The word atonement comes from sixteenth-century English and literally means at-one-ment. Atonement is the process of reconciliation between God and human beings (either on a communal or individual basis) with the goal of righting a wrong or injury, i.e. sin.
Christians contend that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is intimately related to this process. But not all agree on when this act of atonement happened.
So in your mind, what part of Jesus’ life was most important in redeeming humanity?
- God becoming human in the Incarnation (Christ’s birth)
- Jesus teaching us and performing miracles (Life and Teaching)
- Jesus dying on the cross (Crucifixion)
- Jesus rising from the dead (Resurrection)
Based on your answer, you are able to see where you might want to study more on the Atonement chart. Note that the theologians mentioned are jumping-off points for discussion, not the end-all authorities on these theories
If you believe that the locus of atonement is that God became human, then you might study:
- Christus Victor. Popularized by Irenaeus, Jesus’ life is a victorious struggle against evil. While many would place this at the Resurrection, Irenaeus would place the locus at the Incarnation and God existing before time as part of the Trinity.
- Incarnational Atonement. Popularized by Fredrick Schleiermacher, something about the way Jesus is invites us into ideal humanity, made possible simply because of the Incarnation. God becoming flesh atones humanity in that instant, and all that matters is that God became human. This is also one of the stated ponderings in the Hacking Christianity article “Christmas, Not Lent, Should be about Atonement.”
If you believe that the locus of atonement is Jesus’ life and teachings, then you might study:
- Moral Exemplar. Popularized by Abelard, Jesus’ life and death is a powerful enough example of love and obedience to influence sinners to repent of their sins and improve their lives.
- Solidarity. Popularized by Tony Jones and Jurgen Moltmann, Jesus’ life stands as testimony that he always stood with the marginalized, the poor, the prostitutes and the tax collectors. His death was the result of his life. We are called to identify with Christ’s suffering and to stand with those whose experience of being forsaken parallels Christ on the cross.
- Healing Servant. Popularized by some interpretations of John Wesley (though his own atonement is much harder to pin down), this perspective sees sin as disease and grace as healing, referencing Christ as the Great Physician…here’s a paper on the topic (PDF).
If you believe that the locus of atonement is Jesus’ death on the cross in the crucifixion, then you might study:
- Penalty Satisfaction/Substitution. Popularized by Augustine/Anselm, the death of Jesus on the cross is the paying of a debt (or satisfying a debt) caused by humanity’s sinful nature offending God’s honor. Also framed as Jesus taking the place (substituting) for humanity on the Cross.
- Last Scapegoat. Popularized by Rene Girard, tribal human societies needed a release valve to let off the pressure of increasing rivalry and violence, so a scapegoat victim is sacrificed, thus relieving the pressure of violence. Jesus’ death as a “visible victim/scapegoat” shows the injustice and inherent immorality of the scapegoating system on display (h/t Chris Baca in comments).
If you believe that the locus of atonement is Jesus’ resurrection and triumph over death, then you might study:
- Ransom Captive. Popularized by Origen, Jesus’ death is the ransom paid to the devil (or evil powers) to free humans from the bondage of sin. Its locus is the Resurrection as that’s when the Devil was tricked and he didn’t have any control over Christ at all. RC has gained some traction in the post-modern world when you substitute “Satan” with “the powers” as popularized by Walter Wink and Gustav Aulen.
In the end, no one atonement theory may be sufficient to understand the acts of God through Jesus Christ to reconcile the world to God’s self. But in the studying of different theories and areas of focus, one confronts exactly what one believes about Jesus’ birth, life, death, and resurrection and perhaps by illuminating what is most important a stronger constructive theology can be made.
Thoughts? Comments? I know I missed some like Governmental and Recapitulation, but that’s okay! It’s a primer!