We have looked at three of the major views that Christians have adopted to understand atonement, Christus Victor, Healing, and Penal Substitution. At one time or another during the history of the Church, each of these theories has held the majority position among theologians. The Penal Substitution view is the dominant view now, among the American churches at least. It’s important to recognize the historical shifts in acceptance of the various theories and to question why one would lose favor to another in the minds of Christian thinkers and teachers. Does the Bible change over time? Has the Holy Ghost made contradictory revelations at different moments in time that initiated the shift? What about all of the other atonement views that are subsumed within the larger categories?
Is it possible that the atonement brought about by the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ is much too expansive to be understood under the banner of a single, narrow category?
Atonement is Too Large for a Single Theory
Theologians who stand apart from the dominant views of atonement will answer this question by saying yes, there is no model or metaphor that is sufficient to explain the significance of of His sacrifice. The crucifixion and its result are tightly woven into God’s eternal purpose and as spirit-opened eyes continue to pore over the scriptures in the hours remaining until the end of this time, we may never run out of the countless ways of understanding its meaning for our salvation. It should not be alarming to find a number of images that lend themselves to understanding this momentous act. As centuries of eyes search out the truths of God’s word, each with a slightly different perspective on the greatest human need, it is inevitable that a number of categories would arise.
Single Views and the Bible
The New Testament authors generated a number of images in the Gospels and Epistles in order to help readers comprehend the monumental shift in God-Human relationship brought about by crucifixion of Jesus. If the primary rule of hermeneutics is applied—context,context, context—the modern reader places the writing in first century and recognizes the societal influences that are inherent in the texts. Five areas of public life dominate: the court of law (justification), the world of commerce (redemption), personal relationships (reconciliation), worship (sacrifice), and the battleground (triumph over evil).
This plethora of imagery could be differentiated by the loci of the individual authors, their use of language and metaphor and missiological interest. A more effective tool for seeing the wide span of atonement images is to survey the corpus of a single author to see if there is variety or consistency. With his dominant contributions, Paul and his works provides such a platform. The Apostle employs two main themes in discussing the significance of the atonement, the ‘giving up’ of Jesus for human salvation (cf. Rom 8:32, Gal 1:4) and ‘Christ died for our sins’ (cf. 1 Cor 15:3, 1 Thes 5:10). These themes emphasize the saving nature of Jesus’ death but they do so without linking it explicitly to a single methodological theory. With this point established, Paul then utilizes a variety of imagery applicable to particular concerns of his epistle audiences. Reading Paul exposes us to language about substitution, representation, sacrifice, justification, forgiveness, reconciliation, victory over the powers, and redemption.
Rather than being confined within a single theory, the atonement is better viewed as encompassing the fullness of God’s design for the world. The image which finds favor with a theologian will more often than not be a product of his definition of the greatest human need. If people are seen as in bondage to sin, they need liberation. If humanity is spiritually blind, the desperate need is for illumination. If lost, they need to be found. Taking a kaleidoscopic view of atonement provides the freedom necessary to locate all of these needs within a view of the crucifixion.