The Satisfaction or Substitutionary theory of the atonement is what many Christians take to be the only understanding. It’s the perspective you hear before altar calls or read in religious tracts.
This metaphor is rooted in biblical passages that suggest vicarious suffering as the way in which human sin is redeemed (Isaiah 53); that is, Jesus suffers in our place and we benefit from it.
Paul writes using this metaphor, especially in 2 Corinthians and Romans. This theory, despite its omnipresence today, wasn’t that widespread in Christianity until it was popularized by St Anselm in his book, Why Did God Become Human?
Though many Christians assume this is the only biblical model for atonement, it’s critical to note that Anselm bases his understanding in the vassal-lord relationship of Medieval feudalism. Anselm draws a parallel between judicial and legal imagery used by Paul to the relationship of serfs and lords.
Sin, according to Anselm, is like the social disobedience shown to a lord. Just as satisfaction for the ‘debt of honor’ must be a paid to a serf’s lord, so too does God demand satisfaction for our sin. Like a Medieval lord, Anselm believes our sin offends God and God’s honor.
We’re guilty of offending God.
Sin is a debt that needs to be forgiven.
As Paul says, the punishment our offense merits is death.
This theory focuses on Jesus’ suffering on the way to and on the Cross. In this understanding, Good Friday is the day that changes history.
It’s called the substitution theory for reasons that will be obvious.
Substitution imagines salvation as a law court in which you and me and all of humanity stand in the dock as the accused, on trial for the evil we do to one another and to God’s creation.
God is the Judge.
The angry, wrathful Judge.
These are charges that we’re guilty of and our guilt is so severe that there’s no recompense we could ever make. What we deserve is eternal punishment, for God to just wipe his hands of us and be done with this thing called creation.
But Jesus suffers in our place.
This is also called the objective theory because Jesus’ suffering changes how God sees us whether we believe or not.
The Protestant Reformers used the term ‘double imputation’ in reference to this theory of the atonement.
Human sin is ‘imputed’ to Christ, who had no sin himself, and Christ’s righteousness in turn is imputed to us, who have no righteousness on our own. Double Imputation recalls Paul’s letter to the Corinthians when he writes that ‘God made Jesus to be sin.’ Christ’s death objectively imputes Jesus’ righteousness to it. It objectively, once for all time, how God regards us. It reconciles, literally it sets things right.
This theory takes seriously the sin in the world. After all, who could look at the newspaper or travel to a third world country and not think God has ample reason to be ticked off at us.
This theory also takes seriously the nature of Jesus’ death. Why is it, after all, that Jesus dies on a cross and seems to foreshadow from the beginning that this is what would happen to him? According to this theory, Jesus dies on a cross because its the lowliest, more forsaken death we can experience. Jesus dies the sort of death we deserve. It’s not the extent of suffering Jesus endures, it’s the lowly, abandoned nature of his death.
On the other hand, this theory can focus so much on the necessity of Jesus’ suffering and the severity of his suffering that God can seem more determined by his wrath than by his grace.
Does God, for example, really need to have his wrath satisfied?
The notion that our sin can offend God seems to put our sin in the driver’s seat.
Most importantly, this theory seems to put God in contradiction with God’s self. God’s mercy is at odds with God’s righteousness. Grace seems conditional on Christ’s act of sacrifice. It seems to imply that incarnation is a last ditch effort to save humanity, that prior to Christmas and Cross God was not inclined to forgive humanity.
What emerges therefore is a depiction of God that is at times distasteful. It presents a God who seems to need to be reconciled with us rather than a God we need to be reconciled to.
Think again of the tracts passed out by evangelists, the ones that describe God’s wrath, how death is what we deserve in God’s eyes, how God made Jesus die in our place. To someone with no other knowledge of Christianity, do you really this rendering would lead them to think God is a God of infinite love and peace?
Karl Barth, a 20th century theologian, addressed some of these troubles while trying to recover the power of the substitutionary understanding of the atonement. Primarily Barth did it by more explicitly grounding the atonement in an act of the Trinity. It’s not, therefore, that God makes Jesus in our place; it’s that God-in-Christ suffers in our place.
To say God is a wrathful Judge is not incorrect but it is incomplete. God, as Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, is the Judge Judged in Our Place. Whatever wrath God feels towards us for our sin, God assumes and suffers for us. In this way, God has always been, eternally, the God ready to die for us. God’s wrath is subordinate, even on the cross, to God’s love and mercy.
The cross, the sign of abject humiliation, is actually exaltation. It’s the complete and final disclosure of who this God really is.