Holy Week doesn’t have to be about Atonement

It’s Holy Week. There were tons of pictures of Palms, donkeys, and parades on Palm Sunday. There will be images of footwashings, communion cups, and dinner tables on Maundy Thursday. Three crosses on a hill on Good Friday. And an empty tomb, rolled away stone, and Easter Lilies on Easter Sunday.

Following the images are the theological statements about atonement. Jesus came to Jerusalem to die to atone for our sins. Jesus had a Last Supper because he was going to die to atone for our sins. Jesus died on a Cross to atone for our sins. And Jesus died for our sins he could be Risen, and that we would believe.

But that’s not how the narrative has to go. In fact, Jesus “atoning for our sins” upon his death on the Cross is only one understanding among many.


Mapping out Atonement Theories

I made the above graphic about a year ago for my adult Sunday School class as they wrestled with what “atonement” meant. Here’s the original post: “A Primer on Atonement Theories.”

Briefly, 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.

The graphic encourages you to answer this question: what part of Jesus’ life was most important in redeeming humanity?

  1. God becoming human in the Incarnation (Christ’s birth)
  2. Jesus teaching and performing miracles (Life and Teaching)
  3. Jesus dying on the cross (Crucifixion)
  4. 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. Click here to read about the chart options.

Could Atonement have happened before the Cross?

One application of the chart is that it helps folks who have issues with atonement and redemptive violence that is wrapped up in the Cross. While cross-based atonement is absolutely a valid approach, I find fewer theological minefields in other understandings of atonement (and so do other United Methodists).

Briefly, I feel that atonement theories lose sight of the very real reconciliation that Christ offered through his life when they focus on the Cross alone. Atonement does not actually have to be about death or suffering, but it must be about the reconciliation of the relationship between God and humanity.

Atonement means making one, “at-one-ment”, but more than that, it is making one again.  It is turning humanity towards their original being created in the image of God. And Jesus was doing that long before he was on a Cross.

  • Atonement is the woman at the well who is brought closer to God through Jesus’ insight into her life.
  • It is the woman who anoints Jesus’ feet (or hair), and Jesus does not look down on her like the others.
  • It is the story of Jesus not only suffering on a cross, but suffering through his foolish disciples’ deftness, holy men’s lack of faith, women’s persistence who confront him, and finally a disciple who betrays him.
  • It is Jesus who suffers willingly in life, not just in death, and joining others in their suffering.  Jesus suffers in his love for us. For me.  For you.

If that is true, then the Cross is one inevitable step in that journey of presence. But the atoning power of Christ could have come long before the Cross, and my claim is that such reconciliation was not subjective to the individuals only but was objective to humanity as a whole.

Atonement doesn’t have to mean that what happened on the Cross was unique. Atonement could mean that the same thing that happened on the Cross happened every day of Jesus’ ministry: Jesus chose to suffer with people. Jesus suffered alongside and in companionship with the least of the people. Jesus suffered with me.  Jesus’ ministry and death on the cross meant to them, to us, that while their suffering is not redemptive, it is descriptive of the life’s journey they will walk with Christ.  Though the world may inflict violence, it does not matter: we are at-one with God.  And God will never let us walk alone.

Atonement with a Call To Action

What would happen if we moved the locus of atonement even further away from Jesus’ death and towards Jesus’ birth and life? While that is a step towards Exemplary atonement, it’s not quite a mere “Jesus showed us how to live” or “an example to live by.” Instead, an atonement focused on the Incarnation, on the belief that God became human, might say that in the sheer act of becoming human, God atoned humanity and reconciled humanity to God’s self. The re-creation of humanity into the community of God was not through suffering, violence, or death, but simply because God became human and lived alongside us.

An Incarnational Atonement changes the Holy Week conversation from “wrestling with what violence must be” towards “what is God actually doing here?” Do we do away with the Cross because the Cross is violence?  By no means!  But we must look at the Cross on the mountaintop from the vantage point of seeing all of Christ’s ministry.  Just as John Wesley emphasizes Christ’s role of the Prophet, so do I see Jesus atoning all along the path to the Cross.

This is personally convicting for me. Using Wesley’s terminology, in the moment of justifying grace when I saw that God is persistent in God’s love, I knew that I would suffer as I seek sanctification in my walk with God. The suffering itself is not redemptive; however, redemption is found alongside suffering because Jesus knew humanity needed to know that where there is suffering, Christ is there with us. I feel a call to action to live like Jesus in that sort of atonement that I don’t feel as strongly in guilt-based Cross theologies.

Wherever we go, we bear Christ with us in our suffering. Christ no longer kept on the shelf in the bible, or behind a veil in a temple.  Christ is Emmanuel, “God with Us,” and what was achieved on the Cross was for me the (Reinforcement? Fulfillment? Consequent?) of what Jesus had already achieved by his very life.

May we live into that mystery as we live out our reconciliation every day.


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  1. Maurice Haynes says

    Of course we have to take the, birth,life,death and resurrection of Christ in its entirety since it is the whole plan of a Holy God’s to reconcile man to him. We cannot choose which bits to like and which bits to leave out. It’s God’s plan complete and holistic.

    • says

      Yes, it was God’s plan to reconcile humanity. But we would not have free will if we couldn’t have chosen to NOT kill Jesus. And if we didn’t, would we have been reconciled?

      • Lawrence Kreh says

        Regardless of genesis of the atonement, God was not naive regarding the state of human nature and the cross was inevitably the climax of the process of atonement. Not that God “willed” it or that it was, as I read elsewhere, a “business transaction,”, but that he willingly entered into it as part of reconciling the divine with fallen humanity. Sin is not an action–I believe it is a state of being that free will alone could never overcome. Thus, the incarnation

  2. says

    I was so prepared to hate this post.

    But I didn’t. : )

    This sentence — Christ is Emmanuel, “God with Us,” and what was achieved on the Cross was for me the (Reinforcement? Fulfillment? Consequent?) of what Jesus had already achieved by his very life — is one of the more thought-provoking statements I’ve read.

  3. says

    Aren’t all of these atonement theologies that function in various ways, with a diversity of emphases? I’d say that Holy Week doesn’t have to be only about the Cross, or it isn’t the only opportunity for atonement…but it does have *something* to do with atonement. Otherwise, our rationale for observing, worshipping, praying, and emulating Christ this week is greatly diminished.

    • David Denis says

      I would agree with Josh here, and I would add to it this way. It’s always about atonement. And atonement is so mind-bogglingly huge, so galactically enormous, so far beyond the beyond of beyond in scope, that we need a multiplicity of pictures to help us even capture a slice of it. That’s why the scriptures give us all that you mentioned and more. They all point to how the atonement for humanity in Christ “works” but the reality is that we are reconciled through the totality of who Christ is and by all that he has done.

      good to be reminded of this.

  4. says

    Unrelated to your main point. I’m curious why you identify Christus Victor as particularly connected to the incarnation. I’ve only read Aulen’s book once, but I don’t recall him making that connection. I may just not have been paying close enough attention. That certainly was not the question I was thinking about while reading it.

    Again, a question about a secondary question, but I was interested in your thinking on that.

    • says

      I unfortunately can’t remember the specifics, John. I ran a draft of this by my Facebook friends and some friends (who hold that theory) pointed to the victory in Christ as hinging on the Incarnation. I’ll see if I can unearth the specifics (though Facebook is completely irritating in its inability to search).

    • says

      Found the followup but not the initial discussion (easier to find images than posts). Here’s two quotes:
      “CV (according to Irenaeus) would hinge on the Incarnation, though it is fully made known in the Resurrection.”
      ” Irenaeus’s CV is centered on the Trinity and the Incarnation while most other conceptions of it would be centered on the “victory” part of the Resurrection.”

    • Jeff Jaynes says

      Since I was one of those Facebook commenters, I’ll give my answer here as to why I think CV belongs under the Incarnation header rather than elsewhere…and, as Jeremy notes, I would link it to Irenaeus. While Irenaeus does not specifically call his atonement theory “Christus Victor” (that may be Aulen’s term but the theory is older) it would seem to me (and others) that it fits there as well.

      Ireanaeus notes that the Word of God, “the Saviour of all who rules over heaven and earth, who is Jesus, as we have shown before, who took flesh and was anointed with the Spirit by the Father, became Jesus Christ.” (Against Heresies Book I, 9.3). Certainly sounds like a victorious Christ to me (“rules over heaven and earth”). This idea of victory can also clearly be seen in Irenaeus’ view of recapitulation or anakephalaiosis, which he ties to Incarnation many times in his work.

      For Irenaeus, that Word becoming Jesus Christ certainly happens in the Incarnation (for the ultimate purpose of recapitulation, or atonement, of all): “For this the Word of God became man, and the Son of God Son of man, that man, mingled with the Word and thus receiving adoption, might become a son of God. We could not receive imperishability and immortality unless we had been united with imperishability and immortality. And how could we have been united with imperishability and immortality unless imperishability and immortality had first been made what we are, so that what was perishable might be absorbed by imperishability and what was mortal by immortality.” (Against Heresies, Book III, 19.1)

      While there is a lot there beyond just the conversation of Christus Victor, Atonement, and Incarnation, (and those words themselves are not used explicitly), it would seem to this reader that the three are all tied together in Irenaeus’ thinking and that, in his thinking it is clear that Jesus was Word from birth, therefore ruler of all from birth, Christ from birth, and that, as such, he was uniting mortality with immortality to “gather up all things in him” (Ephesians 1:10).

      All that said, I think Aulen does locate Christus Victor in the Incarnation as well. So there’s that. Is any of that helpful or does it just further muddy the waters?

      • says

        It is helpful, thank you. Since Aulen says CV is the classic theory goes back to the Fathers, then it certainly makes sense to look at them.

        Part of my question comes about because I was trying to associate the atonement with the incarnation in some way that makes that more central than the cross. It has to be more than placing a lot of importance on the incarnation. After all, Anselm’s entire discussion starts with the question why God had to become a man in the first place. The scandal of the incarnation is what got Anselm writing in the first place.

        Thanks for letting me divert the thread. As I acknowledge, my question is not the point of the post.

        • John Meunier says

          And a year later, having since read Irenaeus, I’m not convinced his recapitulation theory fits easily with Christus Victor as laid out by Aulen. Maybe Aulen would say otherwise, but CV strikes me as much more about a confrontation, battle, and victory, where recapitulation is about Christ literally undoing the failures of Adam by Christ’s obedience.

          Maybe they overlap, but the central emphasis strikes me as different.

          I do agree that incarnation is a huge deal for Irenaeus.

  5. says

    It’s funny how things come around, isn’t it. The cross is described in the New Testament as foolishness to the Greeks/gentiles and a stumbling block to Jews. And in the late 20th/early 21st century it has become a stumbling block and foolishness to some Christians.

    I understand the theological concerns, but I also think we need to acknowledge our own propensity to run away from the cross – our own, and Jesus’. Bonhoeffer said Christianity without discipleship is always Christianity without the cross. We should run screaming into the hills (perhaps to Golgotha) away from that kind of Christianity.

    • says

      In the above, it is not mentioned that we ought to do away with the Cross. In fact, in two places, that sentiment is expressly condemned.

      What is mentioned above, repeatedly, is that atonement does not have to fit solely into the hours that Jesus hung on the Cross. That atonement encompasses the whole of Jesus’ life, and in doing so, its hinge point doesn’t have to be on the Cross.

      It would be impossible to have Jesus without the Cross because any life lived like Jesus will inevitably end up on the Cross. But what is not impossible is a view of Jesus’ atonement that does not have the Cross at its epicenter.

  6. says

    Outstanding, refreshing and timely. It would seem most helpful when meditating on the event of Jesus’ death to be able to do it without the benefit of knowing there would be a resurrection. Imagine the scene and the emotions, confusion, trauma among all who were there- each from their own frames of reference. To me, this kind of ability would spill over into Saturday and then make Sunday a bit more powerful as well.

  7. Eric says

    I prefer the Thomist model which describes atonement as involving everything from Christ’s incarnation to ascension (a key element left out of the chart). We cannot speculate “what if Christ had not died…” because each part of his time with us was redemptive, and each piece is individually “necessary”. This is not because God could not save with only one piece; it is because it is God’s nature, in Christ, to do all that he did. We worship a redeeming God, a God who came to be with us in Christ. The nature of Christ includes being one who would be put to death by those opposed to God. The nature of Christ includes living in solidarity with the poor. The nature of Christ is abundant holiness onto perfection. It is not God’s actions apart from God’s nature that saves us; God, in all that God is, does and does not do, is redemptive through Christ Jesus.

  8. says

    Great chart! For clarity, the Moral influence/exemplar theory *is* a form of atonement theory – one favored by many progressive Christians. It helps us connect with God – at-one-ment — rather than the common connotations of “atoning for something.””

    Roger Wolsey, author, Kissing Fish: christianity for people who don’t like christianity

  9. John Palmer says

    ok sure to your opening up the conversation about atonement. I think your partly right, although I don’t think that Holy Week can be walked through fully without atonement. I have been resonating with the notion of “deliverance”. The Festal celebration that Jesus was at when he taught the Disciple’s a new commandment was one of memory about deliverance. Not individual deliverance but whole nation deliverance. So the air was thick with memory of how God had taken his people out of captivity to establish them in a promised land. A hopeful experience and they were once again living in another “captivity”. The turning point all hinges on the culmination of all this memory being being regaled and hope being reinstated. This time though, this final time would require an incredible act to set in motion for eternity deliverance for all. And it is an act that when we align ourselves in accordance with the new commandment, continues to pulse through time. That act, required a cross and a spotless lamb. Atonement. No it’s not the only thing, but it’s the ultimate thing.

  10. Paul Nicolas says

    “The “New” gospel is one that worries not about sin. It feels no great need for justification. It readily dismisses the imputation of Christ’s righteousness as an essential need for salvation. We have substituted the “unconditional love” of God for the imputation of the righteousness of Christ. If God loves us all unconditionally, who needs the righteousness of Christ? ” Is this what you are trying to impart about Christ reconciliation? Skipping the substitutionary atonement?Well, It’s still the cross, it’s still the blood of Calvary than cleanses sin and sets the captives free. It’s in the name of Jesus that has power to save the lost.


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