I have been recently introduced to the various Christian atonement theories which have been articulated over the centuries. In this context the word theory is perhaps unfortunate, implying that some or all of these ideas were simply conjured up from a wild imagination. What each represents for the most part is some individual’s attempt to understand and explain what atonement is all about and how it works for God and man. In my church experience, no one ever introduced me to the existence of these alternative interpretations, leaving me to conclude that there was never any questioning of the subject.
Differing opinions about the meaning of atonement in the Bible is extremely significant for me. Given that this subject is generally seen as the crux of the Bible, the fact that men through the centuries have interpreted it in very different ways should be significant to any Bible student. If the book is designed specifically to inform man about his part in the atonement process, why would there be any controversy over what atonement represents and how it works. Of course, any church member who pays the least attention to what other people believe religiously already understands that different churches, all claiming to be Christian, don’t teach the identical salvation process. What is especially intriguing about these atonement theories is that they also differ in identifying what mankind is saved from. In other words, the differences are not simply in steps required in order to be saved but also include what the results of salvation are. Now that is a shocker because everyone seems to assume that we are saved from God’s displeasure and punishment.
Now I have no intention of going into the various theories, not having the time or inclination to do so. Plenty of information is available on the internet for anyone who wishes to explore or confirm the various atonement ideas. The point I wanted to emphasize is this: all of these theories supposedly derive from the Bible, just like all the various steps to salvation in the different churches are supposedly Bible based. How can that be? It goes back to what is unavoidable in trying to decipher the Bible. Not every word in the book seems to confirm any one view on any one subject. The various presentations in the book offer multiple opportunities to see the subject in varying ways. Therefore every interpreter is forced to base his or her understanding on some verses and largely ignore other. If the unhelpful verses are not completely ignored, they must be re-interpreted in some imaginative, perhaps symbolic way. No interpreter, in my opinion, has ever escaped that dilemma. Thus differing opinions are inevitable. If after two millennia of institutional church interpretations, we still have the abundance of opinions prevalent today, one can only conclude that differences will continue.
Now some pontificators may want to ascribe all the opinions but their own as un-biblical and resulting from man’s willful attempt to circumvent God’s clearly required understanding. That is just too smug sounding and self serving to be an acceptable conclusion for most. It’s comforting to feel that you are right, but demanding conformity out of others to one’s personal interpretation of a book as complex and profound as the Bible is unrealistic in the extreme. If God really, really wanted to confirm one right interpretation of any subject in the Bible, I am confident He could have made it happen. Since it didn’t happen, I conclude that God loves a little mystery and ambiguity, allowing us to see the same thing and yet reach different conclusions.