Those interested can survey the various theories of the Atonement on the Web. My purpose here is not to recount them, but to decry how so many Bible teachers haughtily assume theirs to be the right one: “How dare anyone question the legal-penal substitution theory? Doesn’t it undergird all our evangelical preaching?” A better question is, “How could the church even use the word atonement to describe what happened on the Cross?” Most theologians readily admit that it’s a major misappropriation of terminology in Christian thinking, but also that it's a term we're stuck with.
In the Old Testament usage of the Hebrew word atonement (kaphar, “to cover over”) is a concept of hiding sin’s guilt by covering it with the blood of animal sacrifices. Ecclesiastic prudery insists that God clothed the first sinners with animal skins to approve or accommodate the very first independent idea and action of their sin nature: a felt need to hide their bodies. A view more in keeping with His gracious character is that God was providing His delinquent image-bearers either physically—with warmth and protection in a fallen world—or spiritually—with the first recorded kaphar, an atonement or covering for their sin.
Not only is the concept of atonement etymologically absent from the New Testament, but a new idea is introduced. We first hear it from the lips of John the Baptist upon seeing Jesus at the Jordan: “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). Jesus came to take away sins, not to cover over them, which was all that animal sacrifices could do. These sacrificial repetitions, year after year, only reminded sinners that personal guilt was put away from sight not taken away (Hebrews 10:4-5). Jesus accomplished the latter.
But how did the transaction at the Cross work? Was it a debt repayment, a redemptive trade-off, a substituted punishment, an absorption of divine wrath? A narrow focus on the Cross alone, in conjunction with certain Scriptures, might elevate any of these motifs to the exclusion of others. But there is a larger picture, one that weaves the Cross and the Resurrection into one solid and inseparable tapestry of redemption. That is the ransom or restoration theory of the Atonement.
In Gustaf Aulén’s book, Christus Victor, I learned that this understanding of the Atonement dominated Christian thought for the first millennium of Church history. C. S. Lewis employed it as the basis for his allegorical representation of the death of Christ in Aslan’s death for “the traitor” and subsequent resurrection in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. When I first read Christus Victor, I was inspired to write the following poem with the same title, as an attempt to capture this idea of strategic ransom:
Drawn into a web of darkness,
Duped and drugged with sin's seduction,
Down we drank the Devil's lie
And were lost within the starkness
Of a wasteland of destruction,
Damned and doomed, condemned to die.
Love Almighty, Love Creator,
Love, Who breathed His image in us,
Love, the awesome Trinity,
Planned to foil the Fabricator,
Planned to plunder hell and win us
By strategic mystery.
God descended and invaded
Human flesh and limitation,
Preaching Heaven's Reign begun,
Waging war where sin pervaded,
Tasting death for everyone.
Had they known the power hidden
In the Lion's crucifixion,
Hell would not have killed the Son.
Now the human race is bidden
To depart from self-addiction
Through the victory Jesus won.
Christus Victor! God descended
To fulfil the Law's postponement.
Slain, He slew the death we died!
Christ is risen! God ascended!
Sinners, purchased by atonement,
Rise with Christ, the Crucified!
Christ Triumphant! Christus Victor!
Captives freed by hell's disruption
Soar like eagles taking wing!
Ransomed by the Liberator,
Slaves to sin and death's corruption
Gain new life in Christ the King!
-- David L. Hatton, 11/21/95
Because of its heavy dependence on a realistic view of the Incarnation, this atonement theory has quietly influenced the development of my theological thinking. Yet, in general, I forgot my initial excitement in discovering it . . . until recently, when I saw the video clip of Brian Zahnd giving, “The Gospel in Chairs.” I encourage you to watch it, maybe more than one time. If it doesn’t immediately blow your mind, then ask yourself, “Does how I view and preach the Cross accurately represent the heart of the Heavenly Father who ‘so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son’?” You may find yourself reaching back to the minds and helpful illustrations of our early Christian ancestors for a balanced view of this mystery.
It’s important to approach unfathomable mysteries in the Christian faith with deep reverence and godly humility. Glib confidence and sometimes outright cockiness in Christians mouthing their beliefs may not only be a turn-off for the prospective convert, but a point of great future embarrassment, or even tears of regret, in the presence of our risen, conquering King, Christus Victor.