I recently saw this clip:

If the video doesn’t work you can watch it from this blog here.

It reminded me why I agree with some of the issues raised by the ‘Occupy’ movement but won’t participate in the movement itself. Below is the answer I gave to a recent (take-home) exam question for my Theology subject (Doctrines of Christ and God) which I think sums up my thoughts on it.

Which biblical perspective or theme in relation to the atonement is of greatest relevance to the late-modern West? Give reasons for your answer.

Many theories of the atonement have been espoused over the centuries.[1]

The ‘Ransom Theory’, originally suggested by Origen, holds that Christ’s death was paid to Satan as a ransom for all people. Suffice to say that this theory lacks much textual support.

The ‘Moral Influence Theory’ put forward by Abelard suggests that Christ’s death was primarily for the demonstration of God’s love for humanity and his identification with their suffering. The difficulty with this theory is that there are many scriptures which speak of Christ’s death for sin and as a propitiation, it robs from the atonement any sense that God is affected, and does little to deal with the problem of our guilt.

The ‘Example Theory’ advocated by the Socinians argues that Christ’s death is simply provided as an example of how to trust and obey God perfectly, even to the point of death. Many problems exist in this theory: its overstated use of 1 Peter 2:21; its neglect of many passages which speak of Christ’s death for other reasons; and that it can lead followers to believe that salvation is not found in faith but in doing good works and following the example of Christ.

The ‘Governmental Theory’ as first put forward by Grotius states that Christ’s death is not necessarily for the penalty of any sins, but as a reminder that when God’s laws are broken a penalty must be paid. Like the other theories the problem with this theory is that it fails to take into account many scriptures which speak of Christ’s death for sins and for the penalty of sins. Further it removes from the atonement the satisfaction of God’s justice and focuses the attention on Christ’s death as a matter of influencing us to realise that God’s laws must be kept, implying that Christ’s death is not to be relied upon for forgiveness of sin.

Other theories, such as the ‘Mystical Theory'[2] and the ‘Theory of Vicarious Repentance'[3] have also come and gone, and both have been severely criticised for lacking textual support.[4]

When we consider our Western society and culture and how these theories of atonement interact with it, we can see that the theories are all found wanting. All the theories, with the exception of the ‘Moral Influence’ theory, assume some form of Christian worldview which society agrees to live by. This is simply not the case in our world today. The ‘Moral Influence’ theory offers up some form of engagement, but it offers up a rather emasculated God.

Instead, what our world is crying out for is a number of things, all of which are, interestingly, articulated in the global ‘Occupy’ movement. The proclaimed representation of the so-called ‘99%’, despite its fragmented presentation, is essentially looking for trustworthy leadership, justice, and love.

Trustworthy leadership, justice and love. All of which can be found in the Penal Substitution theory of the atonement.[5]

First, in regards to trustworthy leadership, in this theory we find that we can trust that God, the ultimate leader, is being truthful. In bringing about the death of His Son, God maintains the truthfulness of His Word regarding sin and death. The tension is built when we realise that Adam’s sin brought death and corruption into this world. God’s dilemma is that He cannot tolerate death and corruption, yet he warned Adam that should he eat of the fruit then death would follow. The tension is resolved by God reversing the corruption and stain of death without breaking his original word to Adam. Jesus’ substitutionary death maintains God’s Word while reversing the curse.

Second, Penal Substitution reminds us that God’s is concerned for justice. The declaration of sinners made righteous is not done by finding a loophole in God’s law but by fulfilling its demands. The cross and resurrection also remind us that God will one day put an end to ongoing injustice in this world because the crucial battle has been fought and won. It is now only a matter of time. This theory of the atonement also reminds us that restoration of the world cannot be achieved by human effort alone, but requires the trustworthy leadership of God to intervene.

Third, penal substitution is a grander expression of God’s love than the ‘Moral Theory’. The ‘Moral Theory’ is deficient because it lacks any teaching that God is affected by the death of His Son. In contrast to this ‘Penal Substitution’ declares God’s love by reminding us that the cost of demonstrating such love was immense: the death of his perfect and innocent son for his enemies. Only through ‘Penal Substitution’ can we truly appreciate the intensity and beauty of God’s love for man.

Finally, ‘Penal Substitution’ offers one more thing that our ‘Occupy’ world desperately needs: a realistic view of sin. The Cross vividly portrays the inexpressible horror of sin and the curse it has brought upon the world, and at the same time banishes our despair by declaring God’s comprehensive solution. It is the implications of this theory which most applies to our world today.


[1] The following theories are laid out in Grudem, W. Systematic Theology (1994) IVP: England, p581-586.

[2] The ‘Mystical Theory’ argues that Christ’s death acts to influence man and bring about change. It differs from the ‘Moral Influence Theory’ in that it emphasises the mystical inner transformation made possible by the Cross.

[3] The ‘Theory of Vicarious Repentance’ argues that God’s justice would have been satisfied with a perfect repentance, and since man is incapable of such Christ offered it up on behalf of mankind.

[4] See Berkhof, L. Systematic Theology (1984) Banner of Truth Trust: Edinburgh, p389-391

[5] As outlined in Jeffery, S., Ovey, M., Sach, A. Pierced for our Transgressions. Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution. (2007) IVP: England, p149-160


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