Violence in Atonement Models

Violence is a huge issue. It is something that is all around us. We run into stories about violence and killings everyday. For many who have been victims of abuse or some sort of violence, thinking about the violence in Christianity is something difficult for them. There are many whose past includes various forms of abuse and tragedies. In response, many Christians who have been victims of some sort of violence have struggled with the thought of a good Father killing His only Son. Some have seen it as some sort of divine child abuse. Some do not like the idea of penal substitution or other forms of substitutionary atonement.

Over the years, the church has had several different atonement models, something we should discuss in a future post but will bypass for now. As the problem of evil and violence has been one of the biggest issues for atheists and non-believers in believing God, this is also a struggle for many believers in how they think about atonement.

Recently, I was asked to read a paper by Denny Weaver called “Violence in Christian Theology” (which can be found here). I would suggest reading his paper to have a greater understanding of what he and other Christians are struggling with (please note, while he does touch on some of the atonement models, I do not believe they are all captured correctly as he is trying to make his own point about his model). Some will agree with his view while others will not. Some may even say it is not-essential and move on. What this prompts us to is what do we think about our salvation and in particular how does atonement work. What did Jesus really do? What was the process in accomplishing this work? And also, what is my own personal atonement model?

We must think about what we believe Jesus did, what the Father did, and though some things may be uncomfortable to think about, truly reason and conclude about the tremendous sacrifice of Christ, the punishment he endured and paid for us, and the atonement that believers have. We must wrestle with what is a part of atonement and how it works. As we wrestle with these ideas and concepts, we begin to go to a place of greater appreciation for Christ. The Cross starts to get bigger. Our salvation becomes sweeter. Our love for Christ grows. Our love for the Father, His plan, His sovereignty increases.

As we discuss atonement and the many violent aspects of it, it is important to remember our audience. We can’t hide or distort what Christ did or His sacrifice, but when we talk to victims of violence and abuse, we must be sensitive. We must tell of the substitution and the satisfaction and the victory. But as with all things, we must know our audience.

As we read Denny Weaver’s article, we were asked to reflect on it and think about certain questions. I would encourage you as well to reflect on your beliefs and what you believe about atonement. Here are my responses to the questions:

  • According to Weaver, why is violence such a major part of most evangelical atonement models? Who is the source/cause of the violence?
    • According to Weaver, violence is a part of divine retribution. Since sin creates an imbalance, the violence in the atonement models assumes that the imbalance is corrected by the punishment of death. Weaver uses the analogy of the criminal justice system to show that doing justice means to inflict punishment, which is understood as violence. Weaver points to other models where Jesus, in passive submission, endures unjust suffering for the sake of others. All forms of atonement assume the violence of retribution or justice based on punishment, God’s law or honor receives the necessary death that it demands for justice and to pay that debt. Since sinners cannot pay their own debt, Weaver says these atonement models depend on God-induced and God-directed violence. God is seen as the divine avenger or punisher and as a child abuser, who arranged the death of one Child for the benefit of the others.
  • Do you agree with Weaver’s answer to that question?  Why or why not?
    • The sacrifice and death of Jesus was a violent act. I would tend to agree that violence found in atonement models is a major part of the language and story. What Jesus did and accomplished for believers by His substitution, representation, and identification will cause one to think of the suffering He endured and is a major theme of the atonement models. The death of Christ cleansed us from sin and satisfied the wrath of the Father. Redemption for sins was accomplished through the blood of Christ. Jesus’ sacrifice is a part of the story of atonement. In addition, much of our language about atonement uses warfare or violent language, including a number of violent metaphors. Violence is deeply embedded in our psyche and world.
  • Granted that you might not agree with Weaver’s model of the atonement, does he point out anything you should consider in your own theology?
    • We are to care for all people and show courtesy, respect and charity. We are all created in the image of God and people for whom Christ died. Christians should seek justice for the oppressed and marginalized.
    • While we cannot conform to the way of the world or change the Gospel message, Weaver brings up a good point to consider when presenting the Gospel, especially to those who have experienced violence and abuse. We need to be mindful of the language that we use when presenting the Gospel message. If we are not careful, the way the Gospel is presented could sound like an endorsement of violence or abuse to certain audiences.
    • Weaver mentions that what sinners need is the resurrection of Jesus because that is where the victory of the reign of God is. As we also saw in class, many atonement models focus on the death and sacrifice of Jesus and do not mention the resurrection to the degree that it deserves. For me, the death and burial of Jesus is not the only thing to be mentioned in discussing atonement, but His resurrection and victory over death should be brought up or thought about more to help speak of the atonement.
  • Is it possible to move away from the violence in the atonement while remaining faithful to the biblical text?
    • Yes, I think it is possible. First and foremost, we must remain faithful to the biblical text and story. At the same time, it is good to be aware of the audience and think about their background. It is good to be intentional and careful of the metaphors and descriptions that are commonly used in describing the events. Substitutionary atonement cannot be discarded for the satisfaction of God’s wrath as they are essential components of the story. It is important to be careful of the language and expressions.
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