The doctrine of substitutionary atonement is dying.  Is that a bad thing?

Roger Olson of Truett seminary shares a question:

Why is it that, during my lifetime, evangelical Christianity in America seems to have largely forgotten and possibly even discarded the theme of substitutionary atonement.

The question took me by surprise.  I should have been aware of this trend, but I wasn’t.

Frankly, I couldn’t be happier.

Professor Olson does not share my pleasure.  He sees the substitutionary atonement as an essential feature of orthodox Christianity.

If you’re wondering, the idea of substitutionary atonement, traditionally associated with Anselm and John Calvin, asserts that we all deserve the fate Jesus suffered on the cross but, because Jesus died in our place, we are saved from the wrath of God.

Olson thinks he knows why the substitutionary doctrine has fallen on hard times.  Christians no longer believe that their sins warrant divine punishment.  We no longer believe that “it should have been me” on the cross.

I once asked a confirmation class why God became a human being. “Because we’re awesome,” one student declared without a hint of irony.  She believed she was awesome because the adults in her life had been telling her that all her life.

After interviewing thousands of American  adolescents, sociologist Christian Smith concluded that American churches are teaching what he calls “moralistic therapeutic deism”.  Being good gets you a ticket to heaven; God is there when we need him and pretty much leaves us alone when we don’t.

If you grow up with this cluster of concepts you certainly don’t see yourself as deserving the death Jesus died in your place.

I suspect the prosperity gospel has also diminished substitutionary thinking.  The idea that Jesus died in our place is closely tied to what Marcus Borg called heaven-hell Christianity.  Some go to heaven, some roast eternally, and everything depends on whether or not you trust in the atoning death of Jesus.

Health and wealth Christianity doesn’t wait for the afterlife to get the good stuff; it’s all there for us now.  Heaven-hell religion focused on avoiding hell; health and wealth religion emphasizes the temporal benefits of the atonement.

And if God wants to give us all the goodies, we must be pretty awesome, right?

But is atonement God reconciling the world to himself through the cross of Christ; or is it about me convincing God to let me off the hook?  The atonement changes me; it doesn’t change God.

Brian Zahnd, in his Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God, asks if your six year old daughter or your grandmother deserves flogging and crucifixion.  That’s the right way to frame the question.

Atonement isn’t about avoiding a gruesome death and a horrific eternity.  Atonement is about being transformed by the renewing of our minds.  It’s about repenting and believing the good news that Jesus brought into the world.

4 thoughts on “The doctrine of substitutionary atonement is dying.  Is that a bad thing?

  1. As a youth in Texas, I was taught that atonement enabled me to escape eternal fire in Hell. Rejecting that, now my perception of the GOOD NEWS Jesus brought is that he offers acceptance and release from shame. Maybe you should elaborate on your perception of the GOOD NEWS.

  2. Interesting response. Are you saying that the doctrine of substitutionary atonement was being misinterpreted before, so it’s good that it’s gone? Or that we still need it, but in its true understanding?

  3. The idea is substitution is rifht there in Isaiah 53, but in Isaiah (and Paul) the Servant suffers for Israel, not isolated individuals. So “Jesus died for sinners” is a true statement. But we die too. And we too are raised. Pauline atonement is participatory. We die with Christ.

  4. The book Transformed Lives by Crysdale gives a good alternative to the penal substationary theory.
    At One Ment – refers to a reconciliation with God. Atonement theology is not a transaction but an experience.

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