In my Six Deadly Sins of Evangelicalism, number six was “questioning substitutionary atonement as the right story for our culture.” This led to some raised eyebrows in the comments! Let me be more precise by adding a couple of important words: I think penal substitutionary atonement theory does not help to communicate the gospel in post-Christian contexts.
For some of you, your eyebrows have gone down a little, but not much. Let’s start with the “theory” business.
Let’s not confuse what atonement is with how it works.
Let me be as clear as I know how: A “theory of atonement” is not the same thing as atonement itself. Did you know that there are several theories? Each tries in its own way to explain that great singularity, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Wikipedia lists nine different theories! Why so many? Could it be because ultimately, we are dealing with a mystery we cannot fully comprehend?
The great thing about divine mystery is that it refuses to be diced, sliced and objectified. Ultimately, the reality we are wrestling with is not conceptual but personal — a Person who wants to draw us in. And we never “get there,” as if “there” were a thing or place, because the closer we get, the more he beckons: “Keep coming, keep coming.”
That is not to say we should just wave our hands and say, “It’s a mystery,” because that is not helpful communication, either. The theories of atonement are attempts to give us a handle on what the heck is going on here? But the word “theory” is very analytical, as if we were dealing with a scientific explanation. I prefer to think of them as different stories, each highlighting a facet of a beautiful diamond. Picture a diamond with many facets. Look closely at one facet. Now twist it slightly to look at another. And another. Got it?
Now set it down and spin it.
…So let’s not confuse what atonement is with how it works. Dismissing a particular story as “that doesn’t work for me” is not the same thing as dismissing the amazing event itself.
(As I thought about what to write, I had a hunch this might turn into a series. But we won’t know the structure of the series until it’s finished, so you’ll just have to keep coming back. This would be a good time to subscribe if you haven’t already done so, hint hint.)
The thread continues in part two, Substitutionary Atonement: Let me clarify.