The Participatory Model of the Atonement

I’ve been thinking about the issue of penal substitution on account of James McGrath’s post, What Do You Say That I Did? Felix’s past posts on the Christus Victor model have also been swimming around in my mind.

Penal substitution is the view of Christ’s death that most evangelicals believe in: Christ endured God’s wrath in place of sinners, so now God lets those who believe in Christ off the hook. Included in that is an assertion that Garner Ted Armstrong used to make (though it didn’t originate with him): only God could atone for the sins of all of humanity, since God is worth more than all people put together.

But is there an alternative view? Actually, there are plenty of them. Peter Abelard, for instance, treated atonement as a subjective thing rather than God’s objective forgiveness of sin: Christ shows God’s love for us by dying, and we then embrace God because our hearts are warmed by such a self-sacrificial act. The atonement, for Abelard, occurs when we respond to God’s love.

That sounds fine, but it doesn’t really explain why Christ had to die, nor does it address the biblical passages that associate Christ’s death with God’s forgiveness of sin (Matthew 26:28; Romans 5:9, et al.). Neither, for that matter, do a lot of other views of the atonement (e.g., ransom, moral governance, etc.).

But the participatory model very well may. As James McGrath states: “For Paul, the key meaning of Jesus’ death is summed up well in 2 Corinthians 5:14-15: ‘one died for all, and therefore all died’. That’s almost the exact opposite of the popular Evangelical message, ‘one died instead of all, so that they might not have to die’.” Dr. McGrath tries to make the atonement a matter of us sacrificing ourselves (or something like that), but that’s not the point I’m interested in right now. The point I want to make is this: In the New Testament, maybe atonement is not so much a matter of Christ dying in our place, but rather us dying and rising with Christ.

Like much of evangelical Christianity, the Armstrongite movement essentially held two views of the atonement simultaneously: one said that Christ died in place of sinners, and another said that believers die and rise with Christ. In the first model, sinners don’t die. In the second one, they do (in a manner of speaking).

But maybe the second one is the right one. And, as Armstrongites liked to point out, the second one involves God’s forgiveness of our sins. When our old selves die with Christ, the law no longer condemns us with the threat of death. How can it? The person who committed those sins is already dead, in a manner of speaking, since he died with Christ. Now, on account of Christ’s resurrection, he can have a new life, free from sin and the condemnation of the law.

But accepting a non-penal view of the atonement may require a lot of rethinking of cherished ideas. Here’s something I wrote under Dr. McGrath’s post:

“When Jesus said he was going to drink the cup, was he talking about the cup of God’s wrath that the Hebrew Bible harps upon? Or is there another interpretation–such as he was about to undergo a tough mission[?] When Jesus asked God why he had forsaken him, was that because he was experiencing the hell of God’s wrath at the crucifixion? Or was it just him crying out from despair? When there was darkness, was that the darkness of the Day of the Lord? Or is there another significance?”

Tough questions. But a non-penal view of the atonement has at least one strength: It doesn’t have Jesus doing something that God earlier repudiated. I went on to say:

“But there’s something positive about an alternative model of the atonement: God rejects penal substitution in Exodus 32:33. A lot of evangelicals try to do gymnastics to get around that–‘Well, of course God didn’t let Moses die for the people, since he was a sinner himself, plus his sacrifice wouldn’t have been good enough to atone for all those people, for only God can do that’–but that’s not what God says. He says, ‘Whosoever hath sinned against me, him will I blot out of my book.'”

Any thoughts?

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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10 Responses to The Participatory Model of the Atonement

  1. Looney says:

    There is another possible solution to the Exodus 32:33 problem: Grace isn’t available to everyone. Those who aren’t chosen by grace die in their sins, per the statement, but this passage refers only to the people of Israel who were alive at that moment in time. Then there is the mechanics of blotting/writing, which aren’t discussed with much precision. Isn’t it our first sin which causes us to be blotted out? But then we are written back in when we accept Jesus as our Savior, never to be removed.

    Given that the sacrifice imagery is everywhere in the OT and NT, and sacrifices are understood universally as a substitution, I don’t see why this should be so complicated.

    McGrath’s example involving Osama bin Laden strikes me as completely inadequate. Jesus isn’t a random alternate victim, but someone who has willingly chosen to act as a substitute. The other factor is that America isn’t exactly in a forgiving mood at the moment towards bin Laden.

    Then there is McGrath’s comparison of sin to a cancer. Yes, there are some similarities in that they both lead steadily to death. There are differences in that sin is what I chose and it leads to alienation from God. Cancer is something we don’t choose, and it doesn’t lead to alienation from the doctor.


  2. James Pate says:

    Yeah, I think the book of life means the book of those who are alive. When God says he’ll blot them out, it seems to mean he’ll kill them. But that’s my impression from the Old Testament. In Revelation, it seems to be more of a book listing those who are saved.


  3. Looney says:

    McGrath’s post reminded me of those recent studies that show that college students know less in their fourth year than they did in their first. There is, of course, a reason!


  4. James Pate says:

    You mean because of that whole “the more you know, the more you realize you don’t know” spiel?


  5. Looney says:

    No. “The more you study the less you know” is a subjective reaction that occurs naturally with constructive learning, especially for those who hold God in awe. There is also destructive learning such as is described in this article.


  6. James Pate says:

    I can see where it’s coming from, sort of. At my college, I think everyone knew about Brown vs. Board, the New Deal, etc. That’s the sort of stuff we learn in high school, and it’s assumed the students know it at college. At the same time, I can envision students learning postmodernism, victim politics, anti-Bush rhetoric, etc., and not getting the basic facts.


  7. xHWA says:

    This is a really good discussion, James. This makes me think. Once I’m past the initial burning sensation, I think I like it!

    I think we all do die with Christ. And if we are all part of the Spiritual body of Christ, we also live with Him and inherit with Him.


  8. scott gray says:


    i don’t have a dog in this particular race, but with your permission, i have a question or two.

    your first understanding feels like a get out of jail free card that has to do with belief in jesus. now you and i cannot change our beliefs so haphazardly; i can non more believe in jesus’ divinity than you can stop believing in it. how it that this get out of jail free card, the only option in this understanding, is only available to people who have an attribute (belief) they have no control over?

    the second understanding seems more community-oriented, more belonging-oriented. under which circumstances might each understanding be more beneficial to an individual, to a community, and to others outside the community? i think of maslows hierarchy of needs/motivations, here.


  9. James Pate says:

    I don’t think I can adequately answer those questions, Scott. So here are some thoughts, but not necessarily answers:

    1.a. I think that’s one reason Calvinists believe God causes faith: because we can’t just choose it out of the clear blue sky. But Arminians also believe in some sense that God is the one who takes the first step: the Holy Spirit moves or speaks to us in some manner, and we respond to that. So God may play some role in us coming to faith.

    b. I think of George MacDonald’s books. He addresses the question of why we should believe in a God we cannot see. Many rely on apologetics to prove the reality of the Christian faith. But MacDonald goes another route. For him, God is loving, and, if we truly knew God, we would embrace him because of his goodness. For MacDonald, if we search for that kind of God, then we would find him.

    c. Should our focus be so much on intellectually accepting a set of facts, or doing? Is faith believing stuff, or trusting in what Christ has done? The first sees faith as a noun, the second more as a verb.

    The problem is that all three statements are based on a belief system. But they take the focus from “I have a hard time believing this is true,” and they place it onto something else.

    2. The second model can be communal, but it’s individual too. We personally have died and risen with Christ. In both models, Christ suffers for each of us, so love is still a part of the equation, and that meets a need.


  10. James Pate says:

    “But they take the focus from ‘I have a hard time believing this is true,’ and they place it onto something else.”

    I guess what I’m trying to say here is that they put the ball more in God’s court, if that makes any sense.


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