Teaching the Atonement, Part 1: Discovering Discord in My Students

As we enter April and Good Friday and Easter are only a few away, it seems a good time to share some experiences from a recent unit I taught on the atonement. I hope this four-part series proves helpful for you in your teaching, but I also hope it serves as a way to prepare your heart for the remembrance of Christ’s sacrifice and the celebration of His resurrection.

Recently I have been delving into the topic of the atonement with my high school senior worldview class. I wasn’t really planning on it, but as I think C. S. Lewis once said, “one can’t be too careful about what one reads.” He, if I recall correctly, was talking about the dangers posed to a young atheist who reads Christian books in the Great Tradition. I am speaking more of what one assigns his students to read that will lead to difficult questions. Anyway, I found myself facing questions about whether or not the wrath of God was poured out on Jesus and whether Jesus saved us from the Father. Needless to say, my weekend plans changed, and I began diving once again into a topic I had honestly set aside for a time. There was a reason I did.

Back in seminary I received a heavy dose of penal substitutionary atonement. It was, I was taught to understand, the orthodox view of the church, suggesting that all other views were either unorthodox or less than helpful. I can’t say I ever fully bought into that generalization, but I certainly was influenced by it. Then I began reading some of the early church fathers and found that none of them seemed to talk about penal substitutionary atonement at all. Again, not that they denied it, but it certainly wasn’t something to which they were giving direct attention.

Around the same time I began studying the Epistle to the Hebrews and Pauline Theology in my PhD work and got engrossed in books on justification and the New Perspective on Paul. I realized that much of what I saw in Scripture didn’t mesh with the penal substitution view—at least not exclusively—and I saw strong evidence for aspects of the Christus Victor view, and similarly strong points for most of the theories. Around this time, however, I was completing my comprehensive exams in Old Testament studies and working on my dissertation, neither of which afforded me much time to delve into atonement theories.

And so for three and a half years now since my PhD graduation, I have moved on to other reading interests, but the question of the atonement gnawed at my mind. Last spring I read about 1/3 of Athanasius’ On the Incarnation with my students. This spring I read about 2/3 of it. The question really couldn’t be ignored for much longer, so I’m grateful that I happened to assign books to my seniors that would raise questions that I didn’t really want to answer yet, but knew that I needed to soon.

So here I am, wrestling with how to articulate the depths of Christ’s work on the cross while still trying to reconcile points in my own mind on what I really believe the Scriptures say. In my next post I’ll reflect on some of my and my student’s questions on the atonement and propose some thoughts about how to wrestle with the various theories of the atonement.

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