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Google the words atonement and emergent church together, and your computer screen will soon heat up a few degrees. A lively (and not always civilized) debate has broken out among those who defend classical theories of the Atonement and those who see them as some variation of the caricature Dorothy Sayers drew 60 years ago:

God wanted to damn everybody, but his vindictive sadism was sated by the crucifixion of his own Son, who was quite innocent, and, therefore, a particularly attractive victim. He now only damns people who don't follow Christ or who have never heard of him.

Since Jesus' death nearly 2,000 years ago, theologians such as Origen, Anselm of Canterbury, Peter Abelard, and John Calvin have proposed ways of understanding it: as a Ransom paid to Satan, a Satisfaction required by God, a Moral Influence for humanity, a Penal Substitution for the punishment due to humankind. Some of these theories, referencing animal sacrifices and God's wrath, can make for a hard sell for many in modern times.

The Cross is the central image of Christianity, and gives us vivid proof that, in novelist Flannery O'Connor's words, the world "has, for all its horror, been found by God to be worth dying for." Yet theologians must somehow explain how Jesus' death differs in essence from the death of any great leader. What made it necessary, and exactly how did it affect our relationship with God?

During Holy Week last year, I found myself reflecting not so much on the theoretical rationale for the Atonement as on its practical outworking. Three insights from that week:

(1) The Cross made possible a new intimacy with God. Three of the Gospels mention that at the moment of Jesus' death, a thick curtain inside the temple tore from top to bottom, ...

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In the Magazine

May 2009

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