Introduction: Definition and Biblical References
Our first parents had originally been at one with God. As a result of their sin, however, this union was lost, both for themselves and for the whole human race. The central problem, then, became how to restore the at-one-ment, a word whose meaning we disguise by pronouncing it “atonement.” [Francis J. Sheed, Theology for Beginners, p. 81.] Christians have always affirmed that it was Jesus’ death on the cross that somehow brought about the reunion of God and man. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (#571) declares: “The Paschal mystery of Christ’s cross and Resurrection stands at the center of the Good News that the apostles, and the Church following them, are to proclaim to the world. God’s saving plan was accomplished ‘once for all’ by the redemptive death of his Son Jesus Christ.” But how? Thus the word “atonement” refers to the mystery of “man’s reconciliation with God through the sacrificial death of Christ.” [The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, Second Edition, p. 104.]
In grappling with the problem of atonement, theologians down through the centuries have pondered the following Scripture passages: Isaiah 53; Matthew 26:28; Mark 10:45; John 1:29; Acts 8:32-35; Romans 3:25; 1 Corinthians 15:3; Colossians 1:20; 1 Timothy 2:5-6; Hebrews 2:14-18; Hebrews 9:11-14, 24-28; and 1 Peter 1:18-19. [ODCC, p. 104.]
There are three major theories of atonement: the classical doctrine of atonement, St. Anselm’s doctrine of atonement, and Abelard’s doctrine of atonement.
The Classical Doctrine of Atonement
Origen (d. c. 254), St. Hilary of Poitiers (d. 367), St. Gregory of Nyssa (d. c. 395), St. Augustine of Hippo (d. 430), and St. Leo the Great (d. 461) were all among the proponents of the so-called classical doctrine of atonement. [ODCC, p. 104.] They believed as follows:
As a result of the Fall, Satan had gained rights over the souls of sinful humanity. God, however, made a bargain with Satan: He would give Satan the sinless soul of Jesus, even though Satan did not deserve this, if Satan would release the souls of human beings who accepted Jesus. Satan agreed, thinking that Jesus was only a good man and nothing more. The devil, to use the words of St. Gregory of Nyssa, “like a greedy fish, …swallow[ed] the Godhead like a fishhook along with the flesh which was the bait.” [Address on Religious Instruction, #24, quoted in: Edward Rochie Hardy, ed., Christology of the Later Fathers, p. 247.] Thus when Satan came to take possession of Jesus’ soul at the time of the crucifixion, the former was in for a big surprise! The devil quickly discovered that Jesus was the Son of God and therefore impossible to hold. Hence Satan ended up with neither the souls of those who accepted Christ nor Christ Himself. The devil, as the expression goes, was left holding an empty bag! [William E. Hordern, A Layman’s Guide to Protestant Theology, Revised and Expanded Edition, pp. 25-26, closely paraphrased.]
By the way, C. S. Lewis’ book The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is a splendid articulation of the classical doctrine of atonement. In this children’s classic, Aslan agrees to sacrifice his own life to the white witch in order to save that of traitorous Edmund. Aslan, much to the dismay of the witch, comes back to life, and the witch is defeated. Edmund, then, represents the human race; the witch stands for the devil; and Aslan, of course, is Christ.
There are at least three negative aspects to the classical doctrine of atonement: First, why should the devil have “rights” over sinful humanity? What entitles Satan to such rights? [Dr. G. Clarke Chapman, Moravian College.] After all, it was the devil that tempted our first parents to sin in the first place. Consider this analogy. Suppose you break your curfew by coming home five hours late. You expect your parents to punish you severely; but, no, they instead buy you the car you always wanted! What kind of nonsense is that? Again, why should Satan have rights over the fallen human race?
A second problem is more obvious. Must God resort to trickery in order to bring about our salvation? [Hordern, p. 26.] To put it bluntly, the classical doctrine of atonement makes God look like a shady used car salesman or the worst kind of scam artist. How can anyone trust such a God? (I wonder. Were the Church Fathers at all influenced by the Greek legend of the Trojan horse?)
Third, the classical doctrine seems to underestimate Satan’s intelligence. Was the devil really so ignorant of Jesus’ true identity? Perhaps not. Recall, for example, a Gospel verse like Mark 1:24, wherein a demon cries out: “What have we to do with you, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” In short, the classical doctrine of atonement portrays Satan as a little too gullible. [James Weed, Bethlehem Catholic High School Class of 1994.]
Despite its problems, however, the classical doctrine of atonement does affirm two very important truths: First, “in the death and resurrection of Jesus, God has conquered the forces of evil. Good is more powerful than evil.” Second, “evil tends to overreach and thus destroy itself.” In other words, evil, left to itself, bites off more than it can chew. [Hordern, p. 26.] (This, incidentally, is the moral of the popular Dr. Seuss story Yertle the Turtle, which some argue is an allegory about Adolph Hitler.)
Father Ezaki’s Bête Noire
Here is my own allegorical version of the classical doctrine of atonement:
Seven-year-old Daryl was never able to explain just how the weird black balloon found its way into the nursery, but there it was. At first it was hardly noticeable—no bigger than a marble–rolling innocently around on the floor among the toys. As time went on, however, it grew in size, and Daryl soon noticed something even more strange. With each passing day, as the balloon grew larger and larger, the stuffed toys began, one by one, to disappear. First the tiny velveteen rabbit was nowhere to be seen, and the black balloon was just a little bigger. The next day, the stuffed elephant vanished into thin air, and the sinister sphere had become that much larger. Then the plush gingerbread man went missing. The dark intruder had grown in proportion. Soon all the stuffed animals in the nursery—all, that is, except one–met a similar fate. By this time, Daryl’s eyes were swollen from crying, and the black balloon was hideously swollen in size.
The one toy that had so far escaped the dark balloon’s insatiable appetite was none other than Daryl’s beloved Teddy bear. This was no doubt because the boy was never parted from it. Unlike the other toys, it occupied a privileged place in the nursery and in Daryl’s heart. It was the only toy Daryl permitted to share his bed, and it never so much as even touched the nursery floor.
Yet Daryl loved all his toys and thus conceived a plan whereby he might possibly rescue those that had been devoured. There would, however, be a price to pay.
Rummaging around in his father’s toolbox, he found three sharp nails of prodigious length. These he carefully and tearfully drove into the heart of his favorite toy. That evening, he placed the Teddy bear on the nursery floor alongside the spherical monstrosity. The instant he did so, the balloon began to quiver—as if in anticipation. As for Daryl, he quietly climbed into bed, but for many hours he lay awake wondering what would befall his treasured Teddy bear. At last he drifted off to troubled sleep.
In the wee hours of the morning, just as the sun began to rise, the silence of the nursery was shattered by what could only be described as a tremendous explosion. Daryl woke with a start. To his great relief, he found his Teddy bear next to him on the bed, but the mattress was also piled high with all the other missing toys—the velveteen rabbit, the stuffed elephant, the plush gingerbread man, and all the rest, apparently no worse for their ordeal. There on the floor were the three nails and tattered remains of the black balloon. The thing was no more.
“And death shall be no more, Death thou shalt die.”
–John Donne (d. 1631)–
St. Anselm’s Doctrine of Atonement
St. Anselm of Canterbury (d. 1109) first expounded his doctrine of atonement in a treatise entitled Cur Deus Homo (Why God Became Man). His position, with some modifications, was later accepted by St. Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274). [ODCC, p. 104.]
According to St. Anselm, man owed perfect obedience to God, the Creator and Ruler of the universe. Man, however, had failed to obey and had dishonored God. As a result, the whole human race fell into debt to God. Since it was an infinite God whom man had offended, man’s debt was infinite. God could not simply set the debt aside and forgive man. That would be an offense against divine honor. Justice demanded that the debt be paid. Yet finite man could not give God infinite satisfaction. The dilemma, then, was this: finite man owed an infinite debt, but only an infinite God could pay it. So God sent Jesus, who was both God and Man, to die an undeserved death. Because Jesus was God, His death had infinite merit and could pay the infinite debt. Because Jesus was also Man, He could pay the debt on man’s behalf. Consequently, when Jesus died on the cross, He paid the debt for man, and God’s honor and justice were vindicated. Now, at last, God could forgive all those who came to Him through Christ. [Hordern, pp. 26-27, closely paraphrased.]
St. Anselm’s doctrine of atonement has been aptly summed up in a single sentence: Jesus came to pay a debt He didn’t owe because we owed a debt we couldn’t pay.
St. Anselm lived during the Middle Ages, and his teaching on atonement certainly reflects a medieval mindset. He is sometimes criticized (unfairly perhaps) for making God look very much like an insecure feudal lord, fearful that leniency toward his vassals just might lead to rebellion. Yet St. Anselm’s doctrine does emphasize a crucial truth, viz. “forgiveness is not something simple or easy. It costs God to forgive.” [Hordern, p. 27.]
Abelard’s Doctrine of Atonement
Peter Abelard (d. 1142) insisted that there was nothing on God’s side that made forgiveness impossible. Forgiveness, however, is a two-way affair. You cannot forgive a person who does not wish to be forgiven. Forgiveness means the restoration of broken fellowship, but one cannot restore the fellowship if the other does not wish it restored. This, argued Abelard, was God’s problem. God wanted to forgive man, but man went his merry way sinning and did not repent or ask forgiveness. So God acted. He sent his Son Jesus to suffer and die on the cross for man as a manifestation of divine love. When man contemplates the crucifixion, he is moved to shame and repents. God is thus able to forgive him. [Hordern, p. 27, closely paraphrased.]
Abelard’s position “was violently criticized by St. Bernard” of Clairvaux (d. 1153). [ODCC, p. 104.] In order to more easily grasp the problem, consider the following illustration: Suppose that, while I am teaching my students, an intruder hurls a live hand grenade through the open classroom door. I immediately size up the situation, shout, “See how much I love you,” and then throw myself on the grenade. The grenade explodes. Although my blood and gore cover the classroom walls, all my students are alive and unharmed, and they proclaim me a loving martyr. Here it is easy to see that there is a necessary connection between my death and the wellbeing of my students.
Now let us change the scenario. Suppose my students are fooling around and having a good time, despite all my efforts to teach them and maintain classroom order. I am at my wits’ end, so I proceed to pull a hand grenade out of my pocket. I shout, “See how much I love you,” and in so doing, I remove the pin and quickly place the hand grenade on the floor. I then throw myself on top of the grenade. There is an explosion. My blood and gore cover the classroom walls. My traumatized students survive. Yet, when all is said and done, every one of them affirms that I was quite mad. In this scenario, there is no direct and obvious connection between my death and my students’ survival. My death is utterly senseless and appears to be nothing more than a grand attention-getting stunt.
That is, in a sense, how Abelard portrayed the death of Christ. His doctrine of atonement makes Jesus’ death appear wholly unnecessary and senseless. How can such a death be a manifestation of divine love? “Christ’s death can only be a revelation of God’s love for man if it was a necessary sacrifice [Luke 24:26]. It is meaningless if man could be saved without it.” [Hordern, p. 28.]
We should, however, not be too hard on poor Abelard. His teaching on atonement underscores a vital truth that all Christians believe: “In the death of Christ we see the love of God in such a way that we are moved to repent.” [Hordern, pp. 27-28.]
Here is another illustration: When I was in the seventh grade, my father noticed the peach fuzz growing on my upper lip and handed me a razor. He then proceeded to help me, his legally blind son, give myself my very first shave. Fifteen years later, as Dad lay dying of cancer, he asked me to shave him. How ironic! I thought. Dad helped me with my first shave, and now I’m helping him with his last shave. I’ll give him the best shave I can. My father died the following morning. When my sisters were washing his body, they noticed that there were a number of tiny cuts in the skin beneath the chin. I felt utterly ashamed and mortified. What had I done? Dad hadn’t complained while I was wounding him. He had borne everything out of love for me! Even to this day, whenever I remember all those tiny cuts, I am overwhelmed with a sense of my father’s love for me. That is what Abelard was trying to tell us about Jesus. Christ bore everything out of love for us!
The classical doctrine of atonement depicts God as a scam artist; St. Anselm’s theory portrays God as being almost too preoccupied with His own honor; but Abelard’s doctrine proclaims loud and clear that God is love (1 John 4:8).
Who Is Right?
“[T]here has never been any official formulation in orthodox Christianity of the mystery of the Lord’s redemptive work.” [ODCC, p. 105.] Yet of the three doctrines described above, that of St. Anselm has gained the widest acceptance. [Hordern, p. 28.]
Christ the Redeemer
I once heard the following story from the lips of a Protestant minister:
Many years ago, there was a little boy who spent hours painstakingly building a working model sailboat. He used only the finest materials, and his attention to detail was meticulous. At last the day came when his creation was complete. The sailboat was not only well made; it was a work of art.
Every day, the boy would take his little craft to a near-by pond and watch with delight as the breeze caught the tiny sails and swept the sleek hull across the water. One day, however, a sudden gust of wind seemed to come from nowhere and carried the little sailboat beyond the boy’s reach. Try as he might, the lad was unable to retrieve his beloved bark. The boat drifted farther away with each passing moment until it was completely out of sight.
For three whole days, the boy moped around town, head hung low, grieving the loss of his prized possession. Then, on the afternoon of the third day, he looked up, and, lo and behold, there was his sailboat prominently displayed in a shop window. Overjoyed, the lad ran into the shop and announced to the shopkeeper: “That’s my sailboat! I built it.” The gruff shopkeeper responded: “That’s my sailboat. I found it. If you want it, you’ve got to pay.” Alas! The price of the model boat was more than the boy could afford at that moment, but he left the shop determined to earn enough money to buy back his creation.
Over the next several weeks, the young boat builder hired himself out to do all kinds of odd jobs around his neighborhood. He ran errands, mowed lawns, weeded gardens, cleared storm gutters, painted fences, and cleaned out garages—all this because he loved his sailboat. Most of the boy’s neighbors knew the reason for his flurry of activity, and they couldn’t help but marvel how much he treasured his sailboat.
Finally, the day arrived when the boy had earned enough money to make the purchase. He handed the shopkeeper the required sum and left the shop, sailboat in hand. “Now you are doubly mine,” said the boy to the miniature craft, “first because I made you, and second because I bought you back.”
This tale is obviously an allegory, a symbolic story. The boy represents God, the sailboat stands for the human race, and the shopkeeper is Satan. As an allegory, the story is particularly interesting because it manages to combine elements from all three major doctrines of atonement. The shopkeeper (or devil figure) in the story is an obvious allusion to the classical doctrine of atonement. St. Anselm’s teaching finds its way into the allegory in that it costs the boy a great deal to recover the sailboat. Finally, because the boy loves his model boat, the story echoes Abelard’s doctrine of atonement.
The sailboat allegory is also significant because it explains what theologians mean when they speak of redemption. Consider the well-known Latin maxim: Caveat emptor. It means, “Let the buyer beware.” Emptor is the Latin word for “buyer” or “man who buys.” In Latin (just as in English), the prefix re- means “back” or “again.” Re-emptor, we might guess, ought to mean “man who buys back.” The ancient Romans, however, did not like the double vowel sound e-e, so they inserted a d. Redemptor, then, is Latin for “man who buys back.” English redemption means “the act of buying back.” Thus when the Church proclaims Jesus as Redemptor hominis, i.e. the Redeemer of mankind, she is saying that Christ “bought us back” with His precious Blood. 1 Peter 1:18-19 says: “You know that you were redeemed from the vain manner of life handed down from your fathers, not with perishable things, with silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot.”
Luther’s Teaching on Atonement
Martin Luther (d. 1546) was, I believe, very much inspired by the Old Testament story of the Passover in Exodus 11:1-12:30. According to this passage, the Israelites in Egypt were instructed to put the blood of the Passover lamb upon their lintels and doorposts on the eve of Passover. At midnight, the Lord slew the firstborn of all the Egyptians, but, seeing the blood, spared the homes of the Israelites. Did the lambs’ blood wash away the Israelites’ sins? Of course not! It merely shielded the children of Israel from the wrath of God.
In like manner, Luther argued, a Christian can never truly be cleansed from sin. What, then, is the purpose of Jesus’ death? Christ’s death, said Luther, does indeed make it possible for Christians to enter heaven precisely because His innocent Blood covers over their sinfulness. Thus when God looks upon the soul of a redeemed Christian, He sees only the Blood of Christ. The sins are still there, but they are concealed from God’s gaze by the Blood of Jesus. Human nature is still a cancerous boil, but God graciously allows us to enter heaven clothed in the sinless Blood of Christ. All talk of actually being renewed and cleansed from sin is, at best, only metaphorical, and the notion that we Christians can grow in holiness is absurd. [Fr. Vincent P. Miceli, SJ, comments recorded for an audiocassette program published by Keep the Faith.] As Luther put it, human nature saved by grace is merely “a manure pile covered with snow.” [Fr. Benedict J. Groeschel, CFR, a conference recorded on audiocassette by the Daughters of St. Paul.]
The Catholic Church has strongly condemned Luther’s teaching on what he called “justification.” For one thing, if Jesus could not tolerate superficial, skin-deep righteousness here on earth (Matthew 23:25-28), how, then, can He tolerate superficial righteousness in heaven? Here it is important to note that the Catholic Church has always taught that one of the final results of Christ’s redemption will be to cleanse us from sin. Jesus came into the world, suffered, died, and rose from the dead in order to heal and restore our fallen human nature. His purpose is not merely to veil our sinfulness in order to gain us entrance into heaven. His purpose is to cleanse us from sin and restore us to holiness. The Blood of Christ is not like paint. It is very much like a powerful detergent.
Here is what Fr. Walter J. Burghardt, SJ, writes in his book Sir, We Would Like to See Jesus: “Catholicism cries out against those who claim that the movement from sin to grace does not really change you, that you are justified in that God by some legal make-believe attributes to you the justice of Christ, that your sins are not really blotted out but only covered over by the merits of our Savior. No, you are indeed a new creation; for God gives the divine Self to you, God is present to you in a new way, God makes it possible for you to know and love Him in a manner impossible to your naked human nature.”
Yet Christ’s work of redemption brings about more than a mere restoration of fallen human nature. The Church teaches that, in Jesus, our human nature is raised to a height higher than it ever would have been had our first parents never sinned! Those who steadfastly follow Christ will know a glory greater than that which we would have enjoyed had Adam never disobeyed God! Note, for example, these words from the collect for Thursday after the Fourth Sunday of Easter: “O God, who restore human nature to yet greater dignity than at its beginnings, look upon the amazing mystery of your loving kindness, and in those you have chosen to make new through the wonder of rebirth, may you preserve the gifts of your enduring grace and blessing.” God certainly did not will the sin of our first parents, but so rich is His mercy that He is able to bring out of our sin blessings far better than those which had been lost (see Genesis 50:20). Our exaltation in Christ will ultimately be far greater than the bliss which had been forfeited by Adam. Thus, during the solemn Mass of the Easter Vigil, the Church raises her voice in the wonderful chant known as the Exsultet and cries out: O certe necessarium Adae peccatum, quod Christi morte deletum est! O felix culpa, quae talem ac tantum meruit habere Redemptorem! “O truly necessary sin of Adam, destroyed completely by the Death of Christ! O happy fault that earned so great, so glorious a Redeemer!”
Imagine my surprise and delight when I found this same idea expressed in, of all places, John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Here are the words Milton (d. 1674) puts into the mouth of fallen Adam, who has just been given a prophetic vision of the redemption Christ would one day accomplish:
O goodness infinite, goodness immense!
That all this good of evil shall produce,
And evil turn to good; more wonderful
Then that which by creation first brought forth
Light out of darkness! full of doubt I stand,
Whether I should repent me now of sin
By mee done and occasiond, or rejoyce
Much more, that much more good thereof shall spring,
To God more glory, more good will to Men
From God, and over wrauth grace shall abound.
[Paradise Lost, Book XII, lines 469-478.]
Jesus is indeed a great Redeemer, and His Gospel is indeed good news! He will not only make all things new (Revelation 21:5). He will make all things better than new!
In the 1996 movie The Preacher’s Wife, Denzel Washington plays the role of an angel named Dudley. One scene is particularly relevant here. A little boy, unaware that he is speaking to an angel, asks Dudley to fix a broken toy ambulance. Dudley takes the little vehicle, turns it over in his hands, and gives it back to the boy. The next moment, the ambulance is moving across the floor, lights flashing, siren blaring. “Wow!” exclaims the boy. “It never had a siren!” “Oops!” is all Dudley can say. This charming scene perfectly illustrates a wonderful truth: When God repairs something, it is better off than it ever would have been had it never gotten broken in the first place.
Father William N. Seifert (Diocese of Allentown) makes an insightful observation concerning Luther, justification, and the Eucharist. Luther, he says, could not bring himself to believe that anything low could be transformed into something higher. Thus the founder of the German Reformation insisted that human sinfulness could never be washed away, but only covered over. We should not be surprised to learn that he took a similar approach when it came to the Eucharist. As Luther saw it, bread and wine could never be transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ. At best, the Eucharistic elements could only be veiled by the presence of Christ. In other words, Luther’s teaching on consubstantiation was entirely consistent with his notion of Justification.
Father Seifert also sees a consistent thread in Catholic teaching on conversion and the Eucharist. The Catholic Church, he points out, teaches that grace is transformative and not merely cosmetic. What is low can, with God, be transformed into something higher. In the Mass, bread and wine are really changed into the Body and Blood of Christ. The outward appearances are indeed the same, but the underlying reality is entirely different. If, then, God is willing to perform so great a miracle for mere bread and wine, what will He not do for us? God’s grace does not merely veil our sins. It actually transforms us from within, making us entirely new. We may look and feel the same on the outside, but a grace-filled soul is an altogether new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17). Thus the Church’s doctrine of transubstantiation is really a model of what takes place in the human heart when it experiences true conversion.
So Luther was wrong. Thank God!
John Calvin (d. 1564) started out with a very noble motive. This French reformer wanted, above all, to uphold the truth that God is all-powerful. Thus he argued that absolutely nothing could go against divine omnipotence. If even the smallest event occurred in opposition to God’s will, then God would not be all-powerful. Do some human souls end up in heaven? Of course! Obviously, said Calvin, God wills their salvation. Do some souls wind up in hell? Certainly! Obviously God wills their damnation. Since human beings go to hell through their own sins, God must, by necessity, will the sins too, as he who wills the end must will the means. Ultimately, Calvin denied all human free will after the Fall of Adam. All this led him to formulate his peculiar doctrine of absolute predestination. According to Calvin, before the Fall and even before creation, God, in His eternal counsels, predestined some of His creatures to salvation (Romans 8:29-30; Ephesians 1:4-5) and others to damnation. Alas! Poor Calvin! His well-intended emphasis on divine omnipotence was so extreme that he forgot all about divine justice and mercy. His doctrine of absolute predestination was so bizarre that even some of his own disciples rejected it. [ODCC, pp. 223-224, occasionally closely paraphrased.] Calvin’s story ought to teach us a lesson: Whenever we emphasize one truth to the exclusion of other truths, we run the risk of going wrong.
One of the important teachings of the Catholic Church is that, when Christ died, He potentially saved every human soul. The Catholic Church teaches that there is no such thing as a child born predestined to hell. Anyone living is capable of salvation, because Jesus came to save the entire human race. The most rotten, miserable, wretched sinner in the world can be saved, provided he repents. Here is a good illustration: Alessandro Serenelli (d. 1970) was a man who killed a canonized saint, a little girl by the name of Maria Goretti (d. 1902). This man lived a life of degenerate, black atheism and hopeless negativism. Yet he was converted in prison. He was very devout after his conversion and spent his last twenty years on earth living with the Capuchins. (By the way, the popular beverage known as cappuccino gets its name from the fact that it resembles in color the brown habit worn by the Capuchin friars.) So there is no one incapable of salvation. If you went to the worst sinner in the world, you could not say to him: “It’s too late. You’ve done it all. There’s no forgiveness for you!” This is important to remember, because all of us know people who do not look like they are in very good shape for salvation. We all have relatives who have not said a prayer in years. Do recall that Jesus Christ died on the cross for them just as he died on the cross for St. Francis of Assisi (d. 1226) and for St. Teresa of Avila (d. 1582). [Groeschel, closely paraphrased.]
When it comes to the prospect of going to heaven, every one of us can echo the words of an old Latin motto generally attributed to Cicero (d. 43 BC): Dum spiro spero. “While I breathe, I hope.”