Over the last four articles, I have tried to present a pathway through the Scriptures and church history for understanding the atonement. This pathway has helped me better sort out what I personally believe, and I offer it in hopes that it might also help you in your earnest attempt to understand the meaning of the atonement.
So where do I land? What atonement theory do I subscribe to? If you’ve been tracking the last few articles, I’ve already begun hinting at it. In fact, it’s been laced throughout. If you haven’t had a chance to read those, you still have some time.
To be sure I have agreement with a number of atonement theories in church history, but today I will primarily focus on one (though I will refer to three theories below).
Before we begin, a quick word about the word atonement.
What do we even mean by the atonement?
For westerners, the word atonement, or atone, typically is understood as “making amends for wrongs done.” Earlier on in history, the English word atonement meant at least two things primarily. It stemmed from the Middle English word, atone, literally meaning “at one.” It came to be understood as “being in harmony, agree, or in accordance with.” It eventually was used to suggest the result and/or the process of reconciliation between two or more parties who were at odds.
Go back even farther to the ancient world that the books of the Bible were written in and you get something different but related to these definitions. In the Hebrew Scriptures, the word כָּפַר, transliterated kaphar, could carry the meanings “to cover over, pacify, or make propitiation.” When the Hebrews wrote about and spoke about atonement, it was always (or nearly always) in the context of the sacrificial system, so it carried with it the further meaning of cleansing. Fast forward to the New Testament letters, written almost entirely in Koine Greek, the Greek words ἱλαστήριον and ἱλασkomαι and ἱλασμός have been translated as “propitiation (gaining favor, goodwill or appease), to make propitiation, atonement, atones” or “atoning” depending on the English Bible translation.
So, when we talk about the atonement of Christ, we are at least talking about how God covered over our sin, cleansed us from sin and brought us together with him and each other (parties who were once at odds). I would argue that the translation “propitiation” is tricky and slightly deceiving because it can lead us to believe that God is the kind of being who needs to be appeased and as our scan through the seven prominent stories of Scripture in the previous article indicated, that simply is not what Jesus was about.
In addition to this, or rather implicit in atonement, whenever you have something being atoned for you also have something being named and confronted first.
To begin with, cruciform refers to the crucifixion. To have a cruciform theology or hermeneutic means that your lens for understanding the stories of Scripture (both Old and New Testaments) is the cross of Jesus. It further means that the highest point of revelation in Scripture revealing who God is and what God is like in character, love, power, grace, judgment, hope and mercy is in the person of Jesus of Nazareth on a Roman cross. To say it in the negative, anything in all of Scripture that contradicts the God revealed in the person of Jesus, both in his life and in his death on a cross, is not what God is like. According to the New Testament authors, God is most fully revealed and understood at the cross. Whatever the ancients assumed about God before has been checked by the God revealed in the Jewish Messiah Jesus of Nazareth.
It’s not so much that Jesus is like God in this view (though that’s true), it’s more like God is like Jesus. And Jesus’ whole life and death is cross-shaped.
Cruciform theory of atonement
There are actually three atonement theories that I resonate with the most, two of which I covered in the article 7 atonement theories from church history: Christus Victor and the Moral Example Theory. The third I have yet to talk about, and that is the Cruciform theory of atonement. The rest of this article actually combines elements of all three theories, but the cruciform theory will be given the most weight because it is the lens through which I see all the rest.
I first came across the cruciform view nearly fifteen years ago. The writings of Christian ministers Greg Boyd, Brian Zhand, Brian McLaren and NT Wright have been the most influential. It is not a new theory for sure, though the terms “cruciform” and “cruciformity” as theological terms associated with various cruciform theories have only been used in academic settings over the last fifty years (as far as I can tell at least). As with all the atonement theories, there are variations that exist. Not all cruciform theories are exactly like the one I am presenting today, though they may have some things in common with it. Cruciform theories, however, have roots back to the church fathers and the New Testament’s letters and four Gospels.
In the cruciform view: The God revealed in the face and person of Jesus is a self-sacrificial being (or cross-shaped), so Jesus’ answer to humanity’s addiction to sin and the evil powers behind it is his self-sacrificial death on a Roman cross.
What is meant by sin? Sin is that collective power and energy that compels us toward self-centered and narcissistic tendencies which lead us to look out for ourselves, isolate from others, hate others, dominate and overpower others, and even take the life of others. What are the evil powers behind sin? According to the New Testament, they are those unseen dark forces who seek to divert attention away from the love of God revealed in Jesus by compelling humanity to hate and harm one another.
Enter the cross. It was there on that ancient wooden structure that God in the person of Jesus of Nazareth confronted and overcame the powers of evil and sin in this world by his powerful love and his loving power (Christus Victor). And as he did, God atoned for our sins.
How did God confront and overcome the powers of evil in this world on a Roman cross? And secondly, how does Jesus’ death actually atone for humanity’s sin?
Let’s start with the first question.
How did God confront and overcome the powers of evil?
First, it should be mentioned that Jesus’ death wasn’t a spiritual death. It was a real death. Any serious view of the atonement must acknowledge this.
Jesus died. Literally. Actually.
Now that that’s settled, it’s not simply that he died; it’s that people had him killed. The gospel accounts by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John tell us as much. As I mentioned in the previous article, Jesus lived in a time when volatile human conflicts were converging together.
It’s worth restating: the Sadducees were the priests that took care of the Temple work, including the sacrifices and festivals, during Jesus’ day. They had the hard task of keeping the peace with the Romans who occupied Palestine and forced the Jewish people to pay taxes to Rome. The Pharisees were a religious pressure group who believed only a strict observance of the Law could create a purified Israel, and only then the Messiah would come. Both groups saw Jesus as a threat for different reasons. Jesus had been speaking out against the Temple system, sometimes cryptically and sometimes outright, and he had critiqued the hypocrisy of the Pharisees who would tithe with strict precision, but they would ignore weightier portions of the Scriptures calling for mercy and taking care of one’s parents (they took the money that should have been paid to their aging parents and paid it to the synagogue or Temple instead). He also showed extravagant kindness to the poor and the untouchables in Jewish society (those with contagious diseases or temporary physical conditions). He even had dinner with a Jewish tax collector in cahoots with Rome. The Pharisees interpreted his generosity as immorality—a willingness to mix with those he shouldn’t be mixing with, and because of this they believed his influence could contaminate the larger nation of Israel. A third group, the Herodians were supporters of the Jewish king Herod (who was endorsed by Rome because of his support of Rome). Herod believed Jesus was John the Baptist raised from the dead and that Jesus was a potential threat to his alliance with Rome. These three groups conspired together to have Jesus killed. They convinced Pilate, the Roman governor in Jerusalem, to use the worst death penalty possible at the time—crucifixion.
Crucifixion was used by the Romans to strike fear in all subjects of the empire. This fear was to compel their subjects to never rise in revolt against Rome or speak out against Caesar. Caesar, the Romans believed, was Lord. Rome, if prompted by leading priests in Israel, might be convinced that Jesus was a threat and could lead an uprising against them.
It’s true that Jesus had multiple opportunities to join already formed militia groups in Israel to fight against the Romans. He could have self-designated himself as the Jewish Messiah and led an armed resistance. Instead, he chose the path of non-violent love, and he spoke out against violence among his people (just read the sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7—his view is unmistakable if you’re paying attention).
Jesus’ actions were viewed as a confrontation with the religious and political leaders of his day. Not only this, but his actions were understood as a confrontation with the unseen powers of evil in his day. His encounters with multiple demonized persons (who he also helped free) in and around Israel make this clear.
All of these things converged together and got Jesus killed on a Roman cross.
As just mentioned, Roman crucifixion struck fear in Rome’s subjects. It was both humiliating because it was public, and it was excruciatingly painful. It was brutal on the body, the lunges and the mind. Many people hung for hours, feet and arms nailed to two wooden crossbeams. You had to push your body up on the nails just to breathe.
To be clear, the Roman cross represented the worst of humanity. It represented the most hideous form of the death penalty. Whoever created this method of death truly let their minds enter the depths of human depravity. To torture people like this! It is by no means the only horrific way to die, but it’s somewhere near the top of the list.
This is how Jesus confronted the powers. The human powers of this world. The evil powers behind the human powers leading them (and us) to do the worst kinds of things imaginable to others.
In that place of seclusion, in that place of aloneness, Jesus endured the cross. And on the cross, he said aloud, “Father forgive them.”
He died in posture of mercy toward others.
How did Jesus’ death actually atone for our sin?
Let’s consider the three ways of understanding the atonement that we mentioned above: atonement as covering over sin, atonement as a cleansing from sin and atonement as joining together two or more parties who were once at odds.
Atonement as covering over sin
Throughout Jesus’ public ministry, Jesus met people in their worst possible place. He met with demonized people enslaved by dark forces with mental disorders beyond their control. He met with those in poverty who had little to call their own on the street corner. He met with tax collectors who took part in the financial exploitation of their own people. He met with women who had been spiritually abused by religious leaders. He met with small children who were devalued and treated with contempt by adults that didn’t take them seriously. He met with religious leaders who saw in his way of teaching and leading something good—very different than the abusive form of leadership they had been trained in and become all too familiar with. He met with two men who had broken the law, one on his left and one on his right while he hung on the cross, and he welcomed them into his close company.
How did Jesus’ cover over people’s sins? His death was reflective of the ongoing posture of his entire life. Jesus loved people, the worst kind of people, and gave them an opportunity to see another way, another path, and he gave space for forgiveness to make its way into them. Because when we look into the face of another and they are forgiving us, accepting us in our uniquely horrible mess, in the entanglement of our past and present that keep us from thriving and loving and hoping and helping others, we find the courage to forgive ourselves. To merely say Jesus’ death provided my forgiveness of sins doesn’t quite cut it. It’s more like as I look into his eyes and see forgiveness, I can now forgive myself.
Atonement as cleansing from sin
As we learn to accept God’s forgiveness and we choose to also forgive ourselves, we find something happen within us. It cleanses us. Somehow, we begin to see clearer than we did before. When we learn what it means to have mercy shown to us, we begin to gain glimpses of what it means to show mercy to ourselves and others. This is a cleansing work. It involves our mind, our inner being, and our will. This is part of what it means when we say Jesus’ blood cleanses us from sin.
This cleansing inside us internally needs an outlet. It’s never intended to be something we keep to ourselves. So we take Jesus up on his offer of cleansing and we offer it to others. We teach others how this God has forgiven them and how this God wants them to forgive themselves. If the two men next to Jesus on the Roman cross could learn this in the last stages of their lives, then it’s never too late for any of us.
We offer cleansing because it was offered to us.
And what’s incredible is that now that we are cleansed and now that others are cleansed, we can live again. We can have hope again. We can give our lives away again to help others find their way.
This is the power of cleansing.
Atonement as bringing together two or more parties who were once at odds
There is a deep-seated yearning that all of us have—connection.
We want connection with others. We want to be known and we want to know others. We want to be loved, and we want others to love us. As we are. The deepest parts. The fun-loving lighter side. The uncomfortable side. We all want and need connection.
It’s at the core of what it means to be human.
When we consider the life of Jesus, we see people who would otherwise be at odds come together in the presence of Jesus. Jews and Gentiles. Slaves and masters. Healthy and sick. Religiously acceptable and outcasts. Community members and outsiders. Violent revolutionaries and creative peacemakers. Even enemies.
All that Jesus’ represented and expressed in his life comes into full view in his death on a Roman cross. At the cross on that lonely hill just outside of the city, all of these groups would likely have been present. They came to see the man who healed blind men, who freed the demonized, who came close to the untouchables, who spoke with traitors, who made time for children, who dignified women and who drew something in the dirty ground that made the Pharisees drop their stones before murdering a person deemed immoral.
At the death of Jesus on a bloody Roman cross, people who would otherwise never be together came together.
That’s just what Jesus had always done in his life. He continued to do it at his death.
Jesus brings the most unlikely people together. And after looking at the dying man on the wooden object—an object created to humiliate the person hanging from it—they realize that all of the hatred, all of the animosity, all of the violence and vitriol is not worth it.
It’s just not worth it. It’s better to forgive. It’s better to be forgiven.
It’s better to find a way to come together.
You see, Jesus’ death on a Roman cross changes everything.
Click here for the final post in the atonement series.
Here’s the Atonement Series Title Line-Up from start to finish
- My evolving understanding of Jesus’ death
- FaithRethink Series on the Atonement Returns
- 7 atonement theories from church history
- Hijacking the Biblical Story of the Atonement
- Reengaging with the Bible’s Biggest Themes
- 7 Bible Stories you think you know but don’t
- Cruciform atonement theory: How Jesus’ death on a Roman cross changes everything (page you’re on now)
- Questions and answers about the atonement