Reflections on the Atonement

Ch.12 in A.G.Padgett, ed.,
Reason and the Christian Religion,
Oxford, 1994, pp. 265-276.


The Cross claims to speak to everyone, but different people have different needs, and therefore different ideas of salvation, and hence different understandings of what Jesus' death signifies. As they try and explain what happened at Calvary they naturally make sense of it in accordance with their own needs and own idea of what was effected for them by Jesus' coming down for us and our salvation and dying a criminal's death. The Doctrine of the Atonement is therefore articulated in many various ways, which to some Christians seem profoundly true, but often are reckoned deeply unsatisfactory by others, also moved by the cross, but to whom it speaks in some very different way, answering to different needs, and offering a different sort of salvation.

Different accounts of the Atonement should be assessed stereoscopically. They are not necessarily rivals, and may sometimes be seen as different metaphors, each bringing out some facet of the truth: but they are not all equally valid either; some involve presuppositions, or carry implications, which on a fuller view of Christianity must be rejected. What may be suitably sung at Eastertide may be dangerously misleading if taught as literal truth in catechism. A philosopher's account, while recognising the meaningfulness of the metaphors, should itself eschew poetry and aim to express the truth, so far as possible, in pedestrian prose.

For many modern Christians the great day of the year is not Good Friday but Easter Sunday. If Jesus really rose from the dead, then the materialist view of the universe is falsified by the facts, and and Christian theism vindicated. God proves His existence by this one, fundamental and indisputable, miracle. Other miracles might have done---the stilling of the winds and waves, the raising of Lazarus, the taking up of Elijah into heaven---but this one is more appropriate. Jesus was done to death in the messy happenstance of Jewish history, but God showed that the last word is with Him. On the strength of the resurrection we know that God reigns and the teaching of Jesus is true, and that we can lead our lives accordingly, trusting in the power of God and the love shown in the life and teaching of Jesus Christ.

The resurrection also speaks to many in a more personal and interested way. It shows that death is not the end we all naturally fear that it is. Christ triumphed over death. It is not fully clear what that triumph will mean in their own future lives, but at least they can live as men not without hope. They are freed from the fear of death. The fundamental message of Christianity for them is not the cross but the empty tomb, and, as in the case of those whose chief fear is the fear that atheism might be true, the importance of Good Friday lies not in itself but in its preparing the scene for the victory of Easter Day.

But although Easter is the great festival of the Church, it does not attract as much attention as Christmas among modern people at large, or as much devotion among the religiously minded as Good Friday and Holy Week generally. The symbol of Christianity has always been the cross, and it was Christ crucified that was preached by St Paul. Yet to many it remains obscure what the attraction of the cross is.

For some Christians the salvation secured by the cross is liberation. They know themselves to be in bondage to sin, and find freedom in the cross: derelicts saved from drink by the Salvation Army are in such case now, and throughout its history Christianity has shown remarkable power to speak to, and save, those who have ended up at the bottom of the pile as a result of their own addictions and fecklessness. If I am freed from slavery, it is natural to think of myself as ransomed, or redeemed (literally `bought back'). A ransom theory then makes sense. I was in thrall to sin, and if I am freed by Jesus' death on the cross, it was the price he paid for my release. ``There was no other good enough to pay the price of sin.'' Jesus paid a terrible price, and I am in consequence liberated from my previous state. These two facts the ransom theory expresses powerfully. But it has other implications that are not easy to accept. To whom was the price paid? why did it have to be paid? why could not God just liberate me by force majeure?

Answers are available, but themselves raise further awkward questions. The price was paid to the Devil, because he had, by reason of human sin, become legitimate owner of the sinners' souls. God would have being acting immorally if He had just snitched what was properly the property of the Devil. A moral God must respect the rights of everyone, even of the Devil himself. But the hypothesis of a personal Devil with rights sits uneasily with the sovereignty of God. Jesus Himself talks of Satan, but only in a metaphorical way. The metaphor of the sinner being enslaved, and hence, presumably, enslaved to someone, is more telling, but it is much more a matter of fact than of right, and the rights of the Evil One seem perilously close to a contradiction in terms. Moreover in many versions, most accessibly in the story of Aslan and the White Witch in C.S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, there is an element of deceit in God's tricking the Devil into accepting the offer of Jesus' life in exchange for that of the sinner, a trickiness which sits ill with our faith in God the non-deceiver. 1 The ransom theory expresses the great cost of the crucifixion and the great benefit obtained for us, but fails to give an adequate account of how the two are connected.

If we adopt a hardline retributivist theory of punishment, we can say why a price has to be paid: it is not a payment to the Devil which will induce him to loosen his grip on me, but a punishment for the wrongdoing I have done, and undergone by Jesus instead of me. Such an account makes sense to those overwhelmed by a sense of guilt. Their prime need is not liberation but forgiveness. In order to be forgiven they need to do penance: but no penance they could do by themselves could possibly make up for the enormity of their wrongdoing. Only a divine death could make up for what they take themselves to have done.

But the penal theory of the Atonement again raises awkward questions. Who is satisfied by Christ's self-offering on the cross? God the Father? That all too easily portrays God the Father as a wrathful power demanding the death of Jesus because other people deserve punishment. If the Prodigal Son could be forgiven, why not other sons too? Retributivists tell us that it is part of the fabric of the universe that debts incurred by wrongdoing must be paid, and if that were so, we could just see why the Father could not simply let us off the hook; but hard-line retributivism is itself implausible, even though espoused by great philosophers. Although we can see how it is that the penal theory speaks to those overwhelmed by a sense of their own misdeeds, it comes unstuck as we examine it further.

Actually, the sins of those who claim to be sinners are mostly not very original, and even rather dull. By any ordinary reckoning, most of those who seek forgiveness are moderately unbad. They have a strong sense of worthlessness, but this is because they crave for more than mere right-doing. Some seek inspiration, and in Jesus' self-sacrificing example find it. Other historical figures---Socrates, St Francis---have also had High Inspirational Value, but it is not implausibly partisan to claim supreme influentiality for Jesus and His self-sacrifice on the cross. Its power to draw men, as Jesus had Himself predicted, 2 has proved enormous. Whatever account we give of the cross, its influence as an example cannot be denied, and the exemplar theory that Abelard put forward contains an important truth.

The exemplar, or moral influence, theory has been widely accepted in this century. Hastings Rashdall was a strong advocate, and certainly it has the two powerful commendations of evidently expressing at least part of the truth and of not carrying with it the awkward implications of the ransom or penal theory. Nevertheless it has been reckoned unsatisfactory by many contemporary Christians. It is held to be too subjective, and not to register the objective difference that the crucifixion effected. Moreover, if the only reason for the crucifixion was to set us an example, it seems rather phoney. If I do something for real, it may indeed be a good example to others, but if I do it only to set an example, I am just play-acting: and it would not be right to let oneself actually be killed in a play just for the benefit of the spectators. We can certainly allow that the cross has had a great influence, and that the example Jesus set has continued to lead men away from sin and into the paths of righteousness and peace: but Jesus did not die in order to set an example, and the importance of what He did then is not constituted by what we have done since.

Richard Swinburne espouses a sacrifice doctrine of the Atonement. He makes trenchant criticisms of the ransom, and penal theories, and reckons that the moral influence theory fails to register the objectivity of what happened once and for all time on Calvary. Moreover the understanding of Jesus' death as a sacrifice goes back to New Testament times. The Epistle to the Hebrews makes explicit use of it, and much of the imagery of the Apocalypse is in terms of the lamb that was slain for us. Sacrifice was still a living part of Jewish religion, and even in our attenuated modern usage, it makes perfect sense to say that Jesus sacrificed His life, and if in consequence we are now at one with God, we can put the result together with the deed, and say that Jesus sacrificed His life for us. But though we believe it was for us He hung and suffered there, the language of sacrifice only describes, and does not explain, Jesus' dying on the cross. The same questions obtrude as with the ransom and penal theories: to whom was the sacrifice made? why should the death of Jesus make up for alleged wrongdoing on our part? what real difference does it make to the situation of Plato who lived a long time before, or us who live a long time after? Once again, attempts to give answers to these questions lead us into further difficulties. Nor is it just that we are failing to appreciate the thought forms of New Testament times: although sacrifice was still part of Jewish religious practice in New Testament times, it had long been known that God was not to be appeased by sacrifices, and that we should not presume to offer the fruit of the body for the sin of the soul. Like the ransom and penal theories, the sacrifice theory expresses the great cost of the crucifixion, and identifies a cause, in our sin, and a consequence, in the sin's being remitted, but again describes rather than explains the real connexion between them.

A better account of the significance of the cross is available in terms of identification. Much of Christian theology is concerned with identification. It is implicit in the etymology of the word `at-one-ment', and is invoked to answer the question raised by the Incarnation: why did God become man? The very word `Adam' has a suggestion of our all being caught up in a common human predicament, and our Christian destiny is expressed in the same terms: ``for as in Adam all die, so in Christ shall all be made alive''. Only if we can be identified with humanity generally, can we plausibly be held to have committed great wrongs. And if Jesus could reconcile us with God, then that identification would, for many people, amount to salvation.

What sort of salvation is it rational to want? There are many different answers, depending on where people are and what they have got. Each of those good things sought by people thus far described, though good, is not always completely adequate. To know that God exists, that death is not the end, to be free from the slavery to sin, to have the example of someone like St Francis before one's eyes and enabled to lead the moral life, are all good. But the devils believe and tremble, and everlasting life has seemed to some to be unending tedium; a lot of people manage to lead a moral life, but do not seem to enjoy it much, even when told about other people much more moral than they can ever hope to be. Although the moral law is important, it lacks the personal touch---it does not say it with flowers. We need to be responsible, but yearn to go beyond responsibility, and operate in a world of personal relations in which we are not merely well thought of for our reliable performance of duties, but actually liked.

If once we allow that we want to be loved, then it is natural for us to want to be loved by God, and to construe this as the greatest good there could be. But even if God does love us, it is difficult to believe that He does. We are told in the Old Testament---like as a father pitieth his own children, even so is the Lord merciful unto them that fear him 3 ---but it is easy for God to tell us, indeed easy for God to love us from afar, so long as it does not really cost Him all that much. The Old Testament is full of words, but words are always likely to fall on deaf ears, because it is always easy to say them, and often difficult to mean them. ``He would say that, wouldn't he?'' is an ever-available riposte.

By the time of Jesus the Old Covenant was wearing rather thin: although most Jews were remarkably scrupulous in their observance of the Law, it was becoming more and more an external observance of an externally formulated code, undertaken for prudential or other unauthentic reasons, and they were often showing the effects of mauvaise foi, being whited sepulchres without, but full of corruption within. 4 It was a bargain rather than a means of identifying oneself with God, and the best efforts of the Old Adam were directed to seeing how much one could get away with, while not actually breaking the terms of the contract.

In the incarnation, God started a new disposition, in which He did not just tell us but threw His lot in with us. If it worked, we should be whole-heartedly sharing in God's purposes for us, not just toeing the line in order to keep on the right side of Him. In the later formulation of the Fathers, God became man, in order that man might become God. 5

But it did not work, and perhaps could not have worked. The gospels tell of growing conflict with the established authorities. It is possible even to sympathize with them in their efforts to keep things on an even keel, and avoid trouble, either with the Romans or with the populace. They were not outstandingly wicked, but were acting in the way men naturally act when they have got a stake in the established order and feel that it is threatened.

Jesus confronted the authorities, and foresaw the outcome; yet He resolutely set His face to go to Jerusalem. He could have done otherwise. He could have kept out of harm's way, confining His mission to country areas out of the reach of the Jerusalem hierarchy. Elijah had bided his time: why not Jesus? It is difficult to say. He was not courting death. He prayed that the cup might pass from Him. But He felt impelled to go on to Jerusalem. In modern parlance we might say that it was a matter of integrity for Him. He could not back down without unsaying all that He had been preaching and teaching about the Kingdom. The Scribes and Pharisees had taken issue with him, and He had to have it out with them. Confrontation was inevitable, if the truth was to be maintained. Granted the tenor of Christ's teaching and the nature of the powers-that-were, there had to be a show down, and in any showdown, Jesus would be worsted. It is part of the way of the world when uncomfortable truth comes up against entrenched interests.

Jesus' death was part of His life, and in so far as we use the language of sacrifice to describe His death, we need to make it clear that it was His whole life that He dedicated to the Father. 6 Living that life, it was humanly inevitable that He should die that sort of death. It was a human inevitability, not a necessitarian one. Judas could have not betrayed His Lord; the Sanhedrin could have heeded the advice of Gamaliel, not Caiaphas; Pilate could have remembered Roman canons of justice, or at least taken notice of his wife's warning. But although then Jesus would not have died on Calvary, He would still have died: some leading Jews might have bound themselves by a great oath, that they would neither eat nor drink until they had killed Jesus, and carried out their plan while He was daily teaching in the Temple. Or if the Chief Priests had recognised that the word of the Lord was with Jesus, the Zealots would have got Him for failing to lead a crusade against the Romans. It was not foreordained that Jesus should die exactly when and how He actually did, but, men being what they were, a life like His was bound in first-century Palestine to end in a bloody death.

But still, we protest, it might have been different. Jesus might have been born in Athens, where new truths were always welcome, or in Victorian Britain, dividing His time between the ancient and the new universities, sure of obtaining a respectful hearing somewhere or other, and certainly safe from arrest and execution. But would we have believed Him then? There is a market for high-sounding idealism, and those who cater for it manage fairly well thank you. My bread is buttered on the side of benevolence, and I can hope to make a reasonable living out of being nice. If God had been incarnate as an acquaintance of Xenophon, a rival to Epicurus, or a Fellow of Bracton College, Edgestow, we again could doubt His sincerity in taking His place among us: He had taken a fairly cushy pad. But if one were to lay down his life for his friends, we could be sure that His love was great. If the purpose of the Incarnation was to be achieved, God must become man not in the best circumstances human society could afford, but in some situation sufficiently typical for all to relate to.

Different explanations of the crucifixion become available, answering different questions at different levels. There is a historical account, of worldly powers getting rid of a dissident. There is a personal account, from Jesus' point of view, showing how, although not courting death, He was the sort of person who had it coming to Him, and had no alternative but to go to Jerusalem and accept His fate. There is a God's-eye account, of God needing to identify Himself with the human condition, and undergo the worst that could befall Him. Each account explains why Jesus was done to death, but in a different way, picking on a different cause, and eliciting a different response. Jesus died because men put Him to death. Jesus died because He was a man, and all men die. Jesus died, voluntarily but unwillingly, because His mission required it. Jesus died because only so could God's love towards man be made known in such a way that it would be believed. And if we press further and seek to explain the last explanation, we see that it was because of the hardness of our hearts that Jesus had to die: we had been told, but would not listen, and needed to be shown in the one incontrovertible way how much God cared for mankind.

We have different agents, different explanations, different purposes. We therefore also have different identifications, and different understandings. Most naturally we identify with Jesus. We feel for Him, and in feeling for Him are strengthened in our own miseries. Even in death, even in the dark night of the soul, we have an assurance that He, too, has been there before us, and that we are not alone in what we undergo. And suffering shared is suffering less insupportable. In a sense then, Jesus dies for us---we are the beneficiaries of His death, though it was not for that end He died. Rather, He died as a consequence of sharing our lot, and exposing Himself to the ills of the human condition.

No sense of Jesus' having died for our sins arises from this identification. But we can also identify with those who put Jesus to death, the ecclesiastics, the local government officials, the Occupying Power. The British have much to answer for. We washed our hands of Poland at Yalta; we sent innumerable East Europeans to their deaths by repatriating them in 1945. We still repatriate Vietnamese boat people; we are about to consign the inhabitants of Hong Kong to the murderous mercies of those who organized the massacre of Tiannamen Square. Of course, there are excuses. We could not do much about the Poles. We had to try and trust the Russians. We had to consider consequences. All true, all partly exculpatory. But the good things of our civilisation have been secured at great cost to others, and we enjoy them at their expense. Although individually I may have kept my hands clean, corporately we have touched pitch and are defiled.

Of course, also, it remains true that I myself did none of these things: most of them happened long before I was born. But if I insist on this, and disclaim all responsibility for the world I have inherited and whose benefits I enjoy, and shrink from shouldering the burdens and want only to to make the most of what I have got, I opt out from all corporate identity and thereby diminish myself. So we are faced with a dilemma: either I disclaim corporate responsibility, and say, truthfully, that it all happened ohne mich; and then I am separating myself from the rest of humanity, and am becoming a self-isolated unlovable soul: or I come out of my shell, begin to expand my identity, and pick up the tabs for my fellows. It was because of the former possibility that Jesus had to die to prove His sincerity, since I was so tough-minded that only a death would get through to me, and in that sense it was because of my individual sin that Jesus died. In so far as I accept the latter identification, I accept responsibility for our corporate sins which led, among other things, to Jesus' being executed. So either way, Jesus died on my account. And He died to the end that I, along with all other human beings, might be reconciled to God, realising that God's will for us was not just the edict of a distant potentate but was the working out of a love for us which was lived in our world under our conditions, even the condition of mortality.

Although I can see how, either way, Jesus died on my account, the accounts are very different. In the one case, I am retrospectively taking responsibility for what Pilate and the Chief Priests did, recognising that in doing as they did, they did the sort of thing I might well have done had I been there, and acted in a typically human way, a way I am implicated in by the way I have joined in, and have benefited from, human society. I am saying that Jesus died because we killed him, extending my first-personal responsibility back to cover the events of 29AD. In the other case I am interpreting the whole Incarnation as a plan of God's to reconcile the whole of humanity; and since human selfishness, exemplified in my own selfishness, is the great barrier to our being at one with God, that plan needed God to undergo the worst fate that can happen to man, both to demonstrate His sincerity and to be someone we can identify with, however bad our own lot is.

If I identify with Jesus, I can be at one with God, and live a new life in Christ. But also, if I identify with Jesus, I shall begin to feel for Him and with Him in His suffering. I shall, though only to a small extent, enter into His Passion. The more I identify, the more I shall suffer. St Francis felt His sufferings so keenly that they actually imprinted their stigmata on his flesh. Such suffering is inevitable: it is the price of love. The more we make ourselves vulnerable by love, the more we expose ourselves to feeling wounded by all the things that go wrong for the beloved. But it is easy also to construe it in terms of punishment or penance.

I am unsaying the values of the old man, now recognised by the new man to be worthless, but I need to express the disavowal in the values of the old man. I am able to do this, by identifying with Christ, and in so doing, make manifest my repudiation of the worldly values that led to His crucifixion, and the human self-centredness that left God no other way to get through to us than living among us, and suffering the worst that can befall a man. My vicariously joining in Christ's suffering is my penance for my sin; in which case, once again, it is easy to say that His actual suffering was a punishment for my sin.

Many different explanations of the crucifixion can be given, answering different questions, and articulating different understandings of its deepest significance. According to the identification theory the crucifixion should be seen not as a separate event but in the context of the birth, life and teaching of Jesus, and His subsequent resurrection and ascension; and the reason for the incarnation and all that followed was that man should be able to be at one with God, not merely, as under the old dispensation, through trying hard to conform his outward actions so as to walk in the way of the Lord, but by sharing fully in His purposes, and being able to accept the fact that he is accepted by God. This was the Good News. But, though gladly received by some, it was not acceptable to all, and perhaps could not be, in view of what human nature is like, and the way society is organized. Confrontation led to Jesus' arrest, trial, condemnation, execution, resurrection and founding of the Church. If we ask within the whole complex pattern why Jesus died, we can explain it in terms of the ecclesiastical and Roman authorities, and identify with them. If we ask why Jesus did not avoid confrontation, we can explain that too, but need---in contrast with the moral influence theory---to distinguish final from consecutive clauses, and make it clear that although Jesus' death on the cross had, as a result, an influence on mankind, it was not in order to have that influence that He died. He died because He could no other, consistent with His mission. We can identify with that too, and see in His integrity a proof of His sincerity and absolute commitment. We can be sure that it was not mere play-acting, and that God really means what He says, and in spite of all our doubts and cynical suspicions, accept after all the fact that we are accepted.

There are many different identifications involved. Often we identify with different people in the course of the same explanation. The concept of identification is itself sometimes unclear and often fuzzy-edged. But it is a concept we use none the less, and it can give us a way of expressing different explanations of the crucifixion at different levels, in a way which reveals the force of traditional theories and metaphors without committing ourselves to their unfortunate, and often unchristian, implications.

1. For a sympathetic exposition see, Charles Taliaferro, ``A Narnian Theory of the Atonement'', Scottish Journal of Theology, 41, 1988, pp.75-92.
2. St John, 12:32.
3. Psalm 103:13.
4. St Matthew, 23:27
5. Athanasius, De Incarnatione, ed. F.L. Cross, (London, 1939), c.54; tr. A. Robertson, Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, London, 1892, IV, p.65; reprinted in Library of Christian Classics, ed. E.R, Hardy, (London, 1954), p.107.
6. I owe this point to Professor Swinburne, in the course of a discussion of an earlier version of this paper at Leeds on August 5th, 1992.


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