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For those of you who pay attention to the show notes, you can learn more about atonement theories from Jennifer at a discounted price! Use code atonement20off to get 20% off our class “Why God Died” until June 30, 2024.

In this episode of The Bible for Normal People, Jennifer Garcia Bashaw joins Pete and Jared to discuss how various atonement theories attempt to explain Jesus’s death. This is a reissue of The Bible for Normal People Episode 183 from October 2021. Join them as they explore the following questions:

  • What are atonement theories and what function do they serve? 
  • What did Jesus’s crucifixion actually do? 
  • What does Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension mean in Christian theology? 
  • What are the biblical underpinnings of atonement theories? 
  • What exactly is Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA)? 
  • How has PSA been grounded in biblical text? 
  • What in the world is Euthyphro’s Dilemma? 
  • How do advocates of PSA talk about how God was able to forgive sins before Jesus?
  • What is Girard’s Scapegoat Theory? 
  • So…just tell me…which atonement theory is the right one? 


Pithy, shareable, sometimes-less-than-280-character statements from the episode you can share.

  • “There are so many different metaphors in the Bible about Jesus’s death. And we’re just trying to make the best sense of them that we can with these theories.” — @garciabashaw @theb4np
  • “PSA has the shakiest biblical support of all these major atonement theories. What people do is pluck these verses of scripture and kind of tie them together in order to support the idea of PSA.  It sounds like it’s very, ‘biblical,’ but it’s really cherry-picked.” — @garciabashaw @theb4np
  • “We have lost that concept of the mystery of not just God, but what God is doing in Jesus. We want to be able to give these concrete words, but how are we to think we don’t need mystery when we think about God?” — @garciabashaw @theb4np
  • “There’s not just one theory that can capture what Green calls the Kaleidoscopic Picture of Atonement that we get in the biblical witness. We need to take these atonement theories, try to understand them, but realize there is mystery.” — @garciabashaw @theb4np
  • “So much of our language, so much of our music, the hymnology that we have in the church revolves around PSA, but there’s got to be a way to explain it better so it doesn’t lead us away from Jesus and Scripture but leads us toward that.” — @garciabashaw @theb4np

Mentioned in This Episode

Read the transcript

Pete: You’re listening to The Bible for Normal People, the only God-ordained podcast on the internet. I’m Pete Enns. 

Jared: And I’m Jared Byas.

[Intro music plays] [Promo plays]

Pete: Our topic is “What Did the Crucifixion Do?” and our guest is Jennifer Bashaw.

Jared: Jennifer is Assistant Professor of New Testament and Christian Ministry. And as you’ll see as she’s talking, I love this combination of both of these – her scholarly side on the New Testament, but also very pastoral side, and that is at Campbell University. And she mentions a guy named René Girard, and that has to do with a book she’s coming out with next year called Scapegoats: The Gospel Through the Eyes of Victims. But just for everyone who’s been asking this question for a long time, this is probably one of the questions we get asked the most. What do we do with the atonement? What did Jesus’s crucifixion actually do? So, here’s your episode where we talk about some of this complexity.

Pete: Yeah. And it’s a question that – I’m speaking from personal experience. I – this is existentially meaningful to me, because I like, I remember years ago, I think I mentioned this in the episode, but years ago, I just started thinking, I was like, I have no idea. And part of the issue, not the problem, but part of the issue is that the New Testament itself uses different metaphors for trying to get at it. And I think that’s a good way of putting it, they’re trying to get at it. And that’s sometimes called a kaleidoscopic view, taking all the colors and shapes into account and not sort of privileging one over others. And as a result, you have various views, various metaphors, and that alone is something just worth holding on to and saying, “Okay, this is interesting, it’s a different way of thinking,” than, “Here’s what it means always and for all time.” Right?

Jared: Right. All right, well, let’s have this conversation. 

[Music begins]

Jennifer: Paul recognizes all of this as a mystery, right? And I think that we have lost that concept of the mystery of, not just God, but what God is doing and Jesus. And so, we don’t want mystery. We want to be able to give these concrete words and diagrams and PowerPoint presentations about it – but we’ve lost the mystery. If Paul acknowledged it, even as he’s trying to explain it, like, how are we to think we don’t have mystery, we don’t need mystery when we think about God.

[ad break]

Jared: Welcome, Jennifer, to the podcast. So excited to have you on. 

Jennifer: Thank you. I’m excited to be here. 

Jared: Well, before we jump into the topic, which I’m eager, chomping at the bit to get into, because I think it’s going to be really relevant to a lot of people just tell us, you know, why devote your life to studying the Bible? How did that come about for you?

Jennifer: Yeah, so well, I grew up in the Southern Baptist Church and actually, as many bad things that came out of that, there were some good things that was just implanted this love for the Bible inside of me. And I got a call to ministry while I was in a Southern Baptist Church. And so, I’ve had sort of a long journey, trying to figure out what my calling looks like, and what direction I should have headed. And so, I ended up not just working in churches, but also studying the Bible, especially the New Testament on a PhD level, because I wanted to understand it better, and then make it understandable to people in the church. And so, I’ve sort of always been with one foot in the church and one foot in the academy, and I just love studying the literature of the Bible.

Jared: Couldn’t have a more perfect guest to talk about what we’re going to talk about today because this comes up so much with people at The Bible for Normal People, we keep deferring it and deferring it as much as we possibly can.

Pete: It’s not that important.

Jared: [Laughter]

Which is – how do we think about Jesus and the big three: the death, resurrection, ascension? Like what does it mean for Jesus to have died, resurrected, and ascended in Christian theology? So, it’s not as simple as kind of a one word or even one theory answer so can you kind of lay the groundwork? Map out what these different theories are and then let’s take a deeper dive into them and maybe see if we can uncover some of the pros and cons of each of these approaches.

Jennifer: Sure. There are actually a lot of atonement theories and so I just want to run through some of them today. We’re not going to cover all of them, but I’m going to run through Christus Victor, Satisfaction Theory, Penal Substitutionary Atonement, Moral Influence or Moral Exemplar Theory, and Scapegoat Theory. And I just want to sort of explain them a little bit and then assess what they’re based on in the Bible, like what are their biblical foundations or underpinnings, if you want to say that and then talk about sort of some positives of each and some problems of each.

Jared: Excellent. Well okay, well, let’s just jump right in. You want to start with this very fancy sounding one, the Christus Victor?

Pete: Yeah. Who’s that?


Jennifer: [Laughter]

Yes, right.

Jared: Yes, right? I’m gonna name my next kid that, yeah. 

Jennifer: First, I do want to say something for those of you out there who maybe don’t know what atonement theory is, because it’s really not something that comes up a lot in churches. It’s in the background of everything we say, like when you when you hear someone say, “Jesus paid the price for our sins,” or, “Jesus took our punishment or took our place,” or, “Jesus defeated death and Satan on the cross,”, there’s actually an atonement theory in the background of those statements, right? And so, that’s what I want to do is kind of talk about what’s working in the background as we say some of these statements about Jesus’s life, death, resurrection, ascension. So, in Christus Victor, this is a theory that’s forged from battlefield imagery. So, all of these you’re going to see are all metaphors, sort of used to explain metaphors from the Bible. So here in this model, it has roots, actually, in the Early Church and it’s made a recent resurgence in the last 50 years or so, when a guy named Gustaf Aulén articulated this theory in his book, and it kind of caught on in the public imagination more. In the Academy, people started talking about it more. But basically, what it says is that Jesus’s life, death and resurrection are like the conclusion to this dramatic battle between God and the forces of evil. Jesus becomes the victor over Satan, and all the evil forces in the world when he dies and raises from the dead. In some of these versions, Jesus’s death somehow breaks the power of evil that holds humanity captive. And if you want to envision this, and you know about The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe when Aslan breaks the stone table, right, and he bests the White Witch – that sort of is a good illustration for what the Christus Victor theory does.

Jared: Okay, so you mentioned earlier biblical underpinning. So, with Christus Victor, again, I think all of these probably have some rootedness in the biblical imagery. And the challenge is a lot of these are metaphors and pictures that we get. But what’s the biblical underpinnings of this Christmas Victor theory?

Jennifer: Yes, so, there is a battle/victory sort of freedom motif that runs throughout the New Testament, and it shows up in different strands of metaphors. So, one metaphor might be a ransom scenario, that Jesus’s death somehow paid a price to free us from sin or evil or Satan. Other metaphors imply that Jesus’s life or death and resurrection defeated Satan and the powers of evil in a very dramatic way by triumphing over them. When you want to think about the ransom aspect, there’s a focal verse in Mark 10:45, where Jesus says, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many.” So, some proponents of the Ransom Theory of Atonement, which was like an earlier version of this, they interpret this one word ‘ransom’ to mean that God had to pay Satan to obtain humanity’s freedom. But that is a very fanciful reading of this phrase, like Mark most likely uses the word ransom in a general way referring to the price paid to free a slave. He actually does not explain how Jesus’s life was a ransom or to whom this ransom was paid.

Pete: C.S. Lewis, he does take it sort of, because you mentioned him before.

Jennifer: Yes.

Pete: He takes it as paying something that’s due to the White Witch.

Jennifer: Yes, yes.

Pete: Who is a Satan figure. So, he probably knew better. He just made a great story, I think. 

Jennifer: It was a great story. It’s just interesting how the Satan figure is female. But anyway, we don’t have to talk about that.

Pete: Yeah, that’s a whole other podcast. We’ll have you on to talk about that.

Jennifer: That’s right. 

Pete: So, all the – like this theory and all these theories are not just theories grabbed out of thin air, there’s actually, they’re all trying to grapple with biblical themes and texts, and concepts that lend themselves towards different ways of thinking about the significance of the cross.

Jennifer: That’s right. And sometimes they tie different motifs together too. So, when you’re talking about Christus Victor, not only does this ransom idea comes in, but the idea of freedom that Jesus frees us from the power of evil, frees the earth from the influence of Satan or from evil, right? And even if you see that coming up in different places in the New Testament, it’s all still a bunch of mixed metaphors, right? I mean, one example is like in Colossians 2, this one people like this one for the Christus Victor model, “When you were dead in your trespasses, and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. And he set this aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.” 

So, even in that little section, you can see that idea of freedom and triumphing over the powers, but there’s a bunch of other metaphors sort of sprinkled in there, you know, circumcision and forgiving our trespasses, erasing records, legal demands, right? So, I think it’s a good example of how there are so many different metaphors in the Bible about Jesus’s death. And we’re just trying to make the best sense of them that we can with the with these theories.

Pete: Right. And that’s why it’s hard to sort of pick out like, the way the Bible talks about the cross, because they have these different metaphors.

Jennifer: Yeah, absolutely. And a lot of the metaphors will be just coming from Paul. But the good thing about Christus Victor is you actually see this a little bit in the Gospels too, which is good. In all the Gospels, especially Mark, but we see Jesus has power over demons and sickness, over the corrupt forces of the world, over the chaos of waters, all this stuff, and so it does come up. But when you sort of put it together in a package called Christus Victor, you know, it’s not exactly biblical, but it is biblical, you know?

Pete: So, okay, so Christ is the victor in a battle. 

Jennifer: Yes. 

Pete: Right. And that’s, I guess, an important metaphor, way back in the day-

Jennifer: Yes.

Pete: When you’ve got all these, you know, oppressive forces and things like that. And it was, I’m trying to backtrack to what you said earlier. Very early on in the history of the Church, this was sort of a big deal, a way of thinking about it, perhaps. And then it sort of died away, but then came back more in the last 50 years or so. Right?

Jennifer: Yes. I mean, they’ve been trying to make it a little less violent. I think the violent imagery bothers some people. And so recently, it hasn’t been as violent. Like, there’s even someone who talks about the narrative Christus Victor, but it does do a good job of paying homage to what’s happening in Scripture, especially when you read Revelation and sort of the apocalyptic imagery. 

Jared: And not to kind of foreshadow, but I think one thing that maybe it solves, but also creates other problems with though is, it gives a lot of power to whatever this evil force is, and again, some people might call that Satan, or so it’s almost like there’s an equal, it’s almost the Yin and Yang. So, there’s God and then there’s this evil force. And God’s in this cosmic battle, which, frankly, is kind of like an Ancient Near Eastern, maybe, way of understanding all this stuff. But I think for some people that might be a little bit uncomfortable of like, okay, so there’s this force that actually is pretty powerful, like God has to sacrifice Jesus, in order to defeat this pretty powerful-

Pete: “My hands are tied. I gotta do something!” Right. Yeah. 

Jared: So, is that a thing that people might say as like, maybe going against this view?

Jennifer: Yes. That’s one of the negatives, for sure. This potential for dualism and a lot of times early on it was it they said it was Satan, like God had to had to rescue us all from Satan. And it gives Satan kind of a lot of power in this. And that’s one reason why Anselm sort of came up with the Satisfaction Theory after that, because not only are we kind of uncomfortable with the idea of Satan having that much power, but he was as well. 

Pete: Okay, so Anselm, when did he live and what did he say?

Jennifer: Yeah, so Anselm is living during the 1100s, the feudal times, right? And so, what he does is sort of come up with a theory that makes sense in his context, right? So, in the feudal system, you have these feudal lords, and everybody sort of owes honor to these feudal lords. And he takes the metaphors from the New Testament, and he makes them into metaphors that make sense to the people he’s teaching. And so, the idea here is that Jesus’s death has to satisfy the honor of God, right? We have wronged God, and God’s honor has been impugned. And so, the only way that we can make restoration for that is for Jesus to die, so very much caught up in this feudal idea.

Jared: Okay, so there’s a kind of an honor and shame factor. So how does that- I think it might actually be with the Satisfaction Theory, I wonder if contrasting it with this Penal Substitutionary Atonement Theory might actually help us understand it, because in some ways, we don’t live in the honor/shame kind of culture, at least in the West, here in America 21st century. So that may not land as much. But maybe before we go there, would that have landed more though in the ancient world, like in the actual biblical world, because you know, we’re big on like, context, and understanding the world of the Bible – would honor/shame have been part of that ancient context?

Jennifer: Yeah, I mean, honor/shame is part of the context of the writers and the people in the biblical world. But I think what happens, that Anselm does is makes it about God’s honor. Like he kind of takes it out of the human chessboard or something and makes it off stage, right? And he starts talking about God’s honor, like God is a feudal lord. And so, in that way, I think he jumps out of the biblical world and off the biblical pages, to use metaphors from his own context.

Pete: Yeah, I think I mean, he probably, I mean, the irony here is that I think he’s definitely jumping off the pages of the New Testament where God willingly aligns God’s self with an act of shame, which is the cross itself. The thing I mean, I totally agree with you. I think the reason why this might still get some support, even maybe in an indirect way is, you do see some of this stuff in the Hebrew Bible in the Old Testament, not throughout, but, you know, God’s honor is at stake, you know, and somebody has to, you know, the whole scene with Moses and the exodus story, and, you know, I’m gonna wipe everybody out because they’ve disobeyed me, I’m looking bad. And Moses as well, you know, you don’t want to just wipe these people out, because what’s Egypt gonna say? You know, your honor is at stake here. So, there’s this, there’s something, which is frustrating to me, frankly, you know, but, you know, we have an ancient Bible, what are you gonna do? So, you know, Anselm, he’s in his own context, I guess, speaking of a feudal system, and you know, wronging a superior. You can’t just let that shame go. And I don’t know, Jared, we still have that sort of in our culture. Not like that. 

Jared: I’m pretty shameless. 

Pete: You are, I know. Well, what happens when a student disses you in class? Do you say, “How dare you? Do you have doctrine?”

Jared: I’m not petty. I’m not petty. So okay, well, I want to jump into Penal Substitutionary Atonement, because it’s the fancy sounding one, it has the most letters in it, and it’s probably the one that most people are maybe most familiar with. So, can you just talk to us about that? So, we talked about Christus Victor. We talked about Satisfaction. Talk to us about this PSA or Penal Substitutionary Atonement? 

Jennifer: Yeah, I’ll probably call it PSA from here on out because it’s just hard to say. 

Jared: Yeah, go for it. Yeah, yeah. 

Jennifer: So, PSA is actually sort of a more modern version of Anselm Satisfaction Theory. And so, it really doesn’t come about until we’re talking about Calvin and Luther, the reformers in the 16th century. But there’s a lot of legal imagery happening here in PSA, right? You get the vocabulary of justice, and judgment and punishment and debts, and things like that. And so, the premise of PSA is that God’s justice – so now we’re not talking about God’s honor, we’re talking about God’s justice – cannot allow sin to go unpunished. So divine justice requires that payment must be made to satisfy that justice. Some people actually bring in the language of God’s wrath, like in order to ease or appease God’s wrath, the payment has to be made. So, in this scenario, God sends Jesus to suffer the punishment for human sin in order to pay that penalty for us. All of this should be sounding familiar, because this is the language, lots of evangelical churches, all of them probably use. So, with Jesus’s death then, God’s holiness or God’s justice, are both satisfied by the substitution of Jesus for sinful humanity. So, that’s where you get the substitutionary part of that. And yeah, so it’s actually sort of recent, like it doesn’t go back to the early church fathers, like Christus Victor does. And it doesn’t go back to the 12th century, like Satisfaction.

Pete: Yeah. But it’s just legal context. Right? Remind me, Luther was training to be a lawyer? 

Jennifer: Yes, yes. So, he is speaking in his context, from what he knows and also to his context, right?

Pete: I mean, what a reminder it is that it’s hard to do theology and leave your own context and what we bring into it, right? 

Jennifer: Absolutely. 

Pete: I find that fascinating. It’s also frustrating but also a little bit liberating because you know, you can look at these things and say, well, why have people in the church thought this? Well, there’s a pretty major, the whole Protestant Reformation, in a sense was really deeply, deeply rooted in this model of the atonement and what the cross did. And I don’t know, I just, it’s nice to know that.

Jared: Right. And there’s also though- the complicated thing is there’s a lot of context, you know, whether it’s Anselm in the 12th century, or Luther and Calvin and their legal background, there’s a lot kind of brought into the text, but there’s also some hooks within the text too. So, you know, we talked some about the passages in Mark for Christus Victor. What are sort of these passages for PSA? And how have we grounded this in the text?

Jennifer: Yeah, right. So, this is so interesting to me, because, in my opinion, looking at the New Testament, sort of overarching message of the New Testament, PSA has the shakiest biblical support of all these major atonement theories, but what people do is they will pluck these verses of scripture and kind of tie them together in order to support the idea of Penal Substitutionary Atonement. So, it’s kind of annoying, because it makes it sound like it’s very, biblical, but it’s really, cherrypicked, I guess, is one way to say it. Right? 

Pete: Mm hmm, yup. 

Jennifer: There’s definitely a sacrifice motif in the New Testament when it comes to Jesus’s death, for sure, and loosely, maybe, it can be interpreted as substitution. But there’s also a lot of the, you know, different motifs that are combined with the sacrifice, and it feels like the PSA people will just pluck out those little sacrifice words or things like that.

Jared: Can we can we back up? Because you just mentioned something I think people may be if they’re not familiar, I think people are familiar with the language around it, or the idioms that are cliches. But can you just when you say penal and substitutionary and atonement, can you maybe just for one minute on each of those words? Because I think it might be confusing, because you say, it may be- yes, substitutionary might be hard to find. So, can you just break those down real quick?

Jennifer: Yeah, so the penal part, of course, has to do with paying a payment, or some people will say, you know, you committed a crime and you have to face the punishment. So, Jesus takes your place with a punishment. So, that’s in the penal part. The substitution also comes in there in that in that he has to substitute himself for you. So, both of those things are working together in this theory. 

Jared: So, there’s a crime committed, that’s the penal. And then Jesus substitutes himself for you who should get the punishment, that’s the substitutionary part.

Jennifer: Right. And the crime is against God’s justice. Right? 

Jared: Okay, okay. Good.

Pete: Although, I mean, speaking of maybe the shaky foundation for this, a thought came to my mind, I can’t remember where I read this, but you know, Jesus died for you doesn’t necessarily mean instead of you and took your place. 

Jennifer: That’s right. Yes. 

Pete: Right, it means on your behalf, which doesn’t explain the mechanism. The whole idea of like, “Okay, what exactly did the death of Christ do?” But it’s not saying what in English it sometimes comes across as saying, and, you know, I remember a few years ago, Jennifer, just, I don’t even know what I was reading, nothing to do with the cross or anything. I just sort of stopped reading, I looked out the window, and I said, “I have no idea what the cross is about anymore. I just don’t know.” I just, it’s so, there are so many different ways of looking at it and sometimes what you think is so plain and obvious in the text is, at best a creative reading of it, but not in some cases, a misunderstanding of it, you know, so, yeah, well, I mean, if you don’t mind keep going with that a little bit, because this is the big one.

Jennifer: Right, it is.

Pete: There aren’t too many Moral Exemplar people out there, we haven’t gotten to yet. You know, Christus Victor. But you know, PSA is the central and most clearly, well, the only one, it is the biblical notion of what Jesus’s death meant. And, you know, maybe we can pick that apart a little bit here. And again, not to destroy people’s lives, but just to – eh, a little bit destroy people’s lives –

Jared: To give the diversification of the fact that in the history of the church, this is not the only way of thinking about it and for good reason, because the Bible itself is a little bit ambiguous about some of this stuff. 

Pete: It’s also relatively recent in terms of – 

Jared: That’s right. So yeah, maybe maybe we’re gonna go back to like some of those biblical underpinnings, like where do people find this in the Bible?

Jennifer: Yes. So, you know, I told you, I grew up Southern Baptist. And so, we used to have these little tracks that we would put on people’s cars that you know, “Do you know Jesus?” and then it was evangelism track. And so many times it had the Roman Road or the Romans Road on it, different verses, you know, sort of from Romans explaining things. And this is sort of the key one, it’s in Romans 3:23, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” and then it goes on and just kind of listen as I as I read this to kind of see all the different imagery that comes up here, all the different metaphors. 

“They are now justified by His grace as a gift through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus whom God put forth as a sacrifice of atonement,” we’re going to get back to that word in a second, “by his blood effective through faith. God did this to show God’s own righteousness, because in God’s divine forbearance God has passed over the sins previously committed. It was to prove at the present time that God is just, and God justifies the one who has faith in Jesus.”

 So, you see, you hear all the words coming up the just and the righteousness and all those things. But it also says that God had passed over sins previously, it brings up this term, sacrifice of atonement, and the in the Greek it’s hilastērion, people take that word, and they will translate it as propitiation or expiation, all these huge words that no one ever really knows what they mean when they say them. But it really is just a general term that used to talk about like the atonement seat, the atoning place, right? And it seems that the New Testament writers use it in a general way to kind of talk about the sacrificial system in general. But what we do is when we translate the words and we explain them, we say, “Oh, this is a propitiation. This is an expiation. This is sacrifice of atonement,” but we don’t know what the words mean. We don’t know how the authors were really using them. They’re very vague. And so, this is how it happens, that people who support PSA will pick these verses out and say, see, it says propitiation right here, it says justice right here. But they don’t realize there’s a whole system of metaphors working and a whole Old Testament that’s behind this, right? And they’re just defining the words by how they have heard their pastor define it or whatever.

Jared: Yeah, so there’s a lot of metaphors going on, or at least concepts that are worth digging in. I think we make assumptions about what they mean and we’re kind of importing our traditions, baggage within those definitions. But I have to say this before we move on too much further, which is one of my problems with this theory is it doesn’t solve this old, I think it actually creates another problem for people just even philosophically or conceptually, which is, if we have to say that God has to, because of God’s justice, do something. We’re kind of back to Plato’s, you know, the fancy term is Euthyphro’s Dilemma, right? Where Plato is like, “Okay, well, if the gods have to do something, aren’t the things that God has to do, those are more like gods than the gods.” So, then it kind of puts justice as the thing that God has to abide by. And in a lot of, in my tradition, nothing- God doesn’t have to do anything. We say things like, “Well, God’s ways are above our ways,” right? 

And so, when something looks unjust, it’s not unjust, because God kind of defines what justice is. And yet now, when it comes to like this most important part of our faith, which is like what happens with Jesus’s death and resurrection, now, all of a sudden, God’s hands are tied and God has no choice, but to follow this thing called justice. And just it always irks me a little bit of like, “Okay, well, who’s God here?” So, whenever we can’t explain things, God is the most important thing and our definition of justice has to – just whatever God does is just, but when it comes to like Jesus’s death and resurrection, justice is the most important thing and God’s hands are kind of tied. And we just have to say, “Well, you know, God just had to do this.” It just gets really frustrating to me. So even beyond the biblical text, it’s just, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. 

Jennifer: No, it doesn’t. And it doesn’t actually make sense in the biblical text either. 


Pete: [Laughter]

Jennifer: Like, as you’re reading through and even if you’re looking at the Gospels, and you see sort of the way that Jesus, you know, taught this is not the picture of God that we got, that God’s hands are tied, that God is, you know, waiting for somebody to die so that God can forgive us. You know, when you’re thinking about the Parable of the Prodigal Son, you know, the father forgives the son when he comes back before he even, you know, says anything. And so, we get, it’s a very different picture of God than we get in the Gospels.

Pete: Mm hmm. 

Jared: Does it- I don’t want to go back, maybe, to the Hebrew Bible, but just Paul’s the language here in Romans 3 of passing over sin which seems to have some Passover, you know, references, obviously, and overtones. How do people who advocate for PSA talk about how God was able to forgive sins before Jesus?

Jennifer: Yeah, that’s a good question. I think some of them will sort of use this like retroactive, like after, you know, Jesus’s death God went back and retroactively forgave, but that’s really not a good reading of the Old Testament or a good reading of the Gospels either. So, that’s how they do it and that’s how they define it, I guess.

Jared: Okay. 

Pete: It was always true even before Jesus, but, you know, that sort of takes the shock out of the system in a sense, the way Paul talks about it. Like, “Listen, this marvelous thing has happened. You know, it wasn’t this way before.” 

And I, you know, just, you know, Jennifer, because you brought up Romans 3, I just want to encourage the people who are listening, Romans 3 is a passage worth spending a lot of time studying and not assuming what is happening because there’s a lot of stuff going on there and you know, we’re just touching on some of them here but even words like redemption, you know, redeem is like a rescue word. It’s not a sacrifice an animal by the blood, you know, it’s a different kind of word. And, you know, God did this to show God’s own righteousness. And you know, again, in modern evangelicalism, we’ve talked about the righteousness of God and that is a sort of like an inner character of God, like, you know, a basic part of his constituence, how God has constituted, and we’re not. You know, we’re unrighteous, God is righteous. But righteous there is, it doesn’t mean that. It means, you know, God’s righteousness is God’s act in redeeming humanity. It’s an act of faithfulness. And it’s not like God is the pure, righteous, Sovereign Lord, looking down and thou shalt not gaze on this Lord, because this Lord is perfect, and you’re not. It’s the righteousness of God is what God does. 

Jared: It’s God’s right action. 

Pete: Right. Exactly. Yeah. So yeah, I want to sort of push people a little bit to feel like- to feel the responsibility of studying passages like that. And preferably, maybe even outside of our comfort zones from people who might not normally read, you know, commentary study Bibles, things like that, because it is actually an amazing piece of, you know, theology from Paul, it just doesn’t mean what people typically think it means.

Jared: Well and not to make it even make it even broader, but I always like to point out if you read the first 11 chapters, and how Paul sort of tries to end this conundrum, that he sort of, he works himself into a bit of a knot in trying to figure it out. And at the end, he just ends in this doxology, right? Of like, “Who knows the mysteries of God?” So, it’s like, we just tried to like-

Pete: I’ve just wasted 11 chapters on you good people, I’m sorry.

Jared: It’s like, we think Paul’s like, got it all figured out. And he’s writing this treatise, but even in the larger context of that letter, it sort of ends with like, “You know what? I mean… who can understand the ways of God, really?” So, I just- yeah. Do you have any thoughts on that? I think that’s a good really good point to make.

Jennifer: Yeah, Jared, I think that you got the word right there – mystery, right? Even Paul recognizes this, all of this as a mystery, right? And I think that we have lost that concept of the mystery of not just God, but what God is doing in Jesus. And so, we don’t want mystery. We want to be able to give these concrete words and diagrams and you know, a PowerPoint presentation about it, but we’ve lost the mystery. But if Paul acknowledged it, even as he’s trying to explain it, like how are we to think we don’t have mystery, we don’t need mystery when we think about God. 

Pete: And that’s probably why we have multiple approaches to atonement, even within the pages of New Testament. Okay, we have a couple more to go here. So, let’s try to hit those. The Moral Exemplar or Influence Theory, could you just explain that because that’s, I don’t know if that’s common today or not, but it used to be pretty darn common. 

Jennifer: It’s not that common. It was kind of rejected by the Protestant reformers, and a lot of evangelical Christians today will reject it, but it’s actually as old as Anselm’s Satisfaction Theory. And it actually has found some acceptance among progressive Christians over the years. Right? So, Peter Abelard was the guy who developed this theory in the 12th century. And he’s trying to account for the love of God and for the impact of Jesus’s ministry on the lives of Christians. And so basically, the purpose and result of Christ’s death was to move humans toward moral improvement or right action. So, it denies that Christ died to satisfy any principle of divine justice, and teaches instead that Jesus’s whole life, culminating in his death, was designed to display God’s love and to lead people to repentance, to reconciliation with God, and to transformation.

Jared: So, again, just because we spent a little time on Romans 3, what are – are there any – was Abelard leaning on the Bible in any of this?

Jennifer: Yes. The theme of God demonstrating love in Jesus is sort of ubiquitous in the New Testament, you know? And also imitating Jesus in that Paul talks about it in Philippians, you know, “Imitate me as I imitate Christ,” Jesus in John calls the disciples to love others like he loved them and be willing to lay down their lives. Jesus encourages the disciples in the Synoptic Gospels to take up their cross and follow Him. And so, it’s all throughout the Gospels, but one focal verse is Romans 5:8, “But God demonstrates God’s love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” 

And so, there’s that died for us language, but it reads very differently here, right, than the penal substitution or sacrifice, right? God’s showing us God’s love. It’s a beautiful metaphor and the people who have picked up on it, I think what happens is these are the people that end up really emulating the life of Jesus in their walks of faith.

Pete: You know, there’s one thing you just said that triggered something, I think it’s really important how there’s even language of sacrifice here, right, in Romans in something that probably supports another kind of theory. These things overlap, you know, and just seeing the word sacrifice, you can’t take that and load it full of, let’s say, Penal Substitutionary Atonement. That’s because, again, the mechanism of how the sacrifice does something, that’s not explained very well, frankly, is it? I mean, I don’t think it’s explained. 

Jennifer: No. No.

Pete: That’s why it’s frustrating to me, it’s just, you have these metaphors, you have these ways of thinking that made sense to people back then. And there was a whole background to it. But we’ve lost that and so we sort of inject it with essentially late medieval theology when you have Luther and Calvin and to just – it’s okay to say, I don’t quite understand how this atonement thing works, you know? And I’m going to try to embrace the different voices in the New Testament.

Jared: Well, that seems a whole other podcast of where, again, my tradition more as an evangelical, was that our entire salvation of whether we go to heaven or hell is whether or not we mentally agree to Penal Substitutionary Atonement. That’s what like, we were not allowed the mystery of that, because our like, eternal salvation –

Pete: Yeah, you had to be sure on that.

Jared: Depended on being certain on “the” theory. Which the Bible itself, it complicates that.

Pete: This is how it works, exactly. And you must believe exactly this, how it exactly works. It’s like, you don’t have to read the Bible. I can’t do that.

Jared: You don’t just trust that Jesus does something. 

Pete: Yeah, this is how. 

Jared: You have to believe this is how and that’s how you get saved.

Pete: With your whole heart, right? And if you don’t – ehh. 

Jared: Or part of your heart over several times, right? I asked Jesus into my heart, like eight times.

Jennifer: Right.

[Light laughter]

Jared: I think a little piece took every time, so it took a while. But, well, I think we could just talk so much about this. Yeah, we have so many questions. But let’s get to this Scapegoat Theory. What’s the, what’s the next one? 

Pete: Our last atonement theory for today.

Jennifer: Right. So, this is a newer theory, right? It comes from René Girard and he was a literary critic and an anthropologist and a theologian, like very interdisciplinary. But what he does is he first is analyzing human cultures and their language in their literature. And he proposes that there’s this problem common to all humanity, and he calls it mimetic violence. 

And so, he goes on and talks about how human societies all across the world, deal with this violence that becomes cyclical, by focusing their conflict on a single victim, a scapegoat, and you can see this in all different societies, you can see it in the Old Testament as well. And so, this outsider or marginalized person or animal will bear the burden of blame. And then that violence in society will sort of ease for a little bit. And so, what Girard says when he gets to the New Testament, and he says, “Well, Jesus is this is the last scapegoat, or he’s supposed to be this last scapegoat. Because when he dies, then the Gospel writers tell his story and show, look, he’s innocent, and we human beings, scapegoated him and killed him.” And in that revelation that the Gospels make, it helps us understand our own nature and our own scapegoating tendencies and then that frees us from the cycle of violence. 

And so, you know, in a way, it’s close to the Moral Influence Theory, in that we’re, we’re sort of being freed from ourselves, you know, we’re being saved from ourselves as human beings, we need to follow Jesus, but it’s not that, you know, God needs to be appeased or anything like that, but we need to recognize the violence at the heart of our societies, and then we can move forward and stop the sin.

Pete: So, it also, I think you said this indirectly, but if this is right, I think it’s important for people to hear it. I mean, not to overstate this, but it sort of corrects bad views of God.

Jennifer: Yes, it does. Because-

Pete: Flesh it out a little bit. 

Jennifer: So, what they say is, what Girard says is that this whole idea of divine violence that you know, God needs blood or God needs a sacrifice or God needs to punish Jesus are all those things, all that violence, even throughout the Old Testament is actually our own violence that we’re looking at a mirror and then we’re like, projecting that violence onto God. 

Pete: Mm hmm. 

Jennifer: And so, this is where a lot of people can’t swallow this theory. They don’t like that idea that we’ve projected our violence onto God, but there are lots of people now who are exploring more nonviolent atonement theologies here and I think it’s really intriguing, I think it’s something that we need to consider. So few people know about Girard or read about him. But it does, it does make sense, right?

Pete: Yeah. And I mean he was an anthropologist, right?

Jennifer: He was, yeah.

Pete: It was part of what he did, and, you know, again this is not the word that’s going to help everybody, but looking at the evolution of religion, blood has been there from a very early time, long before the Israelites ever came on the scene and it’s almost as if – how else could the ancient Israelites have expressed a devotion to their God apart from a sacrificial blood oriented system and I think Girard is complicated and you know a lot more about him than I do, but he’s French, whatever. He’s a smart guy and won all these awards, but in the cross, it’s like God saying, “That’s it. We’re done with this now. We’re done with scapegoating. We’re done with putting your scapegoating on me.” Even though the Old Testament might do this occasionally and maybe the New Testament too, I don’t know, but it’s sort of a break with – it’s a dramatic theory, you know? At least as I understand it, it’s a break with the way humans have always done it, you know? And that’s why I find it very liberating even if I don’t quite understand it, but that’s my sabbatical project, trying to read Girard.

Jennifer: I feel like, yeah, I mean it would help us so much if we could just pick up Girard and easily read him. He’s not easy to read, but just like the Moral Influence Theory, I mean what happens is that you see change in people, you know? And I think what is really negative about PSA is that people say, “Okay, God did all the work. All I have to do is believe,” and the change, the transformation, the long cycle of reconciliation to God just isn’t there, you know? 

Pete: Yeah, yeah. Right.

Jennifer: And so, this is the strength of Scapegoat Theory and Moral Influence Theory, that we are participating in this. It’s not something that happens off the stage of history and “Oh, I don’t have to do anything about it now.” But we’re in it.

Pete: We’re in it. Right. Exactly. And, you know, one thing is that how, even the way that I described my own take on it, you have to- to work with that you have to think about the Bible differently and the revelation of God in history in the Hebrew Scriptures differently than what I think an evangelical system would be comfortable with, and I disagree with them, but I understand that problem because if, you know, Israel just does what Israel does and understands God because of its being a tribal culture rather than this is God ordaining from Mount Sinai you will sacrifice here and here and this is what I need, it just creates certain problems for people. But, you know, in the sense the root of that problem again is what is the Bible and what do you do with it, which is what we talk about here a lot. It really – we keep circling back to that question of what we expect the Bible to be doing and looking at it anthropologically, can, I think, very often be a healthy corrective to sort of a rule book reading of it and saying this is just what it says, we can’t interrogate it or question it or anything like that.

Jennifer: Absolutely.

Jared: Yeah, so as we wrap up our time here, maybe just a few words from you about, you know, we talked about all these different theories and I know some people want the answer which is like –

Pete: Yeah, which actually happened?!

Jared: What’s the right one here?

Pete: You’ve got ten seconds, go ahead.

Jared: So, to those people, like how would you kind of wrap up, in all your studies, how have you come to land on some of this stuff?

Jennifer: So, I really like what New Testament scholar Joel B. Green suggests, and other scholars do as well, but there’s not just one theory that can capture what he calls the Kaleidoscopic Picture of Atonement that we get in the biblical witness. So, we can’t just throw these out there and say which one do you like best? You pick. You know? It’s much better to think of it as a kaleidoscope. There are lots of different metaphors and images and so we need to take these atonement theories, try to understand them, but realize there is mystery and there’s also lots of things happening, lots of things going on. Like, if I were to describe it like a tree, there are all these different branches that come out that are atonement theories, right, in different contexts, Anselm is speaking to his context and Calvin and Luther are speaking to their context, and we’re still in a different context than those, so there are still more branches coming out of this tree and so we need to look at it as a whole. The thing that bothers me is that, at one point, we have to say are there some diseased branches that need to be cut out? The ones that do not illuminate the idea of salvation in the biblical witness, but they actually distort it and the fruit of them is actually rotten. I’ve really been thinking and studying and wondering if PSA isn’t one of those diseased branches. There are lot of theologians that try and still incorporate it into their multi-layered ideas of atonement, but I don’t know.

Pete: Yeah, sometimes intentions may be too unbearable to hold them all together.

Jared: Mm hmm. Well, and sometimes, like you said, it may not even be necessary, in theory or the concept of the theory, but just how it’s borne out in the world. It maybe does more harm than good sometimes, and so it may not be salvageable language to hold onto.

Jennifer: That’s right. I mean, it would be hard to cut that off because so much of our language, so much of our music, the hymnology that we have in the church revolves around PSA, but there’s got to be a way to explain it better so it doesn’t lead us away from Jesus and Scripture but leads us toward that.

Jared: Excellent. Well, Jennifer, thank you so much for walking us through, which I think can be a really complicated and personal topic around atonement theories and Jesus and all that, so just thank you so much for walking us through that in such a smart and helpful way.

Jennifer: No problem. Thank you.

Pete: Thank you.

Jared: Alright, well, we’ll talk to you again soon and you’ll be popping up here and again, you’re a friend of the podcast, you’ve done a course for us in the past and all that good stuff, so we look forward to hearing more from you in the future.

Jennifer: Thanks so much.

Jared: See you later!

[Outro music plays]

Jared: Well, thanks to everyone who supports the show. If you want to support what we do, there are three ways you can do it. One, if you just want to give a little money, go to

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Outro: You’ve just made it through another episode of the Bible for Normal People! Don’t forget you can catch our other show, Faith for Normal People, in the same feed wherever you get your podcasts. This episode was brought to you by the Bible for Normal People team: Brittany Hodge, Stephen Henning, Wesley Duckworth, Savannah Locke, Tessa Stultz, Danny Wong, Natalie Weyand, Lauren O’Connell, Jessica Shao, and Naiomi Gonzalez.

[Outro music ends]
Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.