Archive for the ‘Atonement’ Category

The Chronicles of Narnia is one of the most popular and well loved set of children’s books. And recently there has been discussion in articles, and in a book that I read around Easter, suggesting that the subject of the portrayal of atonement in “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” was discussed as being a better portrayal of atonement than that which is taught in many churches today. Given the fictional nature of the books I don’t think many people have given much thought to atonement as portrayed by C.S. Lewis in the book. In this post I want to delve in and defend the position that C.S. Lewis’ view is both compelling and biblical, and is a superior view to that of “Satisfaction” or “Penal Substitution” that many Western churches teach.

In the story itself, Edmund betrays his brother and sisters to the White Witch, but while captive in her camp is rescued by Aslan’s company and returned to the camp of Aslan. The Witch later arrives at the camp and states that Edmund’s blood belongs to her because of his act of treachery. As it is written per the deep magic on the stone stable, blood must be paid for an act so heinous. She also states that if she is denied that blood then the foundation of Narnia will crack and Narnia will perish in chaos. After a negotiation with the witch, they come to an agreement that she will renounce her claim on Edmund. As it turns out this is because Aslan offered to take the punishment himself. That night Aslan is humiliated and killed on the stone table. After the Witch and company leave, dawn comes and the Stone Table cracks and Aslan returns resurrected. The sisters ask how this is possible to which Aslan replies:

“It means that though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backwards.” -The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe

This is Lewis’ portrayal and to dig into this we need to flesh out the real world implications. First off, C.S. Lewis presents the Witch (Satan) as Edmund’s accuser. Not God, not Jesus (Aslan), but Satan. This is very consistent with the Biblical portrayal of Satan in Job 1 and Zec. 1. The title Satan means “accuser” or “adversary” but the biblical accounts of Satan present him as the accuser of men, and the adversary of men before the court of God. And just like in Job or Zechariah, Satan’s power derives itself from God’s mandates. He goes around pointing out and accusing all the things humans have done to break the moral law of the universe (the deep magic written on the stone table) put forth by God, and demands that God punish the wicked. Thus, the Witch echoing the sentiment of Hebrews 9:22 calls for the necessity of a blood payment for Edmund’s treachery. However, God while respecting of the sort of eye for an eye Newtonian view of morality that He put forth during creation to bring order, still wishes to avoid punishing the repentant Edmund. So He offers Himself up instead.

Now in the Bible it is not entirely clear whether Jesus offered Himself to the devil literally in our stead. But the Bible does affirm that Jesus willingly went to death for our ransom (Mark 10:45, Matthew 20:28) and that the primary agent responsible for his betrayal and death was Satan (John 13:27, Luke 22:3). Both the Witch and Satan saw an opportunity for a quick win over the agent responsible for freeing men from their sins and opposing their (rebel) dominion over the land. The problem however, is that Jesus (like Aslan) was completely innocent. And so when then the Witch/Devil kill their enemy they violate the very moral system (deep magic) from which they derive their power. In Narnia the Stone Table of justice is cracked. The Witch’s (borrowed) power over Narnia is destroyed in the moment of the sacrifice of a perfectly innocent victim. But as Aslan explains, this is because the deep magic can be overruled by a deeper magic, one from before creation, one existent in the very nature of God Himself and that is self-sacrificial love. The law of love is revealed by Aslan’s willingness to die in Edmund’s stead despite being perfectly innocent, and so the laws of justice are shattered, death works backward, and the Witch’s power is revoked.

The question remains, is this what we see in the gospels as well? The answer I think is yes, in Colossians 1, Paul writes

I became its servant according to God’s commission that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known,  the mystery that has been hidden throughout the ages and generations but has now been revealed to his saints.

Paul talks here about the mystery of the glory of God that was HIDDEN throughout the ages. Revealed in the perfect Word of God, Christ. This is very much like the deeper magic that C.S. Lewis refers to, it is something that was never not existent (God was always love) but it was something hidden until Christ revealed it on the cross. The New Testament authors affirm that the power of sin, death, and the devil are broken in Christ. That is because as Paul writes, we were slaves to the law. We either, like the Pharisees (and Satan), demanded it to the letter in order to gain power and superiority over others or we suffered under the fear of God because we could not attain conformity to the law. In the death of the perfectly innocent Christ, the moral fabric of the universe is unfurled, revealing the previously hidden mystery of the supreme moral of law of sacrificial love. This is what allows Paul to write in Galatians 5 that against the fruits of the Spirit (Love, Joy, Peace etc) there can be no law. This is not to say that justice is negated, but that justice is a less deep more superficial understanding of the true nature of things that has been revealed to the saints. Before Christ, we feared God (and so death) because of our sin, of our failure to live up to the perfection of moral order. But after Christ, God’s perfect love casts out all fear. Christ’s death and resurrection is the open door through which we can glimpse the deeper reality of God, and eventually pass through. In Colossians 1:19 it says that

19 For in Him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through Him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

The death of Christ paid the price of our sin because it destroyed moral system by which we previously tried to live up to. It is something that affected the entire universe and made peace with all of it. Unlike some views in churches where God’s love and justice are thrown into a schizophrenic tension, C.S. Lewis believed as I do, that one is deeper than the other and I believe the Bible teaches this as well.

And so, I believe that Narnia shows us a very robust and profound view of atonement that reveals the nature of the shift in the entire cosmos that took place during Christ’s death and resurrection, and reveals to us the true nature of God, the deeper magic, that is God’s law of love and gospel of peace.


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In Christ Alone

I have always loved the modern Hymn “In Christ Alone”, but at the same time as I have come to understand atonement differently than mainstream evangelicalism, one stanza makes me cringe a bit.

“Til on that cross as Jesus died
The wrath of God was satisfied
For every sin on Him was laid
Here in the death of Christ I live”

For me the only wrath in the picture of the crucifixion is humanity’s not God’s. For God there is only sacrificial love. And so I decided that when I sing along in worship I needed lyrics to say instead. So here is my modified stanza

Til on that cross as Jesus died
The love of God was realized
For every sin by Him forgave
Here in the death of Christ, Im saved

Here is the whole song for those unfamiliar with it

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One of the major problems I have always had with a Penal Substitutionary view of atonement is that God rebukes such a Levitical understanding of sacrifice all throughout the prophets. Isaiah 1, Hosea 6, Psalm 50 (yes i know that is not in the prophets) and most prominently

Jeremiah 7
21 Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Add your burnt-offerings to your sacrifices, and eat the flesh. 22For on the day that I brought your ancestors out of the land of Egypt, I did not speak to them or command them concerning burnt-offerings and sacrifices. 23But this command I gave them, ‘Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people; and walk only in the way that I command you, so that it may be well with you.’ 24Yet they did not obey or incline their ear, but, in the stubbornness of their evil will, they walked in their own counsels, and looked backwards rather than forwards. 25From the day that your ancestors came out of the land of Egypt until this day, I have persistently sent all my servants the prophets to them, day after day; 26yet they did not listen to me, or pay attention, but they stiffened their necks. They did worse than their ancestors did.

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The Apostles Creed

I believe in God,
the Father almighty,
Creator of heaven and earth,
and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died and was buried;
he descended into Hades;
on the third day he rose again from the dead;
he ascended into heaven,
and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty;
from there he will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and life everlasting. Amen

On the day between Good Friday and Easter it is important to remember that while on Earth there was a great silence. In Hades Jesus continued the Father’s work.

1 Peter 3: 18 For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, 19in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, 20who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight people, were saved through water.

1 Peter 4:5 But they will have to give an account to him who stands ready to judge the living and the dead. 6For this is the reason the gospel was proclaimed even to the dead, so that, though they had been judged in the flesh as everyone is judged, they might live in the spirit as God does.

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In past posts I have dismissed the penal substitution theory on various grounds: God’s character, Jesus’ statements, justice and ethical theory etc… This post is going to be different. In this post I am going to address how the scriptures pointing to Substitution Theory are misinterpreted, and the complexities involved in understanding Jesus as the final sacrifice where His death voids the requirement of sacrifice as the payment for sin.

Now originally, the Church Fathers viewed the forgiveness of sins through the Ransom Theory of Atonement. They believed that Jesus paid the price (to Satan, or just abstractly) that saved humanity from captivity to sin. In freeing the captives, He also forgave them freely. However, fast forwarding a few hundred years, Anselm and Aquinas rejected this view for a different view called the Satisfaction Theory (still held by Catholics today). Drawing mostly from Isaiah and Hebrews, they adopted the language of Jesus being punished on our behalf, to mean that Jesus took the punishment of sin upon Himself. In their view however, Jesus did not take the totality of sin on Himself (which they considered to be ludicrous and impossible), but rather the punishment dealt to Jesus was a satisfactory one to appease God’s judgment toward sin and allow forgiveness.

Now the view popular today comes from Calvin and Luther. They took Satisfaction Theory and integrated it with the concept of Old Testament sacrifices while viewing Jesus as a metaphorical perfect Lamb. They took Substitution Theory to mean that Jesus took on all the sins of everyone and was sacrificed to God to offset all the sin of the world so that God might view all who accept it as being without sin.

Now that we’ve gone through an overview of the historical background of these views, their origins, and developments, I want to suggest where Luther and Calvin went wrong in dealing with the language of the Law and Old Testament sacrifices relating to Christ. In order to do this, we need to back track to the foundation of the Old Covenant in Genesis 12.

Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’

This is the foundation of the election of Israel. What God says here is to follow Him, and will make Abram’s descendents a great nation which He will bless, and that this nation will henceforth be a blessing to all other nations. Furthermore, those who bless Israel shall be blessed and those who curse Israel shall be cursed.

So basically the plan is this: God elects Israel and promises that as long as they remain true to Him, He will bless them greatly and bring down those who oppose them so that people will see Israel, know that this nation is blessed by God, and want to go there and find out about this God in order to also be blessed. God’s election of Israel is one that pours both blessing and responsibility on Israel as God’s instrument to bless all nations.  We see this process at work for example in Joshua, with Rahab’s exclamation that…

Before they went to sleep, she came up to them on the roof and said to the men: ‘I know that the Lord has given you the land, and that dread of you has fallen on us, and that all the inhabitants of the land melt in fear before you. For we have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea before you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to the two kings of the Amorites that were beyond the Jordan, to Sihon and Og, whom you utterly destroyed. As soon as we heard it, our hearts failed, and there was no courage left in any of us because of you. The Lord your God is indeed God in heaven above and on earth below.

So God’s election of Israel looks like this

Now, when God rescues the Hebrew nation from Egypt and they begin to lose faith in Him, God establishes a more concrete way for this function of Israel as his instrument to the nations to work. That is, the Law. Through the Law, God has a means for Israel to show that they are truly His people and are committed to their task as God’s elect. When they follow His commandments established in the Law, God will bless their nation and out from that blessing the whole world. When they do not follow Him, other nations will not know they are His and so they will not have His blessing at all. The problem is of course that the Hebrews cannot follow the Law perfectly, and so the sacrificial laws are in place as a means for Israel to show their commitment to the Covenant (of election) even when they fall short of following the Law. When they sacrifice their best animals (these are very important live stock for them) for their sins, God will pass over those sins and continue to bless them according to the covenant.

This system works pretty well with some fluctuation for many years. However, eventually as attested by the prophets, Israel forsakes her duty to the covenant with Yahweh and instead whores herself to other cultures and Gods. But they maintain the sacrifices, believing that they are a sort of substitution for sin, a get-out-of-sin-free card. And this is when God sends Babylon to destroy Israel as concrete proof of God’s attitude toward them. They are no longer blessed, for they no longer understand or have commitment to their covenant. All throughout the prophets we see exclamations from God saying that He is no longer accepting the sacrifices of Israel. Particularly climatic are His words through Hosea exclaiming that He doesn’t even want sacrifices, He just wants Israel’s love.

What shall I do with you, O Ephraim?
What shall I do with you, O Judah?
Your love is like a morning cloud,
like the dew that goes away early.
Therefore I have hewn them by the prophets,
I have killed them by the words of my mouth,
and my judgement goes forth as the light.
For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice,
the knowledge of God rather than burnt-offerings.

Note that He doesn’t want their love and their offerings, just their love. If He has that, He does not need the signs of commitment afforded by the sacrifices. Jesus echoes this very passage to the Pharisees as well:

When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax-collectors and sinners?’ But when he heard this, he said, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.’

However, as we know, Israel remains obstinate to the pleas of God throughout the prophets. But God does not give up; His desire to reach the world and His promises to Israel can be fulfilled another way. That is, through the figure whom Isaiah prophesies about, “The Suffering Servant”. The suffering servant is going to take up Israel’s covenant and fulfill it in Himself. Israel’s wickedness is so great that they will make the servant suffer despite the fact that He is fulfilling their calling for them. He will suffer at the hands of God’s very own people and remain faithful, so that they can be made right with God.

Enter Jesus. Jesus is the suffering servant. Israel’s covenant is to remain loyal to God and His commandments, receive God’s blessings and with those blessings, be a blessing to all nations. This is exactly what Jesus does. He obeys God perfectly, God pours blessings on Jesus because of His faithfulness which draws great attention to Him, and He uses that attention to turn many to God. And as Isaiah prophesied, Jesus is faithful even to horrible death on a cross at the hands of the very people whose commitment He is living on their behalf. And with His death and resurrection He becomes the complete fulfillment of the covenant. People even to this day see the wondrous faithfulness and blessing of Jesus and come to the Father because of it. With His death and resurrection He fulfilled the Old Covenant in Himself. The reason we no longer have to sacrifice animals is not because Jesus took all of our sins with Him, but because He completed the Old Covenant. He came not to abolish the Law, or satisfy the Law, but to fulfill it.

Where does this leave us with atonement? If Jesus did not take the penalty of our sin, then how are our sins forgiven? This answer lies primarily with Paul. While Jesus is the perfect fulfillment of Israel, He is also the New Adam.

Romans 5
Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned— sin was indeed in the world before the law, but sin is not reckoned when there is no law. Yet death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who is a type of the one who was to come.

 But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died through the one man’s trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many. And the free gift is not like the effect of the one man’s sin. For the judgement following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification. If, because of the one man’s trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.

 Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. But law came in, with the result that the trespass multiplied; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, just as sin exercised dominion in death, so grace might also exercise dominion through justification leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Paul says that through Adam’s disobedience all were condemned. Because of Adam’s failure, humanity became a failure. But Christ is the new Adam and His effect is greater. While through Adam’s disobedience was born condemnation for all, Christ’s perfect obedience led to justification for all. Because of Jesus’ perfection as a human, humanity is now deemed justified (a success) with God. So not only did Jesus accomplish Israel’s work for them, but also He accomplished humanity’s. Jesus has done everything for us, all God is now waiting only for is the return of His prodigals. He asks us for nothing in return for our disobedience and squandering, for Jesus has already given it. As Christian’s we are ambassadors of this message of reconciliation.

2 Corinthians 5:18-20
All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ…

Jesus’ New Covenant asks us to be further witness to His completion of the Old Covenant. We recognize what Christ has done for us and model ourselves to be like Him to draw more people to Christ and through Christ, to God. In this way we become “In Christ” and share in His election. The new covenant also shares in Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf as a way of showing commitment. This is the Eucharist, or Communion. We no longer need to sacrifice animals because of Christ, so Jesus calls us instead to remember His sacrifice and commit to the new Covenant by taking the wine and the bread in remembrance of what He has done for us. And it is Jesus who ensures our forgiveness for sin, as a mediator on our behalf. And anything Christ asks of God the Father is given to Him, like our forgiveness.

I have a few final points I would like to share. I covered a lot here that could have easily been expanded on, but for the sake of trying to get to the point, I kept it as short as possible, though I hope, while preserving the point of where Substutionary Atonement goes wrong. Also, I have to give credit to theologian Robin A. Parry whose books introduced a lot of this insight to me. And lastly, Jesus as the new Adam and fulfillment of Israel is not a totally complete account of Jesus’ work but it is a significant understanding necessary to understanding a lot of the language of sacrifice and election in the Bible. It also stands against the schizophrenic, retributive problems of penal substitution.

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In the Bible there are many different ways by which Jesus is declared a Saviour. The first way, and one more familiar to modern Western Christianity, is called Satisfaction Theory or Penal Substitution. Jesus is our Saviour because He bore the punishment for our sin that should have been accounted to us. Thus we are saved from the wages of our sin. It is most easily seen in passages such as these…

Isaiah 53:4-6

Surely he has borne our infirmities
and carried our diseases;
yet we accounted him stricken,
struck down by God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
and by his bruises we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have all turned to our own way,
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.

Hebrews 1:1-2

Therefore we must pay greater attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away from it. For if the message declared through angels was valid, and every transgression or disobedience received a just penalty, how can we escape if we neglect so great a salvation?

Hebrews 1:14-18
Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death. For it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham. Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people.

2 Corinthians 5:20-21
So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

The second dominant metaphor is called the Ransom Theory of atonement which was the belief of most of the early church fathers. It is the idea that humanity was held captive by Sin, Death, and Satan and that Jesus set us free from those powers by paying the necessary price. If this view seems a little strange, think about the Chronicles of Narnia in which The Queen (Satan) lays rightful claim to Edmund (humanity) because of his treachery (sin), and Aslan (Jesus) volunteers to pay the price for him. This offer is accepted; however because of Aslan’s complete innocence, unbeknownst to the Queen, when she takes his life, the entire framework of her rightful claim to Edmund is invalidated by the deeper magic. In this view of atonement, the price for our freedom is paid by Christ and He is our saviour in that He sets us free from the forces that held us captive. This view is seen in passages such as…

Matthew 20:27-28
It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’

1 Timothy 2:5-6
For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human,  who gave himself a ransom for all —this was attested at the right time.

1 peter 1:17-18

If you invoke as Father the one who judges all people impartially according to their deeds, live in reverent fear during the time of your exile. You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors, not with perishable things like silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ

1 Corinthians 6:19-20

Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.

So where is the conflict? The conflict is really about the nature of the saving. From one perspective, we are saved from God’s just punishment of our sin. From the other viewpoint, we are victims rescued from our captors. Really the shift from Ransom to Satisfaction is a result of the lessening of dualism in Christianity. As Christian thinkers moved away from the notion of a powerful Satan toward a focus on a more powerful Monotheistic God, the idea of God striking a deal (almost at trick) to save us from Satan fell away as well and Satisfaction Theory was born. There are a few interesting things about this shift. First, in the Bible we see the ideas of Penal Substitution very clearly in the parts of the Bible aimed toward Jews (it is heaviest in Isaiah and Hebrews) and rightly so, since their past covenants with God were dominated by these sorts of metaphors and ideas of sacrifice. However, in Ransom Theory, which in Scripture we see more geared toward Gentiles, humanity is a victim and the good news is that we can be set free. I think that this is a far more powerful approach for non-Jews as well as the fact that it avoided the schizophrenic debates about God paying a penalty to Himself. It has the drawback however, of its very powerful view of Satan, Death, and the slavery of sin, which the modern mind might also find difficult to accept.

So in a very problematic way, I think really accepting Penal Substitution Theory means adopting a Jewish Narrative that falls flat in front of a non-1st century-Jewish audience (as well as suffering from other problems I have addressed elsewhere in this blog). But accepting the alternative means we need to seriously re-work what we mean by the slavery of Sin, Death and the Devil and the sort of quirky view of God’s jailbreak. But that’s where I think Christianity needs to realize something better (and many authors and writers are coming around to this) and this is a view called Christus Victor model of atonement. This view sees Jesus as not only paying the ransom to set us free from our captives, and not only satisfying God’s justice, but doing both and more. For Christus Victor, Jesus sets us free and defeats our captors, and sets humanity right in the eyes of God. In this view none of the other metaphors can be pushed to a very literal interpretation but it allows room for all of them. It emphasizes Christ’s victory over the institutional fallen-ness and the evil powers of this world, and how He offers us the ability to achieve this victory as well.

For more on Christus Victor


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