What did Jesus’ death accomplish, and how did it accomplish it? Although Christians regard Jesus’ death as tremendously significant, there’s some disagreement as to why and how that is so. This being Good Friday, it might be appropriate to reflect on the following C.S. Lewis quotation:
The central Christian belief is that Christ’s death has somehow put us right with God and given us a fresh start. Theories as to how it did this are another matter. A good many different theories have been held as to how it works; what all Christians are agreed on is that it does work. I will tell you what I think it is like. . . . A man can eat his dinner without understanding exactly how food nourishes him. A man can accept what Christ has done without knowing how it works: indeed, he certainly would not know how it works until he has accepted it.
We are told that Christ was killed for us, that His death has washed out our sins, and that by dying He disabled death itself. That is the formula. That is Christianity. That is what has to be believed. Any theories we build up as to how Christ’s death did all this are, in my view, quite secondary: mere plans or diagrams to be left alone if they do not help us, and, even if they do help us, not to be confused with the thing itself. All the same, some of these theories are worth looking at.
I think C. S. Lewis is right on target here. What matters most is whether or not Jesus’ death did in fact make a difference between God and humans. Like any death, Jesus’ death is hard to understand. That’s normal.
Time for mystery
If there’s any mystery in the Christian religion, for me it is right here. It wasn’t always a mystery to me. I grew up being taught a specific atonement theory, or explanation about Jesus’ death. As I was exposed to more writing and thinking on this topic I came to see the weaknesses of my original perspective, along with the weaknesses of most of the alternatives.
This is an area of active exploration and investigation for me. Which elements of the big three families of theories–Ransom/Christus Victor theories, Moral exemplar theories, or satisfaction theories–are correct? Which elements should I reject? What about some lesser known alternatives, such as theories involving mimetic violence, or Paul Moser’s divine-manifest offering proposal? This is by no means a simple matter.
Sorting through the options
I’m very thankful that understanding how Jesus reconciles me to God is not a pre-condition of being reconciled to God. That being said, not all atonement theories are created equal. Some theories don’t paint God in a flattering light when it comes to his love, justice, and/or character. For this reason, I try to first get a grip on what God’s character is like, primarily through looking at Jesus, God’s chosen agent of reconciliation. The correct atonement theory—an elusive quarry—must match the character of Jesus and his Father.
Freedom to be wrong
Even if I don’t get the right theory, getting to know Jesus’ person and character is of greater value than possessing the correct atonement theory. Indeed, it’s very important to distinguish the Christian gospel, or good-news message, from various atonement theories. Of course, to share the good-news that “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them” (2 Cor 5:19), we often resort to our default atonement theory. But just because someone rejects a particular atonement theory, that doesn’t mean that they perforce reject the gospel, or the person and character of Jesus.
Let’s not confuse real life reconciliation with God for explanations of it that are open to investigation and criticism. Most (all) atonement theories face legitimate criticisms. I (hope to) welcome such criticism as an opportunity to learn as I try to get closer to the truth of the mystery of Christ crucified.
C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001), 54–56, emphasis added.
See for example, Hans Boersma, Violence, Hospitality, and the Cross: Reappropriating the Atonement Tradition (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), chap. 6.
Paul K. Moser, The Elusive God: Reorienting Religious Epistemology (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2009), chap. 3.
Original version posted on Cognitive Resonance.