This is a guest blog by Allan S. Contreras Ríos
“To land our ‘sins’ onto a dead first-century Jew is not just ridiculous; it’s disgusting. To suggest that some god projected our ‘sins’ onto that man is even worse: it’s a sort of cosmic child abuse, a nightmare fantasy that grows out of— or might actually lead to!— real human abuses in today’s world. We can do without that nonsense.” -N. T. Wright.
“WHY DID JESUS DIE?” IT IS A QUESTION TO WHICH CHRISTIANS automatically answer, “For our sins.” Although it may be a satisfactory answer within Christian circles, this answer might alienate those seeking some semblance of coherence, particularly inasmuch as this entails an angry God sending his innocent Son to die for all who reject him which, frankly, does not make much sense.
Western theology has passed along the idea that God requires a sacrifice in order to forgive humanity’s sins. This becomes an interesting (ironic) doctrine when analyzed in light of the teachings of Jesus and within light of the counter-prophetic message that sacrifice is a human, and not a divine, innovation. Why would Jesus ask humankind to forgive others 70 times 7 (Matthew 18:21-22), when God cannot forgive humankind unless something or someone dies? If God really wants to forgive and restore humankind, why does He require a sacrifice? Jeremiah 7:22 says “For I did not speak to your fathers, or command them in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices.” Either something is wrong with many of the traditional atonement theories or something is wrong with God (He is schizophrenic and/or sadistic). The major western theories all partake of the same basic errors, which I briefly describe below, before pointing toward what I take to be a more biblical understanding of why Christ died.
In summary, contractual theories teach that humans are sinful (as in original sin/total depravity), everyone violates the Law (in which life resides), therefore they are damned. The Contract (Covenant) humanity and God had was not working, therefore God provides a way out in Christ, who satisfies God’s justice by taking humanity’s punishment on Himself, and imputing to them His righteousness through faith in Christ’s sacrifice.
There are several problems with the basic assumptions of the contractual approach, in that they contradict what the Bible teaches:
- Life is in the Law, contrary to what Romans 8:2 says (life is in the law of the Spirit in Christ).
- Those who killed Jesus acted according to God’s will.
- The ultimate purpose of the mission of Jesus is not to restore all things (Acts 3:21), but to die as a sacrifice.
- It assumes some satisfaction (of divine wrath) is required for forgiveness.
- Humankind has a debt to pay that requires human blood from a demanding God that rejected sacrifice in several verses in the Old Testament.
- God demands humankind to forgive their neighbor, but He cannot do that Himself without the death of someone.
These theories claim that justice needs to be done in order for forgiveness to be granted, but when justice is done, forgiveness is no longer necessary. So, why is there a need to forgive if justice was done in the death of Christ? The obvious answer is, Jesus’ death is not just, but far from it, an innocent man is killed to spare the truly evil guilty ones that, paradoxically, kill him according to God’s will. Justice is absent when violence is done, and violence is precisely what the cross represents: namely, human violence against its own Creator.
The theology of the early Church became corrupted through time due to the events surrounding the “conversion” of Constantine who merged Church and State and this may go a long way in explaining the multiplication of perverse theories of atonement. In addition, several atonement theories arose which were intended to illustrate the death and resurrection of Christ (at specific times in history), and not necessarily to pose singular or dogmatic understandings, but which unfortunately ended up being codified into doctrine.
The theories can be sorted according to the problem Christ would solve, specifically within the various persons (Satan, Man, God) which contain the obstacle to salvation. The question arises as to the person and the nature of the obstacle?
According to Ransom theory (developed by Origen, 185-254 AD), sinful man is controlled by Satan, therefore, the death of Christ is a payment to Satan to free the captives. Sometimes this ransom is illustrated as a hoax; in other words, Jesus ripped off Satan. Somehow Jesus ensures the escape of mankind from the hands of Satan, and then he scams Satan by escaping through the resurrection. The problem with this theory is immediately obvious, if God or Jesus owes something to Satan, is Satan more powerful than God?
The Man theory has multiple variations, but essentially holds that the death of Christ serves as a catalyst to inspire the reformation of society, that is, to bring about repentance and to halt rebellion against God. God could have forgiven without the cross, but He uses the cross to persuade humanity to repent. In this theory, salvation depends entirely on the human response, that is, on human repentance. The two main variations of this theory are:
The Moral Influence Theory. This theory (held by Abelard; 1033-1109) teaches that God wanted to forgive man, but the problem lay in how to convince man that he could be forgiven. On the cross Jesus demonstrates the love of God and His willingness to forgive. Man, turning to see the cross and the love of God it portrays, rekindles his love for Him, repents, and then God forgives him.
The Governmental Theory. This theory teaches that God is a ruler who uses Jesus as an example to impose fear on the hearts of sinners. This theory emphasizes the seriousness with which God regards His law, such that whoever breaks it suffers the wrath of God. As God demonstrates His wrath through the cross, He persuades humanity to respect God’s moral law.
The main problem with the Man Theory is the fluid (it seems to illustrate opposed notions in the two versions of the theory) and the non-essential purpose it assigns to Jesus’ sacrifice (any number of things might illustrate the love or moral seriousness of God). If anger falls on the one who breaks God’s law, what law did Jesus break? Wasn’t He innocent? Was there not a simpler way to demonstrate His love than the murder of Jesus? If the crucifixion was not necessary, then why carry out such a plan?
In the God Theory it is taught that the death of Jesus removed the obstacle to forgiveness within the nature of God. God’s loving nature wants to forgive humanity, but His holiness does not allow it and demands that there be punishment. Therefore, before sins can be forgiven, God’s justice must be satisfied. The main variants of the theory are:
Divine Satisfaction. In this theory (held by Anselm; 1093-1109 AD) sinful man must pay a debt to satisfy the honor due to God or suffer eternal punishment. But, since man constantly sins, it becomes impossible to pay a debt that continues to increase. Since Christ was sinless, He can and does pay the debt of all humanity.
Penal Substitution. This theory (held by Calvin; 1509-1564 AD) is a modification of divine satisfaction, with a shift in focus from satisfying honor to appeasing anger. Since man broke God’s law the exact penalty prescribed by the law must be paid. In order to save a few, the elect, God transfers His punishment to a substitute: Jesus. Christ takes upon Himself the divine anger and suffers the penalties and imputes His justice to the elect.
Divine satisfaction and penal substitution are focused on the exchange between the Father and the Son: an infinite offense against the infinite honor of God that required a divine exchange (between the Father and the Son) that basically leaves out finite humans. Instead of being rescued from sin, death, and the Devil (which was the primitive belief about the ministry of Christ), a change arises in which humanity is now being saved from the law, justice, and God. Salvation means that God’s wrath is removed or His honor is reestablished through the death of Jesus.
In this perverse alternative to Christianity, instead of the disciple taking up his cross and following Jesus, Jesus dies in his place so that the disciple no longer has to die. Salvation is focused on the death of Christ: in Catholicism it is a continuing death and in Protestantism it is death mostly in isolation from His life. This is typically linked to the denial of the body as a means for the salvation of the soul. Instead of the Father and the Son being united to defeat evil, death, and the Devil, now it is the Son who suffers the wrath of God for humanity.
Instead of resurrection being the sign of a completed mission against evil, now resurrection is secondary to the penalty or substitution exacted on the cross. In this alternative Christianity, the State (the Roman Empire) is now part of the divine order, instead of being the servant of the prince of this world (2 Corinthians 4:4). The death of Christ, instead of suspending, displacing, or rendering the law useless, requires Roman law and the Mosaic law. Law is integral to the logic of the governmental theory, divine satisfaction and penal substitution and the law, rather than being suspended or displaced, is left in place as the logic that required or justifies the death of Christ.
In short, there are a multiplicity of atonement theories, several of which do not focus on biblical exegesis. As mentioned above, the function of some was merely illustrative and they did not purport to be biblical. The theories are dense and complex, and each Christian has a responsibility to scrutinize the Bible and study these theories and hopefully leave behind those unworthy of the God found in Christ. No theory may be complete or perfect, and thank God, humanity will not be saved according to the correctness of their theories. Like Michael Hardin says (in Finding Our Way Home), “God forgives our theology… just like He forgives our sin.”
What can be said, without a doubt, is that the image of a God who demands satisfaction for His honor or wrath is not the God of the Bible; it is a paganized notion. The larger problem with many of the atonement theories is that, as Richard Rohr puts it, “to turn Jesus into a Hero we ended up making the Father into a ‘Nero’.” In other words, God becomes the first to persecute the Body of Christ.
The reality is that the cross is a confrontation, but not between the Father and the Son, but against the forces of evil that murdered Him. It is the overthrow of death, nationalism, ethnocentrism, racism, self-centeredness, machismo, feminism, and every form of evil that results in violence and death. It is not the “violence of God” that murders Jesus, it is the violence of human evil that murders Him.
Rightly understood, this accords with the classic understanding of Christus Victor, which Gustaf Aulén maintained was the understanding of the first church and to which he advocated a return. The Christus Victor paradigm understands the word of Christ in terms of His conflict with, and triumph over those elements of the kingdom of darkness that enslave humanity, that is, Satan and his demons, sin, death, and the curse of the Law. Though it may be a parallel to Ransom Theory, the theory need not be associated with the cruder elements of this understanding and it also stresses Christ’s victory over sin and is thus centered to an equal degree in the idea of the resurrection.
In conclusion, to think that God is angry and wants to send everyone to hell is not biblical. The story the Bible tells is of God’s search for a relationship with His human creation, and this creation constantly turns away from Him, choosing to abandon the singular source of life. This is precisely what sin is, not just the breaking of moral codes, but idolatry and the distortion of human identity because of that idolatry. It is exchanging life for death. It is offering God death instead of sacrificial life. It is exchanging the covenant with God and making a covenant with death itself.
N. T. Wright describes (in his book The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion) the three-layered error in modern Christianity: we Platonized our eschatology (by substituting the promise of being a new creation for ‘souls going to heaven’), we moralized our anthropology (by substituting the biblical notion of human vocation for a qualifying test of moral performance) and we paganized our soteriology (by substituting the genuine Biblical notion of forgiveness with the idea that “God killed Jesus to calm His anger”).
Christianity, under the influence of Plato (and Platonist theologians), inevitably interprets God as a violent god, but perhaps people will distance themselves from that god and be drawn to the God of the Bible. The hope is that by moving away from the repulsive god of a failed atonement theory the true God will be sought, though, this is often not the case.
 The error of many of these atonement theories is locating themselves in a specific time and space other than the time and space in which Jesus died. That is, they try to explain the purpose of Jesus’ death according to the historical context that surrounds them. For example, Satisfaction theory repeats themes from its medieval context. Not that this is necessarily bad, because Jesus died for everyone in all times. But you cannot speak of His death and resurrection without placing them in their own context. Another example of this error is the one that N. T. Wright rightly points out, and that is, even, many of these atonement theories are not based on the Gospels, but on the letters.
 Augustine is the theologian who most influenced Western theology and that is why it is necessary to mention the following: Augustine, who had Neo-Platonic notions, leads theology to reinterpret human subjectivity and the functioning of truth. It fails to appreciate the embodied nature of truth, and unfortunately this infects the rest of theology with a dualistic tendency, thus fusing it with Greek philosophy. The interaction between soul and body becomes more Greek than Judeo/Christian. It begins the belief that the soul is eternal and is trapped in a human body. And it is Augustine who mystifies sin, opens the way to the atonement theory called “divine satisfaction” that is today’s standard imposed in most Western churches and that Anselm developed later.
Anselm completely absorbed the change that Constantine brought about and gives life to the Satisfaction theory. In this atonement theory, God is the object, and the human is the subject. This theory used Roman law as a metaphor (and, on behalf of Anselm, his intention was only to make an illustration). Unfortunately, his illustration became the only way to see the cross of Christ in Western theology.
“In ancient times, Christ was seen first and foremost as the conqueror of the devil and his powers. His work consisted above all in freeing humanity from the yoke of slavery to which it was subjected. And so, the worship of the ancient church was centered on the Resurrection. But in the Middle Ages, particularly in the ‘dark ages,’ the emphasis shifted, and Jesus came to be thought of primarily as the payment for human sins. His task was to appease the honor of an offended God. In worship, the emphasis fell on the Crucifixion rather than the Resurrection. And Jesus Christ, rather than the conqueror of the devil, became a victim of God. In Why God Became Man, Anselm clearly and precisely formulated what had become the common faith of his day [Justo L. González, History of Christianity: Volume 1, vol. 1 (Miami, FL: Editorial Unilit, 2003), 424-425.] Translated by me.”
 A violent atonement theory – a theory that uses violence to generate its meaning – will only serve to multiply and even justify violence in the world.
Calvin, one of the most influential theologians, is a good example of the violence that this blog criticizes. He agreed with the murder of heretics and blasphemers (who would determine who was a heretic? Him?), to the point that, according to A History of the Church by James North “Servetus was burned to death in Geneva by Calvin and his followers (p. 350).”
Although there is debate as to how much Calvin directly influenced the assassination of Servetus, and other assassinations (sometimes the number exceeds 58), there is no doubt that his theology justifies such acts and greatly influenced during the Protestant Reformation.
 Brad Jersak and Michael Hardin, eds., Stricken by God? Nonviolent Identification and the Victory of Christ (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Pub., 2007), 64.
 Ibid, 208.
 Gregory of Nyssa (335-394 AD) illustrates the Devil as a fish, Jesús is the bait and hook, God is the fisherman. Augustine (354-430 AD) used an example similar to Gregory’s: a mousetrap. Jesus on the cross was the bait, a man without sin. Satan kills Jesus, but at the same time falls into the trap and is mortally wounded.