Theories of the Atonement: Can I Sort of Say “All of the Above?”

In recent years, there has been more talk among Protestant/evangelical circles around the nature of the atonement.  More specifically, there is increased disagreement on penal-substitutionary atonement and more emphasis put on others.  Many evangelicals, mostly in the Reformed camp, have aggressively defended penal-substitutionary atonement as THE theory of the atonement, and I heard one Reformed radio host say that “everything” about Christianity hinged on penal-substitution.  Other Christians have grown uncomfortable with the notion that God needed to “vent his wrath” on somebody just to feel good enough to start forgiving, and penal-substitution has been likened to divine child abuse.

Theories of the atonement of Christ are very important because Christ’s death and resurrection are among the key, foundational claims of the Christian faith.  Christians should attempt to try to explain what exactly happened, and any view of the atonement that expressly avoids accounting for sin and the need for something like the cross are sorely lacking.  However, I must say that while I find the debate interesting, I also find it a bit puzzling.  All of these theories of the atonement are mostly analogies that we use to try to understand Christ’s work, and none of them capture everything that we see in Scripture and all of them can start breaking down when we push that analogy to its limits.  The atonement is ultimately a mystery, and while that does not mean we just throw up our hands and use the “mystery” card, it does mean that we have to be cognizant of the fact that any single theory probably won’t encompass everything.

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