nature of the atonement“I have gone to church plenty of times, but Josh, there is one thing that I really can’t get my head around.” “What’s that?” I ask curiously. “Well, I just don’t get what the cross is all about. How is it a good thing? It just seems weird.”

This was a conversation I had with a parishioner as they sat perplexed in my study. This is probably what a lot of people think when they hear Christians talk about “Good Friday.” What is good about it? It all seems rather strange really. Today as I sat in a Good Friday service I heard the same sentiment echoed by a man in the back row as the cross was covered with a sheet and people shuffled out of church in silence. “Weird” he uttered, much to the amusement of the man next to him who snickered in a kind of nervous agreement.


“The Nature of the Atonement” edited by Beilby and Eddy (B&E) is a book that addresses this question – what happened on the cross? What does Jesus’ death mean? What does atonement mean?

According to B&E “it refers to a reconciled state of ‘at-one-ness’ between parties that were formally alienated in some manner.” Generally speaking this reconciliation is between God and humanity or God and creation. There are four contributors to this book that each offer a different view of just what is reconciled and how this reconciliation works. The four contributors are Greg Boyd, Joel Green, Bruce Reichenbach, and Tom Schreiner all from different theological schools and church backgrounds. This book is structured so the four views are presented and after each view is presented the other contributors respond to create a dialogue between the views. With this approach criticism of each of the views is offered. By all means, read the book for this dialogue, but here in this blog I will outline the 4 views presented by the authors to give an overview of the views of atonement on offer in this book.

  1. Christus Victor View – Gregory A. Boyd

This view is based on the following Scriptures – Hebrews 2:14 & 1 John 3:8. The Christus Victor (CV) model “centers on the truth that through the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Christ, God defeated the devil.” Boyd argues that while there are other facets to what God has done through Jesus that he believes CV is the primary model. As a background Boyd paints a picture of what he calls the “warfare motif” in Scripture. He cites examples of how the Israelites referred to God’s battle with hostile waters and vicious sea monsters referring to evil in the world (Psalm 29:3-4; 74:10-14; 77:16; Proverbs 8:27-29; Job 7:12; 9:8; Ezekiel 29:3 are some examples). There are also “rebel gods” that are referred to (2 Sam 5:23-24; 1 Chronicles 12:22; Judges 11:21-24). Boyd’s point is that ancient Near Eastern mythology there was an understanding of a “cosmic war zone.”

In the New Testament we see this understanding developed and Boyd points out that Jesus speaks about how Satan was “the ruler of this world” (John 112:31; 14:30; 16:11). St Paul speaks in a similar fashion, labelling Satan “the god of this world” (2 Corinthians 4:4).

Boyd argues that Jesus’ entire ministry was about defeating Satan’s rule and that we see this ministry exercised in Jesus’ healings and deliverances as well as his death and resurrection. The strength of this view of the atonement is that it takes into account more than just what happened on the cross, it also makes sense of Jesus’ entire ministry.

In this view on the cross Jesus lets Satan do his worse to him, dies and overcomes Satan through the resurrection in which God defeats sin and evil. Boyd puts it this way: “Like an infinitely wise military strategist, God knew how to get his enemies to use their self-inflicted blindness against themselves and use their self-chosen evil to his advantage. He wisely let evil implode on itself, as it were, and thereby freed creation and humanity from evil’s oppression.”

To live as a follower of Jesus in the understanding that this is what Jesus has done is to participate in God’s victory, and to resist the powers of evil in the world.

  1. Penal Substitution View – Thomas R. Schreiner

This view is probably the most widely held view of the atonement in the “evangelical” Christian world. Schreiner defines the Penal Substitution view (PV) as follows: “The Father, because of his love for human beings, sent his Son (who offered himself willingly and gladly) to satisfy God’s justice, so that Christ took the place of sinners. The punishment and penalty we deserved was laid on Jesus Christ instead of us, so that in the cross both God’s holiness and love are manifested.”

To understand this view, first we must identity the problem that the cross addresses. The “reason human beings need to be reconciled to God is because of their sin and guilt.” The point here is that sin is an “objective reality” that separates us from God and therefore needs to be dealt with.

The central metaphor in PS is the courtroom. Humanity stands before God with a guilty verdict due to our sinful nature. The penalty for this sin is death (Romans 6:23). God is holy and just and God’s holy anger is directed at all of those that disobey God (everyone). Yet God loves the world so much he sends Jesus to bear the punishment of our sins (John 3:16). “Christ died in our place, too to himself our sins (2 Corinthians 5:21) and guilt (Galatians 3:10), and bore our penalty so that we might receive forgiveness of sins.

Schreiner cites biblical examples such as the fact that in Genesis Adam and Eve are expelled from the garden for just one sin, and that no one can live up to the Law that God gives his people to live by. Schreiner argues that “the norms of the law express God’s character, the beauty and holiness of his person.” Sin is a violation of this law and therefore humanity is separated from God. Sin is a kind of rebellion and rejection of God and this makes God angry. The wrath and anger of God flows from his holiness because God’s “goodness necessarily loves what is right and hates what is evil.”

How is this problem of separation due to sin solved according to PS? It requires a penal substitute. Why? The logic is found in the Old Testament (See Leviticus, e.g. Lev. 10:16-18, Lev 16 & 17 too). In Levitical law animal sacrifice was used as a means of atonement. “The laying of hand on animals most likely means that the animal functions as a substitute for a person. The sins of human beings are transferred, so to speak, to the animal. For many of us the sacrifice of animals remains abstract. But reflect on the violence of the activity…the death of the animals shows that the penalty for sin is death.”

PS sees Jesus’ death as the ultimate sacrifice, which pays the penalty for sin for all. Key texts are Isaiah 53 and Romans 3:21-26 which talks about justification by faith through the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. Galatians 3 also talks about Jesus taking up on himself the curse intended for sinful humanity, thereby taking the punishment we deserve.

  1. Healing View – Bruce R. Reichenbach

“Shalom – well being, wholeness, peace – is what God envisions for his people. But humans are without well being.” This is the problem that the Healing View (HV) seeks to address. The human condition is such that since the fall humans have tried to take charge and displace God leading to wickedness and brokenness. The Bible describes this condition as sin. Reichenbach refers to sin as a kind of sickness: “Sickness describes not only our spiritual condition but our physical, economic, political, social and environmental conditions. Isaiah 1 and Jeremiah 14 are good examples of this. Healing is seen as an important part of restoration. Psalm 41:4 – “Have mercy on me, Lord; heal me, for I have sinned against you.”

Reichenbach highlights the connections between sin and sickness in Scripture, citing examples such as the various plagues God brings upon the disobedient in the Old Testament and Jesus’ healings where healing and forgiveness of sin are linked. However Reichenbach is careful to make the point that “although both the Old and New Testaments claim that sin begets suffering and calamity, both likewise emphasize that not all suffering results from sin. The book of Job is an oft-cited case in point.” In light of the connection between sin and sickness Reichenbach develops the metaphor of God as healer. There are examples of God’s healing in Hosea 6, of God’s protection from pestilence in Psalm 91 and in Isaiah 53, the suffering servant. “Isaiah describes the human predicament. We suffer from sickness (pain) and sorrows (mental and physical suffering) brought on by our sins and transgressions. We are sinners who because of our punishment need to be made well: our sins removed and our sickness healed.” In the story of the servant in Isaiah the servant suffers for our sins: “But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities.” This passage in Isaiah is commonly thought of to refer to the coming Messiah, to Jesus.

The HV emphasizes the role of Jesus as the great physician or healer. In Jesus’ ministry we see plenty of examples of Jesus healing. But why would Jesus need to die to heal us? Christ on the cross takes on and forgives our sins bringing healing. Reichenbach puts it this way: “We are sick with sin that we ourselves cannot cure…death, in some form, came into the world through sin (Romans 3). Christ voluntarily assumes this virulent poison, so strong that it brings death, ours and his, but at the same time not so strong that death can permanently hold the Physician. The death is in the sin. Our sin, not God, kills the Physician. God’s part is in mercy to send his Servant/Physician to heal and then to restore him to life and power.”

  1. Kaleidoscopic View – Joel B. Green

In the Kaleidoscopic View (KV) Green makes the point that “Jesus’ death can be grasped neither apart from its historical context in the Roman world nor apart from the expansive mural of God’s purpose in creation and redemption, and that on its own no one model or metaphor will do.”

Historical context in the Roman world – Crucifixion was terribly painful form of capital punishment used by the Roman Empire to assert the power of the Empire by humiliating the victim. This punishment was reserved for those who resisted the rule of the Empire. Jesus was called a king by his followers and was a threat to public order, thus becoming a nuisance to the Empire. Jesus also upset order in the Jewish world via his actions in the temple and his entry to Jerusalem amongst other things. Both of these factors meant that “Jesus had to die because he made too many enemies who opposed his messianic ministry.” (Peter Stuhlmacher, Jesus of Nazareth – Christ of Faith). Green asserts that Jesus’ death cannot be understood outside of these historical factors.

Green then points out the variety of understandings of the atonement in Scripture saying “Paul can write of substitution, representation, sacrifice, justification, forgiveness, reconciliation, triumph over the powers and more. John can speak of illumination as well as sacrifice. Although in Hebrews the notion of sacrifice is paramount. First Peter speaks of Jesus’ death as ransom and sacrifice, while the book of Revelation presents Jesus’ death in terms of military triumph and redemption.” Why the variety? Joel’s argument is that no one metaphor can capture it due to the variety of ways in which the human situation can be understood. It is God’s initiative to restore broken relationships which is at the centre of all understandings of the atonement and no one image can capture this picture alone.

So there you have it, four reasons why “Good Friday” is just so good.


THE NATURE OF THE ATONEMENT edited by James Beilby and Paul R. Eddy

2 thoughts on “THE NATURE OF THE ATONEMENT edited by James Beilby and Paul R. Eddy

  • March 25, 2016 at 9:40 pm

    Another great book summary. I’m intrigued to hear what holes were exposed in each view by the other authors. The fact that almost 2000 years on the greatest minds in Biblical and Theological scholarship are still grappling with what the Crucifixion really means highlights to me the extent of the mystery of God. We cannot adequately explain his acts or the extent of our need for Him. All we can do is lean on the cross – his mercy and grace – trusting it is sufficient to reconcile all things back to Him.

  • June 29, 2016 at 9:21 am

    Love it Josh… Think we’re gonna track that book down… Great to have some room for discussion on the weirdness of the cross!!


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