I've been thinking a lot about atonement theories lately (yes, even before the Rob Bell controversy). For those who don't know, atonement is the fancy word to explain Christ's sacrifice and our reconciliation with God. I've found few people know that there are multiple ways of explaining why Christ died on the cross, all of which are rooted in biblical understandings.
A lot of debates and theological disagreements have some relationship to the atonement theory each individual ascribes to, so I thought it might be helpful to provide a short summary here about some of them to introduce people to these ideas. Tomorrow, I'm going to outline some of my thoughts that integrates some of these models into a coherent whole while challenging problematic elements through Girard's mimetic theory.
Wikipedia's articles on the atonement theories are very useful in providing more detailed information, as this is really a general overview. While I mention some of the problems with each of the theories, all of this is far from exhaustive, as volumes and volumes have been written about each theory.
Substitutionary atonement is the idea that Christ died in place of us. This is one of the most common one in evangelical America. However, there are subtypes of substitutionary atonement.
Penal substitutionary atonement is the one popular among the neo-Calvinists, like Mark Driscoll, John Piper, and the rest of The Gospel Coalition. This takes a legal metaphor, where there is a clear cause and effect according to the law, which cannot be waived. The punishment for sin is God's unending wrath. Christ stands in between us, allowing God to pour out his wrath on Jesus, allowing the punishment to still occur, but without us having to suffer it. The problem with this, as Jonathan Brink and other have stated, is we are being saved from God, making him not a very compelling God to love. The governmental theory is similar, emphasizing that Christ's sacrifice allowed God to be both just and merciful at the same time.
The satisfaction theory of atonement is also similar. It takes on a legal tone, whereby Christ's death is paying restitution for the wrongs of man. It "satisfies" the debt we have incurred.
On the other side, there is a ransom theory of atonement. Ultimately, the idea is that the world is under the power of Satan. Christ's death is a ransom to take us out o the power of Satan and back into the hands of God. CS Lewis' depiction of Aslan dying to ransom Edmund essentially depicts this view. The problem here is that this give Satan quite a lot of power, in some ways appearing to have more power over God.
The Christus Victor perspective is often presented along with ransom theory, although there are differences. The idea of this theory is that Christ is victorious against all evil in the world through his death and resurrection, thereby squashing the power of Satan. Gregory Boyd presents a compelling, holistic view of the Christus Victor perspective, though, giving Satan much less power than in the traditional ransom theory. Ed Cyzewski wrote about how Christus Victor can be a response to the limited perspective of substitutionary atonement, while Mark Galli at Christianity today recently posted a piece exploring the limitations of some Christus Victor perspectives.
There's also the moral influence theory, where Christ dies to demonstrate for us the power and importance of love. He is influencing us to live moral, holy lives. This is definitely compelling, as Christ is the model for our spiritual formation. Another variation of it is that it emphasizes God's holiness, goodness, and love rather than simply being a model of good behavior. However, as one of my friends says, this doesn't really explain why Christ's death was necessary. My friend's analogy is that because he loves me, he'll step out in front of a bus and die. Not really useful or necessary.
There are other theories, too, but these are the most prominent ones. The issue is that so often people hold closely to one, disregarding the others. In fact, though, the Bible actually explains the atonement in each of these ways through metaphor. And these theories have each developed in distinct cultural contexts (for instance, penal substitutionary atonement has its roots, from my understanding, in the feudal times when strict legal/forensic understandings of the world were important). Each has their strengths, but each also misses, in my opinion, a big part of the Gospel.
As I mentioned earlier, Brink wrote a book exploring an alternative view of the atonement, which I summarized in my review of the book. He argues that Christ's death was necessary because we humans needed it. Without it, we would not be able to accept God's love for us and subsequent reconciliation. I think there are significant strengths in his theory.
People committed to emphasizing that God must pour out wrath on the world because that is who God is will have problems with that theory. I don't believe God is a God of wrath. God has wrath, but God can also control and not pour it out if he so chooses. The Incarnation itself is a perfect example of God voluntarily limiting his power and choosing to hide his full glory for the sake of reconciliation and love. I don't have a problem with God giving up justice for love. He does that frequently throughout the Bible.
Further, the perspective of wrath that is the root of penal models is rooted in anthropomorphic viewpoints, emphasizing human wrath, which is all about anger and punishment. There are arguments that explain a biblical view of God's wrath is not about anger or punishment and that fearing God does not necessarily equal being afraid of God.
I see a need for constant justice with some payment always occurring being more of a human need, not God's need. We need someone to be punished because then we can control the outcomes and can clearly identify who is where because it's all measurable and behavioral. Life, especially in relationship with God, is not that simple.
Ultimately, the legal twists on atonement seem to present God in a very negative light. He is a God primarily of justice and wrath. In contrast, the moral influence, ransom, and Christus Victor perspectives can emphasize a weak God who is more beholden to Satan and humanity. None of these seems terribly satisfying or encompassing the whole picture of the atonement. Could it be that we may not be meant to fully understand the atonement? Could all of these views be correct?