Is atonement theology necessary?


Scripture: Romans 3-5

Atonement theology has satisfied many Christians through the ages.  But I (personally) do not agree that we can only be ‘at one’ with God because Jesus died to pay a debt for humanity’s sins, or for my individual sins.  Another possibility is that we are all created in the divine likeness through God’s grace.  Thus, we are born already “at one” with the divine.   

What is atonement theology?

Atonement means reparation for a wrong or injury; making amends or reconciliation. The root of the word ‘atone’ is the phrase “at one”. This use dates from the 15th century. Specifically in Christian doctrine, “at-one-ment” refers to reconciliation between God and humanity, through the life, suffering, and death of Jesus Christ.

Most Western Churches consider Christ’s death on the Cross as a sacrifice (making holy) in the greater cause of defeating human sin. Sin would otherwise separate us from God. That idea originates in St. Paul’s letter to the Church in Rome, not from the Gospels.

Paul wrote that letter ahead of a visit to Rome, where he would eventually suffer death himself. ‘Romans’ differs from Paul’s other letters, which he wrote to encourage and/or criticize the congregations of churches that he had founded (e.g., in Corinth). Paul had never been to Rome. The Christian community there was independent of Paul.

How St. Paul’s understood atonement

As I see it, the first few chapters of Romans represent Paul trying to make sense of the suffering and death of Jesus. Paul was an educated Jew, a Pharisee. He seems to have tried to meld several ideas from the Hebrew Scriptures into a coherent whole.

1.  Christ, the Pascal Lamb

One strand of Paul’s thought was that Jesus had suffered and died during the Jewish Passover festival. Paul saw a parallel between Jesus’ death and the sacrifice of the lambs that Jewish families slaughtered for the Passover meal. Jesus’ death was a sacrifice and Christ was the Paschal (Passover) Lamb.

2.  Adam and Eve and the Fall (Genesis Chapter 3)

A second idea comes from how Paul understood the story of the Fall. The mythical first people disobeyed God. Therefore God expelled them from Paradise, the Garden of Eden, and also took away the possibility of immortality. Paul linked Adam’s sin with mortality, both of which “infected” every later generation.

Adam and Eve were imperfect. Their disobedience brought sin into the world. Paul believed that Christ, the perfect man, brought the possibility of taking sin away. He wrote, [Romans 5: 12-20] “Just as one man’s sin led to condemnation for all, so another man’s righteousness leads to justification and life for all.” “Justification” means to be put right before God. Paul realized that human beings could not achieve justification by our own efforts. It needed God’s gift of mercy, which Paul called grace.

3.  Why did the ‘perfect man’ have to die?

The final question was why Christ, the perfect man, had to die. Paul wrote, “All have sinned … they are now justified by [God’s] grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood” [Romans 3:24-25]. Paul believed that Christ’s death brought about reconciliation (atonement) between God and humanity. Jesus’ death on the Cross was a deliberate sacrifice for a greater good. And, just as someone redeems an article from a pawn-shop by paying a fee, Paul concluded that Christ redeemed us from sin by payment of his life.

To sum this up, Jesus, the human Passover lamb, died on the Cross in order to restore a perfect relationship between God and humanity. This action erased the stain of sin that Adam and Eve had brought into the world. We see this theology in the Communion anthem in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. “O Lamb of God, that takest away the sin of the world, have mercy upon us.”

How later Christian thinkers altered Paul’s atonement theology

Through the centuries, Christian thinkers refined and changed Paul’s theology of atonement. Most adopted some form of substitutionary atonement, in which Jesus stood in the place of humanity to pay the debt to God of human sin. Augustine, for example, agreed that Adam’s and Eve’s sin had changed humanity irretrievably, and added the concept of human guilt for our sins and for Christ’s death. This made us fundamentally different from the first humans created in the divine image. But atonement was still for the payment of human sins in general.

In the late Middle Ages, Anselm of Canterbury argued that it would be an insult for God to send his Son in human form to pay a ransom (to Satan) for human sin. Instead, he saw Christ’s death in terms of honouring God, to an extent that humanity could never emulate. Thomas Aquinas disagreed. He said that Christ had taken on the punishment for human sin, but like Anselm, he saw that Christ’s payment was “supernumerary” – greater than what was necessary.

Eventually, John Calvin presented the Reform version of substitutionary atonement. He proposed that Jesus did not pay for humanity’s sins in general. Instead, Christ’s death paid for the sins of individual people. That is, when Jesus died on the cross, his death was a sufficient price to pay for the sins of all those who are saved, past, present, and future. This leads to the slogan, “Jesus died for my sins.” In this thinking, God deliberately sent Jesus, his Son, to die on the Cross in my place, as a payment for my personal sins.

A fundamental problem with atonement theology

The problem with atonement theology, and especially Calvin’s substitutionary atonement, is the idea that God would send his only begotten Son into the world, specifically so that he would be put to death. I cannot square the cruelty of that idea with the intimate and loving Abba, Father of the Lord’s Prayer. The Gospels tell us that Jesus said repeatedly that his visit to Jerusalem for Passover (e.g., Mark 8: 31; 9: 31; 10: 33-34 risked arrest and death. But he never said that God required him to die.

Did Paul get it all wrong?

I would say, not necessarily and not completely. For me, Jesus really did die as a result of human sin. Human power-broking and politics were clearly at work in his betrayal, his arrest, and the spineless attitude of Pilate. These actions were human sins, like those we recognize from our daily newspapers and television news broadcasts. If they were God’s doing, this is not the God in whom I believe.

Why atonement theology does not work for me

Atonement theology is rooted in the belief that the Fall (Genesis 3) changed humanity. Instead of being created in the divine image, the doctrine of Original Sin says that we were born sinful. Fixation on Original Sin is a Western (Roman) Christian peculiarity. Eastern Churches accept the concept of Original Sin but deny inherited guilt. Franciscan and Celtic theologians stress instead the goodness of Creation. They suggest that we are born sinless, but wander off the path of goodness by our own fault.

Once we accept that God created us “very good” (Genesis 1: 31) and reject the concept of Original Sin, the whole theology of atonement collapses. We divorce Jesus’ death from the need to reconcile us to God, because we were already created “at one” with the divine. We mess up later, on our own.

Theologies of atonement have satisfied countless Christians through the ages. My purpose is to consider another option. I (personally) disagree with the theology that we can only be ‘at one’ with God because Jesus died to pay a debt for humanity’s sins, or for my individual sins. I believe that through God’s grace, we are all created in the divine likeness. My sins are my own doing and my own problem. It is my responsibility to confess them and ask God for forgiveness. Happily, Scripture tells us that God’s mercy will restore us to spiritual wholeness, and thus re-sanctify us – make us holy again.