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Understanding Atonement

Martin Sutherland

The controversy surrounding the release of Mel Gibson's film The Passion of the Christ presents some interesting challenges to the Christian community. The staggering success of the film is remarkable. That it should be topping box office returns in the US in its first few weeks might cynically be put down to a brilliant marketing strategy. The pre-release to Christian leaders and the charges of anti-Semitism have certainly raised the film's profile in a jaded entertainment market.

On the other hand it is at the very least heartening to church leaders that the Christ story, which we proclaim to be the greatest ever told, should still be able to captivate the imaginations of so many, to raise hackles and to generate such sharp debate, in a culture which is often written off as being inured to its themes.

Over-optimistic assessments must be tempered of course. The outstanding attendance figures in the United States, where religious issues remain much more prominent, may not be repeated in a country like New Zealand. Yet, even here, the film has attracted attention otherwise absorbed by The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Gibson's film is debated on a number of levels. I make no attempt here to resolve the anti-Semitism charge, beyond noting that almost all the debate has been over what might have appeared in the film but didn't make the final cut, or over whether the details were all historically accurate. In relation to this last problem we must remind ourselves that, however much it is driven by Gibson's own conservative Catholic convictions, this is a work of art.

The use of Aramaic with subtitles lends the film an air of documentary that it does not warrant. It is an interpretation of the events, with a spotlight, as the title suggests, on one aspect of the Christ story: the 'passion' or 'suffering' of the Christ.

This focus presents questions of its own and has become the major point of contention in this country. This is a violent film, graphically violent. Every aspect of Christ's suffering is explored to its edges. Flesh is gouged out, blood spurts from wounds, the pain of crucifixion is rammed home with the force of a soldier's spear.

The result has been a debate over who can watch, with unexpected positions being taken by those normally in favour of censorship of such levels of violence. In parallel with the dispute over the censor's rating of R16, there has been the interest shown in the power of the film for evangelism. Here the violence is sometimes seen as an asset, bringing home to those who watch how great a price the Son of God was willing to pay to save the world.

ll this is in marked contrast to the way the New Testament and the first generation of the Church wrestled with the cross of Christ. Here, all interpreters of the film should carefully read the Gospel accounts. As important as the event is, it is notable that there is virtually no description of the violence itself.

Yes, Jesus was stripped, whipped, struck, nailed and speared - these are reported as matters of fact. But there is no dwelling on the details, no stroke-by-stroke depiction of the lashing, no mention of arteries severed by nails or skin torn in carrying a rough cross. To be sure, this was a violent act, as all crucifixions were (this is, after all, from whence we derive the word 'excruciating'), but the true significance of the event lay, for the first Christians, in its religious meaning.

That there was suffering, both mental and physical, is made clear, but there is little interest in the gory details. This is all the more notable given that there were plenty of models for such graphic depictions in the literature of the day. Moreover, one only has to read the accounts of martyrdom from a few generations later to be almost overwhelmed with (literally) painful detail.

The 'Shame' of the Cross

There is another curious reversal in the storm over The Passion of the Christ. It lies in the anticipation that, confronted with the enormity of Jesus' suffering, those wavering on the edge of faith may be so moved that they will commit their lives to this One so willing to bear pain for them.

This would have seemed very strange to the first Christians, and even more so to their critics. For that first generation the fact that the supposed Saviour of the world had died in such a manner seemed offensive, even bizarre. Indeed that he had died so ignominiously seemed to many clear proof that he was not what he was claimed to be.

The cross was "foolishness to the Greeks and a stumbling block to the Jews".1 So the first task was to remove the theological shame of the event, whilst at the same time not denying the reality of the genuine suffering and death which took place. Key to this, of course, was the triumph of the resurrection. To this could be added Jesus' own life and teaching which, correctly interpreted, added sense to the events of Easter.

Christ's saving work, then, was wrought in his entire life, death and life again. Nonetheless, it was the cross which lay at the centre of it all - a staggering event which was to be celebrated not for its violence, but for its cosmic significance.

The task, then as now, was to explain just what happened on the cross. Was this merely the execution of a man who had become an embarrassment to the Roman authorities? Or did something change irrevocably in that moment? For Christians, it was clearly the latter.

But how was this conviction to be articulated? The church has wrestled with its language for this event ever since. It is a struggle that lies at the heart of the Christian doctrine of atonement.

'Atonement' is an Anglo-Saxon term meaning, in profound simplicity, 'at-one-ment'. To declare that 'atonement' was achieved on the cross is to align Christ's death with the mission of God to reconcile all creation to himself, to heal a broken relationship, to make creator and creature at 'one'. Yet, merely to affirm this fact, amazing though it is, has not been deemed sufficient.

The church has always sought ways of describing how this happened. By what process was 'at-one-ment' achieved? Significantly, the early church felt no need to force an agreement on the details of that process. As a result a number of models and metaphors have been put forward to express the enormity of what happened.


A dominant early approach was to emphasise the victory of God over the forces of evil. What in 1931 Gustav Aulen described as the 'Christus Victor' model, used the metaphor of cosmic battle between God and Satan, evil or chaos.2 Here the picture is of a fallen humanity held captive by evil. Christ is given into the hands of evil and murdered on the cross as a 'ransom for many', thus buying back the captives and securing their salvation (eg Eph 1:7; 1 Tim 2:6; Heb 1:12).

In a 'last laugh' over Satan, Christ is resurrected and returns to God's right hand. Satan is defeated by his own intemperate ambition. It was this view of atonement that CS Lewis employed in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe where Aslan is given to the White Witch as a sacrifice to satisfy the "deep magic from the dawn of time".

The errant child Edmund is freed, but Aslan is dead. The Witch appears to have won. However, that is not the end of the story. Aslan returns, and explains to Susan and Lucy that "though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still, which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little further back . . . she would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor's stead, the table would crack and Death itself would start working backwards."3

A strength of this view of atonement is that it gives due weight to the resurrection, without which, Paul is at pains to emphasise to the Corinthians, our faith is useless.4 The Friday and Sunday of Easter are thus held together as one event. There is little of human responsibility, however. Women and men are essentially victims needing rescue; captured by one power, redeemed by another.


A second type of atonement theory is built around the motif of satisfying a divine requirement. Here, instead of a battle as the central metaphor, there is a trinitarian focus. Rather than God and the devil being the central characters, the emphasis is on the Father and the Son.

In its classic medieval expression, Anselm (who lived from 1033-1109) suggested that the Son, as God-man, had dealt with the problem of human sin by paying the price of his life. "Christ died for our sins."5 Humanity's intransigent disobedience was covered by the obedience even to death of the perfect One. Full recompense was paid for the offence to God's honour; the debt was satisfied.

The Protestant reformers shifted the focus of this satisfaction theory to concentrate, not merely on divine offense but on divine justice. God's righteousness demands punishment for human sin. God in his grace both exacts punishment and supplies the one to bear it.

This is an important difference. For Anselm, Christ obeyed where we should have obeyed; for John Calvin, he was punished where we should have been punished.

This 'penal substitution' theory has been the one most favoured by evangelicals as it emphasises human sinfulness and preserves the absolute sovereignty of God. The all-powerful God does not have to trade with the devil, nor is he forced to lower his standards in order to receive humans into fellowship.

In this approach the cross is all. The resurrection is important, but ancillary to the main event. The incarnate life of Christ is a passage to Calvary. Good Friday looms larger than Easter Sunday, with Christmas playing a largely preparatory role.

Moral Influence

The first model deals to the devil, whilst the second attends to a requirement of God. A third model adds another focus: on what atonement changes in humanity. Of course the status of humans is transformed by the first two models, but in the third approach the key effect is to change human nature itself. This 'moral influence' theory is put forward by Anselm's contemporary Abelard (1079-1142). In this view, Christ's sacrifice was proof of God's love -- a dramatic demonstration that prompts a visceral response in believers, engendering a similar sacrificial love and obedience in return. The resurrection can be similarly incorporated, providing as it does a source of hope.

In this model the dynamic of the atonement has clearly shifted. Both the victory and the satisfaction motifs point to an objective, certain outcome. In the moral influence theory Christ's work is just the first element in a process that includes human response as crucial.

In its various versions moral influence has been favoured by liberal western theology, partly because it emphasises human experience. It is biblically the weakest of the models. The incarnation, indeed theism in general, is not essential to it.

A Fourth Approach

A fourth approach, not yet formed enough perhaps to be seen as a 'school' or 'model', has begun to emerge out of the twentieth century's recovery of the eschatological vision of the gospel. Here the at-one-ment of God and humanity is seen in its ultimate setting of God's cosmic plan for all things to come together in Christ.6 Jesus' ministry is 'proleptic' -- that is, it actively anticipates the End.

The incarnation itself may be viewed as the divine plan, written in the life of a single human. Christ, the incarnate, dying, rising and ascending one is the foretaste of the plan's fulfillment, "the first fruits of those who have died."7 Christians, participating in Christ's death and resurrection (symbolised in baptism), become themselves children of God, joint heirs with the Son. The Christ event has revealed and enacted God's work of reconciliation.

As Stanley Grenz puts it, "Jesus is not only Revealer and Effector, he is also Originator. Our Lord stands at the beginning of a new fellowship of humans, forming its foundation and fountainhead . . . Jesus' entire life, death, and resurrection mark his work in originating the proleptic community, the foretaste of the eternal fellowship in the kingdom of God."8

esus' death is the still point in the turning world of human, indeed creation's, history. Yet the physical suffering, so central to The Passion of the Christ, is but one element among many. Indeed the synoptic Gospel writers make more of Jesus' agony of spirit in Gethsemane than his agony of body at Golgotha.

It is clear that none of the models outlined above can fully contain the majesty of what God has done in Christ. We need to draw on the riches of all these approaches.

The ransom theory reminds us of the reality and power of evil - over which, nonetheless, Christ has victory. The satisfaction model places God's holiness and sovereignty squarely before us. The moral influence view highlights the fact that we are not merely passive in this drama, but those who are called to answer. The proleptic element of Christ's mission focuses our attention to the future and God's great plan in which we have a part.

el Gibson has, in his own fashion, provided the latest means by which attention is turned to the Christ story. That the film is not, of itself, an adequate portrayal of the cross doesn't really matter - it doesn't need to be. That is too great a load to place on a single artistic endeavour. The responsibility for fully orbed proclamation lies with the whole church of Jesus Christ. We are called to speak of atonement in all its aspects - and to live as those truly at one with God.