When Jesus Died: A Conversation on Atonement


Familiar words. A classic song.  Lovely. Life giving. Theologically rich. But not to everyone. Much virtual ink has been spilled about the recent hub-bub over this hymn. The Presbyterian Church U.S.A. decided not to include the familiar hymn because of these lines and the view of atonement it projects.

It prompts us to ask: what really happened when Jesus died?

I’d been thinking about this topic recently, and then a colleague posted a link on FB to a piece by Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville as an example of how the church can recover a more traditional theology despite internal efforts for a broader view. The title of Mohler’s piece? The Wrath of God Was Satisfied: Substitutionary Atonement and the Conservative Resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention. He gets into some interesting history in the Southern Baptist Convention over this issue, and how two seminaries decided to move toward a traditional view of substitutionary atonement when several professors started to teach that there are actually multiple views even in the Bible about the nature of Jesus’ death, and that perhaps substitutionary atonement is not the main one.

So I’ve decided to cultivate a conversation – via a series of posts – on atonement. I’d love your thoughts, comments and reflects on the topic – as well as any links or references to talks, articles, and posts that have helped your understanding of the issue.

I’ll begin with a few questions:

  • What did happen when Jesus died?
  • Does true forgiveness require someone to suffer?
  • Does God require a blood sacrifice to be appeased?
  • Was there a metaphysical transaction by which his blood really or metaphorically covered over the sins of people?
  • Was there something else, like a display of the extent of God’s love over a broken creation?
  • Was there not even that, but simply a man dying for provoking the powers that be?

These are questions with which we must wrestle, and such discussions should be happening in the church, not simply in academic circles, and yes, at the pub (for some of us the line between pub and church is a thin one).

So let’s get it started! Post your atonement questions and thoughts below! More posts to follow.


15 thoughts on “When Jesus Died: A Conversation on Atonement

  1. As I have grown older, I have begun to admit that the mystic’s views closely resemble my own. They make perfect sense, as opposed to so much of what is known as “scripture.” The latest book I’ve read on this subject is: The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic, by John Shelby Spong. Spong was recommended to me by Bryan a few years ago, and I have enjoyed several of his books, because this author is at last writing honestly and from the heart.
    Most fundamentalist I’ve talked with who insist on a literal reading of the scripture, think I’m dead wrong and worse. They are certain, if I continue on this path, I will end up in Hell. I don’t believe any of us will end up in a place that does not exist. I know who God is in my life, just as I believe Jesus knew who God was in His life. I believe Jesus, the man died a horrible death, but willingly, and I believe Christ arose and is with me daily….and anyone else who believes in Him.


  2. What is the “moral implication view” and what Scriptures support that the early church held this view regarding Christ’s death?


  3. Since Aulen, the debate has raged over the chronology of historical atonement theories and which should trump all others. I prefer an approach to describing atonement that does not limit the salvific themes of scripture to our imaginations or modernistic categorization (the worst display being found in the wikipedia entry on Atonement in Christianity!)

    I really don’t see how assumptions can be made about the Church’s understanding of Jesus’ mediation without first referencing the words of the New Testament. What do we make of the argument from the letter to the Hebrews? From glorification and consumption of death (Heb. 2:9) to perfection (2:10), triumph and victory (2:14) to ransom and emancipation (2:15), substitution (2:17) to satisfaction (2:18) – even in just a few verses of one chapter, we already see the early church was not bound to just a few (read: Western, European) ideas about what Jesus did on the cross. Why must we be?

    Keep reading friends, and realize that the mystery of God’s salvation is unexhausted by our desire to fit it into some neat, politically correct box.


  4. The writings of the early church fathers heavily favor the moral influence view. As the timeline and cultural shift of Christianity moved away from Greek thought and writings to a Latin, Roman mindset, the penal substitutionary view emerges (and one might expect). Personally, I’ve found that the picture is always clearer and truer the closer one comes to the original source.


    1. What is the “moral implication view” and what Scriptures support that the early church fathers held this view regarding Christ’s death? I’ve also become somewhat of a guarded skeptic regarding the church father’s theological views (and biblical interpretation, particularly regarding Hebrew Bible) because they were so heavily influenced by Greek/Roman thought & so distanced from the early church’s Hebraic way of thinking & understanding God & the Hebrew Bible. But I am interested in further explanation on your idea.


  5. A couple of things to consider. When Jesus is talking about how we treat our enemies, should we not consider that this is interaction between two created and fallen beings, not between a perfect, holy God and unrighteous man. Are our enemies any worse than us when we compare ourselves to God’s standard?

    Again, I think it’s dangerous to apply our standards to God, and therefore expect God to have to behave the same way he expects of us. Totally different situation, is it not?

    Furthermore, while I think the cross has more implications than just the atonement (something I picked up back in my dispensational days – which those out of the Reformed tradition will reject because everything gets shoved down the gullet of soteriology), I think the Scriptures are too full of the discussion of atonement, and even the shedding of blood. This is clearly in the Law, and the law is but a shadow of things to come.


  6. I grew up with the Penal Substitutionary view of Atonement, but after much thought and deconstruction have changed the way I view this idea. For every doctrine I claim belief in, I have to ask myself two questions:
    1) what does this idea say about God? Because if I get God wrong, I’ve got everything wrong.
    2) what are the fruits? In Matthew 7:15-16, Jesus says that you can know a false prophet by their fruits. So I want to think about beliefs in terms of what fruit they bear, and in Galatians 5:22-23 we’re told that good fruit would be love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

    With this in mind, believing in a God who cannot be satisfied without some serious torture and blood paints a picture of a bloodthirsty, vengeful God who validates the nature within us that seeks retribution when people hurt us. I don’t think that idea produces good fruit, nor does it paint a picture of a loving God, and 1 John 4:8 says that God is love. What’s more, it seems to directly contradict with the teachings of Jesus in regards to enemies. Jesus told us in Matthew 5 that the way to treat enemies was not to resist them, but if one of them hits you, let them hit you on the other side of the face. If someone demands something of you, give more. And don’t resist an evil person but love them and bless them. Now, if God can’t let sin go until he gets torture and blood, than it seems that God can’t follow His own instructions….


    1. That more or less echoes my own thought processes.

      I have found the work of Julian of Norwich interesting in helping my understanding of God and His nature. The way she writes about God is so beautiful.

      Also, St. John of the Cross describes wrath as a sin. That really opened my eyes – I’d thought getting cross was just normal, that everyone does it so what does it matter? I’ve had to learn the real meaning of ‘the fruit of the spirit is self-control’.


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