Substitutionary atonement

The doctrine of substitutionary atonement is often taken by western churches (and most atheists) as being the only view of salvation. This is far from true – something I will explore as I attempt to define the topic.

Overview of substitutionary atonement

This form of atonement starts with the idea that God is both just and angry at us for our sin. Therefore he punishes Jesus to satisfy his anger and we get the benefits – if we believe. In many cases, if we forget to believe, fail to believe, or just don’t hear about it then we still get the punishment of his anger for all time.

Technically speaking, substitutionary atonement is the name given to a number of Christian models of the atonement that regard Jesus as dying as a substitute for others, ‘instead of’ them.

There are different theories that come under the umbrella term “substitutionary atonement”. Four of the more well known are:

  • Ransom theory.
  • Christus Victor.
  • Satisfaction theory.
  • Penal substitution.

Criticisms of substitutionary atonement

Where do I even start?

There are many competing views of the atonement and whole forms of Christianity (Universalism, for one) where this doctrine is seen as holding no water at all.

Any doctrine that took a look as hell as eternal conscious torment and concluded that it does not fit with concepts of God’s justice, love, and mercy tend to reject substitutionary atonement.

Emma Higgs makes the argument on Patheos far better than I ever could. But she is far from the only one to do so. Australian Anglican minister, David G. Peterson quotes John Goldingay saying:

For example, in 1995 John Goldingay edited a volume of essays entitled Atonement Today. Goldingay himself denies that there is any link between atonement and punishment in the Old Testament and argues that the improper linking of punishment with sacrifice in much Christian thought is particularly due to a misunderstanding of Isaiah 53.

Objections include:

  • Devine child-abuse
  • Murders mobs as the will of God
  • Punishing the innocent as an affront to true justice
  • Moral guilt is not transferable
  • Anti-trinitarian aspects (angry God vs innocent Son)

Substitutionary atonement and the Axioms of Faith.

As with most widely held doctrines, it can be reached via Axiom zero. However, no form of the atonement can be said to be axiomatic itself. I will not be assuming this form of the atonement to have been in any way proven or established as a given. Not least of all because I have many unanswered or unanswerable questions regarding it.

How I intend to use the phrase “substitutionary atonement”.

As substitutionary atonement is – for better or worse – pretty much a core doctrine of the church I am going to have to talk about it directly. When I discuss substitutionary atonement, I expect that I will focus on penal substitution. The range of objections to this doctrine deserves better investigation and will, therefore, be a topic I return to frequently.

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