25 Mar 2018

Two Interpretations of Jesus’ Atonement

All Posts, Religious 12 Comments

This is intended for believing Christians, and perhaps even there will only interest Protestants. I was working through different interpretations (coming from professing Christians) on the same stipulated events from Biblical history. I should stress that both sides can point to ample scriptural evidence for their perspective, and yet they paint quite different pictures of the nature of God.

Note that I am going to exaggerate the interpretations in order to bring out their contrast. Obviously in reality, most Christians would not be purely one or the other. And in fact, the resolution of this might be that both sides are stressing certain features of a very complex reality.

Interpretation A

Adam and Eve committed the Original Sin in the garden of Eden. The wages of sin is death. God Himself had warned Adam that if he ate of the tree of knowledge, he would surely die.

Since Adam and Eve sinned, humanity was cursed. God is a just God, so He couldn’t just overlook sin. He needed to punish it. However, God poured His wrath out on Jesus, who took our place on the cross.

A good analogy for this perspective is that God is a judge who announced to a defendant that he owes a billion dollars because of his crimes. The defendant cannot possibly pay this amount. The judge wants to show mercy on the man, but the judge is just and can’t simply overlook the law. But then the judge’s own son volunteers to pay the fine for the man, so that justice is served, but the guilty defendant is saved by the innocent son.


Interpretation B

I’ve previously discussed a whole sermon from John Crowder critiquing the above perspective; here’s a blog post I found while searching for stuff just now. Here, let me just summarize some of the pushback:

Would you punish your kid in order to satisfy your own wrath at somebody else’s kid’s crime? So are you saying God is a worse parent than you? Does God the judge really not care about tailoring the crime to person who committed it?

After their sin, Adam and Eve hid from God. He went out looking for them. It wasn’t that they were in close union and then He expelled them because of their transgression.

Paul actually writes, “Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior” (my emphasis).

God didn’t kill Jesus, we did. Yes, of course that event was a crucial part of His plan for our salvation, but it doesn’t seem to have the same flavor as (say) God using His “servant” the King of Babylon, let alone God ordering Joshua to wage war in His name, in order to effect divine retribution. It was more akin to God using the quite conscious crime of Joseph’s brothers to achieve good. (I.e., it’s not that the Roman soldiers who nailed Jesus to the cross thought they were carrying out God’s wishes.)

So we see God willing to allow this horrible thing to happen to His Son *if it would help*, but why does it help? It’s not because “God needs to see somebody die, and He doesn’t care who it is, just as long as there’s some bloodletting.”

Rather, *we* need to believe that we are truly forgiven. If Jesus can endure that and still ask His Father to forgive those who had just tortured Him and nailed Him to a cross, then there’s nothing you did that is unforgivable. It’s arrogance to think you’re worse than David, Peter, Saul and the sins they committed.

12 Responses to “Two Interpretations of Jesus’ Atonement”

  1. Dan W. says:


    The answer is found in the correct parts of both interpretations. As explained in Romans 6, the wages of sin is death. God wants us to be with him in Heaven but sin makes us unholy, impure and unclean. The world brought about by the Fall of Adam & Eve is a world of sin and all of us in this world will sin and fall short of the glory of God.

    In our sinful state we cannot abide the presence of God without there being an intercession. This intercession is provided by Jesus Christ, the Son of God. But why does Jesus do this? Why does God allow Jesus to do this? Because God loves us and Jesus, in the similitude of his Father, loves us. There is no one else who could die for us to be our Savior other than the Son of God. The sacrifice was done not to appease God but to allow God to redeem his children from the consequences of sin, through our faith, repentance and baptism in the name of Jesus Christ.

    So Jesus offered himself as the great sacrifice for sin. To borrow from the analogy, the Judge’s son willfully stood up to pay the debt we cannot possibly afford to pay. He does this out of love and the Judge allows his Son to provide this intercession because He loves us and He loves his Son. However, the Son does have a condition in the offer he makes to us. To accept the offer of debt payment we need to accept Him! The gift of God’s grace is meaningless if we do not accept it! And the acceptance of the gift requires much more than words. It requires real faith and a real commitment to try our best to live as Jesus taught us to live.

    Jesus taught a very high standard. He explained: “strait is the gate and narrow is the way, which leads unto [eternal] life”. He taught us to love our enemies. He taught us to turn the other cheek. He taught us to deny ourselves of all lusts. He taught us to not only give to others but to give double. He taught us to be perfect!

    How can we possibly do what Jesus asks? The answer is we cannot. Jesus gives us a standard so incredibly high it is fruitless to attempt it, unless, that is, we believe God will help us. This is the correct part of Interpretation B. Jesus is our example in all things (see 1 Peter 2:21). We can believe we will live again because Jesus lived again. We can believe we can be forgiven of our sins because Jesus forgave so many of their sins. The power of the Jesus’s atonement – of his Sacrifice for our sin – is realized in the power of our Faith in Christ’s grace to make us holy and pure, despite our flaws and imperfections (see 2 Corinthians 12:9)

  2. Kevin Regal says:


    Great topic for holy week.

    I hope I’m not missing the point, but I think what needs more emphasis in both interpretations is union with Christ. When Jesus died for our sin, we died for our sin. The idea of a swap of righteousness/punishment between two separate parties doesn’t tell the whole story. God makes us one with Christ so that his obedience is our obedience, his death is our death, and his resurrection is our resurrection. It’s not just a swap; rather the two parties are combined.

    “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.
    For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” (Rom 6:3-11)

    Someone asked me yesterday why they call it “Good Friday” when it seems like the death of Jesus is the most horrific thing one could imagine. But the other side of it is that on that day WE DIED. We bore the wrath we so deserve…in Christ! It’s done! Now that’s pretty darn good!

  3. Clayton Soultz says:

    Bob –

    If I could propose a 3rd alternative from ancient Christianity. I think both views you listed have weaknesses – the first “penal” interpretation makes God seem unjust and cruel, and the second I feel diminishes the real work that was done on the cross. I have found the “ransom” interpretation most helpful.

    By our own free will and foolishness, we strayed away from God, and gave ourselves over to forces that were stronger than ourselves. Whether you want to focus on the external forces (i.e. the devil, evil spirits, etc.) or internal forces (our now fundamentally “bent” will, total depravity, etc.), humanity was at the mercy of evil. There is a degree to which we can’t help but to be evil (see Romans 7), and we are doomed to a life of despair and misery. The only solution, to placate the dark forces, is that Christ gives himself as a “ransom” to the dark forces, unto death on the cross.

    The argument then is, “Doesn’t that diminish God’s sovereignty? Why can’t he just set us free by a single word?” I can appreciate this concern, but I would argue he can’t do so without suppressing our free will. By our own will we chose to follow the path of darkness, and it would be meaningless if God could wave his hand to it as if it never happened. Our choice was ontologically real, with consequences, and therefore took a literal act and sacrifice of God to correct it. And even then, it was not “un-done”, as if it never happened, but it was restored, cleaned, or renewed. And, as a final point, we must accept Christ as our replacement. We are wallowing in sin, but God offers us one chance of freedom – to leave darkness and to follow him, allowing Christ to take our place.

    The subtle difference between this interpretation and the first “penal” interpretation is the imposition of a third actor – sin, evil, death. It is not *merely* God imposing his sense of justice on us (which would still be his right, but one could ask “If it pains him so, why not just change his laws of justice, or make an exception?) We are under the influence of a weaker, but still independent power that we need saved from, and only God can offer that salvation.

  4. Harold says:

    This may be a meaningless digression, but “After their sin, Adam and Eve hid from God. He went out looking for them.” seems to make no sense. How can God, who knows everything, go out looking for them? He is aware where they are all the time.

    • Bob Murphy says:

      There is language like that a lot in the Bible, Harold. So a cynical interpretation is something like, “The ancient writers didn’t even recognize the implications of their own fictitious characters,” but one more in line with this post is, “It emphasizes that God pursues us even after we sin.”

      • Harold says:

        Yeah, I was not wanting to make a big deal about it, but it does seem to emply a certain amount of “poetic licence”.

    • Josh Ellis says:

      God does not use His omnipotence against us. That is not what makes Him God, that is not “who He is”. We believe God is greater than us, because He knows everything and created the world, etc.. God does not force. In this case, I see the beauty in God letting us expose ourself, though He knew where they were the whole time. God created man because He wants to share His heart, His life with another being, a being like Him. You do not believe you are like Him, you see your flesh and you despise yourself (not you specifically but in the universal). “How could God love me?”, you don’t see what God sees when He looks at you.

  5. Philip says:

    This is not meant to deny the (at least partial) validity of the two approaches you mentioned in your post, but here are a couple of different perspectives – both quite non-polemical – discussing how penal substitution theories fit in with other views. One is by Anglican historian/theologian N T Wright, and the other is someone coming from an Eastern Orthodox perspective.

    As a protestant who has been going to an Orthodox church for several years without “converting” (long story), I have found that the Orthodox place the emphasis of what Jesus accomplished on the cross on Christ “overcoming death” rather than on “dying for our sins”. The two views are not necessarily at odds (as N T Wright explains), but I find the difference of emphasis interesting.

    N T Wright:

    Some Orthodox guy:

  6. Jason Bray says:

    I think another important point for A, is that , at least for orthodox Christianity, there is the concept of the Trinity, so in one sense, it’s sacrificing the son, but in another sense it’s the judge sacrificing himself. A more “economic” perspective would be that if you are owed a debt, and you “forgive” that debt, the payment does not disappear, you are, in fact, taking that debt upon yourself and repaying yourself. (1 John 1:7) Therefore God takes our debt upon himself and repays himself by suffering the consequence of that debt. (Romans 12:19) If there is no real absolute justice we can just forget about crimes, but in the presence of a perfect judge, to overlook evil would compromise his goodness.

  7. Josh Ellis says:

    God has never been angry at us. His wrath is only against things/ideas that hurt His beloved children. He considers us “bone of His bone…”. Once we ate of the tree we became afraid of God. The tree is a belief system, believing that you can have life from your deeds/flesh but also a belief that you now lack life. This new belief that man lacked life and needed to do something to obtain it, vs God created us with life. “As a man believes so is He”. Because God created us as His equal, He had to convince us that we were perfect and never forsaken. We believed God was angry at our behavior and we needed to sacrifice to this angry God in order to appease Him. Jesus is given for us to believe on in order to have life, the Life we lost when we no longer believed God loved us. Jesus came to correct the view of the Father as an angry, judgemental diety. He came to say God doesn’t think you are a dinner, He thinks you are beautiful. He does not think know human is less than God, you do. And they screamed “blasphemy”. Peter didn’t want to let Jesus wash His feet because even though He believed Jesus was God, His heart still was not convinced(unbelief) of the fact the He is “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh” with God. Jesus had to let him know you still aren’t getting it Peter if you do not see we are equal. God creates after their kind and we are of His kind, no matter what you have done. Jesus came to show us the heart of the Father towards man and we killed Him for blasphemy (man is not equal with God). God raised Him up and promises all who can believe what Jesus said is true(He is God and God loves you no matter what) will have eternal life(as was our original design). If you read the OT and don’t see Jesus you may be reading it out of context. The Jews knew the scriptures and also “knew” God would never touch a dinner, so obviously Jesus can’t be God, never mind that He is a lowly human. Jesus allows me to raise my head up high and enter boldly into my Father’s throne room.

  8. Joshua Ellis says:

    The woman caught in adultery. According to the scriptures, she is guilty and worthy of stoning. Jesus(God, “if you have seen Me, then you have seen the Father) didn’t want to stone her. How could God go against the scriptures? Maybe we have misread/interpreted them incorrectly. Maybe we thought God wanted people stoned when in fact He want them healed. What did Jesus do? Stone or heal? How did Jesus (God)treat people? Their is more to the story.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Religion(good and evil belief system) always wants to punish. God does not desire sacrifice. Jesus was always being accused of (basically) being too good. He healed on the sabbath, ate with sinners, touched the “unclean”, etc. God is so good, so kind. He desires your friendship. Satan accused God in Job that God did not have any friends, anyone that really lived Him. God said look at MY FRIEND Job. Satan replies, Job only loves you because you have blessed him with so much(knowledge of good and evil system), God says not so and the story plays out. Satan even knows what God’s heart, like ours, really desires is love, friendship, relationship, family.

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