Atonement: Harmony with God

Quick, who discovered America?*

You almost answered “Christopher Columbus,” right?

That’s what so many of us were taught:

In fourteen hundred ninety-two Columbus sailed the ocean blue. 

It’s not only not true, it’s a dangerous idea that needs to be left behind.


The same is true with many of our ideas about what happened to Jesus on the cross. Some say he was crucified for the sins of the whole world. Others even take it a step further and say that Jesus paid the ultimate price and took our place on death row. Not enough for some still, perhaps you’ve heard the one how Father God was so angry at his people (us!) that he sent his only Son to die a heinous death.


If it sounds like divine child abuse, you wouldn’t be far off.


Many of us inherited an idea about the cross called “penal substitutionary atonement” - that version where Jesus took our place in line to suffer and pay the ultimate price, death on the cross, at the hands of a very very angry Father.


But that is not what Jesus followers have always believed.


In the first two hundred years of the Christian movement, as it spread beyond Jerusalem and Palestine, three different schools of thought popped up with three different ideas on what happened on the cross.


There was Tertullian in Carthage, who brought his legal mind to bear and reflected that humanity was in debt to God. There was Origen in Alexandria, with its immense library, who thought that humanity just couldn’t quite gain proper knowledge of God’s magnificence, and there was Irenaeus, born in the far eastern corner of the Jesus movement in modern day Turkey who thought the whole Jesus business was about life and not punishment or death.


So, there are a lot of different ways of looking at atonement.


Here are the four traditional views (or theories) of the atonement:


  1. Christus Victor / Ransom: cosmic battle between good and evil and God has already won in the person of Jesus (1 Corinthians 15: 54-57). Was popular early on when the church was suffering persecution by Roman Empire
  2. Satisfaction: Jesus paid the debt we incurred against God (Hebrews 9:7). Popularized in 11-14th centuries (feudal lords, vassals) by Anselm and Aquinas
  3. Moral Example: Abelard debated Anselm with this theory. “Instead, Jesus lived, died, and rose again to change our minds about rejecting God. Rather than perceiving God as angry, judgmental, and retributive, Abelard wanted his listeners to think about God as loving, compassionate, and merciful. Consequently, Jesus lived, died, and rose again in order to reveal God’s love to us. Everything Jesus said or did served as an example not only of how God behaves, but how we should behave too.” - Sharon Baker. (1 John 3:16, 17).
  4. Penal Subsitutionary: The Christopher Columbus of atonement doctrines. God is angry, wrathful and sends his son to die as a subsitute for our own death sentences. Popularized by Calvin in 16th century.  (1 Thessalonians 5:9,10)


The glory of God is humanity fully alive.
— Irenaeus of Lyon
Ireneaus by  Denise Louise Klitsie

People have been trying to sacrifice their prized possessions and even one another to reach or placate the Heavens. 


But atonement is really that big yet simple idea about how we see true harmony, or union with the Divine. Jesus death on the cross was not the only part of this revelation - in many ways he died as a result of his mission for shalom and healing and transformation against the political powers that be in Rome and against the wishes of the religious elite in Jerusalem.


What if we saw the cross not as some sort of divine parental punishment but as the revelation of a God that would pour Oneself out for us, even to death on the cross.


That’s what Philippians seems to be about, a book in our Bibles that first started out as a letter from St. Paul to the first Christ gatherings in a community called Philippi:


If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 

who, though he was in the form of God,

   did not regard equality with God

   as something to be exploited, 

but emptied himself,

   taking the form of a slave,

   being born in human likeness.

And being found in human form, 

   he humbled himself

   and became obedient to the point of death—

   even death on a cross. 


Therefore God also highly exalted him

   and gave him the name

   that is above every name, 

so that at the name of Jesus

   every knee should bend,

   in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 

and every tongue should confess

   that Jesus Christ is Lord,

   to the glory of God the Father. 


 Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.


What if we patterned our thoughts about the Divine as One to be imitated instead of terrorized by? Maybe we would endeavor even more to pour out our lives for one another and the healing of the world. 

If we just see the Cross as the ultimate payment for our sin, we miss out on the saving life of Jesus incarnate (God enfleshed in human form). Jesus did not just come to die. He came to show us all the way, the truth and the life that is truly life. 

*Trick question! America didn’t need to be discovered, it was already populated by a diverse indigenous myriad of tribes! But even if you want to consider this, we all know by now that the Chinese or the Irish or the Vikings or even the Rapa Nui (Easter Island) people probably beat Columbus, right?



  • Executing God: Rethinking Everything You’ve Been Taught About Salvation And the Cross by Sharon L. Baker
  • The Powers That Be: Theology For A New Millennium by Walter Wink
  • Did God Kill Jesus? Searching For Love in History’s Most Famous Execution by Tony Jones
  • The Lost Message of Jesus by Steve Chalke


  • The God’s Aren’t Angry by Rob Bell
From "Separation in the Evening, 1922" by Paul Klee

From "Separation in the Evening, 1922" by Paul Klee