HOW did the death of Jesus work? What was he accomplishing? How did it secure anything? Was it a price being paid? If so, who owed whom what? Was the Devil holding a deed that had to be paid? Or, is there something else altogether different that explains the “How” and “Why” of the death of Christ?
These questions, and others like them, are the basis of seven historical views. The following outline categorizes seven major ways of thinking about the death of Christ (somewhat divided along according to how one speaks of the mechanics of the atonement). I present these views with a special emphasis on the newest of the seven: Liberation Theology (being the theology of President Obama’s Chicago church, Trinity United Church of Christ — in mentioning him, I mean no disrespect, I simply desire to articulate one aspect of theology his church teaches).
I assure you, if you are an American, Liberation Theology deserves your attention. It has come along to explain the death of Jesus as a paradigm for reform movements. It holds that Jesus is the paradigm for those who champion the cause of so-called oppressed classes.
I have divided the seven views of the death into three sections (A. B. and C.). Each section represents a worldview that gives emphasis to some aspect of the Bible. Section A outlines the Death of Christ from its legal aspects. Most conservatives have a legal worldview with a strong sense of exact justice and adherence to equal application of law. These folks would think of the Death of Christ according to that which is listed under this first division (for them, it would be a primary emphasis, but they would not therefore reject all the views).
Liberals tend to emphasize freedom, love and sympathetic feelings for the oppressed (I do not label this “Liberal” to imply that these things are bad, not at all, but to name the emphasis); they may lean to the second division, Section B, which represents a more social worldview.
While categorizing these, I found it interesting that Calvinistic and Arminian lines are also detectable among the divisions. Calvinistic Protestants, for example, have majored on ideas represented in Section A.
The final division, Section C., holds its own place. To keep this as an outline, I won’t elaborate on any of these seven elements in great detail (and some, not at all).
With each view, I will name one author who is well known for starting or popularizing the view. For each group, I list the basic Worldview and the Biblical-Center most emphasized.
A. Law Court / Legal Views (Tending to Calvinistic and Conservative)
Legal views of the cross of Christ explain that his death was a legal transaction of some sort, Â “Western theology has witnessed a juridicizing of the human-divine relationship” (Boersma, p. 183).
1. The Ransom View, Mark 10:45 (Origen, AD 210)
2. The Satisfaction/Debt View (Anselm, AD 1098, Cur Deus Homo)
3. The Penal-Substitution View (Vicar/Vicarious)
a. By sinning, man has committed a cosmic offense against God
b. The magnitude of a crime is proportional to the one against whom the crime is committed
c. Only a human can be penalized for sin, and a human must offer satisfaction for human sin
d. A finite creature cannot offer anything near the magnitude required to bring satisfaction
e. A substitute is needed: The divine God-Man must offer satisfaction for the sins of his people if there will be any
Biblical Center: God’s Glory vs. Man’s Sin
Worldview: Retributive justice and Human Culpability
B. Social Views (Tending to Arminian and Liberalism)
Social Views are not completely wrong, over and against the above legal views of the Cross. There are aspects of truth in all the views, but mistakes are made when a wrong emphasis is placed upon the social aspects.
4. The Governmental View (Grotius, AD 1610)
5. The Moral Influence View (Peter Abelard, AD 1110)
6. Liberation Theology View
a. Latin American (Roman Catholic, AD 1955)
b. Native American (Gustavo Gutierrez, AD 1971–Notre Dame)
c. African American (James Cone, AD 1969)
Biblical Center: Care for the Disadvantaged: Retelling the Exodus Story
Worldview: Redistributive Justice and Human Worth
C. The Biblical-Theological Way
This final division of the seven views may be the more ancient of the ideas (at least most well represented among the Church Fathers), and has seen a resurgence of late in the work of N. T. Wright.
7. Christus Victor View (Irenaeus, AD 160)
a. The Story of Forces (God vs. The Universe)
b. The Alignment of Forces
c. Salvation: Defeat of Satan, Victory of God’s Image and his Forces
d. Incarnation of God Entering the Battle (a New Exodus)
e. The Unexpected God: The Hidden God is the Revealed God
Biblical Center:God’s Glory in The Incarnation as a Recapitulation of the Exodus Story and OT types
Worldview: Divine Self-Vindication in a Human
Liberation theology is able to use the Exodus story for every story that involves a hero or a champion who comes to the rescue of the disadvantaged. And this is where it goes wrong. In contrast, the Chrisus Victor view sees the Exodus story finding its meaning one time and one time only in the death and resurrection of Jesus. The OT finds its “yes” and “amen” in Jesus as an end unto himself. Instead, Liberation Theology puts Jesus as the best example of all liberators, meaning he stands beside Martin Luther King, Jr., or anyone else who is the voice of a people needing relief.
The death of Jesus in Liberation Theology is mostly a paradigm for showing us that the real work is that of helping the least — the poor, the outcast and the hurting. That is, his death is not primarily salvation of souls, nor is it about God securing his glory (in and of itself), but is a program for the material causes in the world. The material needs of the disadvantaged classes must be addressed. In an economic way, that is through the redistribution of materials (i.e., material justice). It is also a redistribution of power, so that class differences can be erased. Liberation Theology takes Marxism and calls it Christianity.
An equitable and measurable redistribution of wealth becomes the key way of determining freedom and liberation within this rival view of the Cross. The first three ways of speaking about the Death of Christ (the legal views) dealt with retributive justice; Liberation Theology deals with power and material redistributive justice.
Liberation Theology is appealing to Americans today, and is growing. It is being called the Gospel by its adherents — it is the theology of many people and one must understand its basis so that it can be refuted for what it is: another Gospel. Liberation Theology turns the death of Christ into the death of the Gospel. Instead of a risen savior emerging from the grave, they have Marxism coming to life to dethrone anyone who has means, authority or power.