Atonement metaphors/theories

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November 6, 2013 | Feature | Number 22
By Dave Rogalsky,

Christus Victor/Ransom

When humanity sinned in Genesis 3, they fell under the control of Satan. Due to personal sin, no human being was able to pay the ransom to free humanity, so God came among humanity as Jesus, sinless and able to pay the price. If Satan had known that Jesus was “God in the flesh,” Satan would not have had Jesus killed, so this was hidden from Satan. When Jesus died, the ransom was paid, as evidenced by Jesus’ resurrection. This metaphor had great influence in the early years of Christianity as it supported Christian rejection of Roman hegemony and promised God’s eventual victory.

Substitution/Satisfaction/Penal Satisfaction

While the idea of Jesus’ substitution for sacrifice was around in early Christianity, the metaphor was developed by Anselm of Canterbury in the 11th century. Basing his ideas on the need for the Norman king’s honour to be satisfied if it had been besmirched, Anselm believed that human sin had besmirched God’s honour and needed to be satisfied. Since no human being could do so, God—in Jesus—took the place of humanity and satisfied the debt. This idea was further developed by Reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin. Calvin, in particular, developed the idea that it was God’s law which needed satisfying, leading to Penal Satisfaction. This has been the basis of much western lawmaking ever since.

Moral Influence

Again, Moral Influence was around in early Christianity, but it was developed by Peter Abelard in the 12th century. It holds that people are made right with God as they follow Jesus’ example in lives of justice and righteousness.

Narrative Christus Victor

J. Denny Weaver’s suggested replacement for the other metaphors of atonement holds that all of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection defeat the powers that hold humanity in slavery through their threats of violence. Since Jesus, who teaches nonviolence, is God, God cannot be violent. Jesus’ death cannot be for God or by God. Instead, it is in Jesus’ resurrection that God shows that the powers are powerless and that God desires all of humanity to live in the already and still-not-fully-come kingdom of God as taught and modelled by Jesus.

John Driver’s list of atonement metaphors

  • Conflict-Victory-Liberation Motif
  • Vicarious Suffering
  • Archetypal Images: representative man, pioneer, forerunner, firstborn
  • Martyr Motif
  • Sacrifice Motif
  • Expiation Motif and the Wrath of God
  • Redemption-Purchase Motif
  • Reconciliation
  • Justification
  • Adoption-Family Image
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