Gabbin’ About God: Atonement Theory and the Harrowing of Hell -The Toast

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Welcome to Gabbin’ About God, in which Mallory uses her religious background to explain things to Nicole.

Mallory, can I ask you a dumb question about Jesus? Because you know a lot about Christian theology from before your own reverse-Damascus, and I was pretty into it for a few years before becoming non-religious, but I was High Anglican, so I’m more tea-cake-Evensong-y? Like, I’m super up on the Bible itself, but this is not really explained in the Bible.

What’s, um, how did Christ dying for sins work? I literally have no conception other than what Aslan said about Deep Magic, and it’s just never been clear to me what that mechanism was supposed to be or why it worked or why it had to be a thing in the first place. What’s the official 411 on that? I was just reading about The Harrowing of Hell, which is not really a thing anymore, but it’s in the Apostle’s Creed and stuff, and it made me curious about salvation and so on.

Ahh, the Harrowing of Hell! Isn’t the Harrowing of Hell the best? The Harrowing of Hell is the best. It’s right up there with Prester John for me, when it comes to medieval Christian beliefs. It is true that I have more than a passing familiarity with Christian theology (a bit of background here, should you like some), and more than a passing disdain for Anglicans, who are basically just organized atheists (glares at your after-services cocktail hour with glasses of sherry and those little ginger cookies in unrepentant jealousy).

Unrelated: this may be my favorite painting of Jesus ever made. Look at his whimsical eyes! Look at that cozy-looking caftan! Hi, Jesus! (It should be said here that I like Jesus tremendously, and I like the idea of Jesus in a caftan even better.)


There are atonement theories for every day of August, if you are interested in such things. Atonement theories have become particularly popular in the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries, because even theology is subject to trends (LET’S DISCUSS MUSCULAR CHRISTIANITY AND THE FOUNDING OF THE YMCA SOMETIME, YOU AND I). Let us for the moment set aside secular interpretations of the Crucifixion (“Jesus died because he was tried and convicted of attempting insurrection against the Roman state and that’s how courts work”).

So! You are quite right in that the New Testament books and the writings of the very early church (let’s say the first 300 years or so, to be somewhat arbitrary) weren’t terribly concerned with fleshing out an interpretational framework of the crucifixion. There’s 1 Corinthians 15:3-5, which talks about Christ “who died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures,” of course, then there’s the Nicene Creed, which is a bit earlier than your Apostle’s Creed, that describes the crucifixion as having occurred “for our sake.” Some of the early church members subscribed to the idea that the Devil/Satan/Lucifer was fooled into accepting Christ as a sacrifice on behalf of all humanity, like a human ransom payment (later described as the Christus Victor theory by Gustav Aulen), which makes the New Testament more than a bit like Liam Neeson’s Taken. It’s quite nice! The crucifixion acts as a big “FUCK YOU” to evil and death.

So early on there’s a pretty clear understanding that Jesus’ death at the hands of the Romans was ultimately a triumph for God and justice and humanity, rather than a net loss, although the mechanics of how and why don’t seem to interest the Church Fathers and Mothers the same way they did Christians from the eighteenth century on.

Another aside: it is a lovely and a delightful thing for a religion to have Desert Fathers. It’s like Dune, a bit.

When it comes to modern atonement theories, however, you have to start with the big one: SUBSTITUTIONARY ATONEMENT. If you have ever attended a mainline Protestant church, particularly an evangelical one, you have almost certainly encountered this one. Since Christianity as an institution is particularly concerned with salvation and reunion with God, with fixing that which is irreparably broken, this idea has been understandably persistent. God requires perfection, human people stab and lie and otherwise damage one another, for this all human beings deserve to die, but rather than do this, God sacrifices a part of himself on our behalf to pay our debt. If you are familiar with the old hymn “In Christ Alone,” you will perhaps remember this line:

And on that Cross as Jesus died/ The wrath of God was satisfied<
For ev’ry sin on him was laid/ Here in the death of Christ I stand. 

Grim, but not without its poetry! This substitutionary/satisfaction theory replaced the ransom theory sometime around the eleventh century in most of Europe, thanks in no small part to Anselm. Its concern is primarily with the perfection and justice of God, and how an imperfect species and imperiled world can possibly hope to connect with him.

So those are some big European/Western theories, but there are plenty of others from Eastern traditions, too. There’s a brand of thinking within parts of the Roman Catholic Church known as liberation theology (or Christianized Marxism if you’re a particular kind of person) that sees the crucifixion as an act of solidarity: if God’s people are going to suffer and die, then God will suffer and die with them.

rayIf you are a fan of HBO’s Oz (and you very much should be), Father Ray Mukada (played by the very nearly perfect B.D. Wong) is a perfect example of this variety of social justice Christianity. An inmate who has just lost a child asks Father M where God was when his son was murdered, and he says, “The same place he was when his son was murdered.” A bit pat, but this was by season 4, I think, and the show wasn’t nearly what it used to be. Still well worth watching, though. In Season 5, he sings a terrific cover of Tori Amos’ “Lace and Leather” (it makes sense if you watch the whole series). Anyhow, that’s liberation theology in a nutshell.

There is even a queer theory of the atonement, which is tremendous:

Queer theologians have observed that the life, death and resurrection of Jesus is essentially a rejection of the scapegoating system. Jesus Christ, the sacrificial victim par excellence, condemns and terminates the need to scapegoat others. The resurrection is God’s emphatic “No!” to the insider/outsider dynamic. Queer theologians have expanded upon this initial insight by reinterpreting the traditional satisfaction theory of the atonement in terms of this denunciation of scapegoating. What does it mean to say that Jesus died for the sins of humanity? Queer theologians stress that it is incorrect to maintain that God demanded the death of the Christ as a sacrifice for the sins of the world. God was most certainly present at the cross, but He was not in attendance in order to assist in the act of crucifixion. God draws near to humanity because God longs to halt the repetitious cycle of violence against scapegoats.

Very Maria-sobbing-over-Tony-to-stop-the-killing at the end of West Side Story, if Maria and Tony were gay lovers, which they ought to have been.

One of the loveliest, I think, comes from Eleonore Stump (with such a name, could she have become anything other than a philosopher?) in her summation of Thomas Aquinas’ theology:

We can understand the gist of his idea by considering a homely example of minor evil. Suppose Anna is the mother of a feisty little boy, Nathan, who loves soccer. Anna loves flowers and has asked him repeatedly not to play soccer on the side of the house where her flower beds are. But Nathan does play with his soccer ball near the flower beds, and the inevitable occurs: some of the flowers are trampled. Nathan, however, is so interested in his game that he stops just long enough to run into the house and say, “Sorry, Mom, I trampled your flowers” before he returns to his game. What he has done presents his mother with two problems…She has lost some of her flowers and it will take her some time and energy and money to replace them. But the real problem is with her son, because from this episode she sees two things about him. In the first place, he does not love what she loves; if he had had any care for the flowers, he would have played in a different place. And second, he does not love her as she would like him to, because although he knows she loves her flowers, he does not care for them for her sake. So what Nathan has done has created some distance between himself and his mother. His will and hers are not in harmony and he does not love her as he might; her recognition of both these facts make her sad.

Let us all pause and call our mothers, if our mothers still live in this world to be called.

C. Stephen Evans sums up the rest of her story thusly:

The son, if he was truly sorry, might want to make amends by restoring the garden. If he was too small and unskilled to do this, we can easily imagine the mother helping him, perhaps restoring a key section herself. Such costly love on her part would undoubtedly increase the son’s love and appreciation for the mother.

Of course, if the son wasn’t even sorry for the deed, then the mother’s task would be even more difficult. Should she simply forgive him by ignoring the action and pretending it did not happen? Such ‘forgiveness’ would not really reestablish the relationship, because it would mean the mother did not really take her son’s actions seriously. Perhaps the best solution would again be for the mother to offer the son forgiveness by repairing the damage herself. Perhaps when the son saw his mother on her hands and knees, doing what he ought to be doing, he would be moved to love her and to join in her work. By suffering on his behalf the mother would graciously tell him that all will be well…Families don’t operate on a strictly legal basis. The mother is willing to forgive, and to forgive in a costly way that shows she takes the son’s wrong actions seriously.

There’s much to be said for an understanding of the life and death of Jesus as something that is participatory, active, ongoing, and joyful, rather than something static that has already been done on one’s behalf. There are a few others, I think, some of them more orthodox than the rest: the moral influence theory, which is the idea that God’s redemptive act on the cross was supposed to act as a moral instruction about how to live in a loving and sacrificial way. Calvinism has more than its share of atonement theories, all of them very involved and specific. But let us not be too harsh on the Calvinists! They gave us Lew Smedes, after all, which was awfully kind of them. Let us end this conversation with him, because it does not get much better than Lew:

I joined this small church because it had a great vision of God as the Creator and the Redeemer of the whole wide world. I also liked its orderliness, its sobriety, and its respect for education. I liked the practice of baptizing babies into the family of God and bringing them up as children of God and not as lost sinners who still had to walk down the sawdust trail to get saved. I also liked its modest expectations of our spiritual improvement. The Heidelberg Catechism, everyone’s favorite creed, taught that we can expect no more from ourselves in this life than a small beginning into holiness and wholeness. And this comforted me in view of the sluggish pace of my own spiritual improvement.

And there you have it, in a rather garbled and half-remembered nutshell. Go in peace to love and serve [insert deity of your choosing].
UM, this is pretty amazing, Mallory! This is a lot more than I planned to learn about Jesus today! I think that theology benefits a great deal from both Dune and Oz references. Could we talk more about the Devil next time? I’d love to know more about the Devil, and his interactions with Liam Neeson.
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