Each year various dictionary type organisations announce their ‘word of the year’. An Australian version is run by the Macquarie Dictionary. Prominent words of the last few years have been “staycation” (which we are all familiar with now), “onsie” (an item of clothing I’ve chosen not to wear today), “captain’s call” (which is why I am speaking to you today), “mansplain” (which may be a descripton of my talk today – I’ll let you decide) and “strollout” (which is how you might leave church today).
Making up words is not a new thing. The all time champion might be a Bible translator named William Tyndale
In his time the Bible was read in church in Latin, which most people did not understand, and Tyndale (in England) thought that the Bible should be able to be read so that average people could understand it, in English. His problem was that there were some words which did not translate very easily from Hebrew or Greek or even Latin into English. Tyndale’s solution? Make a word up!
Tyndale mashed together “thanks” and “giving” to make “thanksgiving”, which might have been the word of the year for 1525.
William Tyndale also invented a key word for lent and Easter, which is “atonement”, which he made by mashing together “at one ment”.
He was trying to find a word which had the sense of things which have come together. Word of the year 1526.
A little while ago John Higgins spoke about a simple idea known as the Trinity. Not to be outdone, and being in lent, today I’m going to figure out the atonement.
Very roughly, the atonement refers to what happened at the first Easter, at the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. We might speak of this as when sin or death was defeated, or of salvation or forgiveness. Right from the early Christians there has been many ideas on how this occurred. By what process or mechanism does the death of Jesus save us?
I’m going to do a whistle-stop tour of the various ideas of the atonement over the centuries and then end with what it might mean for us today.
So let’s start.
The earliest and most long-lasting theory of the atonement was first written down by a Christian named Origen a bit after the year 200 – here is a picture of him.
The idea was that Jesus’ death was a ‘ransom’, which is what we saw in the first reading today:
The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Mark 10:45)
You pay a ransom for the release of a captive. In the idea, humanity as a whole is the captive and Jesus is the ransom payment. This way of seeing the atonement would have been very relevant for the early Christians, who were being imprisoned, including Origen.
The idea lasted nearly a thousand years. Why was it rejected? The medieval theologians couldn’t work out who is the ransom was paid to. If the ransom is paid to God, then this would be God paying God which seems a bit silly. If the ransom is paid to the devil as the captor of humanity, then we have an unattractive idea of God and the devil doing a deal.
In fact, the most common version of the ransom theory was that God tricked the devil into the deal, and got out of the deal through Jesus being raised from the dead. This is actually the plot in CS Lewis’s children’s story The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
Here is a picture from the book, of the lion Aslan and the evil Witch discussing their deal. The witch invokes what she calls ‘deep magic’ to carry out her plan, but Aslan knows of deeper magic she does not know, and that triumphs in the end.
In around the year 1100 Anselm of Canterbury wrote a critique of the ransom theory along the lines of what I just said, and suggested a replacement, which became the dominant idea for about 400 years.
Anselm’s world was very different from that of the early Christians. There was no Roman Empire and Christianity was the only religon around so they weren’t being persecuted. Anselm lived during feudalism, where people lived in large estates governed by a lord such as a Duke or a Baron, who served as employer, protector and judge. The people served the feudal lord and in response the lord gave them stability and protection. If the feudal lord was no good then the people might revolt.
Anselm’s idea was that God was effectively the top feudal lord, where our obedience brings God honour and our disobedience brings dishonour. In the feudal world, the disobedience of the people was like saying, “God, we reckon you are doing a bad job – no‑one wants to obey you and you’re reputation is shot and you’re a laughing stock around the other feudal lords”. That’s a lot of dishonour. Restoring God’s honour required a very large act of obedience, which Jesus provided in dying on the cross. This satisfies God’s honour, which is why this is called the “Satisfaction” theory of the atonement.
If you think that the idea sounds a bit weird then that is understandable. Medieval folk would have found the idea quite sensible, which is why it stuck. It later disappeared because society moved on.
There was another writer around the same time who had another idea about the atonement.
Peter Abelard was one of the most learned men of his time. His great love was Heloise, a woman also renowned for her learning.
They fell in love when he was her teacher in Paris. They secretly married but Heloise’s uncle opposed their relationship. Abelard was beaten and then castrated by hired thugs, and Heloise ended up in the convent. They wrote letters to each other for the rest of their lives, but never saw each other again.
In his teachings, Abelard advocated for what is sometimes called the ‘example’ theory of the atonement. The idea is that Jesus’ uncompromising love and dedication to God and people, as demonstrated through his life and most radically in his death, serves as an example and inspiration to his followers for them to show love too.
We saw how the ‘satisfaction’ theory was clearly a product of the society of the time. Likewise, is it any wonder that Abelard, whose love and dedication to Heloise is famous, should favour an atonement centred on the love and dedication of Jesus?
Moving onto the fifteenth century, another theory of the atonement developed because two important things happened.
The first was that the established church started raising money by selling people vouchers for sinning. You might have heard of these vouchers as “indulgences”, and there is a picture of one.
If you sinned, you could hand in your voucher and it would be ok.
Some theologians were rightly very upset by this and sought to break away from the official church.
The second thing that happened was that by now social structures had changed. The feudal system, where the lord protected the people and administered justice, had been superceded by more complex systems of national governments with parliaments, laws and courts.
The medieval emphasis on sin causing dishonour to God or that sin was a rejection of God’s love, was replaced by an emphasis on sin being the breaking of God’s laws. In the same way as nations have laws and strict penalties for disobeying them, including death in some cases, so God has laws to be obeyed and penalties to be paid for breaking those laws. Jesus’ death is the payment of the penalty as a substitute for us.
This way of understanding Jesus’ death helped convince people to reject the sin vouchers and to reform the church.
One of the key people here was John Calvin.
You might not be surprised to learn that Calvin was a lawyer before becoming a theologian. Just as the theories of Origen, Anselm and Abelard were influenced by their life and social situations, so was Calvin’s theory. Calvin, with help from Martin Luther and others, interpreted much of the Bible through the lens of laws and penalties, and using themes such as sacrifice.
This was a brilliant piece of theology, instrumental in reforming a church in desperate need of reform, through ideas that people were able to relate to.
This way of understanding the atonement, which we now call penal substitution, has dominated for around 500 years and it is probably the one you are most familiar with.
So that brings us to the end of our short tour. There are actually a lot of other theories. Another one which might even predate ransom is called recapitulaton, which says that sin started with Adam who made a poor decision, but Jesus was a new Adam who makes the right decisions in a kind of parallel timeline where everything is restored. This one never really caught on in the West but is still big in Eastern Orthodox Christianity.
Anyway, I hope you get the idea . All of these theories are based on biblical texts and developed by faithful Christians but they are also products of their time.
You might find that some of the theories make intuitive sense to you, particularly substitution, which many of us would have grown up with.
All these theories also have limitations. A common limitation across most of them is that they largely ignore Jesus’ life. So when we ask ‘why dd Jesus die?’ we usually think in terms of the big-picture purpose. You might answer that Jesus died to save us. But I think its helpful to also look at the question from the historical perspective: how was it that Jesus died? I’d like to make three short points to consider as we go towards Easter.
First, Jesus’ ministry – his life – was as a teacher and healer who welcomed the downtrodden and the marginalised. The Romans and Jews in power had no objection to a preacher who healed people and inspired them to live better lives – that doesn’t get you executed. But Jesus went further than that. He challenged the tools by which the people are controlled. Belinda spoke about one of these tools last week, the belief that misfortune and poverty are a result of sin, which is a very liberatng idea. Unsurprisingly, his popularity increased to a point that on arriving in Jerusalem he was met with rejoicing crowds. He provocatively entered riding on a donkey, a symbol from the prophet Zechariah and an event we will commemorate in two weeks.
The second idea is that Jesus was executed with a sign above his head that read “This is the King of the Jews”. Jesus was executed as threat to the established powers. The Romans had many methods of execution. Crucifixion was chosen in order to make an obvious and public warning. Remember that only Jesus was arrested and executed, not any of his followers. In effect, the sign said: this is what happens those who become so popular they may actually be able to do something.
We are reminded of the Brazilian Bishop Hélder Câmara, who said, “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.”
Jesus’ crucifixion was the victory of the self-serving powers. It was unambiguously political and unambiguously unjust. The apostle Paul calls those powers Sin, and as we read in the second reading today, there is no way to be free from the power of Sin except through death. Paul explains that Jesus was the ultimate victim of the power of Sin.
As we approach this Easter, consider the continued victories of the power of Sin around the world. You can look to the war in Ukraine but you won’t really need to look that far.
The third thing I wanted to mention is that we are also approaching the Jewish festival we know as Passover, which is, incidentaly, another word invented by William Tyndale.
Jesus knew he would be executed, but why at Passover of all the festivals? Why not at Yom Kippur, the Jewish festival of atonement? Passover was the annual festival celebrating the liberation of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt. Jesus’ death, it turns out, is about freedom.
As Thorwald points out in his book we launched here recently, atonement theories are word-pictures and they are all helpful in different ways through their different perspectives. The ransom theory emphasises that we are imprisoned by our wrongdoings. The statisfaction theory emphasises the severing of relationships and that our sins affect God as well as us. The substitution theory appeals to our sense of justice. These are all good things to meditate on during lent.
And we have deliberately chosen songs today which take different perspectives on the atonement.
In a moment we will sing “Were you there when they crucified my Lord”, which I find confronting with the possible perspectives – if I were there, in what capacity would it have been? A follower of Jesus? A victim with Jesus? A Roman soldier? A Jewish priest? One of the others? On Good Friday Jeanette will look more closely at some of these characters.
When we ask, “why did Jesus die?” its helpful to start with the historical events. Jesus died because God’s vision for the world came up against forces of self-interest and power.
Origen was a victim of these powers, dying of woulds from torture in the year 251. William Tyndale was another victim of these powers, burned at the stake by Henry the Eighth n 1536.
Unlike Oregin and Tyndale, Jesus was more than a martyr for the way he lived. When we look beyond his unjust violent death, the triumph of Sin makes way for a festival of freedom in the resurrection. As Baptists, our baptism is more than a confession of faith. Our baptism, says Paul, is us being “buried with Jesus by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”