How did Christian atonement theory get so pagan?

Fred R. Anderson argues that predominate Christian understandings of atonement have been more influenced by culture than the Bible.

Why are so many Christians today still singing hymns that portray Jesus’ death as a blood sacrifice to appease the wrath of an angry God? Most 21st-century theologians reject that understanding of the atonement. But many Christians still adoringly sing lines like “Til on that cross as Jesus died/ The wrath of God was satisfied/ For every sin on Him was laid/ Here in the death of Christ I live” (In Christ Alone,” Stuart Townsend & Keith Getty).

How has the church become so confused over the role of sacrifice? How did joyfully giving something of great value to God as an act of worship become an unbiblical notion of blood sacrifice to appease God’s wrath?

The initial answer is that the church, in its search for passages to prove who Jesus was, stopped reading the Old Testament as a witness to God’s steadfast love, mercy, and loving kindness. Who needed to read or understand Israel’s sacrificial system? God had raised Jesus from the dead so that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins (Acts 5:31). All who believed in him received such forgiveness through his name (Acts 10:43).

The apostles and disciples readily participated in Temple worship (Acts 2:46; 21:17–26), so they rightly understood the purpose of sacrifices. Consequently, Paul never uses sacrificial language to speak of what Christ accomplished on the cross. For Paul, the cross was God incarnate in the Son dealing with sin on behalf of the world — freeing it of sin’s power of death (Romans 8:3).

Paul only uses the word “sacrifice” once: “For our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed” (1 Corinthians 5:7). That can only rightly be understood in the context of Passover, when God freed Israel from slavery in Egypt. Paul uses the image to remind the Corinthians that Christ’s death freed them from their slavery to sin. Therefore, they were to clean out the corrosive residue that was threatening the church in Corinth.

The Book of Hebrews does speak of Christ’s sacrifice, utilizing sacrificial imagery that those to whom the book was written would well understand. But Hebrews’ emphasis is upon Jesus as the exact imprint of God in the flesh, who as our High Priest offered himself to God to deal with sin (Hebrews 9:28), an offering vastly superior to the old sacrificial system.

So how did we get from sacrifice as a thankful, joyful gathering in the presence of God to an act offering up a human as a penal, vicarious and bloody sacrifice for atonement?

How did we get from sacrifice as a thankful, joyful gathering in the presence of God to an act offering up a human as a penal, vicarious and bloody sacrifice for atonement?

After the loss of the Temple in 70 CE, in a predominantly Gentile church, the biblical understanding of sacrifice began to take on pagan undertones — influences from the surrounding culture. As time passed, the Greco-Roman sacrificial practice of appeasement (propitiation rather than expiation) was assumed.

In the 11th century, Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury, fed up with the atonement theory debates of the previous millennia, developed his own. However, it was based not on Scripture but on scholastic philosophy and medieval law. Believing that humanity’s fall into sin had not only harmed humankind but also irreparably violated God’s honor, some form of satisfaction must be made to God. God could not simply forgive — that would make God unjust! Humankind must satisfy the debt by either payment or punishment. Only a sinless human could make suitable satisfaction.

That was Anselm’s understanding of why we needed the incarnation: God became that sinless one in Jesus to vicariously satisfy humanity’s debt to God by dying on the cross. Thereafter, God’s violated honor was restored. God and humanity could again be “at one.” Jesus’ death had satisfied humanity’s debt — doing it in our place. Anselm’s theory was quickly embraced and became a dominant atonement theory in the West.

By the Reformation, legal theory had changed. Criminal law replaced feudal law, and it demanded that every infraction be met with punishment, which in turn shaped the church’s understanding of “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). A sinless human must suffer the death the law demanded for each sinner. Only that could placate God’s wrath and turn God into humanity’s friend rather than enemy. So Jesus was punished and died in our place. The theory that emerged came to be called penal substitutionary atonement (PSA).

PSA is neither biblical nor just. It abandons all the nuances of the God of the Old and New Testaments for a simple theory. It ignores the Bible’s constant message of God’s steadfast, forgiving, and transforming love for the world revealed in Jesus’ self-offering. PSA turns God’s incarnation in Jesus into an unbiblical notion of blood sacrifice, and God into an abusive parent and megalomanic tyrant who requires redemptive violence.

There is a much better, much more biblical theory of atonement, one with roots going back in the church as far as the second century. Dominant in Orthodox Christianity from its beginning, it is re-emerging today in the Western Church. As Saints Irenaeus and Athanasius interpreted long ago, God became one of us in Jesus Christ so we could become one with God in him. Clothed in Christ, members of God’s new creation can live lives of service empowered by God’s Spirit. That is the good news of the atonement, the “at-one-ment,” for us, right here, right now.

God became one of us in Jesus Christ so we could become one with God in him.

Christ died to deal with sin on our behalf, not to pay for it. It is time for us to sing a new song, one that reflects the real truth of the old, old story — the story from the pages of the Bible itself.

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