N.T. Wright, in his newest book, The Day the Revolution Began, asserts that an either/or distinction between the theories of the atonement must be discarded. These theories in fact are all truthful. They must be taken together to get a holistic picture of what the atonement is. The idea, in a nutshell, is that the atonement of Christ is a multi-faceted event containing elements of Christus Victor, Moral Influence, and Penal Substitution, an event which is ultimately about God reclaiming authority over the world through the reinstatement of humans to their God-ordained vocation as image bearers and vice-regents of the earth. Below, I will explain the deficiencies of each theory to show that they are not sufficient in and of themselves to explain the atonement.
The Insufficiency of Christus Victor to Fully Explain the Atonement
First, I want to demonstrate that CV by itself is insufficient. First, as has already been explained, the position describes the atonement in vague terms. The position simply asserts the victory of Christ over the powers of darkness. This simplicity and vagueness is what makes this position unique. Unfortunately, this flattens penal ideas that appear to be presented in the biblical text.
Specifically, the text seems to speak of atonement in terms of penal sacrifice. For instance, in Hebrews 10:14, the author says, “For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.” Behind this statement is the rich theology of the priesthood of Jesus Christ that was argued the previous nine chapters. In the argument of Hebrews, the blood of bulls and goats were insufficient to cleanse the people of God. What was needed was the “one sacrifice” which the author speaks of. The Levitical code demanded a spotless lamb, and the book of Hebrews picks this requirement up as a shadow of the Lamb of the new covenant. The blood of the Son of God is deemed as the only valuable sacrifice able to be offered on behalf of the sins of Israel. If we describe the atonement merely in terms of a simplistic victory over the powers of darkness—that is, by ignoring the priestly theology in the book of Hebrews, we miss out on how the text tells us the victory is achieved. Atonement, then, is not quite so vague as the theory would suggest by itself.
The Insufficiency of Moral Influence to Fully Explain the Atonement
Second, I want to demonstrate MI as being insufficient by itself. What this theory lacks is the high Christology of the New Testament. While MI wants to describe the atonement of Christ as a supreme demonstration of love, it does not go far enough in explaining who Christ is and how his act of sacrifice is a demonstration of love. Simply said, the theory emphasizes the effects of the atonement while screening out the person of the atonement. This may be demonstrated from a few texts.
For instance, Colossians 1:5 speaks of the love radiating from the Colossian church which sprang up from their hearing of the gospel of Christ. This may be an example of how the atonement is a supreme illustration of sacrificial love. However, Paul goes on to speak of Christ as being the one in which the “fullness” of God dwells (1:19) and to whom everything in the universe belongs (1:16). These texts are key texts in understanding who this person is who makes the atoning sacrifice. If indeed he is the Son of God in whom the Deity dwells in fullness, and if he is indeed developing a kingdom (1:13) to which the atonement is working toward, then it stands to reason that the atonement must mean more than a moral example. It must mean that there is a war between these two kingdoms (“the kingdom of darkness” and the “kingdom of his beloved Son”) with larger metaphysical implications. To describe the atonement as a mere moral illustration is to reduce the larger picture which the biblical text portrays.
The Insufficiency of Penal Substitution to Fully Explain the Atonement
Third, I want to explain how PS is insufficient by itslf as an atonement theory. While we saw earlier that elements of priestly sacrifice are behind the atonement, this theory, when taken alone, leaves the atonement dry, devoid of the rich, colorful meanings of selfless love and triumphant victory. One cannot deny that the atonement contains language of sacrifice. However, the elements of sacrifice in the New Testament are described as working toward ends greater than mere placation of wrath.
An illustration may be taken from Romans 3, which we studied elsewhere. Paul uses the word ἱλαστήριον in 3:25, a word which is generally translated as propitiation, or the means by which the wrath of God is absorbed and defused. However, the word itself may better be understood as the mercy seat of the tabernacle. In other words, it may be better understood metaphorically. Within the larger context of Paul’s argument in Romans, it would be better to describe the propitiation element of the atonement as one which reconciles (5:11) mankind to God. The primary idea is reconciliation, not placation. The atonement as such was an event ordained by God not simply to divert his wrath, but to do it in a way such that he might win mankind back to himself. PS therefore cannot be left by itself, otherwise it runs the risk of wrongly portraying the end of the atonement.
The Multi-Dimensional Revolution
Rather, the best way to understand the atonement is by seeing it as a combination of all three theories. What Jesus did on the cross was start a revolution against the powers of darkness by standing as a substitute for sinners so as to demonstrate how the self-sacrificial kingdom he was sent to build in place of the old kingdom was to operate.
First, the element of CV is the overarching goal of the atonement. Indeed, the cross of Jesus Christ was designed to defeat the powers of darkness. Mankind has been shackled under the power of Satan and his kingdom. Jesus’ victory delivered a decisive blow against that kingdom and thereby started an insurrection against the reigning kingdom. Jesus’ new kingdom was already breaking in among the people of Judea. His death was intended as the supernova by which the old kingdom would be destroyed and the new kingdom would be born.
Second, the element of MI is the moral lesson of the atonement. In every story, there is a moral or lesson intended for readers to mimic. If the atonement is the climax of the narrative tension of the Bible, then the lesson intended to be taken from the victory event is selfless love. Just as Jesus suffered and died to win the battle, so too must those of his kingdom live in regards to God and each other. This atonement inspires and motivates people to follow Jesus in his example, to join him in his kingdom.
Third, the element of PS was the means by which the atonement procured the victory. Indeed, the priestly language of the New Testament rightfully signifies reconciliation between God and man. Unlike the bulls and goats, however, the sacrifice of Christ allows for sinful men to stand in his place and assume his position and status as the new Adam and rightful heir of the new creation.
Taken together, each of the theories works like the different parts of a symphony. The atonement is a large, multi-dimensional event which contains at least three layers which we briefly skimmed. The tune being played is the revolution of God’s new kingdom breaking into the world, the King himself leading the charge as the self-sacrificial hero. By themselves, each theory of the atonement (Christus Victor, Moral Influence, Penal Substitution) cannot fully account for what happened on the cross. However, when taken together, the grander story God is weaving is better understood, and we can understand better why the cross is such a pivotal moment in the history of creation.