On atonement theories and the nature of God

Here is an interesting post. I sort of understand the complaint that Mel and Insanitybytes22 have with the theory of Penal Substitutionary Atonement, but I doubt there is a better “theory.” All we have are theories. That’s why this is one of those arguments that leaves me scratching my head. If any of us knows exactly what happened when Jesus died on that cross, none of us knows how to explain it well.

That said, I appreciate the fact Mel explained his own view. It helps to understand Insanitybytes22’s gripe.

For what it is worth what do I think? What the Bible is clear about is that God hates sin. When Adam and Eve disobeyed God, they sinned, and they bequeathed to us the consequences of that sin.

What did God do? He promised a Redeemer. As it happens, the Jews had almost no idea how this Redeemer, this Messiah, would fulfill His mission.

What do we know after the fact? Jesus, who is One with the Father, suffered and died for us. Was it to pay the price for our sins, or because God allowed the most vile of demons (one of His creations) to steal two naive souls from Paradise? In the first case we can make God appear hateful. In the second we can make Him seem like a clumsy all-powerful klutz.

So what is the answer? Who crucified Jesus? Acts 2 records that the Apostle Peter told the Jews that they had killed Him. The Gospels make it clear that Gentiles put Jesus on that cross too.

Fulfilling the wishes of the Father Jesus laid down His life for us. He allowed sinful people engaged in the most heinous sin to cruelly murder Him. His sacrifice somehow makes those who repent and believe in Jesus acceptable to God. Why? We don’t know. We also don’t know why the sin of Adam and Eve condemned all their progeny, including us, to death. Is it not the wisdom of God, not the wisdom of man, that brings salvation (see 1 Corinthians 1:18-31). Which of us can understand the Mind of God?

Should we try to understand this mystery? Yes. Should we emphasize the fact that Jesus Christ’s death on the cross was an act of love? Yes, but how do we emphasize the love God has for us over His wrath against sin? We do so by remembering that while we were still sinners He died for us, that it was our sin, not the Father’s wrath, that made His death on that cross necessary for our redemption.

In My Father's House

I was in an interesting conversation over at Insanitybytes22’s blog with her post, “A Wrinkle in Time….” The subject was about the atonement. You might be surprised to hear this if you’ve only heard one version of the atonement but, historically speaking, this subject is one the most controversial topics in Christianity.

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28 thoughts on “On atonement theories and the nature of God

  1. @Citizen Tom. I am a seminary graduate and must say that your piece is well done. It motivates me to write a theological post of my own. Cheers! -Mac

    1. @Mac

      Thanks. I just built a bit more on top of the good work of others.

      I understand each of the old cathedrals took lifetimes to build, one generation passing on to the next the beautiful work it had accomplished. Thus, each subsequent generation found itself inspired by the work of previous one. So it is we should work to inspire each other, and we should never declare our work done until our Lord takes us home.

  2. Tom,

    You said,

    “When we insist upon making God like ourselves, what God does must conform to our own wisdom,”

    In my opinion, wisdom is understanding how little we know about God.

    Faith is the wisest and perhaps the only understanding we will ever know about His reasons for allowing himself to be crucified.

    Same as King Solomon concluded after a lifetime of trying to understand what only God knows or chooses to reveal.

    It is the glory of God to conceal a matter; to search out a matter is the glory of kings.(Proverb 25:2)


    until men are come to ripeness of years;

    but the honour of kings is to search out a matter; to investigate everything relating to civil government, and that may be of use to them in the exercise of it; particularly to search into the word of God, and observe the laws in it, and rule according to them; or make such laws as are agreeably to it, and execute them: and to inquire diligently into all causes that are brought before them, that they may find out the truth of things, and pass judgment accordingly; and be able to give reasons for what they do in the public affairs of government, and make it appear that they are according to the rules of truth and justice; and to do so will gain them immortal honour! see Job 29:16.


    In other words, your statement is spot on, in my opinion. Discussing various theories helps to understand our faith more so than His reasoning.

    Regards and goodwill blogging

  3. Tom,

    I left a message on Mel’s site. This is a facinating discussion, and especially timely for Holy Week. Thanks for pointing me to Mel’s site – it was very enlightening as is the discourse here.

    The extravagant numerological theories of pinhead lounging Angels aside, I empathize with the metaphors that view Jesus’ sacrifice as somehow opening a mystical porthole through which a humanity estranged from God by the selfishness of sin can now voluntarily choose to reconcile, to mysteriously find “at onement” with God through unselfish sacrificial love and through the grace of God.

    Does God “hate” sin? I don’t claim to fathom the depths of God’s emotions. As someone else here remarked, if God does hate sin, perhaps that hate too is out of love, the way a mother or a father hates anything that harms their child and estranges that child from them. After all, all sin derives from selfishness, a selfishness that focuses all motivations inward instead of outward toward God and each other in the exchange of love.

    Regardless of what rational explanation of the unexplainable appeals to a given time and moment in the history of human development, perhaps the only thing that we should really be dogmatic about is love.

    1. @tsalmon

      Glad you enjoyed Mel’s blog.

      I don’t outright reject what Mel and Philip believe about Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. Both these guys have studied this subject more than I. So they certainly have earned the respect due to expertise.

      The Bible is unambiguous about God’s hatred of sin. That is one reason I favor the theory of Penal Substitutionary Atonement, but I think it is silly to argue with people who believe in Jesus and accept Him as their savior. At some point we have to admit we are just quibbling about details we don’t understand.

      Did the Father punish the Son? That thought really bothers some people, but Jesus said He and the Father are One. Since we don’t understand the trinity, we don’t understand the relationship between the Father and the Son. We just know each loves the other, and Jesus laid down His life. He chose to die on that cross.

      Anyway, here is one assessment of Christus Victor, the theory both seem to prefer => https://www.gotquestions.org/Christus-Victor.html.

      1. I like your answer (although lately for some reason, I can’t actually “like” comments here).

        Is the Bible “unambiguous” about what God hates? I wonder how many wars have been fought, how many lives and reputations have been destroyed, how many schismatic wounds opened in the Body of Christ over what seems “unambiguous” in scripture.

        I whole hardly agree that, if we hold a common faith on the most important mysteries, then the rest should just be a friendly intellectual discussion about issues that are likely far beyond any human understanding. Instead of laughing like hyenas, more like the self conflated intellectualizing of chimps.

        In that spirit, one chimp to another, I’ve never grasped why all the focus on what God hates? Is there some hope that if we define and enumerate these hates, then we can condemn this list of God given scriptural grievances when we see them illustrated in ourselves and others? That seems like a noble pharisaic cause, but doesn’t it also give rise to a legalism that risks sacrificing the spirit of the law on the alter of overzealous rabbinical codification? It appears to give the comfort of simplistic specificity, but is God’s command to love really supposed to be that simplistic, that unambiguous, when our reality is so varying, are circumstances are so dynamically changing and the solutions to our actual questions so intractablly ambiguous?

        Anyone who loves their children knows that real world issues about what to do, what to say, how to set an example, are exhaustingly difficult. We are bound to screw it up, but if we love them with all our hearts, even the wrong answers, I think, are better than the ones given by parents who love their dogmatic rules more than they love their children, don’t you think?

        Can there really be justice exclusively through hate? I firmly believe there is no real justice without love. Without Jesus’ love, how can the justice of the cross have any meaning? Was it really only to satisfy God’s hate? I don’t think so, but I wouldn’t fight anybody over it. What would be the point?

        1. @tsalmon

          Mel apparently has comments on his website turned off.

          Here is one of my “favorite” examples.

          Proverbs 6:16-19 English Standard Version Anglicised (ESVUK)
          16 There are six things that the Lord hates,
          seven that are an abomination to him:
          17 haughty eyes, a lying tongue,
          and hands that shed innocent blood,
          18 a heart that devises wicked plans,
          feet that make haste to run to evil,
          19 a false witness who breathes out lies,
          and one who sows discord among brothers.

          Not particularly interested in forcing anyone to adopt my beliefs, but we should strive to know the truth. The Bible doesn’t support moral relativism. When we know something is wrong, we should not do it. When we know the right thing to do, we should do that.

          What the Bible says is usually relatively easy to know. Occasionally, however, the meaning of scripture is a bit obscure or confusing. More often I fear people just want to believe something to suit themselves instead of God. Slavery would provide an example. Some Southerners insisted the Bible endorsed the enslavement of blacks. Abolitionists insisted otherwise. What complicated matters? In Paul’s day, it did not even occur to people that slavery was wrong.

          1. “The Bible doesn’t support moral relativism.”

            No I don’t think so either. Jesus’ commandment to Love is a universal law, true for all times and all places throughout history. This law of love is as theologically simple to understand as it is impossibly difficult to actually carry out in real life.

            I don’t know about you, but I find it extremely difficult to actively, dynamically, situationally, love God and my fellow humans each and every day in each and every interaction as I should. Now, hate, hate I can do instinctively, instantaneously and constantly. I am even very good at rationalizing my hatred:: “I am only hating the sin and not the sinner!” Ya sure I can lie very convincingly to myself, but am I really only hating the sin, as if somehow I have God’s omniscience to see inside each sinner’s soul disconnected from my loathing of that person’s actions? I know in my heart that i have a responsibility to unselfishly love each and every individual personally, person to person, day to day, moment to moment, but it is much easier to generalize love into some abstract “idea” of love l, dispassionate and floating somehow disconnected, intellectualized and above the visceral actuality of love. To say, “I just love the heck out of murderers, but I really hate murder”. What specific murderer do I love? It’s like saying, “I just love humanity, but this frail, deceitful acting, selfish disgusting human being right here in front of me, he sucks”.

            I have to force myself each moment, each day to make each person, especially those that I find most objectionable, into the personal object of my affections, not for their mere classification as a human, but somehow, impossibly, for exactly who they are, and then to try to let that actual personal love of that individual govern my actions toward that person. Is the fact that Jesus has not made this at all easy for me and that I constantly either fail, am afraid of the risks, let my pride get in the way or instead that I simply don’t not know what the most loving thing to do in each case, does that relieve me from trying? Of trying to build brick by brick, personal connection by personal connection, the moral habits of love? Is this effort really “moral relativism”? I can tell you that the effort, the failure and the challenge is bringing me more joy and meaning (and sometimes some grace) than anything that I have ever done in a life that I know is like a cup overflowing with pride for mostly undeserved and often far less meaningful successes.

            Maybe figuring out what God hates gives more actual meaning, more joy than hoping to ascend the steep, almost insurmountable mountain that we aspire to climb through love? If so, you will still have to explain that to me. I can be convinced by scripture, but only if that scriptural is interpreted through the light of Jesus’ justice and new covenant of love.

            Let me be clear. I’m not against love focused outrage, but I don’t think all abominations are created equal under the law of love. If love is our yardstick for outrage, then the hatred inspired genocide of six million Jews was an outrageous abomination of harm. Where does a supposed sexual abomination between consenting adults fit on Jusus’ love scale do you think? How much outrage should we spare on mostly Old Testament custom or code violations given all the other outrages goings on around us every day?

            Perhaps only God knows, and obviously, there is room for disagreement even among Christians who agree on the bigger points of faith. Love, like actual grace and holiness, seems difficult to explain, even by those most in the midst of it, and that maybe is why I am not understanding this Revival call toward What God Hates. It seems so counterintuitive to my faith, but ceramic not I am no prophet and I am certainly no Saint, so maybe that’s why I’m not getting it.

          2. @tsalmon

            When we talk about what the Bible says, that is a good thing. We should talk about the Bible. Talking about the Bible is part of our fellowship in Christ. Talking about the Bible is one of the ways we reconcile ourselves with God and what He commands, perfection.

            When we read the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5 – 7), what concerns most of us, most people? We cannot achieve the standards of the Law, the rules defined in the Old Testament. The Law is holy, but we are not. That leaves us only one choice. We must find a Savior, and that Savior is Jesus Christ.

            Because we are thoroughly reluctant to accept the fact we cannot save ourselves, we want to throw out those parts of the Bible that drive us to seek salvation in Jesus Christ. What does Bible say that drives us to God? Here is a short list of examples.
            1. We cannot save ourselves. God is scary holy. We are not. We live to give glory to God, not ourselves.
            2. God hates sin. That includes the sins I don’t want to admit are sinful, the sins we don’t want to hate.
            3. God commands us to love and forgive, including loving and forgiving our most hated enemies.
            4. God is infinitely wise. We cannot understand His thoughts. We can only put our faith in Him, love Him, and strive to obey Him.
            5. Hell, eternal separation from our Lord, is a real and logically necessary choice. When we refuse the love of God, we choose Hell.

            Part of fellowship is holding each other accountable. When one of us denies what the Bible says, the rest of us must reaffirm what the Bible does say.

            Two additional observations.
            1. The God of the Old Testament and the New are the same. That is why the New Testament constantly quotes the Old.
            2. The choice that matters is choosing Jesus Christ. Every other choice depends upon our success in loving Jesus. It is not about “me.” It is about my Savior.

          3. Everything you wrote is true there Tom. But don’t you think Scripture is more than just intellectual legalism? Don’t you think that God’s Law, as it is interpreted and transformed through the Gospels, directs a dynamic applied quality? And viewing the Bible thematically through the New Covenant of Christ by His life, death and resurrection, don’t you see how that dramatically revolutionized the Law?

            Jesus takes two Commandments found in the Torah (the Law): the Love of God (Duet.6) and the love of neighbor as oneself (Lev.19), and He establishes them as the guiding principles of every action (note that I use the word “action”, not just thought). In so doing, Jesus places all the rules and laws of the Old Testament under the light of love. This lens through which to look at the Law goes beyond just interpretation – it calls the believer to a spiritual journey to personally encounter Christ constantly in our lives, and especially through our interactions with others. It is a call to mission, an illumination of Scripture and a corporate identity in Christ, all at once and indivisible.

            As to the topic at hand, any theory of the meaning of the incarnation, death and resurrection without regard to this dynamic unifying theme of Jesus’ active spirituality in the cross of salvation misses God’s greatest gift to His people. (On the other hand, any theory that includes this will be more profoundly true, even if it is just a mirage to God’s reality in every other way). We are called to proactively “live” Jesus, and in so doing we will “live” the Law.

            Your example of slavery is appropriate. As you know, Paul was not silent on the duty of love in Christ that Masters owed slaves and that slaves owed Masters, even if, as you say, he couldn’t yet imagine a world without that institution. The duty to love is universal, unchanging and endless. What should have become obvious to any Christian In the Western World by the time of the Civil War was that one could not possibly be carrying out that most central Christian duty within the cruel and exceptional institution of slavery in the South. The world had changed. Our knowledge had changed. The Law of Love had not changed, but our difficult and dynamic application of that law to the different facts at hand constantly changes.

            To quote a line from my recent Bible Study class’ guide:

            “Christian spirituality does not start with laws and rules, but is founded upon and sustained by a relationship with Christ, both personal and communal. The grace of Christ establishes our relationship with God that expresses itself in love for one’s neighbor.”

            When I asked how then we so often use the Bible as a book of rules to hurt and condemn our neighbors rather than as a launching pad to love them, one old guy in the class wisely said: “The Devil knows the Bible too.” 😊

            In any event, I don’t think that we disagree on the most important issues of theology and Scripture here. We both agree that we are saved by God’s Love for us manifested in Christ. That sinks all our other petty issues far beneath the waves in its glory. Happy Easter!

          4. @tsalmon

            Everything you wrote is true there Tom. But don’t you think Scripture is more than just intellectual legalism? Don’t you think that God’s Law, as it is interpreted and transformed through the Gospels, directs a dynamic applied quality? And viewing the Bible thematically through the New Covenant of Christ by His life, death and resurrection, don’t you see how that dramatically revolutionized the Law?

            What is the point of legalism? Isn’t to evade the spirit of the law, the purpose for which it was written? If we use the two commands that Jesus cited, use love as an excuse to evade the spirit of the Law, that too is legalism.

            Legalism is ultimately a matter of the heart. If our heart is not in the right place, we won’t do the right thing. That is why we have the Bible, not just a couple of verses. That’s why we have the example of Jesus. That’s why the Apostles preached of Jesus’ love for us, His life, crucifixion, and His resurrection. We have to what it means to love God with all our strength, heart, soul, and mind.

            Depending upon who you ask we are not under any of the Old Testament’s Mosaic Code anymore. I myself think that is correct. Instead, we use the Old Testament for guidance. What the Old Testament says has not become untrue. The Old Testament is still the Word of God, but we are under a new covenant.

            If we are uncertain and want to understand why something might be right or wrong, that is good for our self, our family, our friends, and our neighbors; then we should see what the Bible says, including the Old Testament. If the Bible provides explicit guidance (doesn’t in every case), then we need to make sense of it and take it to heart. Whatever we do, we should not let “authorities” as ignorant and shallow as those we too often find in Hollywood, the news media, and academia overrule the Bible. Our understanding of the Bible may be wrong, but the Bible is not wrong.

            Note that the entire Bible is God’s Word, not just the Gospels. So we should study all of it. If we don’t study all of it, then even the Gospels won’t make as much sense as they should. Moreover, we will not be well prepared to lead others to Jesus, including our family.

            Anyway, it does seem you are making good use of your retirement to engage in religious studies. Love you brother! I pray that you and your family find joy in celebrating Easter.

          5. Good discussion. I really liked Tsalmon’s examination on his “hate.”

            Augustine was more or less a Neo-Platonist, so this odium or peccatum within ourselves he understood as void of our true nature. As you see it natural to hate, which I would suspect appears so, Augustine would say it’s wound in the true form your should possess in your own goodness.

            So what then is meant by Goodness. It means a state of perfection that God intended for his creature. Now, we could then debate what that actually looks like but I don’t have that amount of time.

            Now we move to Aquinas and the habit of virtue. I find that most Catholics have the free will understanding brought forth by Fr. Molina, a Jesuit. It more or less says we have radical free will to accept or reject God’s grace. Catholic Augustinian and Thomistic thought are in disagreement with this proposition and so am I. Basically, they have a better understanding of God’s sovereignty, predestination, and grace. So, most people would, if called by God’s grace, would have build a habit a virtue to fill the void of the habit of vice. Naturally, this is what we see more naturally anecdotally. It also leaves room for the fact that God gives more grace to some than others, although the Catholic position is that he gives everyone enough sufficient for their salvation.

  4. Thanks for the reminder of God’s grace and man’s free will.

    Just as God pointed toward future redemption (Genesis 3:15) and provided a covering for Adam and Eve after their fall (Genesis 3:21), he has provided a present redemption and has covered our sins (Ephesians 1:7 and Hebrews 7:22).

  5. ‘I ALWAYS do those things that please the Father,’ said the only truly fit man who lived,’ while we do not ALWAYS do the things that please God.

    That said, when the Lord was made sin, He PLEASED the Father. So much so that He said ‘Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.’ The naysayer who see God as the wrathmonster should pay attention to such words. The nearness and dearness of the Godhead was broken but stable as it were; this is the mystery of the Trinity anyway.

    When our children do something that strays as in poor choices, we can correct them, but we certainly do not love them any less. Yet when Christ died for our sins, He was pleasing, as always to God. There was never a moment when the fellowship of the trinity rings was in question. I’m not sure why though there is this unnecessary slander toward such good people as ib22, who is spot on in the fabric of scripture.

  6. Thanks for the re-blog, Tom.:) Great conversation. One thing DO we know and proclaim. Jesus died for our sins, defeating death, and He’s alive and we will be with Him forevermore!

  7. The problem with penal subsitiion is that it requires an innocent person to pay the penalty for a crime He did not commit. Therefore, it would contradict the eternal justice of God. The Church Fathers, like Augustine, used the idea of Ransom Theory, which I think frames it an understanding that doesn’t contradict said justice.

    Under Ransom theory, many theories can then fall under it like Christus Victor and Sufficient theory.

    1. @Philip

      Augustine was certainly a better theologician than I am, but we were slaves to sin, not Satan. If we were ransomed from sin, then are we not making a distinction without a difference?

      1. Mel responded to me, as I commented on his piece, he does have a good understanding of Ransom theory as a rescue mission that can incorporate other variations with little ease.

        I did say this to him in appreciation of the focus of penal substitution:

      2. The comment decided to post before I was done.

        The one aspect of Penal Substitution theory that I find intriguing is it inherent connection back to Genesis and the Incarnation itself. For more or less, this understanding is found also with a Church Father Athanasius in his work On the Incarnation.

        I’m going to paraphrase here, but God said that if Adam and Eve shall eat from their tree they should surely die. They ate and brought forth death. However, Man alone could never repay full restitution because God being God could not go back on His word. Therefore, in many ways, it was needed for God to become man to “pay” the judgment.

        I don’t quite know if “ransom theory” still can play into this understanding. However, what I do like about it is its central focus on the role of the Incarnation: The Divine taking upon flesh.

    2. I’m curious Philip – in your view, how is the “ransom theory” impacted by the fact that God used innocent animals in the Old Testament sacrifices as a prefiguring of the role of Christ? It would seem that the innocence of a sacrifice is a component of God’s justice, rather than a contradiction to it.

        1. “…in your view, how is the “ransom theory” impacted by the fact that God used innocent animals in the Old Testament sacrifices as a prefiguring of the role of Christ?”

          To Brandon and Philip, the animal sacrifice motif is a powerful picture that certainly plays a role in the atonement. But if we reduce Christ’s atoning work to this, it’s still only scratching the surface, and I think we miss the bigger picture. The Eastern church (and all of the church for the first 1,000 years) saw God actually progressively deconstructing the idea of animal sacrifice. We also see the prophets telling Israel that God never wanted their sacrifices, but their hearts (Psalm 51:16-17; Isa.1:11-18; Jer.7:22-23; Hos. 6:6; Amos 5:21-24). Of course, the New Covenant promise in Jeremiah is to give us a new heart (Jer.31:31-34). I’ve written a lot about this very subject over the years.

          Rene Girard also has an interesting anthropological view about scapegoating and how God used that, which I posted in “Christianity: The Founding Murder in Reverse” (https://wp.me/p3I7Ty-7XD).

          Anyway, to answer this would take a lot more than a simple comment. 🙂

          1. Good reply. I simply answered that I do not equate the innocence of animals with rational beings. And thought it sufficient enough for the answer because it answers the moral aspect of Brandon’s question.

          2. I thought yours was a good point on the moral aspect, Philip. Very much to the point. When talking about atonement theories and concepts less familiar to evangelical Christianity, I find myself giving long answers to explain why my view isn’t so far-fetched. 🙂

  8. It’s always good to hear civil theological disagreements. Sometimes I spend too much time engaged with the howling hyenas and their “God killed himself to save us from himself” atonement theory.

    1. @John

      When we insist upon making God like ourselves, what God does must conform to our own wisdom, and it doesn’t. It just shows how much we are unlike God. Howling hyenas is putting kindly.

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