Theories about the atonement are rife in Christian life. Atonement is the KEY doctrine for most Christians because it defines (or attempts to define) the WAY God saves us through Jesus Christ. For the Baptist, Jesus is the only way through which we come to God. Jesus is the New Jerusalem and the Temple of God through which we offer spiritual sacrifices as priests of God. We are forever priests and it cannot be revoked (1, see notes) Everyone is on the same footing in Baptist circles. For Catholics the temple is the Church and specifically the Catholic altar. Jesus is re-sacrificed every day the world over to regrace the world with salvation through his offering. (2) This is no final act and the effects are not final either. One story from the scriptures that illustrates this difference is the hour of Jesus’ crucifixion.
For those who don’t know the biblical story; when Jesus was crucified, the Jewish temple veil was torn from top to bottom, signifying that the Holy of Holies was now accessible to everyone through the final sacrifice of Jesus Christ (Matthew 27:51). The Holy of Holies was the place in the Jewish temple in which God dwelt and only the priests were allowed to come near to offer sacrifices for the people:
3 If the offering is a burnt offering from the herd, you shall offer a male without blemish; you shall bring it to the entrance of the tent of meeting, for acceptance in your behalf before the Lord. 4 You shall lay your hand on the head of the burnt offering, and it shall be acceptable in your behalf as atonement for you. 5 The bull shall be slaughtered before the Lord; and Aaron’s sons the priests shall offer the blood, dashing the blood against all sides of the altar that is at the entrance of the tent of meeting. 6 The burnt offering shall be flayed and cut up into its parts. 7 The sons of the priest Aaron shall put fire on the altar and arrange wood on the fire. 8 Aaron’s sons the priests shall arrange the parts, with the head and the suet, on the wood that is on the fire on the altar; 9 but its entrails and its legs shall be washed with water. Then the priest shall turn the whole into smoke on the altar as a burnt offering, an offering by fire of pleasing odor to the Lord (Leviticus 1:3-9)
The priests of Israel were to do this in perpetuity. However, when Jesus incarnated and died, new Jewish Christians, such as Paul, began seeing parallels to Jesus’ life and role as the long promised Savior who would eliminate material temple sacrifices and institute a new era of spiritual faith. For Paul, when the veil of the temple was rent in two, temple sacrifices were symbolically no more. This event, more than any other, was intended to convince Israel that the daily sacrifices of animals in the temple were no longer necessary to please God. God sacrificed his Son to please Himself. As merciless as this sounds to mothers everywhere, you must remember that this story and its effects for the believer is the VITAL, key doctrine of Christendom: Jesus’ sacrificial atonement to the Father for all humankind (Ephesians 2:14-22; Hebrews 6:18-20; 9:1-7; 10:19-22).
Mongergists call this interpretation of Jesus’ death “penal substitutionary atonement theory.” It is but one type of atonement theory. (3) This theory emphasizes the substitutionary part of the atonement. In other words, Jesus Christ, when he died, took our place on the Cross (a type of the altar of God in heaven), was sacrificed, and thereby died for all of our individual sins: past, present, and future. When Jesus died and was resurrected, every sinner turned believer in Him has died and, baptized into new life, will live forever. Therefore, animal sacrifice was no longer needed. The scapegoat is Jesus. The “animal” the Israelite priests laid their hands on to transfer the sins of the people was replaced by Jesus, who took sins away forever. The physical and spiritual veil is lifted and we can “see” with new eyes (2 Corinthians 3:14-16).
Other theologians especially of the New Emergent Church variety, call this theory of atonement into question. I’m not SURE what the atonement theory they ascribe to is, but I assume it’s like the Catholic version. For Catholics, Jesus died to make it POSSIBLE that we are forgiven by God, assuming we follow all the rules to the end without falling away into doubt and mortal sin. We are only put back on an even keel and must begin with the fresh start that Jesus provides us. Therefore, Evangelicals and Catholics couldn’t be further apart on Atonement theory. For evangelicals, salvation is personal and immediately applicable when one believes. It is permanent and cannot be revoked. For Catholics, salvation is corporate and far removed. IF you attain it, you do well, if not, well….
Then throw into the mix the doctrine of Original Sin and that’s where the fun begins. Your take on the doctrine of original sin affects your interpretation of atonement. Much like the chicken or egg first conundrum, Christians have argued over the doctrine of Original Sin since the time of Augustine. Augustine introduced the “mankind is inherently evil; born that way” view of sin, thereby guaranteeing that anything short of penal atonement isn’t going to cut it in the salvation department. Ironically enough, Augustine was Roman Catholic and the harsher the original sin theory was, the farther away Catholics got to “allowing” Jesus to become a complete remedy for mankind. It was the Celtic monk Pelagius who pooh-poohed the idea that mankind was born sinful and called the church to be the agent that would grow humankind into its fullest potential and bring her back to the essential goodness God created. The kind and gentle Pelagius was viciously attacked for this theory, of course. You cannot threaten people with excommunication for sin if the means of grace can be found in God’s mercy and creation OUTSIDE the confines of the Mother Church. For Pelagius, there is also no assurance, but we weren’t inherently sinful to begin with. For Evangelicals, nothing short of exhange of Christ’s Spirit for our spirit will effect the change from heathen flesh to salvation.
So, we see how Christian dogma is stacked on a precarious house of cards. Remove one card: “Original Sin” and the other cards fall down around it. I see Christian history and tradition like that tall, tall, house of cards; interpretation piled on interpretation until, at the Reformation, the house finally began collapsing. Zwingli, Luther, Calvin, and others before them began questioning Roman Catholic views of sin and atonement and what that meant for the Christian. Why, they asked, was it so needlessly complicated and riddled with extra-biblical practices such as indulgences? Reading the bible, which was now available to the people in printed form, was a chief catalyst in this religious revolution. Since then the waters have cleared just enough to know that all the arguing comes down to this:
1) Jesus either died for Adam’s original “stain” of sin; past, present, and future, becoming the final sacrifice for sins forever and releasing the believer from a daily system of sacrifices. (Matthew 27:51; Romans 5:14; 1 Corinthians 15:22, 45; Hebrews 10:10-12) This sacrifice of Jesus sanctifies the believer, and sets her apart in assurance of salvation for eternity. If you die accidentally after having sinned, and didn’t have time to confess, you are still assured a place in heaven. (Baptist view)
2) Jesus died merely to eliminate the Jewish sacrificial system and set up a Christian system whereby priests sacrifice Jesus daily in the Eucharist as a special offer of salvation to all who choose to come and follow Jesus. We are never assured of salvation and must ever be wary of sin, but at least salvation is offered. If you die in sin (unconfessed and unshriven) you are lost forever, even after a long and moral life (4). Jesus died to make salvation POSSIBLE not actual. (Catholic view)
The stack of dogma cards is becoming more perilous! If I HAD to choose, I prefer the Baptist version. But still, one has to wonder why it was necessary for Jesus to die when God could have forgiven us freely and even did forgive in the Old Testament? Diehard fundamentalists believe that the inherent sin of Adam would not go away unless we appeased God’s sense of justice, but what kind of justice is it that requires the death of your son? How did God forgive the Israelites when God said he “hated sacrifice?” (Hosea 6:6)
For an excellent discussion about this go to Scot McKnight’s blog. Personally, I believe these theories of atonement are needlessly complicated and are either to broad or too limited. I often ask myself the question, “If I can conceive of a completely merciful way of forgiveness, why can’t God?” I get the sneaky suspicion that no one knows what God wants based on the conflicting stories in the Bible. Dogma is just theory and interpretation of theory anyway. We are all casting about in the dark finding a way. I believe the answer is in simplicity and rooted in the law of love espoused by Christ himself.
1) So say the “eternal security” Baptists, who believe that once you are chosen, justified, and sanctified, you can never fall away from Christ.
2) Catholic Catechism, section 1367-1368 (sacrifice) and section 797-798 (Church is temple. Here the temple is the Church, meaning a separate entity than the believers together.
3) Other theories are the “financial” debit and credit system of justification, the militry image of Satan vs. God, and the legal courtroom image in which God is judge. (Christian Doctrine by Shirley C. Guthrie, Rev. Ed., pages 252-256).
Catholic Catechism, section 1033.