The question we are asking when we talk about atonement is this: how did the Easter events deal with the problem of sin that had beset humanity since the Fall? In fact the term ‘at-one-ment’ is already too specific to describe this question: by implying a relational, reconciliational achievement it rules out other possible answers in advance.
So we’d better change our title to ‘A better theory of the Cross‘ – understanding ‘the Cross’ in the broader sense of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
A million books have been written about this. A million theories are out there. We can’t try to interact with the literature here, there’s not room. It’s worth making a couple of observations about it overall, though.
First, the fact that this debate is still raging after all these centuries should suggest to us that something is fundamentally wrong. For most Christians the question why did Jesus die is pretty core to their faith. Our belief about the atonement is surely not meant to be a controversial topic for endless argument, but a precious truth to be shared and cherished. The fact that we have never arrived there is evidence of a serious problem somewhere in the deep structure of our faith tradition. In many studies one gets the impression that the wood cannot be seen for the trees: big pictures are few and far between in the literature.
Second, much of the most interesting recent writing is not accessible to ordinary church members. It’s too hard to read. This is a disturbing trend which needs reversing. If writers are not pursuing this study for the sake of the churches, then they’d be better to pack up and go home. And in my experience the pastors are not much better at reading than their flocks.
For these reasons, rather than get bogged down interacting with the myriad detailed questions and views in print – and probably lost in the trees – we are going to step back and try for a big picture. We’re going back to Scripture. We believe it is possible to find some big-picture answers there that are plain and ecumenical (i.e. believable by the large majority of Christian people).