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The problem of atonement

30 November, 1999

Sean O’Conaill points out the cultural origins and the defects of theories of atonement and satisfaction, seeing Christ’s sacrifice instead as God’s refusal to enter the cycle of violence and retribution which characterises human relations.

In the garden Jesus asked, in anguish: “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” (Matt 26:39)

As we know the cup was not taken from him. Jesus suffered arrest, isolation, humiliation and excruciating death. Are we then to blame Abba, our Father, for the crucifixion? Did he ‘make Jesus die in reparation for our sins,’ as people sometimes say?

This question – the problem of atonement – is possibly the most difficult in all of theology. Even Cardinal Ratzinger, the church’s top theological official, has asked ‘Why does God reign from the Cross?’ Dean Andrew Furlong of the Church of Ireland admits that he cannot accept any of the classical theories of atonement – one of his reasons for rejecting Jesus’ divinity.

Atonement means simply ‘at-one-ment’: coming together, or reconciliation, of ourselves with God. So, the problem of atonement is to understand how Jesus’ passion and death brings us and God together.

Earlier theory
The earliest theory of atonement, the one probably held by all the apostles, was that in some sense we humans were enslaved by Satan, and that Jesus’ death somehow purchased our liberty. However, in the Middle Ages, theologians came to doubt that any debt to Satan could have warranted such a high price. One of them, St. Anselm, proposed another, the satisfaction theory.

To understand this, we need to remember that in the Middle Ages people were very unequal in dignity or ‘worth’. The king at the summit of the social pyramid was held to be far more ‘worthy’ than the barons and knights, who were in turn far more worthy than the farmers and peasants or serfs. So, for a serf to steal from a king was a far more serious matter than for a serf to steal from another serf. In order to make good the injury to the king, the serf would have to pay a far higher penalty so that the debt to him would be satisfied.

St. Anselm pointed out that God is at the summit of the heavenly pyramid, so that every sin we commit is an extremely severe offence to him. He taught that no matter how much we may suffer for our sins, we are incapable of paying the full price of making good the injury, as we are so much less worthy than God. So, Jesus died to make up the difference – because his life was worth so much more to the Father. In that way man’s debt to God was satisfied.

Although other theologians have argued against this, in the absence of anything more persuasive, it became the standard explanation for the crucifixion. In the highly rated Alpha programme, devised for evangelisation in our own time, a very similar explanation is used. Alpha director Nicky Gumbel tells the story of two friends separated for many years who eventually meet one another in court. One is the defendant who has committed a crime for which a heavy fine has to be paid – so heavy that he cannot pay it. The other is the judge, who must find him guilty according to the law. The judge does so, but then descends from his high chair and pays the fine, as a friend. Justice is served – but the guilty man has been ‘redeemed’ from the full price of his crime, which would have been imprisonment.

The story is itself satisfying – up to a point. The problem is that as we see God as being all powerful, we see him also as in a position simply to cancel the debt – something the judge in Gumbel’s story obviously could not do. The ordinary person finds it very difficult to square God’s infinite justice with God’s infinite mercy, but tends to believe that an infinite God could manage to do so – sparing his own son.

The Gospels seem to support this difficulty. In explaining the Kingdom of God, Jesus tells the story of a king who cancels the debt of a servant as an example of the forgiveness we should ourselves show one another (Matt 18: 23-35). The story of the father who welcomes back the prodigal son, without conditions, teaches the same lesson (Luke 15:11-32) – God does not hold back on his forgiveness. And it was especially for his habit of forgiveness that Jesus was accused. Since he taught us that when we see him we also see the Father, we expect the Father to be as forgiving as he was.

Another explanation
There is another possible explanation for the crucifixion: that the Father and the Son both suffer for our sake to release us from a captivity we could not otherwise escape from – the captivity of violence, the culmination of every other evil.

In the ancient world there were, broadly speaking, two main sources of violence. One was warfare, brought about by the ambitions of warrior kings.

The greatest of these was Alexander, King of Macedon, who built an empire reaching from Greece to the Himalayas and Egypt. His victories were unprecedented in the ancient world, and made him a god in the eyes of many. We can see this as the fulfilment of the temptation offered in the Garden of Eden – ‘thou shalt be as gods.’ Julius Caesar set out to emulate Alexander in the century before Christ, and became indeed the founding god of the very empire into which Jesus was born.

In the temptation in the desert, Satan offers Jesus an even greater empire, the kingdoms of the world (Matt 4: 8-10) – but Jesus resists it. He will not be a warrior king, like Alexander, Caesar, or even David, Israel’s greatest military hero. This must mean that he will be vulnerable to those whose power is based upon violence: the Roman government in Palestine.

Scapegoating violence
The second kind of violence in the ancient world was internal: the practice of scapegoating violence – the murder or expulsion of vulnerable individuals as a means of defusing internal conflict.

To understand this, we must simply grasp that the ancient world did not have advanced policing and judicial systems, like modern societies. This meant that a blow struck by one member of one tribe or family against another was liable to be reciprocated – and then to escalate uncontrollably. We are an intensely mimetic species i.e. we often unconsciously mimic one another’s behaviour. Where there was no restraint upon this by a developed policing and court system, such mimetic violence – fuelled by the usual resentments that develop out of human competition, jealousy and rivalry – could escalate out of control.

What happened then is well illustrated by the story in St. John’s Gospel of the woman taken in adultery. The woman was brought into the presence of Jesus in the Temple Court. She would – in the normal course of events – be stoned to death by all who wished to participate. The selection of a vulnerable individual, shamed so that no one would take her part, allowed all to defuse their anger in such a way that there could be no retaliation.

In this way, one person could literally be made to pay the price for the aggression – i.e. the sins – of all. And a peace – temporary of course – would then fall. We should see this isolation, humiliation and intended murder of the woman taken in adultery as a rehearsal for the very similar process soon to be mounted against Jesus himself.

In the accusation and crucifixion of Jesus, both forms of violence come together – the violence born of internal rivalries, and the violence born of political ambition. Caiaphas insists that the death of this one man will save the nation, i.e. defuse an internal Jewish crisis threatening to undermine his own power. It will thus also prevent another Roman assault upon the Jewish people to restore order. The semi-riot he then foments persuades Pilate, the Roman governor, that Rome’s control is also at stake.

At Gethsemane, Peter offers the standard riposte to violence – more violence. But a violent God can set only the same violent example as Caesar and Alexander, and the name of Jesus must stand far above theirs. His kingdom can only be built on forgiveness – and so the cup that he dreads cannot pass him by. The Father gives him the strength to stand alone for the sake of an entirely different kind of kingdom – one for which no blow may be struck, either to win, or to retain power. And one that will never sacrifice individuals for the sake of its own survival.

God’s first move
Thus, the crucifixion brings humankind and God together – because it is God who first moves towards us. But we also then move towards him, because Jesus – though God – is also human, and can therefore be imitated in his spirit of self-sacrifice, for example, by Maximilian Kolbe in Auschwitz. To sacrifice oneself for another is the very opposite of sacrificing someone else for oneself. Following Jesus, we move towards the Father.

The early understanding of atonement – that it broke the power of Satan – can easily be reconciled with this, because the power of Satan does indeed culminate in violence – the violence of ambition, and the violence of victimisation. And the crucifixion did indeed break this power.

Slow process
Not immediately, of course. Traumatised by the persecutions of early Christians by Rome, the bishops of the church made an unfortunate pact with another military adventurer in the fourth century – the Emperor Constantine. This was the beginning of the process by which the church became itself a privileged and powerful – and victimising – institution in the medieval period. This was why St Anselm could not see the crucifixion as a protest against all violence for Constantine too was supposedly the benefactor of the church.

Modernity has stripped away that power, as Pope John Paul II has recognised with gladness. It is time the inadequate medieval theory of atonement which argues, foolishly, that Abba is too proud to bend – was put to rest as well.

Today, as we try to build a new Ireland upon the principle of forgiveness, not violence, we should see Jesus of Nazareth – and his Father and the Holy Spirit that unites them – as the real founder of that ideal kingdom. And with him all those who were also innocent victims of political ambition.

We too need to atone – to be spiritually, if not politically, at one – in grief for all those we have lost.

And all others can move towards God through Christ – all those driven by social and political humiliation to addiction, criminality and violence. In the kingdom of God, no one is to be humiliated or left out in order to secure the peace of all the rest.


This article first appeared in Reality (April, 2002), a publication of the Irish Redemptorists.