#Atonement: Theology for Today

Well, it’s finally finished: that Atonement paper I’ve been promising you all for months now. It’s rather long (you can blame my professor for that)—far too long for a blog post, really. If you’re at a computer, read this formatted version for a more reader-friendly experience.

If you’re reading this on a small screen, though, and still want to hear what I have to say (bless you), I’m including the full text below.

This is a work in progress. Please let me know what you think, what you like, what you don’t, what resonated with you, what you though was stupid, etc. Because part of my grade depends on your responses, yes, but also because I’m really, truly interested in what you have to say, and comments are always very meaningful for me.

Thank you for reading!


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I don’t know a lot of people who like studying systematic theology.

Well, no. That’s not entirely true. I actually know a fair number of people who like it. A few even like it so much they decided to make a career of it.

I don’t necessarily dislike studying systematic theology. I obviously like it enough to have made it almost 2/3 of the way through seminary. And ultimately, theology is about people trying to answer the big life questions that really matter. The problem is that theology is complicated, and perhaps as a result of that, an awful lot of the books on theology are about as light and accessible as a block of lead, and given the option I would choose Hunger Games over Heidegger any day.

I’m sure I’m not alone in this opinion. While the payoff of encountering these groundbreaking theological ideas is great, I’m not always convinced it’s worth the effort required to parse them out. Theology is complicated, and complicated ideas sometimes require complicated language, but I think that on the whole, we as a church could afford to do a better job of communicating theology in clear, engaging, and applicable ways. Many people really are interested in theology, but don’t realize it because the theology they’ve approached has been so inaccessible. Perhaps some have also had experiences where the theology they were taught was considered infallible and not open to question. I would like to see a systematic theology that is lively, engaging, and open to dialogue. I would like to see a theology that is flexible and practical, but still smart and thorough.

Is that what I’m doing here? Perhaps. I am certainly taking a crack at it. I can’t say how successful I’ll be, but maybe that’s part of the point. I am starting a conversation. I’m starting from a deficit, because even a shy introvert like me knows that “Hey, let’s chat about the theology of Atonement!” is a pretty effective conversation killer.

Nevertheless, I want to try. I want to try to explore Atonement theology in a way that is fresh and accessible. I want to look at how this theology, almost as old as Christianity itself, functions in the 21st century.

I’m going to do this the best way I know how—by talking about what is familiar to me. When I started blogging, I wrote a lot about the church and the Millennial generation. I did this because a lot of other people were writing about the church and Millennials, and I thought some things were right and some were pretty off-base. I am smack-dab in the middle of the Millennial generation. I’m not exactly a “typical” Millennial—but honestly, no one is. Broad generalizations can only go so far. At the same time, I don’t entirely write off generation theory, because I think there are certain things that a lot of people my age share. 9/11 was a defining moment in our lives and probably shapes our view on the world to some extent. We’re more diverse than earlier generations in the US. We’re more educated. We’re less likely to be married, or at least to marry young. More of us live in metropolitan areas. We’re less likely to be religious or regularly attend religious services (though not much less likely to be “spiritual” or believe in a higher power). We’re also the largest generation yet, so the way we act as a group is likely to have more and more influence.

Of course, I could write an entire section on clauses and disclaimers. In some ways, my descriptions of Millennials are most applicable to white, middle-class, well-educated Millennials, both because this is largely the population referred to in others’ writings about Millennials, and probably because I am biased to seeing things that seem to apply to me. I am also cutting out a number of age groups. My intention in focusing on Millennials is not to alienate non-Millennials by default, though I know I’m doing that to some extent.

I think, though, that what I am saying, while it is focused on a rather particular demographic, has a larger application. Many non-Millennials I know relate to certain characteristics of the Millennial generation—and many Millennials I know don’t. However, a lot of the ideas I’m talking about are basic human ideas and needs, framed in the context of a particular group. I hope that what I say can be useful whether you identify with this demographic or not. And I hope that if you do disagree with something I say about Millennials, or if you have something to add, or some nuance to contribute, you will do so. I may have put some work into formatting this paper, but it is still a working draft, a jumping-off point.

What is Atonement?

So, what exactly is Atonement (in a theological sense), anyway? Maybe you’re reading this and already have a well-established and thought-through theology of Atonement—I know this is true for at least six of my readers (if they’re reading and don’t have better things to do like graduating from seminary), because I spent the semester in class with them. Maybe you have absolutely no idea what Atonement entails in a theological sense. Maybe you’re somewhere in the middle. And maybe you’re all over the place, like I was. Say “Atonement” to me, and my brain would pull out any manner of things, some more relevant than others:

  • A violent, bloody death that Jesus had to die because God was mad at us and needed somebody to suffer;
  • A really great storyline about this kid who’s kind of a jerk to his siblings in this fantasy world they discover together, and who ends up getting in real trouble and is slated to have his young life cut short until a magical talking lion steps in to save the day with the “old magic”;
  • At(one)ment (pronounced at-WON-ment): An etymologically accurate but rather cutesy Christianese way of talking about reconciliation to God;
  • A story about the choices we make and the power of story that was made into a hauntingly beautiful movie (alternately: a book that I own but haven’t read.

None of these are necessarily wrong (well, I have some opinions about the first one), but jumbled together like this they don’t exactly offer the most cohesive view of Atonement theology.

To really explore my own ideas about the usefulness of Atonement theology today, I think a little bit of background is necessary. This may not be the most exciting thing in the world, so I’m asking you to bear with me. We can get through this together.

First, a really basic working definition: Atonement is the work of Christ on earth.

That’s a really broad statement. As you can probably imagine, then, there are about as many more detailed definitions of Atonement as there are people who try to define it. Answering the question of why Christ came to earth is important, but also complicated. There is no one right answer and there is no full grasp on the truth. I think certain parts of the answer have a lot to say to us today, and some are perhaps less applicable but no less important. Before I talk about the particular aspects of Atonement theology that I think are important to consider in contemporary context, I want to offer a bit of a broad view.

There are (more or less) four umbrella theories of Atonement. I blogged about them before, but want to include them here to help give some perspective on the bigger picture.

Ransom Theory (aka Christus Victor)

The Ransom Theory basically holds that original sin (Adam & Eve) placed humankind under subjugation to Satan, and that Christ’s death was a ransom paid to Satan. In this scenario, Christ’s death was God’s victory over the powers of evil and death—hence the “Christus Victor” designation, a name drawn from Gustaf Aulén’s 1931 revisitation of Atonement theories. Ransom Theory was the dominant theology of Atonement for the first millennium of Christianity, until Anshelm’s Satisfaction Theory emerged in the 11th century. This view is often associated with the Eastern Orthodox Church today.

Satisfaction Theory

Anshelm thought it was absurd for the devil to be on par with God in such a way that a ransom could be made, so he rejected the Ransom Theory for giving too much power and agency to Satan. However, he maintained, humans did sin, and could only be reconciled to God (make satisfaction) by an act of God. Anshelm’s solution? The Incarnation. God became human to satisfy the outcome of our sin. This is the view espoused by the Catholic Church today.

Moral Influence Theory

Peter Abelard thought it was bad theology and cruel to demand blood sacrifice, and felt there should be no precondition for God’s forgiveness—God can do anything God wants, so why should God have to become incarnate and/or go to the cross to save us? In addition to this question, Abelard notes that Jesus was already forgiving people before he went to the cross. The conclusion: that the main purpose of Christ is love, and when we are not practicing love, we fall into negative ways of being. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this view tends to be popular among liberal Protestants.

Penal Substitution Theory

This is a legacy of the Reformation, and (probably unsurprisingly) is the theory I was brought up with. The Reformers saw a need for law and order in a turbulent society, and as such theorized that Christ brought order our of anarchy. Penal substitution is a very legal understanding that there must be some sort of retribution for the chaos (sin) caused by humans, and the inflexibility of God’s law in this view supported the Reformed tenet of salvation by faith alone. In the perspective of Penal Subsitutionary Atonement, Jesus takes the guilty verdict on himself to spare creation so that we God’s people might learn to be not guilty and to practice something beyond chaos and disorder.

Even given how brief those descriptions are, you might find yourself resonating more with one theory than another—sheltering more under one particular umbrella. Or perhaps you’ve made it this far in and you’re still confused about what you’re reading and why you’re reading it. If that’s the case, thanks for hanging on; I promise it only gets more interesting from here.

For my class assignment, I was asked to choose a theory of Atonement and stick with it—but I found I couldn’t. At first I felt most drawn to the moral influence theory, because I’m big on love (who isn’t?). In fact, in my view “love” is probably the best one-word definition of Christianity. I was also reacting against the penal substitutionary view, because I think out of all the theories, it’s the one most likely to be interpreted in a way that is actually harmful. Abuse is never good, Christian, or loving, and penal substitution can come off as awfully violent and abusive.

Despite these early inclinations, though, I’m not sticking with one particular theology because I think the composite picture is important. These theories of Atonement reflect centuries of theologies, changing perspectives, and rich heritage. I don’t think any one theology of Atonement is perfect, and I think there are things all of them get wrong. I think the fullest picture comes by considering all these perspectives together and trusting that something true and workable can rise above the contradictions and errors.

I trust that this is the case, and I trust that Atonement theology is as valid and relevant today as it was 500 or 1,000 years ago. Before I talk about why I think this is the case, let’s talk a little about Millennials.

The Millennials

The Millennial generation is the name applied to the generational cohort following Generation X. The PEW Foundation delineates Millennials as those born between 1981 and 1997, which are roughly the same dates as those used by other sources. I was born just before the median of these dates, centering me solidly within the Millennial generation. Millennials are my peers, and I know Millennial joys and struggles because I live them.

My caveat again: I think there’s a lot of truth in generational theory, but categorizing entire groups of people—particularly groups as large and diverse as an entire generation—always, always falls short. The conclusions I draw I base somewhat on the observations of others (e.g. the Pew Research Center does some interesting generational work) and somewhat on my own experience and observations. As such, my conclusions are subjective, limited, and almost certainly flawed in a myriad of ways.

Even knowing this, though, I persist in using the generational model and my own subjective position because I think there is some value to be had there, with that particular structure and my own unique view. What follows is my window on my generation.

Millennials carry a great deal of passion—and a great deal of uncertainty.

In fact, these two traits are very likely connected. Many US Millennials entered the workforce just before, during, or just after a severe economic downturn, and also maintain the highest amount of educational (and other) debt—a great worry for many. With many Millennials unemployed or underemployed, the link between career and identity weakened, and a “passion economy” developed—“geeking out” on a particular passion (or passions) has become a new way to establish identity. The commitment to and excitement about passions strikes me as a great potential strength, but it is a strength that cannot reach its full potential in the face of constant uncertainty and worry about the future.

Millennials care deeply about relationships and community.

Relationships and community, family both of birth and choice, are of utmost importance to Millennials—but they sometimes look different than they once did. Due to the uncertainty mentioned above, Millennials are delaying life events like marriage, home ownership, and starting a family. Community is created through relationships with friends and peers. Community can also be developed online, through social media platforms and communities of interest. Sometimes these digital interactions serve to strengthen face-to-face relationships, and sometimes they lead to or entirely take the place of these relationships. While Internet-based communities and relationships might look and feel different in some ways, they nevertheless meet many social needs.

Millennials value stories and narrative, along with all the specificity and subjectivity that entails.

I will tell anyone who listens that the way to win an argument is not with data and logic but with relationship and story. Everyone loves stories, but Millennials in particular love a good narrative—to the extent that stories are the best form of marketing products to Millennials. The thing about stories is that they are subjective and specific; they have unique and individual details. This is not a problem, though, in part because of the legacy of Postmodernism that proclaims the death of the grand narrative and the reign of subjective truths, but also because of that magic of stories that leads them through specificity to touch something deep within all of us. Anyone who has been moved by a novel knows this to be true. Millennials take this knowledge and expand it to all parts of their lives. A good social media presence should have a narrative. A product should have a backstory. A brand should have plot.

Millennials are uneasy with organized religion, but still open to spiritual ideas.

While many Millennial traits resonate with me, there are plenty of ways in which I don’t fit the mold—for instance, while many of my Christian-college peers married before me, I still managed to get hitched before the current average age of first marriage for women (27). Resistance to organized religion is another instance where I clearly don’t fit the mold: I’m training to become a priest. I participate in some form of organized religion almost daily. (To be fair, though, I do fit the mold in the equivalent political sphere: I’m a registered Independent, something that prevented me from voting in the New York primaries since I didn’t get it changed early enough.)

Terms like the “nones” (no religious affiliation) or SBNR (spiritual but not religious) have arisen largely in response to this trend. A resistance to organized religion doesn’t necessarily mean a rejection of spiritual, or atheism per se—Millennials may be less religious than previous generations, but they are just as spiritual. Insofar as spirituality refers to that nebulous “something more” that makes us human (not necessitating belief in a higher power), Millennials are right on par with other generations, with about the same percentage who say they “feel a sense of wonder about the universe,” “feel a sense of gratitude or thankfulness,” and “think about the meaning and purpose of life” once per week or more.

Millenials and Atonement

So, I’ve talked about Atonement and I’ve talked about Millennials. How do they fit together?

In my opinion, quite well. Here’s why:

Atonement is, at its core, all about relationship.

What was the work of Christ on earth? It was to bring life and reconciliation to all God’s children. It was—and is—about God’s relationship with humans. This act, in turn, teaches us about relationship and reconciliation. Human relationships are marked by all manner of tension and separation. That’s why breakups, divorces, arguments, political battles, and wars mark every day of human existence. But God, through Jesus, offers us a better, more perfect, potential-filled way to love. God offers a relationship stronger than death, a love that can break down all boundaries. 

Atonement tells a great story.

Atonement is about good vs. evil. The early conceptions of Atonement theology in particular carry a strong sense of this: Jesus is good, the powers of darkness and death (a.k.a. Satan) are evil, and in the moment of crucifixion the cosmic battle between these forces is won for the good. Perhaps the defining literature of the Millennial generation is Harry Potter—we grew up with Harry—and what made page after page of witches and wizards so compelling was the messy, difficult battle between good and evil. Of course, Harry is not alone in this fight; the battle between good and evil is a key plot. Many of the stories where this battle is clearly laid out have seen great popularity in recent decades: The Hunger Games, Divergent, The Maze Runner, reboots of Star Wars and Star Trek, Marvel and DC’s run of superhero movies. Epic stories are compelling.

Not only that, but epic stories inspire us to tell better stories about ourselves—the Atonement inspires us to tell a better story. With the love and the passion of Jesus, we can live stories of love without fear.

Atonement is specific and indelibly rooted in the person of Jesus.

At first, this might seem like a drawback: Atonement theology is decidedly, inescapably Christian. Without acceding to the narrative of the humanity and divinity of Jesus Christ, it doesn’t really work. The specificity is limiting—but Jesus is part of the story. Jesus’ story is specific, but it also speaks to something deeply human, and speaks deeply to the human condition—and to the Millennial generation.

Jesus has the power to incite passion—something Millennials exhibit in spades—and passion modeled after Jesus’ example has the power to change the world. Jesus also saw people as individuals, not as their society made them out to be. This points back to my discomfort with generational labels. It doesn’t matter that every Millennial is different, because Jesus sees all of us that way.

Finally, I think it is also important to note that accepting Atonement doesn’t necessitate a rejection of other paths to salvation, nor is it definitely linked to institutional religious practice. The narrative truth of Atonement theology functions very well in the context of Christianity, but it also overflows those bounds.

Atonement is about living abundantly.

“I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” These are Jesus’ words; this is Jesus’ description of what he came to do on earth. I also think this is the very heart of Atonement theology. This is the outcome of the epic battle, the great story, the perfect love, the ultimate reconciliation. The victory won for us is abundant life, life rich with experience and community, life filled with love and void of fear, life brimming with passion and heavy with fulfillment. This is life that feeds the spirit, life that is truly alive, and it is God’s gift to us in Jesus. All we have to do is accept it and live our way into it.

Conclusion

The Atonement is not simple. It is not straightforward and easy to grasp. There is not one right theological approach. However, the potential for life, love, and reconciliation brought about by the work of Jesus in the world is vast. There is power in living into a life reconciled with God. Atonement theology is not always front and center, but it is at the heart of Christianity. Perhaps we ignore it because it is complicated, or it makes us uncomfortable, and we have trouble separating the problematic bits from what is good and useful. Perhaps, though, the risk and passion of the Atonement is precisely what we need in the Church and the world today, as we strive for full and abundant life.

 

Reading List

For those of you who are interested in what’s been discussed and want to delve deeper, I’m providing a sort of annotated bibliography of the books used in my class (which have largely formed the basis of my thinking about Atonement) and what I thought of them:

René Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning

Girard’s perspective on the Atonement fits very much in with the idea of an epic story and a turning point to new life, but he is also a philosopher and this is a dense and difficult book to read.

Adam Johnson, Atonement: A Guide for the Perplexed

This was the book we started with, and was at least in part what inspired me to buck the assignment and not align myself with a particular theory of Atonement. It’s not an especially easy read, but it’s a relatively comprehensive one.

Adam Kotsko, The Politics of Redemption: The Social Logic of Salvation

This book’s perspective on the Atonement as a social and political theology draw on pre-Modern thought, but fits remarkably well in a Postmodern setting, and really goes a great distance in making Atonement theology applicable and relevant—if you have the fortitude for a heady academic tome.

Jens Soering, The Convict Christ

This is a slim volume written by a man serving a life sentence in prison that challenges the reader to consider Christ’s position as prisoner and stance towards those who are considered least and worst among us—by far the most readable text of the semester and both challenging and inspiring.

Kathryn Tanner, Christ the Key

One of the most Christocentric theologies I’ve ever read, and interesting and compelling for that, but again very dense.

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4 thoughts on “#Atonement: Theology for Today

  1. I love the reading list! Jens Soering was on trial when I was young, and I had heard he was writing theological/spiritual books. I see you only have one woman on the list–from your research, do you see a difference in how men and women approach atonement?

    • Oh, that’s interesting—I really liked Jens’ book. And I definitely see a difference in how men and women approach Atonement. What I find the most powerful critique of Atonement theologies, that of divinely sanctioned violence and abuse, comes from feminist theologians (Brock & Parker’s Proverbs of Ashes comes to mind, but there’s probably other more foundational work out there). There’s a book out from Princeton on women’s experience and Atonement theories that I’d like to check out, and I found but didn’t have time to read a book with medieval women mystics’ writings on Atonement. A lot of interesting and creative Atonement theology is being done by women—maybe that’s my next paper!

  2. You were, in many ways, my threshold into my own understanding of what it means to be a Millennial. Apropos, then, that you write this paper. Like you, I feel drawn to the theory of moral influence but also have to admit that I have an admiration for those people who see their very salvation hinging on the sacrifice of Christ. Is admiration a good word? I don’t know. I appreciate something about “needing” Christ in that way, even if my own understanding isn’t usually aligned as such. Any thoughts on Millennials and “Savior” for someone who flirts with the idea of needing one but finds such doesn’t typically manifest within the purview of his faith?

    • Thanks for your comment, Dylan! I wonder if you’re already on your way to figuring out “savior” by acknowledging the truth/power/resonance that the salvation narrative has for you, even if you don’t need every part of it in your own story. I think it’s okay to value (even admire) something without needing it to work for you. Salvation also implies that you’re being saved from or for something, some purpose, so that could also be worth thinking about. For instance, for me, being saved from hell doesn’t really work, but being saved for abundant life, or being saved for theosis (likeness/union with God) does have resonance. Hope that’s helpful!

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