The atonement debates: Why did Jesus Christ 'die for our sins'?


I understand there is currently a debate between orthodox and progressive theologians on the doctrine of the atonement. I always considered this a cornerstone of Christian theology. Can you encapsulate the arguments?


A tough one, and this mere journalist has long pondered how to reply. Tough because the meaning of Jesus’ crucifixion stands right at the heart of the Christian faith -- indeed the cross is its universal symbol -- and so is vitally important, sensitive,  a highly complex concern of many great minds the past 2,000 years, and ultimately beyond human comprehension. But here’s a rough attempt at an answer.

Like many people, Christians see the reality of good and evil, believe this awareness tells us God is holy, seek to live morally, yet admit they fall short due to an inherent sinfulness in themselves and humanity in general. Theologians call this “original sin.” Finally, they believe  Jesus’ agonizing death by crucifixion somehow overcame humanity’s sin problem and offers salvation.

That belief originated with the Bible. Jesus himself said the Son of Man came “to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45, Matthew 20:28), and that the Christ should suffer and “repentance and forgiveness should be preached in his name to all nations” (Luke 24:46-47).

Paul the apostle wrote: “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3). “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them. ... For our sake [God] made [Jesus] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:19,21). “God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we are now justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God” (Romans 5:8-9).

Christians agree on such essentials but there’s no one, universally accepted and detailed definition of how Jesus’ death saves sinners. Most folks probably don’t worry much about the various facets emphasized by theologians in different times and situations, for instance: In the church’s early centuries many embraced a “ransom” theory, using Jesus’ own word, in which God offered his own Son to rescue captive humanity and, some said, to pay the ransom to Satan. Another early thinker, Irenaeus of Lyons, stressed “recapitulation,” in which Jesus is the sinless new Adam who counteracts the sinful disobedience of Adam.

Continue reading "The atonement debates: Why did Jesus Christ 'die for our sins'?" by Richard Ostling.

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