Recently another tidal wave of atonement wariness has swept through the Christian village. It has been subtle at times. It has even been constructive at times- seeking to reframe the atonement for a postmodern audience. It has also been blatant at times, and none so blatant as a recent article by Christian Piatt.
In his April 28, 2015 article entitled, “Is a Theology of Atonement a Ponzi Scheme that Enslaves Us to God?”, Piatt writes: “Aside from atonement theology (the idea that Jesus’ death paid a debt to God I could not repay myself) painting God as a bloodthirsty bully, it also raises the question of whether personal salvation based on this atonement principle is the greatest Ponzi scheme ever sold from the pulpit.”
He then goes on to show how this Ponzi scheme works; essentially arguing that the job of a person who accepts Jesus as Lord and Savior is to “work for this deferred compensation [freedom from eternal suffering in hell] for the rest of your life. And chief among your jobs is to sell other people on this same deal so they can be covered under this sin umbrella policy, and then recruit others to do the same and so on…”
Piatt’s main problem with this is it makes Christians “act fundamentally un-Christ-like,” “act like jerks to everyone else,” live a life that is “fairly indistinguishable from indentured servitude” while “screwing” anyone who doesn’t “sign on” to this way. He closes the article by describing the way he sees God, or at least desires God to be. He writes: “If we believe in a God of unconditional love and grace, however, it seems we have to do a lot of mental gymnastics to also believe that we have to proclaim that Jesus paid our debt, or else no deal.” He says if God’s love is unconditional, then it cannot be based on any kind of deal or preference and since Jesus sought to erase the idea of insiders versus outsiders, the theology of atonement “paints God as particularly un-Christ-like.” Finally he puts it all out, “Personally, I choose to believe in a God that really offers love and grace freely, and that would not set up a man the likes of Jesus to be tortured and killed.”
As a Millennial (I was born in 1985) and as someone who classifies myself as either moderate or progressive on many theological issues, this post is not an attack on progressive Christians or liberal Christians, rather it is me standing as a young Millenial Christian to say that the atonement, for all the discomfort it causes our modern/postmodern minds, is still important. If we take the theology of atonement away, we aren’t left with Christianity- in fact we aren’t left with anything at all.
Without the atonement, we cannot use Scripture as a means to know and understand God. Piatt writes that atonement theology is un-Christ-like and that the God he chooses to believe in could not act in such a way, if that is true then the Scriptures are useless because from the Old Testament to the New Testament God’s character is seen through atonement. Without the atonement, we can throw out the Law because without the atonement we cannot say that anything someone does is wrong. Without the atonement, we can throw out the Prophets because there can be no reason or means to hold someone accountable for their behavior. Without the atonement, we can throw out the Psalms, because one of the underlying beliefs of the Psalms is the understanding that God judges wrong doing. Without the atonement we can throw out the Tabernacle and Temple. Without the atonement, we can throw out the gospels because they show Jesus as embodying God’s atonement. Finally, we can throw out Acts and the Epistles because they elaborate on the ‘Jesus is God’s final atonement’ idea. Once we take the atonement out of Scripture, we actually aren’t left with any Scripture at all.
Piatt’s other main point, namely that God’s love and grace can exist apart from the atonement, also causes some major problems. If you are able to keep Scripture, despite its atonement foundation, it’s hard to circumnavigate that Scripture links God’s love and God’s grace to the atonement. Texts like Romans 5:8-10, 1 John 4:9-10 and Galatians 2:20 all link God’s love to atonement in and through Jesus’ death. Likewise, God’s grace is linked to the atonement. Texts like Ephesians 1:7, Romans 3:21-26 and all of Romans chapter 5 show that God’s grace is shown and given through the atonement. To say that we believe in a God of love and grace and yet deny the atonement is like standing before a fireplace and affirming the existence of light and warmth but denying the existence of the fire.
The questions of how the atonement works and why Jesus had to die have existed within Christianity since its inception. Theologians through the centuries have proposed various ways to understand the atonement- ransom, satisfaction, moral influence, penal substitution, Christus Victor. Despite the questions of how and why, the Christian faith is the belief that the atonement works and that the atonement remains God’s means through which love, grace, mercy, redemption, forgiveness and salvation come. With its questions and with our uneasiness in aspects of the atonement, it remains the central and vital component of the Christian faith. Without the atonement, we cannot know God though Scripture and we cannot believe in a God of love and grace. That is why the atonement is still important.