One of the more overlooked aspects of atonement theories is the importance of the resurrection. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:17 that if Christ is not raised then “your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.” Here I think we have a possible aid to our assessment of atonement theories. To Paul, Christ’s death apart from his resurrection makes nonsense of Christ’s death on the cross. I wonder, then, how atonement theories that can be achieved with the death and not subsequent resurrection of Jesus can be biblical. I’m not suggesting that proponents of these theories deny the resurrection, only that it seems possible that Christ could achieve the view of atonement they propound even if he weren’t raised. The other possibility, I suppose, is that Paul is saying something different altogether. He may simply be saying that if Christ is not raised, then he is not the Messiah, in which case he couldn’t accomplish satisfaction, substitutionary atonement, recapitulation, or most of the rest of the theories proposed. But I’m not convinced that’s what Paul is saying. I think he views the resurrection as a necessary component of his atonement theology, hence why he so closely links them in his gospel declaration “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Cor 15:3). So the resurrection must not be ignored with respect to our conclusions about the atonement.
I think it’s important, then, for us to consider the way in which various atonement theories can all serve as perspectives with which we can view the atonement. I have an enormous tree outside my office window. As my classroom sits on the third floor of the building nearby, I get a great view of the entire 100 foot tall tree. I often walk onto our campus, however, and pass directly underneath this tree. One could also climb to the roof for a higher view, or from the road to catch the backside view of the tree. All of these perspectives can give an accurate account of this tree, but none of them by itself would give the full picture. My view from the classroom may actually capture more than any other single view, but it still has blind spots and deficiencies in my attempt to describe the whole tree. In a similar manner, the work of Christ on the cross to bring about atonement is much more significant and multi-faceted than this tree; how much more than must we assume that one view alone cannot capture the whole picture.
In his excellent work A Community Called Atonement, Scot McKnight uses an analogy of a golf bag. Each club in the bag is a theory of the atonement, and the golf bag is the definition of the atonement that can carry all the clubs. Like a round of golf, for each discussion about the atonement a different club should be used based on the proper occasion. For McKnight, the “golf bag” atonement definition is identification for incorporation. McKnight writes:
“I suggest that we think of atonement as identification for incorporation. I take Hebrews 2:14-18 to be thematic of the entire scope of the atonement[…] Jesus identifies with humans: ‘he had to become like his brothers and sisters.’ Jesus incorporates humans in his destruction of death and the devil and liberates those held captive by being a faithful high priest for them (representing them before God as priests do). Jesus identifies and makes possible incorporation because he ‘shared flesh and blood’ and because he became a ‘sacrifice of atonement’ (eis to hilaskesthai) for the sins of humans. Which means that Jesus died for them, with them, and instead of them: their death became his so that his life might become theirs.”
McKnight’s definition highlights in helpful ways how Jesus identifies with us in our humanity so that we can be incorporated into his divinity. Here I find myself appreciative of the Eastern Orthodox tradition’s emphasis on theosis (or divinization), although many Protestants have maintained this emphasis alongside more legal understandings of salvation and justification. The beauty of the gospel is not simply that we have sins removed; it doesn’t even stop at receiving the righteousness of Christ; but it also goes so far as to say that by virtue of his work on the cross, Jesus invites us into the loving relationship that the Triune God has had from all eternity. Nowhere is this more evident in Scripture than John 17:20-26, which not surprisingly serve as some of Jesus’ final words in the Gospel of John prior to his arrest and crucifixion. Jesus says,
“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. O righteous Father, even though the world does not know you, I know you, and these know that you have sent me. I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” (ESV, emphasis added)
I find this vision of the atonement and its results biblically compelling and astoundingly beautiful. So to return to less of a theological reflection and more of a pedagogical insight, let me make a few concluding comments. First, I found that students learned far more about the atonement because of my willingness to share my problems first without sharing my conclusions. Had I begun with a lecture on my view of the atonement, I think their understanding of the atonement would have been shallow and would not have stayed with them for long. Second, however, I think we all benefited from the process of working through biblical and theological texts after we had already raised questions we wanted answered. This realization is a practice I want to include in classes in the future. Asking questions first helps focus the reading that we do, and this benefits everyone involved. Third, I did not share my own conclusions until after I had devoted several weeks to the process. This approach allowed students to wrestle with the difficulties and come to their own realizations about the atonement. In most cases, their conclusions were closely aligned with my own, but they weren’t my conclusions—they were the student’s own. The students did eventually here some of my own conclusions, and I shared these for two reasons. First, I shared some of my conclusions to help ensure that they saw the whole process I had undergone, from question to exploration to conclusion. Knowing that their teachers are also going through the process of learning and discovering truth is immeasurably valuable to a student. Second, I wanted to ensure that my conclusions could lead to a discussion of primary doctrine and orthodoxy. I tried to point out where my conclusions were simply the conclusions of the universal church that we should all hold, but also show where some of my nuanced views that had been raised in class discussion were secondary doctrine. They expressed faithful interpretations of Scripture within the bounds of orthodoxy, but they were not points of primary doctrine that required universal assent. In some cases, such as my affinity for the Eastern Orthodox teaching on theosis, I said almost nothing at all.
I hope this four-part series into my recent unit on the atonement has helped show some of my own process in teaching and may spark some ideas for how you handle topics that arise in your classes in the future. I’d love to hear about how you have addressed difficult topics in your class as they arose. You can comment on the post or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Scot McKnight, A Community Called Atonement (Nashville: Abingdon, 2007), 107.