You see the signs beside the highway blazoned “Jesus Saves”. You hear the religious slogans from Catholics and Protestants, “Jesus died to save you from your sins.” or “Jesus blood was shed to wash away your sins.”

I’m sympathetic when I hear modern secularists say with frustration, “What on earth does that mean??!! How can the death of a criminal two thousand years ago cleanse away my ‘sins’?” They shake their heads and say, “But I just don’t get it. What is that supposed to mean? I’m not really such a bad sinner anyway, but God up in heaven thinks I’m supposed to die anyway and he decides to torture and kill his son instead? Whaaaat??” Or they say, “What does a person shedding his blood have to do with the guilt of  somebody else two thousand years later.”

So the questions could go on and given the modern world and the assumptions of people in the iPad age the questions are understandable. Theological theories of the atonement on their own are insufficient. For many modern people the atonement theories only complicate matters further. The most popular explanation in American Christianity is the penal substitution theory. This was developed by the Protestant reformers to try to understand the cross. In this theory humanity was under a death sentence given by an angry God. Jesus stepped in and took the rap–substituting himself and thus sparing human beings. The problem with this is the angry and rather arbitrary character of God.

In contrast to the penal substitution view which is held by conservative Protestants, the “moral influence” understanding of the cross is essentially that it is an inspiring martyrdom. Jesus came to teach us how to be better human beings through sacrifice and service and his death shows us the ultimate meaning of that idea. Those who hold to the moral sacrifice view will typically avoid talk about “Jesus saving us from our sins” or the “precious blood of the Lamb that washes away our sins” instead using language that refers to his saving work as bringing humanity to its full potential by showing the way forward.

Then there is the idea that Jesus paid a ransom that was due to Satan, and then through his resurrection turned the tables and defeated Satan. This dramatic understanding was popular during the first thousand years of the church, and this “Jesus paid the ransom” view is the predominant view in the early church and the predominant Catholic view. In this explanation Jesus engages in a great battle with Satan and there is a trick ending. Satan seems to win, but the very action of his victory (killing Jesus) is the thing that turns the plot because Jesus rises from the dead and so becomes the Victor.

The problem with all these theories is that they don’t connect very well with modern people. If Jesus’ death was simply an inspiring martyrdom, then how is it different from any other inspiring martyrdom and how does it “save you from your sins”? The idea that Jesus pays a debt to an angry God so you don’t have to die is similarly incompressible to many people. The Christus Victor idea of Jesus battling Satan turns Jesus into some kind of superhero who engages with the bad guy, then wins with a smart reversal. This is not to say that the explanations are worthless. Together they combine to help explain what, in the end, must be a mystery: that is, something that can be experienced, even if it cannot be explained.

However, there is another way to view the cross, and this way starts not with the death of Christ, but with an understanding of the nature of sin. This explanation does not do away with the different atonement theories, but it helps to illuminate all of them.

It goes like this: At the core of the concept of sin is the awareness of guilt. Guilt comes through awareness that through desire one has chosen something less than best. Silly example: “I have chosen to eat that second piece of chocolate cake even though I know it will make me even fatter and being fat is not good for my health.”

Once I am aware of my guilt I do two things– and this is where sin is intriguing and complicated– Read More