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A Discussion of the Atonement: Abuse, Violence, Sacrifice, and the Cross

Three Reformed theologians–Gabriel Fackre, George Hunsinger, and Leanne
Van Dyk–recently joined together to discuss, via a telephone conference call,
Christ’s atoning work and some of the current criticisms and challenges to
traditional understandings of it.
Perspectives editor Steve Mathonnet-Vander Well
posed the questions. The responses of the three theologians are indicated by their

Just by way of introduction, what particularly
interests you or seems important
for a discussion of the atonement?

Gabriel Fackre (GF): How come there’s
no ecumenical consensus or even convergence
on the doctrine of the atonement,
as there is on other central Christian
teachings, such as the person of
Christ or the Trinity? There is a certain
irony that in the teaching on the doctrine
of reconciliation or at-one-ment, there is
no at-one-ment or reconciliation among
the Church. Does this division of opinion
have something to do with the state of
the Church’s own divisions? I think so.

Leanne VanDyk (LVD): Recently my interest
in the atonement has been how it
“plays” in worshipping communities, in
the faith-life and experience of a congregation.
How is a congregation permeated
by different atonement images? What difference
does it make in their experience
of salvation and how they speak of the
Gospel? What is the palette of imagery in
praise and worship songs or hymns, what
does that mean for how atonement is understood?
Sermons, pastoral prayers–all
of these things are of great interest to me
in how images of the atonement get into
the DNA of a congregation.

George Hunsinger (GH): It is no accident
that the idea of atonement should
be under increasing question in contemporary theology because it fits into
a broader range of doctrinal erosion
that has already occurred. If the full
deity of Christ and a high doctrine of
the incarnation are not upheld, it is
impossible to have a high doctrine of
the atonement. A long with that we’ve
seen serious erosion in contemporary
understandings of the doctrine of sin.
Much of contemporary theology is concerned,
and rightly so, with the plight
of the victim. But the victim cannot be
understood apart from a more central
plight and that is the plight of the sinner.
A failure to understand the saving
significance of Christ’s death is at the
heart of our malaise in the contemporary church, especially the Protestant

Many people look at all the innocent victims
in the world and all the martyrs
who died noble deaths. They wonder
how the death of Christ is any different.
How can the death of one person accomplish

GF: It depends on what is being “accomplished.”
According to the biblical
story, estrangement from God–sin, our “no” to God from the beginning–is the
“big problem,” with derivative ones being
our alienation of the world from itself
in many dimensions. The question
then is how this estrangement can be
overcome by reconciliation–first between
God and us and then among all
other alienated partners to God’s purposes.
Given the kind of god that God
is–the triune, holy, loving-life-together
God–the way this is going to happen is
“in-kind,” by way of the love that God
is. It is a patient, persistent vulnerability,
pursuing us by persuasion, not by
force or fiat. God works not as Oriental
potentate, but as vulnerable love. This
has to happen on our plane, to one of
us. The consequences we deserve for
our “no”–death and separation from
God–are borne by the “yes” of God in
the very human form that speaks the
“no” to God. The hymn writer, Charles
Dinsmore has it, ” There is a cross in
the heart of God,” as well as on the hill
of Golgotha–the Son of God, being the
heart of the triune God. Not the death
of God, but death in God, divine mercy
absorbing the divine wrath.

LVD: What trips up many people is the
shocking ordinariness of that execution.
Lots of people were executed in
that same way in that cultural context.
Today, people are still being executed
in gruesome and horrific ways. So people
wonder, “Why this particular execution?
What was special about it? ” We
have to acknowledge there was nothing
particularly “special,” so to speak,
about the method of execution.

GH: Jesus is not just one person among
others. He is the incarnate Son, the incarnation
of the eternal Word of God. If
he were just one human being among
others it would be very difficult to understand
why his death accomplished
anything, more than that of any other
martyr. Then he could be an example
to us of living out our ideals, even to
the point of self-sacrifice. But he’s not
just a martyr, one person among many.
He is unique. That cannot be understood
apart from a Trinitarian framework
and apart from the incarnation.
One reason people are perplexed about
the significance of Christ’s death is
that they don’t have a sufficient understanding
of Christ’s person. This is God
in our flesh, dying our death, taking
our sin to himself, taking the judgment
that would other wise fall upon us.

Why did God choose this way to deal
with sin? Were there other possible avenues?
Is the cross necessary or the
only way for reconciliation to occur? Is
God somehow changed by the death of

GH: We can’t ask questions in abstraction.
We have to look at what God has
actually done. We have to look at the
event of the cross as it has actually taken
place. So was this really necessary or the
only possible route? These are speculative
questions. We can say that this was
“fitting”–the fittingness of God appointing
this particular means by which God
would deal with the problem of sin and
death. But God is certainly not changed
by the death of Jesus, as if the death of
Jesus somehow makes God into a god of
mercy and compassion. Instead it is precisely
out of God’s mercy and compassion
that the Word became flesh.

LVD: Calvin warned repeatedly about
the dangers of speculative questions.
A Christian imagination that has been
deeply shaped by the geography of
scripture would hinder overly speculative
questions, such as “Could it have
been done another way? ” So instead
of asking “Could it have
been done differently?” we
should ask, “How can we
understand this way of reconciliation
more fully and
be joined to it?”

What about the recent charges
that the atonement represents
a form of “child abuse,” where an
angry father is appeased by beating his
child? According to critics, this divine
child abuse then sanctions and promotes
abusive family relationships.

GH: I think terms need be defined according
to the Word of God and not on
the basis of what we happen to think they
might mean. There is a phrase that Irenaeus
uses that I think is helpful here.
Getting the Trinity right deflects the
child-abuse accusation, while honoring
the important pastoral-care issues in
the conversation.

He said, “God is light, yet God is unlike any
light that we know.” There are both similarity
and dissimilarity for any word with
what we might take to be its meaning in
some other context. Words like “sacrifice”
could be put into that framework. Christ
sacrificed himself for our sake, but it is
unlike any sacrifice we know. We have to
understand “sacrifice” based on the event
of the cross, not through some other way.
The same would be true with the whole
question of punishment, a pervasive biblical
theme–not an easy theme to understand
and one that needs some significant
work. Nonetheless, it is unlike any
punishment we know.

LVD: It has been a really unfortunate
skirmish in the last fifteen to twenty
years, this charge of child abuse or
bloodthirstiness that has been leveled
against the Christian gospel. A fully
formed doctrine of the Trinity could
have helped avoid much of the controversy
altogether. I do, however, think
that there are deeply important pastoral-care issues that are on the perimeter
of this conversation. These concerns
are worthy of very charitable reflection
and correction so that people who have
felt that Christian faith supported abusive
relationships receive genuine ministry. In Galatians 2, Paul reflects on
being brought into the life of Christ
and says: “the Son of God, who loved
me and gave himself for me.” That has
always seemed to me to be not only a
really good summary statement of the
Gospel but one that can be comforting
in some of these pastoral situations of

GF: In popular revivalist and some
evangelical preaching you often hear
of God punishing Jesus in our place.
“What a friend we have in Jesus”–and
what an enemy we have in God. Sadly,
that message seems to preach well. The
irony, of course, is that this very same
angry Father/God, victim Son/Jesus
theology is echoed by those who decry
child-abuse theology. They have picked
up conventional penal atonement theory, although wrongly construed, and
used it as an attack on atonement.
The cross was a divine self-oblation.
Both the conventional penal view and
the child-abuse theory miss the mark.

The penal theory does put sin near the center
of the story, where it belongs. But
many popular forms of the penal and
satisfaction theories of the atonement
fail to honor the basic presupposition
of the atonement, specifically 2 Corinthians
5:19: “In Christ, God was reconciling
the world to himself.” Both the conventional penal theory and “child-abuse”
critics separate God from Jesus,
so the cross becomes not an act of God,
but instead God being appeased by human
sacrifice. The cross, however, was
a divine self-oblation. Both the conventional
penal view and the derivative
child-abuse theory miss that mark.

How are we to understand the idea of
punishment in the atonement?

GF: I take punishment to be “tough
love.” I find no better statement than
the 1998 Presbyterian Church’s Study
Catechism’s question 25: “God took the
burden of our sin into God’s own self to
remove it once and for all. The cross in
all of its severity reveals the abyss of
sin swallowed up by the suffering of divine
love.” George, I think you can take
some credit for being on the committee
that put together the catechism.

GH: Leanne was also on the committee
that helped write that catechism.

LVD: I remember we had extensive conversations
about the word “abyss” in question 25.

GH: I remember that too. Notice in that
answer, the emphasis falls on removal,
not on punishment. Expiation means
removal or blotting out of sin. I think
the concept of expiation is much more
central than the concept of punishment.
That’s not to say the concept of
punishment can be completely eliminated
from a biblical understanding
of Christ’s saving death. But it isn’t at
the heart of the matter. It is not as if
God needs to punish Christ in order for
God’s wrath to be appeased. This is a
misunderstanding, whether it is propounded
by believers or critics. It is
God who finds the means for removing
the disorder of sin and overcoming it
and restoring order in the relationship
between God and the human creature.

GF: But is that taking the holiness of
God too lightly? What about a righteous
God, a holy God?

GH: The righteousness of God
is expressed by the wrath
of God. I understand God’s
“wrath” to be the form that
God’s love takes when God’s
love is contradicted. God
does not compromise with sin
and evil. God gives a clear
and unequivocal “no” to both sin and
the sinner. It’s actually not as easy to
“hate the sin and love the sinner” as
is sometimes thought. The sinner is
all bound up in the sin. The sinner is
abolished; the sinner is removed in the
death of Christ, but then raised back
with Christ from the dead. Of course,
this is a sort of apocalyptic occurrence
which, again, cannot be understood
on any terms other than the one that
comes with the event itself. When we
let it be understood on its own terms,
then I think it can be seen that wrath is
not opposed to love. Wrath is the form
God’s love takes, saying “no” to sin so
that God’s love can and does prevail.

GF: God’s love is both tough and tender
is one way to express this in the idiom
of the day.

LVD: I agree with these nuanced explanations
that both George and Gabe give
on the question of punishment. But I
am so struck by the care and the nuance
that is required to say these sorts
of things about punishment without
leading the hearer astray into some sort
of territory that is not the self-revelation
of God in Christ. There are just all
sorts of different possible distortions.

GF: It helps me when trying to interpret
this to a typical congregation to
read back into the prodigal son story. I
look at the waiting and running father
through the eyes of a Semite because
my dad was Arab. Semitic accountability by the father to the son is right
there, the rigor: “I expect you to shape
up or ship out!” What would it have
meant for a Semitic father to run to the
prodigal without realizing the son was
coming home penitent? Somehow the
anger and judgment in the heart of that
father must have been absorbed by the
love that took the pain and then made
it possible for the love to be agape, unconditional–the father running out
there to welcome the son.

Some Christians have suggested that
the cross is inevitably and irretrievably
a symbol of violence. As such it quietly
feeds a violent streak in Christianity, or
more specifically the idea of redemptive
violence–that violence is necessary for
redemption and good. Some have argued
that the cross should be dropped as the
primary Christian symbol. Others have
stopped wearing the cross as jewelry.
How do you respond?

LVD: Part of the reason we need the
cross is to discipline ourselves as Christian
teachers and preachers to refer to
the cross and empty tomb, the crucifixion
and resurrection, so that the complete
story is told.

GF: Following Delores Williams, some
have suggested that the church have a
mustard seed up front, not a cross. This
is an example of the questions posed
to us, questions coming out of culture,
We don’t understand the cross because
we are severed from our Jewish roots.

legitimate questions about
violence, abuse, pluralism.
But when they are the total
understanding of what
the cross means, then the
richness of this symbol is
obliterated. So violence cannot be the
characterization of what the cross is. If
we let that happen, we let the culture
determine what the cross is all about.

GH: Another reason for the misunderstandings
of the biblical meaning of the
cross these days is because we are severed
from our Jewish roots. The cross
really cannot be understood apart from
Passover. Jesus, for example, in the Gospel
of John is put forth as the “Lamb of
God.” There is a Passover background.
There is a lot of gentile thinking in
contemporary objections to the cross
as simply a manifestation of divine violence.
I agree that child abuse, spousal
abuse, require careful pastoral care.
But when the cross and Christ’s sacrifice
are placed in a Judaic context, a
paschal setting, it becomes possible to
see that these charges–that orthodox
Christian teaching about the atonement
has sponsored savagery–are just
not true. It is almost a big lie. It is propagandistic.
The connection has never
really been made. I’m not saying there
has not been a history of poor teaching
on these matters in the churches because
there has been. And I agree very
much with some of the strategies put
forth by people like Marie Fortune in
dealing with these matters. But I don’t
agree that the atonement can be rightly
accused of being at the heart of these
terrible issues. The atonement rightly
understood leads to a very different understanding
of suffering love.

GF: This is a good example of what Marx
called “ideology,” covering up (in this
case by the use of a false interpretation
of scripture) one’s own lethal ways. The
best things in the world can be abused
for terrible things. The cross, whether it
is the crusaders’ or Constantine’s sign
in the heavens, can indeed be used for
malicious ends.

LVD: By no means can the atonement
be charged with that sort of societal
ill. However, social workers who work
with abused women and abused families
tell me that they do hear statements
like, “You have to be submissive
like Jesus was.” That is, by no means,
a fully formed atonement theology. But
there is something going on culturally
that leads to that kind of terrible misconstruing
of the cross. It is deep and

GH: Many of the terms that cause us
trouble, that are misunderstood–blood, sacrifice, expiation, access, substitution,
participation–all are priestly
terms. The loss of the paschal context,
our severing from our Jewish roots,
makes it almost impossible to understand
the importance of the priestly
role in the atonement. The problem
can be traced all the way back to the
Reformers. Although the reasons they
found for rejecting the idea of Eucharistic
sacrifice were correct–it is not a
meritorious work, it is not a repetition
of Christ’s sacrifice on Calvary–nevertheless
they found no way of understanding
the Eucharist as a sacrifice
within the framework of Reformational
It’s important to make clear that not
only was something “shown” on Golgotha,
but something was “done”–done in the relationship between God
and the fallen creature.

It was a hairline crack at that
point, but it has now led to a chasm, a
kind of loss for any feeling at all within
the Protestant church for the priestly
office–the priestly office of Christ, the
priestly office of the community, the
priestly office of the presiding minister
at the Lord’s Supper. I think we need
to go back and retrieve the idea of the
priestly office. The idea of the priesthood
of all believers among Protestants
has pretty much become an office without
a portfolio. I think there needs to
be a retrieval of the very idea of Eucharistic
sacrifice that would bring the
Reformational churches closer to Catholicism
and Orthodoxy, and at the
same time lead to an enrichment that
would help to address this loss of understanding
of the paschal character of
the atonement. For example, the idea
of Christ’s blood in the New Testament
involves both the objective and the subjective
poles of salvation. It extends all
the way from Calvary to the Eucharist.
Thoughtless statements like “God does
not need blood” are anti-Judaic, antiapostolic,
and anti-eucharistic.

GF: Many of our congregations do
maintain some notion of sacrifice in
the sacrament. But it is, of course, the
sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving,
not a sacrifice in its fullest sense. Additionally,
the classical Reformational
understanding of the pastoral office
is a continuation, in some sense, of
Christ’s three offices. The pastor is not
only prophetic or even royal, but also
priestly. So we have some opportunity
to latch on this.

GH: I think the sacrifice of thanks and
praise is too abstract. It doesn’t integrate
with the ascended Christ’s ongoing
mediation in his priestly office.
The idea of the great and wondrous exchange
is at the very heart of
the Gospel. What that means
is that Christ takes our sin
and death unto himself and
bears them away. He gives
us his righteousness and his
life. One key way to recover
the idea of the wondrous exchange
and overcome this opposition
to the atonement is by
addressing the polarization
between the idea of substitution and
the idea of participation–both priestly
concepts. Christ takes our place and is
taking our place. And we are somehow
made to be participants in that event,
in a kind of objective and passive way
by grace before we become participants
more subjectively and actively by faith
in a way that changes our life. Sadly,
substitution and participation are too
often written about as if they are mutually
exclusive. Until that opposition
is overcome, we will have a hard time
understanding and appreciating the

GF: Nonetheless, I believe there are
reasons for hope. The Holy Spirit is still
moving. Through teaching and preaching,
liturgy and sacrament–all are important
in how one encounters the person
and work of Christ–I see movement
toward greater theological integrity.

GH: I like to cling to Calvin’s statement
that God preserves his church in wondrous
hiding places.

Recently the work of René Girard has
gained significant attention as an attempt
to reframe the atonement. Girard
and others who have been influenced by
his thought have argued that the death
of Jesus breaks the social cycle of scapegoating
and sacrifice because in Christ
the victim is now made visible rather
than victimized. How do you evaluate
Girard’s work?

LVD: I remember George once saying
Girard’s theory is so universal and
comprehensive that it can’t possibly be
the whole story. For someone to attempt
to explain every culture across the centuries
with this mimetic impulse is trying
to do too much. In Girard, “myth” is
the genus, and Jesus becomes a species
within that genus. Christ and the atonement
are subsumed and confined within
Girard’s larger interpretational framework.

GH: Girard says a number of helpful
things, but they do not add up to a sufficient
view of the atonement. His is just
not a sufficiently biblical and theological
view. It appeals to people who would
rather place the atonement in some sort
of anthropological or sociological context.
There are severe limitations in thinking
only that way. As far as the idea of putting
an end to sacrifice, sacrificial religion
wasn’t all bad. And if one must take
the view that it was, then one has to enter
into a severe critique of the Jewish
roots of the Christian faith.

LVD: One way of putting it might be
that Girard focuses on the prophetic
role of Christ, but ignores the priestly
and the kingly.

GF: It seems to me you can make a
case for a Girardian analysis bringing
out aspects of the atonement heretofore
hidden–rendering visible the victim–which in turn can enrich atonement
theory. But among some theologians,
Girard’s views are so influential
that they appear to replace and not
extend the trajectory of understanding
the work of Christ. It is important
to make clear that not only was something
“shown” on Golgotha, but something
was “done”–something was done
in the relationship between God and
the fallen creature. “Showing” implies
that our accepting the truth there exposed
is the substance of the atoning
work on the cross. Then that disclosure
depends on our response for fulfillment.
George, in Disruptive Grace (Eerdmans,
2000), calls this a Pelagian response to
an Augustinian problem.

For more information:

The Study Catechism of the Presbyterian
Church (U.S.A.) of 1998: Visit

Marie Fortune: Visit Her books include Is Nothing
Sacred?: The Story of a Pastor, the Women
He Sexually Abused, and the Congregation
He Nearly Destroyed
(Wipf and Stock,
2008); Sexual Violence: The Sin Revisited
(Pilgrim Press, 2005); and Keeping the
Faith: Guidance for Christian Women Facing
(Harper One, 1995).

René Girard: Among Girard’s many works,
especially important are The Scapegoat
(Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986)
and I See Satan Fall Like Lightning (Orbis,
2001). See also S. Mark Heim’s Saved
from Sacrifice: A Theology of the Cross

(Eerdmans, 2006) and “René Girard for
Holy Week” by Edward Oakes, S.J., in
First Things, April 2007. Further exploration
is possible at “The Anthropology
of René Girard and Traditional Doctrines
of Atonement,”

Gabriel Fackre is the Abbot
Professor of Christian
Theology Emeritus at Andover
Newton Theological School
in Newton Centre, Massachusetts.
He is most recently
author of The Church: Signs
of the Spirit and Signs of the
(Eerdmans, 2007).

George Hunsinger is the McCord Professor of Systematic
Theology at Princeton Theological
Seminary, Princeton,
New Jersey. His most recent
work, Eucharist and Ecumenism:
Let Us Keep the
, was published by
Cambridge University Press
in 2008.

Leanne Van Dyk is the Dean
and Vice President of Academic
Affairs and Professor
of Reformed Theology at
Western Theological Seminary
in Holland, Michigan. She is
the editor of A More Profound
Alleluia: Theology and Worship
in Harmony
2005) and Believing In Jesus
(Geneva, 2002).