As we approach Easter each year, Christians often find themselves contemplating the death and resurrection of Jesus. Christians have understood the atonement Jesus brings in very different ways throughout the millennia. Many of us hear the same model so often, we assume this is the Christian idea or the Biblical idea.
This post will present a few models of Atonement Theory summarized pretty quickly. Then we’ll give a few notes on potential advantages and disadvantages of the different models in youth ministry. We hope this is a helpful starting point for asking further questions in a way that is pretty easy to understand.
One last note: many of us assume there is one, simple Atonement Theory that is found in the New Testament. You should recognize that, in the history of Christianity, lots of good Christians believed very different things about how exactly Jesus saves us. New Testament scholars Joel Green and Mark D. Baker point out that many of these models of Atonement Theory from church history (and the present) have good Biblical foundations. In their book Recovering the Scandal of the Cross: Atonement in the New Testament and Contemporary Contexts, they argue these varied systems help us understand different aspects of what Jesus did.
Check out these different models, and see if you can recognize the systems you are familiar with, and what you may not have heard before! For more information, check out the book mentioned above, or Four Views: The Nature of the Atonement, edited by James Beilby and Paul R. Eddy. Rev. Jeremy Smith of the United Methodist Church has a helpful approach to these ideas at his blog, Hacking Christianity, and The Gospel Coalition published an alternative way to view these three models together here. Theopedia’s summary article on Atonement Theory is pretty helpful, though individual articles on specific models tend to be better on Wikipedia.
(Rom 3:25-6; 2 Cor 5:21; Gal 3:10; 1 John 4:10)
Penal Substitution can be pretty easily understood by imagining a courtroom, except you are on trial! God is the judge and declares you guilty of sin. The penalty for that guilt is death. Then, after this verdict has been announced, Jesus steps forward and asks to be executed in your place. That is, God must punish because “the wages of sin is death (which is understood to be some sort of cosmic principle),” but Jesus volunteers to be killed in our place. Many (most?) Protestants churches (especially in the Reformed tradition) rely heavily on Penal Substitution.
Penal Substitution is a relatively new idea in Christianity. It developed from an idea proposed by a medieval theologian named Anselm, who understood God’s honor to have been wronged. For Anselm, our sin offends God as Almighty Creator, and so, in medieval fashion, wants you executed to restore God’s honor. Over the years, this became the courtroom metaphor we see today.
In youth ministry, one of the biggest advantages is to highlight the seriousness of sin. More to the point, Penal Substitution emphasizes individuals as sinners. Many argue this system also emphasizes God as just and loving.
If Penal Substitution is your atonement theory, then it is hard to talk about Jesus’ concern for social action, since Penal Substitution focuses solely on specific, individual sinners. In short, a strict reliance on Penal Substitution makes many types of mission trips incoherent. Next, it undermines God’s forgiveness, since God never truly forgives (this one is a big deal for how youth see God). Another issue is Penal Substitution implies one of two logic problems. One option is that the standards of goodness are outside of God, and more powerful than God. After all, in a courtroom, the judge follows laws more important than the judge. Alternatively, God Himself judges based on God’s internal standards, meaning God wants you to die for your sins. Further, it puts Jesus at odds with the Father to defend the sinner. How does this Atonement Theory reconcile with Jesus as judge during the last judgment, a common theme in Scripture?
Significance of Incarnation, Death and Resurrection
In Penal Substitution, the death of Jesus is significant because that is where He paid for our sins. The resurrection is (typically) significant because it shows Jesus’ righteousness. The significance of the incarnation is to make Jesus a human being so that Jesus can be a perfect human and offer Himself in our place.
(Rom 5:12-14, 18-19; Col. 2:15; Heb 2:14-15; 1 John 3:8; 1 Cor 15:24-6)
In 1930, a Swedish Lutheran named Gustaf Aulen outlined a summary of Atonement Theories from the first three or so centuries of the church. Aulen called this idea Christus Victor, as in, Christ is the victor over the “powers of darkness.” Christus Victor has been increasingly popular among Protestants in the 20th and 21st century. You can see one variation on this idea in Aslan’s death and resurrection in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. There is no courtroom, and there is no equivalent to God the Father as you would expect with Penal Substitution. Instead, Aslan wins the victory by defeating dark forces (the witch, but also the dark forces she controls).
The idea is that Jesus goes into death, into where the dead are, and leads them out. Just like Moses and the Exodus, Jesus is seen as leading us to freedom out of captivity. This is clarified by noting the differences in how we depict the Resurrection in the West with the Eastern Church, which has long held to something like Christus Victor. In Protestantism and Catholicism, the Resurrected Christ is typically depicted alone, above His grave. Think about the art your church is likely to show on Easter morning! In the Eastern Church, He is typically shown climbing out of the grave, pulling Adam and Eve behind Him. In Christus Victor, Jesus went into death to liberate the captives. However, He does not only defeat death but “every ruler and every authority and power (1 Cor 15:24-5).”
Advantages to Christus Victor for youth ministry is that it is much broader than Penal Substitution. Where Penal Substitution focuses on an individual’s specific sin, Christus Victor literally has Jesus actively working against all evil in the entire universe. That certainly includes the individual sins of your youth, but it also includes bigger issues that seem to be beyond individual sins, such as famine, or concern for birth defects.
Disadvantages to Christus Victor include reliance on the concept of “spiritual forces of wickedness,” which can be a hard sell in the modern world. Some have critiqued the recent popularity of this view amongst Protestants. They believe it’s popular because our culture emphasizes victimhood, and Christus Victor tends to see humans as victims of dark forces as much as sinners ourselves (to be clear, these writers are quick to point out the Eastern Orthodox Church does not suffer from this problem).
Significance of Incarnation, Death and Resurrection
For Christus Victor, the Incarnation is often a central part of salvation, since Jesus living a perfect life is a crucial part of the means of pushing back spiritual forces of darkness. As Athanasius said, “The Word was made man in order that we might be made Divine.” The death of Jesus was Jesus’ victory because that is how he entered death. You should imagine an action hero sneaking into the enemy’s hideout! The resurrection itself demonstrates Jesus victory and defeat of death, so it is of central importance.
You should note that Christus Victor is sort of conflating two other ideas, which you will sometimes see broken out individually: Ransom Theory and Recapitulation Theory.
Moral Influence Theory
(1 John 3:16; 4:7-12; Rom 5:8; 2 Cor 5:18)
For advocates of the Moral Influence Theory, Jesus saves the world through demonstrating and teaching a radical love that beckons people to change their lives. This theory sees what atonement Jesus brought as coming from the entire life and work of Jesus more than simply the death and resurrection. Peter Abelard, a medieval advocate of this idea, consciously rejected early precursors to Penal Substitution, claiming if God wishes to forgive, then God can simply forgive. Because of that, he essentially rejects any idea that demands Jesus die to satisfy something in God. What was Jesus doing if not paying the penalty for sinners?
Abelard thought the answer is that Jesus wanted to demonstrate God’s love in Jesus’ life and death. Importantly, this does not focus on the incarnation, death and resurrection the same way most atonement theories do. For Moral Influence Theory, Jesus’ entire life and ministry exist to inspire, teach, and demonstrate God’s radical and deep love for humanity.
For people who think Penal Substitution implies a vindictive God (some Christians call God a “cosmic child abuser” under Penal Substitution), Moral Influence Theory avoids that problem entirely. Additionally, this places a heavy emphasis on changing your life in response to Christ. This system strongly emphasizes God’s love. This idea can be harmonized with certain other Atonement Theories (such as Christus Victor).
The cross is theoretically unnecessary. While Moral Influence makes more sense out of certain parts of the Bible than one might guess (Rom. 5:8 or 1 John 3:16, for example), it also has difficulty with certain parts of scripture (Col. 1:19-20, which emphasize the role of Jesus’ blood in bringing about reconciliation). This idea has difficulty being harmonized with Penal Substitution.
Significance of Incarnation, Death and Resurrection
For Abelard, the incarnation matters because God sets aside God’s glory in order to lower Godself to be like humans. This is an idea that many of us are familiar with! The execution of Jesus is theoretically unnecessary but does demonstrate the lengths to which God will go to demonstrate God’s love for us. Remember, Moral Influence does not think Atonement revolves around the death and resurrection of Jesus, so Jesus’ death is seen very much as Jesus’ martyrdom. The resurrection still shows Jesus’ vindication and sheds light on his earlier life.
Many argue this idea was common in the first two or three centuries of the church. It is also important to note that this view is often portrayed in summaries (like this one!) in ways that are unfair to the perspective. For a fair introduction, start with the Wikipedia page!
Stephen Hale is Director of Youth Ministries at First United Methodist Church Redondo Beach. He is also Director of International Programs for INALIENABLE, a non-profit working for the dignity of migrants. He received a BA in Social Sciences from BIOLA, an MA in Theology from Fuller, and is finishing an M.Div from Claremont School of Theology in May (he hopes). You can keep up with him at STEPHENPHALE.WORDPRESS.COM.