By late 4th century AD, the raw transformative power of the Gospel was already in deep decline. The way of Christ was being supplanted by the Constantinian institutional Christianity. Since the tangible power of God was not widely demonstrable, something else was bound the take its place. That “something else” was forensic, legally focused Christianity. In redefining the overarching meta-narrative of the New Covenant as being exclusively a legal matter, the practical power of the Gospel was theologically legitimized. Institutional Christianity became a purveyor of solutions which were purely speculative, experientially unverifiable, and requiring one to die before the veracity of their theories could be personally ascertained. In other world – that so-called gospel was not much use for the for the living. It was only useful for the dead.
Historically, here’s how things got to where they did. In 410 AD Rome was sacked by Visigoths. At that time, Rome was viewed as the mother city of Christianity, and it came as a huge shock to the Western world that their relatively newly adopted religion – Christianity – was powerless to stop that sacking by pagan barbarians. In response, in mid-420s AD Augustine penned his opus magnum “The City of God”. In that volume he made important doctrinal corrections, but committed probably just as many worldview errors as he sought to correct. In trying to salvage Christianity from its alleged failed responsibility to protect Rome, he simply relegated everything that can be expected of God to the realm he called “the city of God” which can be accessed only after death.
Last weekend, while in youth church, my pre-teen son stumped his instructors with a simple question about the crucifixion of Jesus: how does executing someone else for your sin justify you? His instructors tried to explain it by referring to animal sacrifices and their significance, to which he again replied: how does killing an animal remove the punishment due you? And also – as a young person, what did I ever do to deserve death in the first place? They said to him something about even a small sin being enough to deserve death. To which he objected that punishing a petty misstep and a major crime with the same extreme punishment of death seems to be the very opposite of justice. Eventually the instructors said that it’s something that he should ask his parents at home.
It’s quite remarkable that they way the atonement of Christ is commonly explained collapses under the weight of its internal contradictions, even under the most simple of questionings. Since many people in the Western Christian tradition believe that penal substitutionary atonement (or PSA for short) is the only way to understand what happened on the cross of Calvary, they have simply learned to suppress their own deep questions about it.
Often times, questioning the common *interpretation* of Christ’s atonement is frequently equated to questioning the *value* of the atonement itself. Such set of tactics which discourage people from exploring the deeper foundations of their faith are a hallmark of religious fundamentalism, with its dichotomous all-or-nothing thinking. That’s why I applaud my son’s instructors that they didn’t shut him down, leaving open the possibility for him to continue looking for answers outside of the paradigm which couldn’t give him the answers which he was looking for (did I mention that I quite like that church?).
Generally speaking, there are about 8 or so atonement theories out there, with variants. To me, it’s easier to divide them into two groups.
One group of atonement theories postulate that the problems primarily stem from personal dimension of people (who are fundamentally perverse), and of God (who is fundamentally angry about people.) What Jesus did was more or less redirect the focal point of God’s anger to himself, thus getting us off the hook. The main idea is that of legal transaction.
The other group of atonement theories postulates that the problems to be solved are of systemic nature. They lie with both with human psyche individually (egotism) and socially (systemic oppression and scapegoating). There is also a cosmic dimension to the problem statement (decay and death). What Jesus did is he absorbed the individual, the social, and the cosmic sin (and therefore death), triumphed over them, and created a mechanism of being able to tap into the power to overcome all those.
I would submit to you that the second group of atonement theories has much more coherence and explanatory power. Also, the 2nd group is the one that leads you to living like a responsible, fully empowered representative of God in every area of life. It’s the only one that can underwrite consistently replicable results, and not just occasional haphazard “victories”.