Problems with the Problem: What’s the Atonement For?
Part of last weekend was spent at a conference at ACTS Seminaries dealing with the nature of the atonement. Among the questions under discussion were: How is it that the work of Jesus actually saves? What does Jesus save us from? For what purpose does Jesus save us? These seemed like very appropriate questions to consider as we move toward the Easter season and beyond.
The two speakers were, I presume, brought in to offer somewhat different approaches to the question but were in fact remarkably similar. Glen Scorgie, Professor of Theology at Bethel Seminary San Diego, argued that we need to move away from an over-emphasis on penal substitution as the central meaning of the atonement and allow our understanding to be filled out by the Christus Victor (in the cross, Christ conquers death/evil) and “moral influence” (in the cross [and before], Jesus shows us an example of how to live) models as well.
Mark Baker, Associate Professor of Mission and Theology at Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary in Fresno, CA, said virtually the same thing, although he seemed willing to move farther away from penal substitution than was Scorgie (he expresses his distaste for this understanding of the atonement more clearly in his book). Baker argued for a highly contextualized presentation of the atonement. What works in contexts with a highly developed judicial systems, for example, may not work in contexts dominated by implicit codes of honour and shame. Baker argued that we need to be willing to use the full range of biblical understandings of the atonement, and that the context we find ourselves in will have much to say about the approach we take.
This didn’t always go over so well. A sense of growing impatience was detectable from some of the attendees, especially during the Q & A following Baker’s presentations. At times, it was almost as if to say, “yes, yes, Jesus defeats death and evil and shows us a better way of living and all that, but what do people have to believe to avoid hell? How do we know if they’re in or out? What’s the minimum atonement content we have to make sure people ‘get’ so that we’re sure that their eternal status is secure?”
There are many things that could be said about this whole approach to the atonement and the presuppositions it betrays, but mainly I’m reminded of Scot McKnight’s post from a few months ago called “The Problem is the Problem.” In it, he questioned whether our presentation of the gospel betrays too small an understanding of the problems that face us. Our world is beset by huge problems that go far beyond individual human beings and their status before God. We are alienated from God, certainly, but also from ourselves, from our neighbours, and from creation. We are the victims of many things beyond our control and, ultimately, we live the bulk of our lives in the full knowledge that emotional and physical pain and death are non-negotiable elements of our future. If our theory of the atonement doesn’t address these things, then we have misunderstood both the problem and the solution provided by the cross.
In my view, the questions put forth by some at the conference revealed that they simply didn’t have big enough problems for Jesus to solve. For some, the problem the cross addresses seemed to be: How do we transfer individual human beings from the “eternally damned” category to the “saved” category? Human beings are born condemned and the cross of Christ represents our entrance ticket into the room marked “escape to heaven.”
We need a bigger problem. In the cross of Christ, God deals with the consequences of human sin, certainly, but if this represents the sum total of our understanding of the atonement something has gone seriously awry. We are not simply perpetrators of sin, but victims as well. And we are not only saved from something (the consequences of sin, yes, but also the power of death and evil) but for a purpose—we need a new vision of how to live according to the reality that the cross makes possible.
I left the conference with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I find it discouraging that people are so easily threatened and so determined to cling to such skeletal understandings of both the problem and the solution represented by the events of Easter. On the other hand, I enjoyed the dialogue and found the speakers to be two immensely encouraging and hopeful people. They had an admirable commitment to the church, a deep love for all that God has made, and a profound hope that the cross of Christ really is the deepest solution to the biggest problems we will ever face.