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Only God can cure and free us

04 March 2016

Jeff Astley explores sin, suffering, and mixed models of atonement


Wheel of fate? The Creation and the Expulsion from Paradise (tempera on panel), c.1445 by Giovanni di Paolo

Wheel of fate? The Creation and the Expulsion from Paradise (tempera on panel), c.1445 by Giovanni di Paolo

RELIGIONS are concerned, above all, with salvation — with what is awry in the human condition, and its remedy. Their beliefs centre, therefore, on what we need to be saved from and for, and how this can be achieved.

For much Christian theology, our main problem is human sin and guilt. Theologically, sin is both our state of separation from God and the acts that cause this separation. Many would say that sin is how God’s human creation went wrong, and pulled the rest of nature down with it, so that it is no longer all “very good”, but flawed, corrupted, diseased.

Although the story of this catastrophe is expressed in several ways in Genesis Chapters 3-11, it was the “fall of Adam” (literally “man”) in Chapter 3 that attracted most attention. The early Greek-thinking theologians portrayed this as little more than a partial loss of — or wound in — human nature, the result of human immaturity.

In the Latin West, however, the fall was conceived as something much more serious. In Augustine’s theology, it resulted in our inheriting what is (rather misleadingly) called original sin, which for him comprised not only a corrupt tendency to sin but also Adam’s guilt. As a consequence, we now justly suffer divine punishment at Nature’s hands, and remain at risk of hell without God’s aid.

In stark contrast, the British teacher Pelagius argued that God would not condemn us for another’s sin. But the more pessimistic (or realistic?) view of the human condition prevailed, and this later influenced the Protestant reformers. However, John Calvin’s even harsher claims about the total corruption of God’s image in our fallen state, and the loss of our real free will, as well as about God’s pre-ordination of some to eternal life and others to damnation, were opposed (in England) by John Wesley, Archbishop William Laud, and John Milton.

Many contemporary theologians see this concentration on sin, and the debates about its origin, as too narrow a perspective on our human problem, or as embracing a morally and scientifically implausible theology. If there is more wrong with us than sin, then more may be required than forgiveness to ensure our full “salvation” —– a word that is widely used in biblical contexts to refer also to a person’s rescue, healing, or being made whole.

And we are also psychologically, and therefore spiritually, subject to blindness and bondage; fear, ignorance, and a sense of worthlessness; alienation, and hardness of heart — and much else besides.

A broader interpretation of Christian salvation was well expressed by the 16th-century English poet and Roman Catholic martyr Robert Southwell, in “The Nativity of Christ”:

O dying souls, behold your living spring;

O dazzled eyes, behold your sun of grace;

Dull ears, attend what word this Word doth bring;

Up, heavy hearts, with joy your joy embrace.

From death, from dark, from deafness, from despairs,

This life, this light, this Word, this joy repairs.


WHATEVER we need to be saved from, Christians agree that our need is so great that only God can ultimately cure, restore, and liberate us. This salvation is never something that we could demand or earn, but is always and everywhere an act of God’s grace. Grace alone can restore us to the status that our creator intended (through what theology calls our “justification”).

“Grace” is perhaps thekey word in Christian doctrine, and the key experience of Christian life. It is wholly and purely a gift — the gift of a relationship, a lifting up, a healing, and a bringing home. Grace is God’s free, forgiving love, acceptance, and empowerment.

Despite our historical arguments and divisions, Christians concur that God’s grace always comes first, and that all we need to receive it is our acceptance that we are accepted: the part of faith that is simply a matter of taking the outstretched hand of God.

We directly experience sin, and our other wounds and failings, as we do the healing and life-giving touch of God’s grace. The doctrine of salvation thus lies very close to our spiritual heart, and finds its first voice in hymns, choruses, prayers, and autobiography.

These cries of despair and celebration, together with the poetry of spiritual pain and joy, constitute the raw language that theologians must transform into the cooler, more reflective and qualified concepts and arguments of theological prose. If their ideas and reasoning travel too far from these experiences, however, we may need to retrace their steps to this more passionate and mysterious source.


THIS is especially true of the models of atonement — for this “at-one-ment” or reconciliation between God and ourselves is also, fundamentally, an experience. Theoretical accounts of the process by which this takes place are inevitably more speculative, and less certain, than the experience of it.

So the Church as a whole has never opted for any one understanding here, although many Protestants have done so. Eastern Orthodox theology associates atonement primarily with God’s incarnation in Christ, through which the uncreated divine nature was united with created human nature (a process continued in us). Western Christians, however, look to the cross.

This focus of so much Christian piety is a terrible place of suffering, despair, and death. But the New Testament insists that the cross is also—and at the same time—the oneplaceof hope, and of ultimate triumph (Jesus’s, God’s, and our own).

The resurrection of Jesus does not undo this death, as it might have done if he had come down from the cross when taunted to do so. Rather it vindicates Jesus as God’s man, and reveals him as defeating the evil that pinned him to this tree. And, since Jesus suffered and died as he had lived, his passion (suffering and death) expressed what lay at the heart of his life — what impassioned him: God and “God’s passion for justice”. It was this that “got him killed … because of the sin of the world”. Hence Easter is “God’s ‘yes’ to Jesus against the powers who killed him” (Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The Last Week; SPCK 2008).

But doctrine must tread carefully, lest its abstract explanations obscure the spiritual insight that sees victory and healing in the very jaws of defeat. “The story of the passion retains its appeal,” an Anglican theologian, Maurice Wiles, wrote, but “any doctrine of the passion is more likely to appal.”

Perhaps the wisest way forward is not to pick out only one doctrine, but to mix the models of atonement, allowing each to offer its own partial perspective on the mysterious and multi-faceted drama of God’s action in Christ’s death. That is how models and metaphors usually work: each says a little, but no single one captures the fullness of an experience, or the richness of the reality that lies behind it.


THE imagery of the New Testament’s narratives, and metaphors of salvation, includes the redemption (liberation) of slaves through the payment of a ransom; and Christ’s role as a sacrifice or “place of atonement” that puts away sin — in a manner that was thought of as continuous with, but superseding, the sacrifices of the Jerusalem temple.

Such motifs express the self-offering of the Father’s true and obedient Son, who is willing to suffer, and even to give his life vicariously, for others. These concerns also lie behind the most subjective view of the atonement, in which the cross is treated as the supreme example of God’s continuous love.

The claim here is that, as we “survey the wondrous cross”, this revelation has the power to evoke our repentance and spiritual transformation, so that we become reconciled both to and by God through this “so amazing, so divine” love.

Yet, if pressed too far, these ideas can make us uneasy about God’s role in all this, and especially about the necessity of innocent suffering as a condition of our salvation. Why does God not just forgive us our sins, and repair our other spiritual hurts and faults? Why must there be blood at all?

In reply, theologians have often insisted that forgiveness and repentance on their own are not enough to repair damaged relationships, and particularly not this relationship. Something more must be done to break down the barriers, tear open the curtains, and cover and blot out the transgressions that keep us away from God.

Many other theories try to capture this sense that the death of Christ must also have an objective effect on sin or God (or even, some say, on the devil). Perhaps the most objective view is the one implied by those texts of scripture and worship that treat the cross as a decisive battle, in which the forces of evil, both human and supernatural, are disarmed and defeated.

Paradoxically, this cross becomes “the victor’s trophy”, since “Christ, the world’s Redeemer, as a victim won the day.” If taken seriously, this metaphor of victory can transform our entire world view, as we come to see that “a real victory is the kind of thing that happens when Jesus goes to the cross” (Colin Gunton).

But even this conquest model can be treated subjectively, re-interpreting it as the destruction of the “lesser gods” of our own selfish concerns and fears that keep us in spiritual bondage because we idolise them, and of the perverted “demonic” spiritualities that lie at the core of so many human institutions and movements.


OTHER atonement models have interpreted the problem and its solution rather differently. For some, the issue was the affront to God’s honour caused by our disobedience. This must be satisfied, and only Christ’s sacrifice can be sufficient for that.

Alternatively, the demands of God’s justice require that the punishment for our sin — the price that we ought to pay — cannot be set aside. It must be borne by someone, who is substituted for us.

This interpretation imagines the transaction taking place in the context of a court of law, where the judge astonishingly intervenes by taking all of our just punishment on himself, in the person of Christ. This has become the dominant model of atonement among Evangelicals, although in recent years some of their number have questioned its retributive, as opposed to its reformatory and restorative, view of punishment.

Whatever their limitations, these objective interpretations of atonement do address the seriousness of sin, and of the hurt that is caused by wronging someone. And they underscore the costliness of forgiveness, and the proper shame of the sinner.

Recent theology attempts to incorporate such ideas into less judicial interpretations of our relationship with God. Other important insights include the conviction that God really does suffer for us; and that, in Christ, God has in some way taken the experience of the cross into the divine experience, bringing the world’s suffering and its sin “into” and “on to” Godself.

Some also take up Paul’s metaphor that we are “in” Christ, arguing that it is in this state that we now face God and are related to God, for our life is “hidden with Christ in God”.

We may therefore ask boldly, as in the eucharistic hymn, that our Father look first “on his anointed face, and only look on us as found in him”. Atonement thus includes the claim that “God in his mercy has decided to see us in his Son” (Charles Cranfield).

Another influential idea is that Jesus allowed himself to be treated as the innocent scapegoat that is sacrificed on behalf of the community; but in the resurrection the absurdity of this process, and of all attempts to bring peace and reconciliation through acts of violence and death, are revealed.

Most Christians affirm that, somehow or other, the cross has been used by God to absorb evil, rather than to foment and spread it by retaliation. This can transform everything.

In many little ways, and some bigger ones, we may even have experienced for ourselves the power of non-violent love and forgiveness to perform such a miracle of transformation — and have recognised in this, also, the work of God.


Jeff Astley is the Alister Hardy Professor of Religious and Spiritual Experience, Glyndwr University, Wales, Honorary Professor in the Department of Theology and Religion, and Professorial Fellow of St Chad’s College, Durham University, and Visiting Professor at York St John University. His books include the SCM Study Guide to Christian Doctrine (2010).

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