Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The Atonement and the mission of the Church

A theory of the atonement that does not answer the questions of human suffering can have no place in the mission of the church today

1. Introduction
2. Why a theory of the atonement has to relate to human suffering?
3. Theories of the atonement and their strengths and weaknesses regarding the questions of human suffering.
4. Assessment of Moltmann’s understanding of the atonement as identification.
5. Conclusion.
1. Introduction.

The cross of Christ is central to the Christian faith. It is the event that not only became the dividing line between two eras of human existance, the era Before Christ, and the era Ante Domini; it also serves as the focal point[1] of all cosmic history. The atonement is the doctrine which studies this crucial event. It can be defined as ‘a process in which God the Son accomplishes his mission to redeem and save all the world to return it to God the Father.’[2]

Througout the history of the church there have been different theories of the atonement and each one of them ‘reflects some conception of the Divine nature.’[3] The three main interpretations of atonement see it either as sacrifice, victory or justice. Being metaphors themselves, they are not exclusive in their meanings and interact and combine with each other in order to explain the meaning of atonement in different socio-political contexts[4].

Though these cultural contexts and agendas have being changing significantly in the last two millennia, there is
The 1925 St Nedelya Church assault in Sofia done by the Bulgarian
Communist Party. 150 people were killed and around 500 were injured.
one aspect of social and personal life that has been characteristic of all times and epochs, namely, human suffering. Jürgen Moltmann points out that ‘the sufferings of the final age … pervade the whole of enslaved creation (Rom. 8:19)’[5] and that the world we live in continues to be ‘godless and abandoned by God.’[6] In this context of ‘man-godlessness’ and ‘God-forsakenness’[7] the mission of the church should be to present the cross of Christ as God’s total identification and solidarity with human suffering and as the only place where the world can find the answers to its global and individual suffering. Of course, Bosch is right in insisting that Jesus’ suffering started long before the cross, even at his birth.[8] Yet, it was on the cross that his suffering was combined with his total dereliction and abandonment from the Father.

So, in the present essay I shall try to demonstrate that the mission of the Church today can be effective only when it is based on a theory of atonement, which sees the cross not only as a sacrifice, victory and justice, but also as God’s solidarity and identification with human God-forsakenness, and thus responds meaningfully and adequately to the reality of human suffering. I will do that by discussing Moltmann’s view, expressed in his book ‘The Crucified God’.

2. Why a theory of the atonement has to relate to human suffering?

Bulgarians in Besarabia during the
Golodomor (Extermination by hunger)
There are two main reasons why I think our theory of atonement should take into account suffering and evil. First, human suffering has been characteristic of all times throughout human history. Wars, calamities, starvation, poverty, economic oppression, ethnic conflicts, religious persecution – to name a few, have rendered millions of people in a state of extreme suffering. Their situation could be defined as ‘disorder,’[9] ‘general unsatisfactoriness of life’, and dukkha[10], ‘pointless existence.’[11] Since the enlightenment, many have found in suffering grounds for their unbelief. As Moltmann rightly puts it,

in the broken mirror of an unjust and absurd world of triumphant evil and suffering without reason and without end it (the world) does not see the countenance of a God, but only the grimace of absurdity and nothingness.[12]

This has led to the appearance of such ideologies as atheism and nihilism, which in their turn brought about the reaction of postmodernism and relativism.

Second, suffering does not only pertain to human existence but is part and parcel of the atoning work of
Christ. God’s Son left his heavenly glory and became one of

us, lived as ‘a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering’ (Is. 53:3a) and identified fully with all corporate and individual sins and sufferings of the world on the cross. ‘At the cross Jesus does share in our experience of dukkha, of the unfairness, the unsatisfactoriness, of life, and does so to a degree unknown to the rest of creation.’[13] So, suffering could become a helpful bridge between the godless and the good news, and should be utilised in the mission of the church today.[14]

3. Theories of the atonement and their strengths and weaknesses regarding the questions of human suffering.

The first theory of atonement presents the event of the cross as a sacrifice that satisfies God’s law (Lev. 11:44). It is elaborated mostly in Hebrews and in the Pauline corpus.[15] In Goldingay’s words, we see Christ here presented as both ‘priest and victim’[16], offerer and offering: ‘Christ offers himself on our behalf;’[17] thus, ‘the death of one human person had been a final and universal sacrifice’[18] made once for all. His ‘self-offering becomes effective for us as we associate ourselves with it.'[19] The image of sacrifice has to do with the priesthood system and the temple sacrifice in the Old Testament. Fiddes develops the metaphor when he refers to our political engagement with structural evil proposed by liberation theologians and speaks about transforming evil ‘on a social level too’[20]. But this hardly helps the sacrifice metaphor resolve the whole issue of human suffering. Though it also hints at Christ’s suffering, the stress here is on the expiatory sacrifice rather than on Christ’s identification and participation in our suffering:

In Christ, as happens in connection with a purification offering or the Day of Atonement ritual, God is willing to transfer to something else the stain which rests on human beings so as then to destroy it and render the people clean. A sinless one is ‘made sin’, or perhaps ‘made a sin offering.’[21]

The victory metaphor is the classic view of the atonement. It was characteristic of the patristic period but
was rediscovered and developed by Gustav Aulen in his Christus Victor.[22] This image became relevant to many in the context of the world wars and the charismatic view of the atonement as spiritual warfare in the 20th century[23]. Aulen describes the atonement as ‘a Divine conflict and victory’, in which ‘Christ – Christus Victor – fights against and triumphs over the evil powers of the world… and in Him God reconciles the world to Himself.’[24] This theory finds its Biblical foundation in the gospels and the Pauline corpus. Fiddes seems to support its optimism when he sees in the ‘principalities and powers’, which Christ defeats, personifications of evil not only on personal but also on structural level. For him ‘the image of Christ the Victor perhaps stands closest to political engagement’[25] because his victory on the cross should motivate the church to do mission through opposing evil and engaging in liberating people from it. So, it has the potential to help those who feel God-forsaken but this largely depends on the willingness of the church to complement its orthodoxy with orthopraxis. Still, it is not clear how this metaphor does help in personal and corporate situations of utter suffering and dereliction. Furthermore, portraying the cross as a ransom Christ had to pay to the devil for the sin of humanity[26], which was the later development of the theory, ‘credited the devil with more power than he has’[27]. This undermined the potential of the metaphor to explain adequately the event of the cross and inspire those who suffer to identify with Christ’s victory. And, finally, presenting Christ as a triumphant Victor can hardly appeal to people in a post-modern and post-cold war situation of political correctness when military metaphors seem rather out of place, if not obsolete and even barbarous.

The latin theory perceives the atonement in terms of ‘a legal transaction between a God whose violated justice requires satisfaction, and a Son who meets those requirements by taking the penalty for this moral disruption upon himself.’[28] Its main proponent was Anselm of Canterbury who saw sin as ‘not rendering to God what is his due’[29] and the atonement rather as God satisfying his own law and justice through his Son. The fact that Christ is perceived as the only one who can restore justice can really be used in motivating the church in both evangelism and social action in unjust societies and communities. Still, this image says nothing of Christ’s identification with human suffering and abandonment. Furthermore, it does not see atonement as restoring of relationships but rather as paying a debt to a God who is presented rather as ‘a feudal overlord who demands honour and punishes dishonour.’[30]

4. Assessment of Moltmann’s understanding of the atonement as identification.

As we have seen, the main theories of atonement either present the cross event as satisfying the demands of the devil, or God’s law, or justice. Thus they emphasise God’s self-consistency in satisfying His holiness. Yet, there is one more attribute of His being that needs to be satisfied, namely, God’s love.[31]

God’s love to humanity was shown ultimately in His Son’s incarnation, life of identification and solidarity with
the human suffering, and finally, ‘obedience to death – even death on a cross!’ (Phil. 2:8). One of the theologians who understood the event of the cross primarily in terms of God’s solidarity and identification with human suffering is Jürgen Moltmann. In developing his trinitarian theology of the cross in ‘The Crucified God’, he uses as a starting point the thesis that ‘the cross loses its meaning and Christianity its eschatological hope whenever the Church abandons the concept of suffering and martyrdom.’[32] It is so because a God who cannot suffer and cannot die is not a God at all.[33] That is the ‘omnipotent’ but ‘incomplete’[34] God of theistic absolutism,[35] which has led to the appearance of protest atheism, and its child, nihilism.[36] In this situation we need to employ a different and ‘radical theology of the cross’[37] which recognizes that ‘the grief of the Father here is just as important as the death of the Son. The Fatherlessness of the Son is matched by the Sonlessness of the Father.’[38] Thus, ‘the delivering up of the Son to godforsakenness is the ground for the justification of the godless and the acceptance of enmity by God.[39]

Using this trinitarian model of suffering as a departure point, Moltmann argues that the theology of the cross is a ‘radical recognition of the forsakenness of the crucified Christ.[40] Jesus was rejected not only by ‘the guardians of his people’s law’, and ‘crucified by the Romans’ but ‘most profoundly, he died as one rejected by his God and his Father.’[41]Jesus’ cry of dereliction, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?’ (Matt. 27:46) demonstrates his willingness ‘in love to identify with human rejects’[42]. The paradoxical nature of the cross is that ‘only the suffering God can help.’[43] The godless, rejected and marginalised understand the cross better, because, just like them, God’s Son was also godless, rejected and marginalised.[44] By beckoning them to follow him (Mark 8:31-38) Jesus invites them to deny themselves and take up their cross on themselves.[45] ‘Jesus suffered and died alone. But those who follow him suffer and die in fellowship with him.’[46] So, God-forsakenness in this world can be overcome only through standing beneath Jesus’ cross.[47]

In the same way, it seems to me, the mission of the chuch today should be to invite the God-forsaken and the godless to consider the cross not only as a sacrifice, victory and justice, satisfying God’s law, honour and justice but also to take up their cross and experience God’s solidarity and identification with their wretchedness and dereliction. Because ‘by his suffering and death Jesus identified himself with those who were enslaved and took their pain upon himself.’[48]Only then will the church find its God-given mission, the cross regain its true meaning, and Christianity recover its eschatological hope.

5. Conclusion.

Moltmann’s understanding of the atonement as an identification is biblically founded and relevant to those
Protesters hold a banner with the inscription:
'When law turns into lawlessness resistance is a must'
who find themselves in situations of dukkha, of discontentment and unsatisfactoriness of life. The answer to their feelings of man-godlessness and God-forsakenness can be found only on the cross where God’s Son went through the ultimate man-godliness and God-forsakenness. The mission of the church is to point to the cross and present Christ as God’ Son who in solidarity identifies with our sin and suffering, and offers to walk with us and be with us in our dukkha, till the time when ‘there will be no more death, neither sorrow, no crying, neither shall there be any more pain (Rev. 21:4). Perhaps it is this eschatological hope, ‘the “great hope” of the gospel’[49] that Moltmann could have emphasized a little stronger[50]. Also, together with Stott, I agree that Moltmann could have made it clearer that ‘it was with the spiritually outcast, not just the socially outcast… sinners not just criminals, that Jesus identified on the cross.’[51] Nevertheless, Moltmann’s presentation of Christ’s abandonment on the cross as the ultimate expression of God’s love answers convincingly to the questions of human suffering. That is why it should be integrated in our presentation of the atonement and practically implemented in the mission of the church.

Trif Trifonov 



Bosch, D.J., Transforming Mission, (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2005)
P. Cotterell, Mission and Meaningless, (London: SPCK, 1996)
Carter, D., OTC305 Christology and Atonement in Historical Perspective, (Cheltenham: OTC, 2008)
Goldingway, J., Old Testament Sacrifice and the Death of Christ, OTC305 Reader, (Cheltenham: OTC, 2008)
Moltmann, J.,The Crucified God, (London: SCM Press, 2001)
The Holy Bible: New International Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996)

Internet resources:

Fiddes, P., Past Event and Present Salvation: The Christian Idea of Atonement, Book Review in Google Book Search. [online]. Available from , [Accessed 17 June 2008].
Geering, L., God in the New World by Lloyd Geering, Chapter 13: The Concern with the Man Jesus and the End of an Age, [online]. Available from , [Accessed 26 June 2008].
Griesinger, E., The shape of things to come: toward an eschatology of literature, (01.01.2004) in Christianity and Literature, [online]. Available from , [Accessed 26.06.2008].


[1] L. Geering, God in the New World by Lloyd Geering, Chapter 13: The Concern with the Man Jesus and the End of an Age, Available from , [Accessed 26 June 2008]
[2] D. Carter, OTC305 Christology and Atonement in Historical Perspective, p. 122-3.
[3] G. Aulen, Christus Victor (London: SPCK, 1970 (1931)), p. 12-13, quoted in D. Carter, p. 122.
[4] D. Carter, OTC305 Christology and Atonement in Historical Perspective, p. 126.
[5] J. Moltmann, The Crucified God, p. 54.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid., p. 251.
[8] Bosch, Transforming Mission, p. 513.
[9] P. Cotterell, Mission and Meaningless, p. 6.
[10] Here Cotterell uses the Buddhist term, meaning the same thing, ‘disorder’ or ‘general unsatisfactoriness of life’.
[11] Cotterell, p. 7
[12] Moltmann, p. 226.
[13] Cotterell, p. 257.
[14] This becomes crucial in a time when in many churches all over the world it is the message of the ‘prosperity gospel’ rather than the message of the crucified suffering Servant which is being used for making converts. The question is, whose converts sit in the pews of those churches, Christ’s or Mammon’s (Matt. 6:19-24).
[15] Hebrews 9:11-14, 7:25; 1 Cor. 5:7, 2 Cor. 5:21, Rom. 8:23 – see D. Carter, p. 128.
[16] J. Goldingway, Old Testament Sacrifice and the Death of Christ, OTC305 Reader, p. 7.
[17] Ibid., p. 11.
[18] P. Fiddes, Past Event and Present Salvation: The Christian Idea of Atonement, Book Review in Google Book Search, [online]. Available from , [Accessed 17 June 2008], p. 69.
[19] J. Goldingway, p. 11.
[20] P. Fiddes, p. 197.
[21] J. Goldingway, p. 11.
[22] See D. Carter, p. 136.
[23] Ibid., p. 137.
[24] G. Aulen, p.4, quoted in D. Carter, p. 137.
[25] P. Fiddes, p. 197-8.
[26] D. Carter, p. 141.
[27] Stott, The Cross of Christ, p. 113.
[28] D. Carter, p. 152.
[29] Stott, p. 118.
[30] Ibid., p. 120.
[31] Ibid., p. 129-131.
[32] Moltmann, p. 54.
[33] Ibid., p. 229.
[34] Ibid., p. 226-230
[35] D. Carter, OTC305 Christology and Atonement in Historical Perspective,p. 183.
[36] Moltmann, p. 228.
[37] Ibid., p. 233.
[38] Ibid., p. 251. Here Moltmann speaks of Paul’s ‘delivering up’ formula, in which Christ is both the object (Rom. 8:31f, 2 Cor. 5:21 and Gal. 3:13) and the subject (Gal. 2:20) in the event of God-forsakenness on the cross. Thus in the utter separation of Father and Son we also have a ‘deep community of will’ (p. 252).
[39] Ibid., p. 251.
[40] Ibid., p. 209.
[41] Ibid., p. 154.
[42] Stott, p. 216.
[43] Moltmann, p. 43.
[44] Ibid., p. 43.
[45] Ibid., p. 50.
[46] Ibid., p. 52.
[47] Ibid., 51-2.
[48] Ibid., p. 44.
[49] Ibid., p. 334.
[50] This could be perhaps done by advocating a more balanced approach in dealing with the predicament of human suffering by stressing God’s soverenty and not just human efforts – see E. Griesinger, The shape of things to come: toward an eschatology of literature, (01.01.2004) in Christianity and Literature, [online]. Available from , [Accessed 26.06.2008].
[51] Stott, p. 217.