Skip to content

Does Atonement Work?

Last week I finished Scot McKnight’s A Community Called Atonement and I’m nearly finished Mark Baker and Joel Green’s Recovering the Scandal of the Cross. Both of these books have been very helpful in articulating a view of the atonement that is broad and deep enough to address the depth of our need as human beings and as a planet.  Both deal with the various theories of the atonement, both examine the limitations of human language and the role of metaphors, and both look at the relevant biblical texts.  Both offer ways of thinking about and living into the atonement that are profoundly hopeful.

One of the most interesting questions from A Community Called Atonement is found in the first chapter: “does the atonement work?”  On some understandings of the atonement, this question is impossible to answer this side of the eschaton.  The only way to find out if the atonement “worked” for this or that person is to see if they make it to “heaven.”  The efficacy of the atonement can only be verified in the next life.

What McKnight’s question suggests is that there are ways of discovering if the atonement “works” right now.  It implies that the end game isn’t cognitive acceptance of a fact about the cosmos (Jesus died for your sins) but real concrete change in the world.  This, not post-mortem bliss, is how we tell if the atonement “works.”  McKnight laments the fact that in many cases the atonement simply isn’t working:

The bad news, the anti-gospel as it were, is that the claim Christians make for the atonement is not making enough difference in the real lives of enough Christians… as compelling proof of what the apostle Paul called “the truth of the gospel.”  Does this new relationship with God really transform the individual?  Does this work of Christ and the Spirit to forgive sins and empower Christians make them forgiving people or morally empowered people?  Does the claim of the gospel extend to what can be observed in the concrete realities of those who claim to be its beneficiaries?

One the other end of the spectrum, it was interesting to see a commenter on a recent post from a “Christian Counter-Cult and Apologetics Ministry” draw attention to a very different discussion taking place at his site.  It’s pretty standard stuff (you can follow the link trail from the comment if you’re so inclined) and even includes a bizarre conversation about whether or not someone who doesn’t believe (sufficiently? properly? whole-heartedly? gratefully enough?) in penal substitution could be saved (!).  I didn’t read very much of it, but what I did see got me thinking.

The main question it provoked—and I’d be curious to hear your feedback on this—is this: how important do you think it is to God that we understand/articulate the nature of the atonement “correctly?

In my brief scan of the comments section of the post written by my “counter-cult” friend, it seemed to me that for some folks, the absolutely crucial thing that God is after is that we have the correct understanding of precisely how the cross secures our salvation.  There is a minimum cognitive requirement that we must bring to the table—we must believe the right things “rightly” enough.  If we don’t, our salvation just may be in jeopardy (I’m not joking—I read comments to this effect in the post referred to above.  Of course, these comments were cloaked in “only God can judge” language, but in the meantime suspicion certainly seemed warranted for those who dared to question the primacy of penal substitution).

I simply do not think that the primary standard by which God will judge us is the degree of certainty and cognitive clarity about the nature of the atonement that we manage to conjure up before we die. I cannot imagine God asking me, on judgment day, “did you manage to precisely calibrate your understanding of the atonement, giving sufficient prominence to penal substitution while allowing for the possibility that other (less central) metaphors were also operative?”  I can (very easily) imagine God asking: “Did you do justly?  Did you love mercy?  Did you walk humbly?  Did you love your neighbour as yourself?  Did you give of yourself to the least of these?”

My sense is that if our answers to these latter questions are on an affirmative trajectory, that will be a good indication that the atonement has worked, is working, and will work.

22 Comments Post a comment
  1. Dave Chow #

    I agree with you, Ryan, that I’d rather err on the side of a gospel that feeds the hungry and helps the needy. Micah 6.8 comes to mind, as well as the book of James.

    June 2, 2009
  2. J #

    Ryan,

    An interesting book to look at is John Driver’s book, “Understanding the Atonement for the Mission of the Church.” Driver is a Mennonite who worked as a missionary in Latin America. His book outlines nine atonement motifs founds in scripture.

    Anyways, given that these multiple and varied models/theories/positions exist, it seems to me that understanding the atonement “correctly” is important to God. It’s almost as if God lays out a smorg of options so that those of us who are stubborn, stupid, silly people (Kramer) will have our hearts and minds and imaginations captured (hopefully) by AT LEAST one.

    That said, it seems to me that these various motifs on their own fail to do justice to the “effect” of Christ’s life, death and resurrection. It seems to me that these various models work together in kaleidoscopic fashion to capture (at least to some degree) the wonder of what it is Jesus does and accomplishes for us and our world. In that sense then, it seems as if God knows we won’t be able to fully understand things “correctly.” If that’s then case, then fully grasping everything isn’t all that important. Like you correctly note, I don’t need to have comprehended the atonement in its entirety to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.

    June 2, 2009
    • J, I certainly think you’re right about the role multiple metaphors can/ought to play in our response—cognitive or otherwise—to the atonement. I like the way you put it—a variety of options exist so that “we will have our hearts and minds and imaginations captured (hopefully) by AT LEAST one.”

      To me this still suggests that correct comprehension of the nature of the atonement isn’t necessarily the thing God is after. God alone understands exactly what the cross accomplishes and how it does so. The ontological fact of what the cross does in its entirety will, I think, always be hidden from us; all our understandings will be partial and limited. But as you say, the variety of metaphors found in Scripture certainly give us enough “ways in” to the atonement to understand our need, God’s provision, and the appropriate response to what God has done on our behalf.

      June 2, 2009
  3. Ken #

    I think if we look for “real concrete change” in the world or in the lives of Christians that we will not find it. If that is the test of whether atonement has worked, then I think that atonement has failed.

    It remains very hard for me to see atonement as the central issue in theology. I don’t think that Christianity can be reduced to either orthodox belief or orthodox practice, including morality whether personal or social. I think what we face is a tradition and Bible that have many facets: atonement is one of many. I think in modernity many of those facets are simply unbelievable to us. It does not help my disbelief to tell me that it is morality that matters to God any more than it matters to tell me that right belief matters to God. Both sound to me like one person or group trying to impose their way on others for the sake of their own physical or psychological gain. I would suggest instead just saying that we matter to God and God matters to us. Each of us finds meanings in the tradition and Bible that matter and other things that don’t. That is unavoidable. But for the most part, we live in modernity as if we don’t matter and God does not matter. That too is unavoidable.

    Atonement was once a big deal in theology. Now it is not. The question modernity poses to theology is not “why did the messiah die?” The question is whether “chance and necessity” (the metaphor Darwin chose) explain all of life and the universe or whether there is any transcendent meaning or purpose or order. In modernity, the Western world has chosen chance and necessity. Theology has offered answers to the big question that most of us reject, whether or not we continue to say we believe in God or not, whether or not we imagine ourselves just and moral or not. This the great problem that keeps us restlessly awake in the dark night of our modern souls.

    June 2, 2009
    • I think if we look for “real concrete change” in the world or in the lives of Christians that we will not find it. If that is the test of whether atonement has worked, then I think that atonement has failed.

      I guess it depends on how and where you look. If you look at this or that individual Christian or this or that church or even the role of Christianity in this or that particular nation at a specific time, it may seem like there is no concrete change. But if the scope of the question is broadened, and we ask the question, “is the world a better place because of the historical presence of followers of Jesus?”, I think the answer would be a resounding “yes.”

      I don’t think that Christianity can be reduced to either orthodox belief or orthodox practice, including morality whether personal or social… It does not help my disbelief to tell me that it is morality that matters to God any more than it matters to tell me that right belief matters to God. Both sound to me like one person or group trying to impose their way on others for the sake of their own physical or psychological gain.

      So what would help your disbelief? Is there any formulation of any belief-system that would not sound like some person or group trying to impose their way on others?

      Atonement was once a big deal in theology. Now it is not. The question modernity poses to theology is not “why did the messiah die?” The question is whether “chance and necessity” (the metaphor Darwin chose) explain all of life and the universe or whether there is any transcendent meaning or purpose or order.

      I think atonement is still a big deal at least partly for the reasons that you see as demonstrating its irrelevance. Part of what it means for me to see any transcendent meaning or purpose in the order of the universe includes the question of moral meaning and purpose. Will evil be judged/overcome? Are things like healing and reconciliation—on whatever scale—legitimate things to expect/hope for? Do goodness and life and love have objective value… are they more “real” and permanent than evil and death and hate? Do our hopes for a better mode of existence have any grounding in reality? If so, how will they be realized. How do we get from here to there? For me, the nature of the atonement is part of the package of how I think about these questions.

      June 2, 2009
    • Ken #

      You asked: So what would help your disbelief?

      I don’t think disbelief can be overcome in modernity. Liberal theology has attempted to overcome it but has not succeeded. I think evangelical theology employed a different tactic, but has also not succeeded.

      (BTW, do you have any disbelief?)

      You asked: Is there any formulation of any belief-system that would not sound like some person or group trying to impose their way on others?

      Perhaps not. I think that theologies grounded in the phenomenological method do succeed in that respect, but radical theologians dispute that. To accept it is to undermine the claims of radicals. Evangelical theology does not recognize the validity of the phenomenological method for theology.

      You wrote: Part of what it means for me to see any transcendent meaning or purpose in the order of the universe includes the question of moral meaning and purpose.

      I agree that they are connected, at least if the expression “moral” refers to how we live, but not to any particular moral system or theory. In modernity I think we cannot see the transcendent meaning that our ancestors saw. Purpose, meaning, morality have become personal and local to the extent they exist at all – which is to say that they are cutoff from transcendence. But beyond that, the idea of transcendence fights with the way we live in modernity – it fights with the presuppositions of democracy, the free market, science and so forth.

      Will evil be judged/overcome? Are things like healing and reconciliation—on whatever scale—legitimate things to expect/hope for? Do goodness and life and love have objective value… are they more “real” and permanent than evil and death and hate? Do our hopes for a better mode of existence have any grounding in reality?

      The answer in modernity has been no. For example, natural selection seems to account for our hopes more effectively than theology, even though a universe governed by chance and necessity leaves us hopeless (in spite of Dawkin’s insistence that it does not.)

      Liberal theology has attempted to deal with this while accepting most of it, that is to reconcile theology with modernity, but not succeeded. Evangelical theology has attempted to deny the ground of modernity.

      BTW, aside from all of this, it seems like the idea that God will judge us by how we live fights with the protestant idea that we will not be judged by how we have lived. It fights with the protestant idea that it is grace, not works, that matters. Have you noticed that?

      June 2, 2009
    • Ken #

      I just read the confessions for MB in the US and Canada. I don’t see the penal sub model in the confessions. They sound most like Christus Victor to me, although perhaps not in its most progressive form as seen in liberal protestantism. The emphasis does appear to be salvation rather than justice, although I don’t sense that this emphasis is reducible to an emphasis on the next life or salvation as a mere ticket to heaven.

      It is interesting to read about the controversy over atonement. It seems like the penal sub method may have more popularity among the people than the confessions would support. Perhaps pop-evangelicalism has influenced the MB ministers and congregations. I also wonder if perhaps popular progressive ideas have also influenced MB and that the conflict over the atonement may be related to conflict between these two popular ideas.

      Are my impressions right?

      June 2, 2009
    • I don’t think disbelief can be overcome in modernity. Liberal theology has attempted to overcome it but has not succeeded. I think evangelical theology employed a different tactic, but has also not succeeded.

      But some in modernity clearly do manage to overcome disbelief. Whatever criticisms one might wish to make of “evangelicaldom” (and there are many legitimate ones), I’m not sure it’s fair to say that it categorically has not succeeded in overcoming disbelief.

      (BTW, do you have any disbelief?)

      Sure I do, if by “disbelief” you mean something like “doubt.” I have doubts about more things than I can probably articulate (or remember). I think that doubt is an irreducible part of what it means to be a human being with profound limitations (epistemological and otherwise).

      In modernity I think we cannot see the transcendent meaning that our ancestors saw. Purpose, meaning, morality have become personal and local to the extent they exist at all—which is to say that they are cutoff from transcendence. But beyond that, the idea of transcendence fights with the way we live in modernity—it fights with the presuppositions of democracy, the free market, science and so forth.

      I certainly agree that belief in a transcendent order may be harder in modernity, but I don’t think it’s impossible. Again, many seem able to pull it off and even feel a high degree of intellectual and existential satisfaction in the process.

      Re” modernity’s answer of “no” to the question of whether our hopes for a better mode of existence has any grounding in reality… I think it’s worth remembering that “modernity” is a very small slice of human history, and does not represent the final word on the matter. I don’t feel particularly constrained by what “modernity” deems plausible or implausible. I think that modernity and postmodernity do lead some to a kind of nihilistic despair or apathy, but this is certainly not the only (or even the most common) response. Many have found in our cultural moment the impetus for a fresh and hopeful vision of faith that is humble and chastened by the genuinely helpful insights that have come via postmodernity, but no less vibrant and orthodox than in the past.

      BTW, aside from all of this, it seems like the idea that God will judge us by how we live fights with the protestant idea that we will not be judged by how we have lived. It fights with the protestant idea that it is grace, not works, that matters. Have you noticed that?

      Yes, I’m aware that the old “faith vs. works” argument is lurking in the background of this entire discussion. I think that the some of the first Protestants went too far in their reaction against the theology of their time. I think the question is sometimes presented as a false dichotomy—either it’s faith or it’s works. I think the two are necessarily part of the same package and can’t be split apart. What you believe informs how you act and how you act provides evidence of what you believe.

      June 2, 2009
    • Re: your reading of the MB Confession of faith… I think you’ve pretty much hit the nail on the head. Not bad for an outsider 🙂

      I think that pop-evangelicalism has certainly had more influence on the average person in the pew than something as arcane as a denominational “confession of faith.” It’s unfortunate because I think our “official theology” is a lot more generous and hopeful than I hear from some people in some churches in the denomination. I think your reading of how MB’s have understood the Christus Victor model are also very accurate. I don’t recall hearing much about justice growing up, but I remember a LOT of talk about victory and salvation.

      June 2, 2009
    • Ken #

      I think my use of the word disbelief is probably close in meaning to your use of the word doubts.

      I know that you are right that some or many people in modernity still believe. Exposure to the disbelief of our era does not corrode every faith. I have friends who have much confidence in their belief.

      As for me, I often say that I about 99% of me does not believe there is a God. Only 1% does. It is a way of saying how large disbelief figures into my world view, or how large disbelief seems to loom over my small faith. I also say, though, that the 1% faith that I do have is my most special possession. It alone keeps me from despair.

      I am not sure why the disbelief seems to loom larger in my estimation than in yours. We may not be able to figure that one out. When I use that metaphor I am thinking of the way disbelief seemed to loom in the hearts and minds of so many writers when disbelief was still new – like Nietzsche, Hardy, Darwin, Wordsworth, Eliade. (Alfred Kazin’s work, God and the American Writer, finely probed this disbelief.) So much of the western canon since the enlightenment, especially among the romantics, expresses a lament for the loss of faith. For me, it is as it was for them.

      In my small faith, the atonement, in all its metaphorical expressions, matters to me as it does to you, as it did to our ancestors.

      June 3, 2009
    • As for me, I often say that I about 99% of me does not believe there is a God. Only 1% does. It is a way of saying how large disbelief figures into my world view, or how large disbelief seems to loom over my small faith. I also say, though, that the 1% faith that I do have is my most special possession. It alone keeps me from despair.

      That’s a really intriguing way to put it, Ken. While the math probably wouldn’t look the exactly the same for me, I don’t necessarily think the goal is to ratchet up the “faith” component to 100%, drive down the doubt to 0% and doggedly maintain these levels, come hell or high water (I’m not suggesting this is how you think, but many seem to). As I’ve said before, I don’t think cognitive certainty is God’s highest goal for his creatures. I do, however, think that it is possible to walk through disbelief and doubt within the context of faith. I think God knows our limitations, our anxieties, our fears, our hopes, and our doubts much better than we do. I often find myself returning to the words of the distressed father in Mark 9:24: “I believe; help my unbelief!”

      June 3, 2009
      • Ken #

        Your expression, “ratchet faith up to 100%,” reminds me of Peter Berger’s use of the expression retrenchment to describe the reaction of some Christians to the disbelief associated with modernity. Others reacted by “compromise” in his analysis (e.g., I will believe in the morality of Jesus, or the justice, but not in the miracles, or I don’t believe in God, but I will keep talking theologically because the ethic that accompanies such talk is good, which is the Stanley Hauerwas approach.) Compromise is what most of us have done and certainly characterizes the liberal protestant reaction to modernity more than it does the evangelical or Roman Catholic approach.

        I am suggesting that the disbelief in modernity has been and is a crisis at least as big as the death of Jesus was to his disciples and followers in the first century. The atonement was an important way they could deal with it. It was a way of seeing the ancient pattern of God’s relationship with Israel in Jesus. I am suggesting that we need a theological response to the disbelief we experience in modernity that is neither retrenchment nor compromise. I don’t think the atonement, for example, was either of these. I don’t know what that response is. Many theologians have tried to respond, but none have really achieved the goal. Still, I think this remains our main project as Christians in modernity. The first Christians could turn to their past to solve the problem of the death of Jesus. I don’t know whether or not in modernity we can find the solution in the past. I cannot find a precedent in scripture or tradition of the magnitude required to deal with this. While we search for this response, pastors, the ministers on the front line like your self, must deal with it person by person. I am sure you are doing well at this.

        Perhaps I see the problem in these terms because liberal protestantism is my heritage. In spite of the failure of liberal theology to resolve this problem, it seems that many of us refuse to give up, to “capitulate.” as Peter Berger puts it. Like him, we keep trying.

        Incidentally, related to this problem, one ancient writing on which Berger meditates is Isaiah 21:11-12 (Watchman, what of the night?) I also meditate on the writings of Isaiah, but 2:2-3a instead – as a hiker connecting the response, I suppose, to a higher mountain.

        June 4, 2009
      • I am suggesting that the disbelief in modernity has been and is a crisis at least as big as the death of Jesus was to his disciples and followers in the first century. The atonement was an important way they could deal with it.

        I’m not sure I understand what you mean by the atonement being a way of dealing with the death of Jesus. Are you saying it is a kind of psychological mechanism to deal with the trauma of the disciples’ dashed hopes?

        I am suggesting that we need a theological response to the disbelief we experience in modernity that is neither retrenchment nor compromise.

        Maybe I’m naive, but I really do think that it’s possible to find a middle ground between Berger’s two options. I think some compromise is necessary—we must admit that some of our understandings of the past have been flat out wrong, and embrace a more humble approach to speaking and acting for God. At the same time, the failure of the Enlightenment project in delivering a “universal rationality” and the postmodern recognition of the contextual basis of all truth claims can give us an ironic platform to re-articulate some of the basic tenets of orthodoxy (maybe even a few miracles!). Modern presuppositions about the world are not the only ones out there, and we do not owe them our exclusive allegiance. Somewhere in between Berger’s options, it seems to me that there is space for a genuine faith that is characterized by, among other things, humility, courage, and a profound hope.

        The first Christians could turn to their past to solve the problem of the death of Jesus. I don’t know whether or not in modernity we can find the solution in the past.

        The first Christians certainly found resources for dealing with Jesus’ death from looking to the past, but I think that there is an element of the Christian “solution” that is irreducibly forward looking as well. The simple fact is that nobody expected or even wanted a solution like the one Jesus offered (or, if you prefer, the one Christians invented). Whether they were ultimately correct or not, the first Christians unquestionably believed that God had done, was doing, and would do something completely new and unprecedented through the career of Jesus. There was nothing in Israel’s past that could have adequately prepared them for what happened at Easter. There were hints and clues, perhaps, but it seems to me that the early church derived much of their strength from the conviction that the Spirit of God was doing something utterly new in and through Jesus. This double capacity of Christianity—to derive resources and strength from both the past and what we believe to be God’s future—gives me hope, even for the disillusioned inhabitants of postmodernity.

        June 4, 2009
      • Ken #

        You asked:

        “I’m not sure I understand what you mean by the atonement being a way of dealing with the death of Jesus. Are you saying it is a kind of psychological mechanism to deal with the trauma of the disciples’ dashed hopes?”

        I think of it as a theological problem and the atonement is a theological explanation.

        I agree with your assessments here. I especially agree with the idea that aspects of postmodernism have had an effect on the belief problem. I think the linguistic turn in philosophy and the use of the phenomenological method applied to science (as in the work of Thomas Kuhn) do neutralize modern claims that science reveals more reality than does religion, at least in an ultimate or transcendental sense. But I don’t think they have made religion any more credible.

        In addition, I think Eliade’s phenomenological analysis of religion makes a convincing case that modern humanity is simply not religious now. I think that postmodernism is another example of Eliade’s idea that reality is homogenous to us now. Now science and religion are homogenous in the sense he uses the word and neither points to a reality out there.

        June 6, 2009
      • I don’t know very much about Eliade’s phenomenological analysis of religion but on the surface, the claim that “modern humanity is simply not religious” doesn’t resonate. Numerous writers are remarking that, to their surprise, religion is alive and well in the twenty-first century and playing an important (sometimes dangerous) role in public affairs. Peter Berger’s flip-flop on his secularization thesis is probably the most famous of these, but he certainly isn’t the only one. Humanity may not be religious in the same way that we have been in the past or we may not always be consistent in our understanding/practice, and we may locate our hopes in different gods than in the past, but I think we remain a deeply (incurably?) religious species.

        June 8, 2009
  4. you go preaching that proof-in-the-puddin’ stuff.
    BTW what do you mean by living into the atonement?

    June 2, 2009
    • Hey Dale, re: “living into the atonement,” I can’t improve upon how McKnight puts it:

      To be forgiven, to be atoned for, to be reconciled—synonymous expressions—is to be granted a mission to become a reciprocal performer of the same: to forgive, to work atonement, and to be an agent of reconciliation. Thus, atonement is not just something done to and and for us, it is something we participate in—in this world, in the here and now. It is not just something done, but something that is being done and something we do as we join God in the missio Dei.

      Of course, we do not “atone” in the same way or to the same extent as Christ—not even close. But we do have a role to play that goes beyond simply accepting that something was done for us once upon a time. I like that.

      June 2, 2009
  5. nice post man. you’ve got me wanting to read mcknight’s book!

    June 5, 2009
  6. len #

    Helpful thoughts Ryan, and here is another piece – now appearing in the MB Herald..
    http://tim-atone.notlong.com/

    June 6, 2009
    • Thanks for the link, Len. Tim Geddert’s is a voice that is always worth hearing. I look forward to seeing how this discussion unfolds with the conference.

      June 7, 2009

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. NextReformation » does atonement work?
  2. The Gospel of Sin Management « Just Wondering

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: