Christianity and the Problem of Human ViolenceChristianity and the Problem of Human Violence: Part 116: Atonement Theologies, Part 3: Further Problems with Satisfaction Atonement
from Guide to Kingdom Living

True Christian living requires us to live according to Kingdom standards which bring Heaven to earth.

Christianity and the Problem of Human Violence: Part 116: Atonement Theologies, Part 3: Further Problems with Satisfaction Atonement

By Stephen R. Kaufman, M.D.

Last week, we considered how satisfaction atonement theory and moral influence theory attribute Jesus' death to God, which is problematic. Satisfaction atonement theories have additional difficulties. They assume that justice and righting of wrongs involve some kind of retribution. According to this framework, the problem with sin is that it causes an imbalance, a disturbance of the moral order of the universe. The only way to restore balance is through punishment, which may involve death.

J. Denny Weaver has noted that this framework, articulated by Anselm in 1098 and later modified by the Protestant Reformers, has parallels with the medieval worldview. The feudal king's power resided in a belief that the king had divine authority. Those who dishonored the king must be punished in order to restore the moral order, because to offend the king was tantamount to offending God. Sinning against God caused the greatest disturbance to the order, which occurred repeatedly on account of human sinfulness. Only the most extreme punishment could restore the moral order, and the Son, as God incarnate, fulfilled this need. So it seems that Anselm's satisfaction atonement theory evolved out of the medieval worldview.

Often people describe violent retribution as "justice" or "upholding the law," but retribution undeniably involves violence. Therefore, Weaver has concluded, "any and all versions of atonement . assume the violence of retribution or justice based on punishment, and depend on God-induced and God-directed violence." With God involved in violence and punishment, it becomes easier for Christians to justify their own violence and punishment. In addition, satisfaction atonement theories accommodate violence, because they treat humankind's sinfulness in terms of humankind's relationship with God. Satisfaction atonement theories treat sin as a legal problem - humankind's offense against God - rather than as a social problem. The theories do not articulate the problem in terms of society's institutions or events of human history (other than Original Sin). Consequently, satisfaction atonement theories do not challenge unjust human institutions, making it easier for Christians to countenance violence and/or injustice. With the rise of satisfaction atonement theology, Christianity's focus changed from what Jesus did and taught to what was needed to preserve "Christian society." Since Christians have regarded the Church as the embodiment of God, defending the Church has often taken precedence over defending vulnerable individuals. Furthermore, there have been many times when kings and other despots have subverted the notion of "Christian society" to serve their own selfish desires. In such settings, the Church itself has become the "principalities" and "powers" (Ephesians 6:12) that have worked against God. Although Jesus taught that we should show love and mercy in all our relationships, satisfaction atonement theories have changed the focus of sin from injustice against individuals to offense against God and "God's Church." Consequently, Christianity evolved into a religion that has (at various times in history) accommodated slavery, subjugation of women, cruelty to animals, and other unjust social arrangements.

Social reformers have pointed out another difficulty with satisfaction atonement theories. These theories portray Jesus as one who was innocent yet voluntarily submitted to suffering. This has often been an obstacle to people who suffer as a consequence of unjust social structures, because victims of abuse have often been told to model their behavior on Jesus' voluntary suffering. For example, some religious authorities have advised victims of domestic violence to bear their burden rather than to pursue paths that might alleviate their situation.

Additionally, satisfaction atonement theories are problematic in that they adopt the logic of Caiaphas, who, in trying to convince chief priests and Pharisees to call for Jesus' execution, said, "it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish" (John 11:50).

Satisfaction atonement theories posit that it is indeed better for one innocent man to die in order to save everyone else, which has been the logic of sacrificial violence throughout human history. Indeed, one might wonder whether satisfaction atonement theory presents Christianity as a new revelation, or whether it presents Christianity as a minor variation on the perennial religious theme that God (or the Gods) demands "sacred" sacrificial violence.

Finally, satisfaction atonement theories focus on Jesus' death and do not require a theology about his life, teachings, or resurrection. Seeing the Bible through a Girardian lens, Jesus' death is a critically important component of a broader message that God wants us to love each other and to cease scapegoating the innocent. Jesus' entire ministry points to the centrality of God's love, which we can overlook if we focus on a single, violent event.

Next week, I will discuss an atonement theology articulated by J. Denny Weaver (Cross Currents July 2001).

Go on to: Part 117: Narrative Christus Victor
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