One of the parents in the congregation recently was saying how hard it is to answer good questions from children about why Jesus came and had resorted to trying to explain it in terms of the Naughty Step.
I thought it might be helpful to lay out some of the main theories of the Atonement thus:
- Ransom theory – our parents were so naughty that they deserve the naughty step and have passed their naughtiness onto us. Justice requires that someone has to go to the naughty step to pay for this and God tricked the devil into seeing Jesus on the naughty step as sufficient payment for this.
- Christus victor theory – Jesus has gloriously broken down the powers and dominions of naughtiness and only has to glance at the naughty-step for his holiness to turn it in to dust. Nothing can withstand his might and power.
- Moral influence theory – Jesus came to teach us how to be so good that we would never be sent to the naughty step.
- Penal substitution theory – God simply won’t forgive anyone until He is satisfied that the naughty step punishment has been fulfilled in full. Fortunately, Jesus comes along and takes on that naughtiness for himself, freely offering to pay the debt of naughtiness to God the Father. We need urgently to recognise this offer and accept it.
- Incarnation theory – the amazing thing is that Jesus comes and sits on the naughty step with us, sharing our frailty and sharing our sorrows.
There are other possibilities, but those should keep you going for a bit.
Now, all these things have been believed by Christians. However, it doesn’t make much sense to claim that you believe them all at once. Notwithstanding that, I’d say that they all move me at one time or another, even though I tend towards one of them as my dominant way of understanding why Jesus came. We encounter all of these theories in our hymns, if not elsewhere.
That’s the way atonement theory works for me.