Herbert McCabe was a 20th century theologian who deserves to be rediscovered. McCabe was a Dominican who brought an Irishman’s clear, vibrant prose to the Church’s greatest of teachers: Thomas Aquinas.
Here’s an excerpt on the atonement:
What does the death of Jesus have to do with us? Why is it important to us?
One such answer, which has been very influential in the past, is that by his death Jesus paid the penalty for the sins of the world. The idea, I’m sure you will remember, is that sin had offended God and since God himself is infinite such an offense has a kind of infinity about it. It was not within our power to restore the balance of justice by any recompense we could pay to God.
So God the Son became man so that by his suffering and death he could pay the price of sin.
This seems to be based on the idea of punishment as a kind of payment, a repayment; the criminal undergoing punishment ‘to pay his debt to society,’ as we say. It takes a divine man, however, to pay our debt to divine justice.
Now, I can make no literal sense of this idea, whether you apply it criminals or to Christ.
I cannot see how a man in prison is paying a debt to society or paying anything else at all to society. On the contrary, it is rather expensive to keep him there…It is impossible to see Christ hanging on the cross as literally engaged either in making restitution or in serving as a warning to others.
If God will not forgive us until his Son has been tortured to death for us then God is a lot less forgiving than even we are sometimes.
If society feels itself somehow compensated for its loss by the satisfaction of watching the sufferings of a criminal, then society is being vengeful in a pretty infantile way.
And if God is satisfied and compensated for sin by the suffering of mankind in Christ, God must be even more infantile.
It is indeed true that we could not afford to pay damages to God, but it is also true that such payment could not be needed for plainly God cannot be damaged by my sin.