The nature of Jesus’ redemptive work is, of course, crucial to understanding its application. It has sometimes been described as the ‘at-one’-ment by which people are joined in relationship to God. The mechanism of this reconciliation, though, makes the Atonement more multi-faceted than the simplistic picture we gain from isolated theories put forward to explain it. Easter only makes sense when Jesus’ death does, and here’s why it matters more than just gaining a four-day weekend.
Of course, not all Christians accept the bodily resurrection as a historical fact. A metaphorical interpretation is sometimes adopted by those who struggle to believe such a miracle, but their error overlooks a central biblical claim of 1 Corinthians 15:14-15 that, if Jesus is not raised from the dead, then our faith and preaching are as empty and futile. Verse 6 also alludes to five hundred witnesses to the post-resurrection appearance of Jesus, which would have been easy to disprove if it had not occurred. The Bible, as an integrated whole actually attests to the centrality of the Resurrection.
Those believing early sympathisers to have been misguided will often assert that Christ’s followers found the wrong tomb, despite the certainty that the Jews and Romans would have exposed this mistake. Some have also questioned the professionalism of the soldiers who both crucified and speared Jesus. Any thought that the guards succumbed to bribery or negligence in allowing the body to be removed would have been at great risk of exposure and of capital punishment, and this also presumes against the character of those who ultimately died for the integrity of their witness to a resurrected Jesus.
Harm is also done to faith, though, when the overwhelming testimony of Scripture is compromised by those whose preferred theology rests on preferred interpretations of isolated texts. A complete picture of Christ’s work can also be over-simplified when any one element is over-emphasised at the expense of others. Consider the following popular ‘Theories of the Atonement.’
1) Christ as Ransom
Jesus introduced the idea of His becoming a ransom for many in Mark 10:45, a view reiterated by Paul in 1 Timothy 2:6. Early Christians largely adopted this notion, but Origen questioned who it was that received this ransom. Since God did not hold people to ransom, Origen suggested that it was paid to the Devil. Naturally, though, the Devil is owed nothing. Was the ransom theory perhaps wrong?
It was, of course, popularised in C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The lion Aslan, symbolic of Jesus, agrees to the claims of the white witch who represents Satan. Her hold over the child, Edmund (who could represent any or all of us), is on the basis of his act of treachery. That hold was to be broken only when justice could be served.
This truth renders the ‘ransom theory’ a legitimate and important, but also incomplete, description of the Atonement.
2) Christ as Victor
Others later suggested that the Devil needed to be deceived by God out of the payment he supposedly received. Satan was said to be baited into believing that he had conquered Jesus’ humanity, but was unaware of His divinity by which He rose from the dead. Augustine interpreted this as Satan being a victim of his own pride.
The ‘ransom theory’ found resurgence in the twentieth century under Gustav Aulen who emphasised that it was, after all, the triumph of God which was all-important. Focusing on the victory of Jesus who conquered the principalities and powers of evil (Colossians 2:15) became, for some, a superior description. In fact, it is but another facet of the majestic whole.
3) Christ who Satisfies God
At the turn of the twelfth century, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Anselm, was one of those rejecting the idea of a ransom being paid to the Devil. For Anselm, God’s honour had been violated and sin could not be left unpunished. The problem for many has been that this makes God appear vengeful and requires the Father to enact violence against His Son.
Twelfth century French theologian, Peter Abelard, provided a more subjective understanding of Christ’s life. It was, he said, exemplary rather than existing merely to appease divine wrath. It therefore anticipated a later emphasis on the supreme love of God which emerged more obviously from the nineteenth century onwards.
Of course, reducing the Atonement to love, at the expense of justice, undermines the nature of God whose essential attributes are held in perfect balance. Justice, mistaken for vengeance, actually amplifies the love-antidote for the sin problem of humanity,
4) Christ as Substitute
The notion of the substitutionary death of Christ further developed Anselm’s satisfaction theory by indicating that it was enacted in the place of humans. Thus, Jesus took their punishment upon Himself. This view was popular through the Reformation, particularly with John Calvin, and led to an understanding of God’s divine wrath against sin.
The concept of substitution builds upon the need for a ransom, but more adequately shows another element of the C. S. Lewis story, that of the shedding of blood needing to be the basis for the remission of sin (Hebrews 9:22) in the form of a like-for-like sacrifice.
How are these views reconciled?
Quite simply, then, these seemingly contradictory views all offer aspects of the total biblical revelation on Jesus’ Atonement. Integration of the texts understands the whole Bible to be the inspired Word of God which speaks to our need for a Saviour (John 3:17).
This overall picture of the Atonement comes from harmonising multiple texts on the basis that all of Scripture is inspired and given for doctrine (2 Timothy 3:16). This provides five important observations.
1. A Ransom was needed to redeem human life. Leviticus 5:15 and Numbers 3:44-51 show that silver was typically paid for ransom, but the price paid to ransom a slave was thirty pieces of silver (Exodus 21:32). This was the same price paid for Jesus. As a substitute for our sin, Jesus therefore paid the price to ransom us from the Devil’s grip.
2. Christ freed us from the ‘sting’ of death and exercised victory over the Devil (1 Corinthians 15:55-57). This victory was complete and ongoing, consummating the arrival of His Kingdom on Earth which continues into eternity.
3. Christ’s death satisfied a perfect God’s need for perfect justice. Rather than a ransom being paid ‘to,’ what is important is that it is paid ‘by,’ just as courts today, and not judges, receive fines. God’s wrath is justly deserved for the sin of humanity (Romans 1:8) which can only be paid for by Jesus (1 John 2:2). He alone served to mediate between God and humanity (1 Timothy 2:5) by virtue of His blood (1 Peter 2:24). As mentioned, innocent blood was the only means by which sin could be paid for.
4. The substitutionary death of Jesus needs Him to have been punished, because sin had to be punished. 2 Corinthians 5:15 shows that God’s supreme example of love was in sending Christ to potentially redeem all of humanity by a penal substitution. Verse 21 shows God sacrificed Him by making Him (who knew no sin in Himself) become sin for us that we might be made righteous (or ‘just’ before God.) This gift is actually received only by those ‘opening’ it, those who believe (John 3:16), and those who also confess Him to be Lord (Romans 10:9-10).
5. Importantly, these attributes can be reconciled because of God’s very nature. The essential attributes which are characteristic of God must logically be perfectly present. If God is to justly judge sin, then He must be completely just. If He is loving, then His love must be complete.
Not 50% love and 50% justice, but 100% perfect in each case.
This is Good News because, though we all deserve to die, the punishment for sin has been paid to satisfy God’s justice. Our imperfection made us all ineligible to enter a perfect Heaven. Our ‘sin’ in living apart from God has been removed through Christ who gives us life ‘in Him’ (1 John 3:5-6).
God potentially took our sin away by virtue of the exchange of Christ’s perfection for our sinfulness. This necessarily means, though, that if we do not now accept His gracious offer through faith in Him then we choose to remain in sin and this is something the Bible forbids for those receiving eternal life (Romans 6:1-2).
The Old Testament foreshadows the substitutionary death of Jesus in the story of Isaac’s sacrifice, where the two servants going to the mountain (historically believed to be in the region of Calvary), the wood on the son’s back, and the male sheep offering, all prefigure Christ.
Likewise, the book of Hebrews thoroughly explains animal sacrifice as a typology fulfilled by the ultimate Atonement. The blood atoned for sin on the mercy seat, the lid of the Ark of the Covenant which symbolised the presence of God, three in one as shown by the commandments symbolic of the Father, the manna symbolic of the Son (who John 6:35-40) says was the bread of Heaven, and the budding rod symbolic of the Spirit’s life-giving presence (Hebrews 9:4). The blood is what stopped the priest from being struck dead in his own sinfulness as an imperfect person. This represents the appeasing of God’s justified wrath against sinful humanity.
Justice must be understood here. God who totally loves every person whom He has created actually wants a way out for each person (Titus 2:11-15, 2 Peter 3:9) through the sacrificial blood of Christ (1 John 1:7) but, sadly, not all will respond (John 1:12).
Therefore, those who remain in sin must be judged by the act of a judge who is truly righteous. God enacts this justice despite wanting to provide a loving way of escape. He necessarily requires that they gain their own fate by virtue of retaining their sin nature passed from Adam (Romans 5:12). This fate is a Christless eternity, a penalty is without end reinforced in Matthew 25:46 which describes the two possibilities for eternal destiny in the same manner.
This makes Christianity not a faith of condemnation as much as one that lovingly offers a way of escape from an otherwise-inevitable death.
God ‘sends’ people to Hell only in the sense that He justly requires the logical consequence of their own free will and thus their own chosen fate, irrespective of whether they have heard the antidote of the Good News we are therefore compelled to share globally.
God condemned His Son to death only to permit Him to take our place. He did not have to die for His own sin since He didn’t commit any. Therefore, He could qualify to die for ours. This sacrifice was an ultimate act of love for us (John 15:13).
Of course, God knew that Jesus would be raised from the dead three days later. Jesus was fully human so as to be a like-for-like substitute to pay the ransom price of our sin. He was also fully God so that He could be sinless in Himself and therefore take our sin upon Himself and satisfy the justifiable wrath of God. We may not like the mechanism of redemption, but it shows itself to be a logical necessity.
As God, Jesus rose from the dead and triumphantly broke the power of death and hell so that we could then become a new creation who does not live by law (Galatians 6:15) but by faith (Galatians 2:20), so that relationship might free us from religion and see us willingly serve God through salvation rather than for salvation.