and the nature of God in better ways.

[All scriptures from the New Revised Standard Version, used by permission]

Organizational Plan

I. What is the Christian doctrine of Atonement?

In the history of the Church, there have been many formulations of the Atonement.

The Fathers posed questions which did not come within the purview of the Biblical writers. For Origen the death of Christ was the ransom paid to Satan, who had acquired rights over man by the Fall. Others, notably St. Athanasius, held that God the Son, by taking our nature upon Him, had effected a change in human nature as such. The general patristic teaching is that Christ is our representative rather than our substitute and that the effect of His suffering, obedience, and resurrection extends to the whole of humanity and beyond. In the 11th-12th centuries, with Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo, the emphasis shifted. The role of Satan receded and its place was taken by the idea of satisfaction due God for sin. The death of Christ was then seen not as a ransom paid to the devil but as a debt paid to the Father. At the Reformation Martin Luther rejected the satisfaction theory and taught that Christ, in bearing by voluntary substitution the punishment due to man, was reckoned by God a sinner in man’s place. John Calvin went further, holding that Christ ‘bore in his soul the tortures of a condemned and ruined man’. In reaction against the exaggerations of this ‘penal theory’ arose the doctrine, defended by the Socinians, which denied the objective efficacy of the Crucifixion and looked upon the death of Christ primarily as an example to His followers. There has been no official formulation on orthodox Christianity on the mystery of the Atonement. [The Concise Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church]

This is my own description of the “penal theory”.

  1. God is holy and perfect, setting up an absolute standard for mankind to also be holy and perfect. [Lev. 11:44]
  2. These absolute standards are set out in a group of laws or commandments. These laws are found in the Bible.
  3. Mankind universally fails to be holy and perfect (whether as an individual or as a race). [Romans 3:23]
  4. Sin is falling short of the divine standard.
  5. When a law is broken, a debt is incurred and punishment is deserved.
  6. The only way to avoid the punishment is for the debt to be repaid–possible only through the shedding of blood. That is, all sins are capitol offenses. [Heb 9:22, Rom 6:23]
  7. At one time this payment was met through animal sacrifice. Animal sacrifice involved the slaughter of a blemish-free animal and the sprinkling of its blood on an altar in a ritual manner.
  8. Jesus allowed himself (the only perfect human being) to be killed as a sacrifice which would be sufficient to pay for (atone for) the debt of all human sins.

II. Scriptural support for the Penal Theory of Atonement

One of many scriptures which describe the Atonement is Hebrews 7:26-27 which says:

“For it was fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, blameless, undefiled, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. Unlike other high priests, he has no need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins and then for those of the people; this he did once for all when he offered himself.”

And in Hebrews 2:17 which says:

“Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people.”

And in Hebrews 9:12 which says:

“he entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption.

And Jesus himself is reported to have said [Matthew 20:28]

“…the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

(See also Mark 10:45, 1 Timothy 2:6.)

III. God as revealed in Jesus

  1. God is our Father [Mat. 6:9]
  2. God is generous [Mat 20:1-15, Luke 15:11-32]
  3. God is Love [1 John 4:8]
  4. God values mercy over sacrifice [Mat. 9:13]
  5. God desires the universal salvation of mankind [1 Tim 2:3-4]

IV. Why not atonement?

God sacrificed God to God to appease God, to pay God the debt owed by mankind (which God was unable to forgive without the intervention of God).

Much of the New Testament was written for a Jewish audience. Jews understood God in Old Testament terms. The Gospel writers had to use Old Testament ideas to explain Jesus to that audience. But most Christians now are not Jews.

The book of Hebrews is all about the atonement; and it is a wonderful book. There is just one problem with the atonement–that being that God is the kind of god which requires payment instead of the God who desires mercy in stead.

Seeing Jesus’ sacrifice as an atonement — i.e. paying a debt owed to God by man incurred because of man’s sins has some important implications about the nature of God. The picture of God as shown by Jesus and described in the parables (and the prophet Hosea) is in my mind inconsistent with a God who requires payment. In the story of the Prodigal Son, there was no atonement nor repayment.

You know, if you read the story of the Prodigal son closely, you see that the son doesn’t necessarily repent. He “comes to himself” (realizes his predicament) and makes the judgment that he would be better off at home. He comes up with a speech (“I will say to my father…”) to use when he comes home, but we have no way of knowing that felt repentant and unworthy. And it’s curious that when the Prodigal comes home, sees his father run out to meet him with a kiss and a ring, the son doesn’t give the whole prepared speech, omitting the part about being a hired servant.

I come back to what Paul wrote about Christians not being under the law. It’s not just a matter of forgiveness, but a new relationship.

(Romans 7:6-7 NRSV) While we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. But NOW we are discharged from the law, dead to that which held us captive, so that we are slaves not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit.

(Romans 6:14 NRSV) For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.

I would point out that transgressions of the law are what condemns us. If the law is abrogated, then there is no sin (where there is no law). The question is whether Jesus had to pay a debt in order for us to switch salvation plans. I don’t actually mean to say that there is no sin, but that sin means something different once the law is made obsolete.

Does hell build character?

If the judge has the power to set me free, why does ANYBODY have to go to prison? If we talk about a human judge, then perhaps we might explain that the judge is responsible to the law or to a “higher authority” that demands payment for crimes. But God is responsible to no higher authority and we only have to look at Paul or the book of Hebrews to see the regard in which the law is to be held by Christians.

V. What does the suffering and death of Jesus mean?

No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends [John 15:13]

Jesus gave up his life for his friends.

He showed them that God is a participant in our suffering by becoming human and that God’s love is boundless by being willing to die for his friends (meaning us all). Such a God is not keeping score of debts. Does not the scriptures say that God is love? And does not 1 Corinthians 13:4-5 say “Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous, or conceited or proud; love is not ill-mannered, or selfish, or irritable; love does not keep a record of wrongs” [TEV]?

The Good News is that God loves us. The Good News is that God is like the woman who lost one of her coins and diligently looked for it. (She looked for the coin; the coin didn’t try to find its way back). The Good News is that God is like a landowner who paid all his laborers the same no matter how much they worked because he was generous. The Good News is that God is like a farmer who threw seed with abandon even on rocky places. The Good News is that God is like a father who ran out to meet his lost son and threw a party for him. The Good News is that we are free from sin, death and guilt.

Look at this:

(Hebrews 7:18-19) There is, on the one hand, the abrogation of an earlier commandment because it was weak and ineffectual (for the law made nothing perfect); there is, on the other hand, the introduction of a better hope, through which we approach God.


(Hebrews 10:1 NRSV) Since the law has only a shadow of the good things to come and not the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered year after year, make perfect those who approach.


(Hebrews 8:8-13 NRSV) God finds fault with them when he says: “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah; {9} not like the covenant that I made with their ancestors, on the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt; for they did not continue in my covenant, and so I had no concern for them, says the Lord. {10} This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws in their minds, and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. {11} And they shall not teach one another or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. {12} For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.” {13} In speaking of “a new covenant,” he has made the first one obsolete. And what is obsolete and growing old will soon disappear.

Jesus brings a new covenant and replaces the written law with the law written on the heart. Having the law written on one’s heart is what I see as part of the “new birth” that Jesus talks about in John 3. Jesus came to change lives, not to encourage us to follow the rules better. When we accept Jesus, the same spirit which was in Jesus dwells in us resulting in our personally knowing God rather than having to be taught (Heb 8:11 above) and knowing the law rather than having to follow the written code (shadow). For as the scriptures say: “the law made nothing perfect”.

I can give you one possible view of how Jesus’ death would be meaningful, while still not a payback to God for man’s sin.

The angelic messengers, announcing the birth of Jesus, opened with the words “fear not!” Jesus is called the “pioneer of our salvation” meaning the one who goes first, who treads the unknown territory. Death is the fearful unknown territory. Jesus, by allowing himself to be killed in a way which evoked every kind of fear (painful death, humiliating death) and then returning from the dead and returning to his disciples completes the two-fold purpose of conquering both sin and death.

The fear of death is a result of our separation from God or Sin. If we had not fallen, we would trust God and not be afraid. So in the sense that Jesus sacrificed himself to show us that we need not fear death; his death was necessary because of our sins. There are any number of ways of looking at Jesus dying for our sins– my only objection is saying that Jesus dies for our sins IN ORDER TO GET GOD TO ACCEPT US. This is because God is loving and merciful. Jesus had to die because of a limitation on our part, not a limitation on God’s part.

Did Jesus fail?

Oh no! Jesus did not fail at all. Jesus showed us the Father. Jesus was the pioneer of our faith. Jesus frees us from sin and death. But none of this requires us to believe that God cannot tolerate us sinful humans unless our sins are covered up by blood.

If one does not turn to Jesus and does not have a new outlook (new birth) then one is still a slave to sin and the fear of death. One who still lives in Sin (= separation from God) does not have the Spirit of God in him. By my definition, the unrepentant person is at war with God. But nothing I said in this paragraph requires God to erect some artificial barrier that says: “don’t approach until you repent”.

I see mankind as destroyed by sin and dying when they are not saved by Jesus. It is just that the reason that mankind is destroyed by sin and is dying is not of God’s doing. That is, no evil comes from God; we make it all ourselves. Sin is in and of itself destructive because it goes against the way we were made and against the plan that God had for mankind. We die because we lack the fellowship of God (death is the death of the spirit while the body remains alive). We also live in fear of death and we live as slaves to our own destructive tendencies (sin). To me these are completely real destruction and death. They are just as important as any concept of eternal damnation. If Jesus relieves this condition, then his death is enormously meaningful and our gratitude should be endless, and Jesus merits our worship.

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