It seems to me that many Christians today place too much of an emphasis on substitutionary atonement, while at the same time not allowing other scriptural metaphors inform their theology of the significance of Christ’s incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and ascension. Furthermore, there seems to be good scholarship that would point to the fact that even our common notions of substitutionary atonement are misconceived. Daniel Bell connects this common misconception as a misreading of Anselm theology of atonement.
“According to the standard reading [of Anselm],… in the face of human sin, which is an offense against God’s honor, God, as one who must uphold justice, cannot simply forgive sin but must enforce a strict rendering of what is due. Because sinful humanity cannot fulfill its debt, the God-man, Christ, steps forward and fulfills justice, renders what is due, through his substitutionary death on the cross. In this way, redemption is a result of the payment of a debt incurred through sin by means of a compensatory death that satisfies divine justice.”
However, Bell goes on to argue that this is a misreading on two accounts. Not only is it a misreading of Anselm’s articulation of atonement, but it is also (by virtue of that fact) inconstant with the theology present in scripture. As he states,
“[This undertanding] errs by reading Anselm, and thus Christ’s atonement, through the juridical lens of late medieval and early modern theology. As a result, Christ’s atoning work is displaced from its proper setting, which is the ecclesial penitential order understood as a means of grace, an order that transformed or redeemed justice as suum cuique by subsuming it in the divine order of charity. Instead, the atonement is interpreted in an alien legal context governed by a logic of debt, equity, and retribution that leaves the classical conception unredeemed, instead separating justice and mercy, thereby preventing justice from being formed by charity. Hence, making proper sense of Jesus as the justice of God entails recovering the atonement in its correct setting, the divine order of charity…
“When read in its proper context, Anselm’s account of the atonement reveals that Jesus’ death on the cross was not a matter of juridical reckoning and the strict exacting of what was due sin but rather was first and foremost a matter of ontological union, of the taking up of humanity into the communion of love that is the life of the blessed Trinity (theosis, deification)” (“Discerning: Justice and Liberation,” by Daniel M. Bell, in The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics, edited by Stanley Hauerwas and Samuel Wells.)
This is also consistent with how Old Testament scholars are saying the significance of sacrifice is in the Old Testament. The function of sacrifice for the Israelites was not for life to be taken in order for sin to be forgiven, as explained in Walter Brueggemann’s, A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament:
“The gracious role of God throughout makes the phrase means of grace applicable to what happens in the sacrifices. These are tangible means through which God acts in a saving way on behalf of the faithful worshiper; sacrifices are sacramentally conceived. We are stuck with the word sacrifice, however, because it literally describes aspects of the ritual.
“The expiatory aspect of the sacrifices needs further attention. The object of the verb kipper (“expiate, make atonement”) is sin; it is never God. The action effects forgiveness of sin, not divine appeasement. Leviticus 17:11 states: “For the life of the flesh is in the blood: and I have given it to you for making atonement for your lives on the altar; for, as life, it is the blood that makes atonement.” The blood as blood is not expiatory, but the fact that it bears life, and God himself provides this element in the sacrifice. Again, the God-centeredness of the rite becomes apparent. The offers are the bearers of a gift from God. Yet, what the offerers bring is not inconsequential.
“While it is apparently preferred, it is not necessary for life to be taken for expiation to occur (see Lev 5:11-12), nor is any import given to the act of killing. Hence, by definition, expiation does not involve a penalty. The focus is on the rite as a saving event. Moreover, the language of substitution is not explicitly used in these texts; the animal is not a substitute for the bringer of the offering. (The goat in the Day of Atonement ritual in Lev 16 is not understood in substitutionary terms; it is a symbolic vehicle for dispatching Israel’s sins into the depths of the wilderness.)
“…Thus, in the offering the worshipers submit themselves to God. The sacrifice is thus a tangible sign of faith, a concrete way in which one offers the self to God; no theory of how the worshiper is related to the animal is involved.”
“Thus it should come as no surprise that, elsewhere in the OT, sacrifices are not considered necessary for forgiveness (as with the Lord’s Supper). Repentance and trust in God are sufficient. This is sharply stated in Psalm 51:17; a “broken and contrite heart” is the crucial human element. In II Samuel 12:13, Nathan pronounces absolution upon David following repentance of his sin with Uriah and Bathsheba, wit no accompanying sacrifice.” (Brueggemann 160).
Furthermore, out of all of the articulations of the significance of Christ’s life in the New Testament, the metaphor of atonement is used only four times. Never is Christ’s life or death associated with atonement in any of the Gospels. In fact, the only sacrifices that are associated with Christ’s death in the Gospels are the Passover sacrifice, and the covenantal sacrifice – neither of which is the death of the animal understood as the salvific element. The Passover sacrifice is particularly important because it had been celebrated for nearly two thousand years before Christ was associated with it. Every time the Israelites celebrated Passover, the sacrifice was no longer associated with the death angel “passing over” but rather an act of remembrance and celebration. What was at stake in the celebration of Passover was not that they would loose their lives if they did not kill the lamb, but rather they would loose their memory of God's deliverance. Not only was Passover a way to nurture the memory and awareness of God's deliverance, but also a way to rededicate their lives to God. Attempting to read Christ's death solely in terms of atonement sacrifice is to overlook considerably all of the other nuances that other NT texts bring.
The significance of all of this is not merely to have a better understanding of Christ’s incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and ascension, but that with a better awareness of God’s grace and love we might more faithfully live and proclaim the inbreaking kingdom of God. As Scot McKnight articulates in his book, A Community Called Atonement, “atonemtent is only understood when it is understood as the restoration of humans – in all directions – so that they form a society (the ecclesia, the church) wherein God’s will is lived out and given freedom to transform all of life. Any theory of atonement that is not an ecclesial theory of atonement is inadequate” (p. 9).