Dive Deep into the Atonement


James Beilby and Paul R. Eddy [Editors]. 2006. The Nature of the Atonement: Four Views. Downers Grove: IVP Academic.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Renewed interest in the atonement of Christ arises today partly because it has become so common to meet “atonement deniers” in the church today. Atonement deniers refuse to talk about sin believing that we are basically good and have no need for Christ’s death on the cross to mitigate that sin. Already in 1937, Richard Niebuhr observed this problem:

“A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministration of a Christ without a cross.” 

No cross, no resurrection. Jesus cannot have been divine and his claim on our lives is merely nice to know. Christmas morphs from the birth of Christ into winter solstice; Lent morphs from a season of reflection on sin into a season of self-help followed by spring break. So exactly what was the work of Christ if not to die for our sins, as reported throughout the New Testament? (e.g. 1 Cor 15:3) Was the atonement “cosmic child abuse,” as some feminists have alleged? (10)


The authors of The Nature of the Atonement: Four Views work to explain the atonement rather than to justify it. The four views are:

Christus Victor view (Gregory A Boyd)

Penal Substitution view (Thomas R. Scheiner)

Healing view (Bruce R. Reichenbach) and

Kaleidoscopic view (Joel B. Green).

Each of the views has its champion who describes the view and rebuts alternative views in the style of statement and response drawn from philosophy. The first three of these views argue that they have priority over the others, while the fourth argues against any such priority (21).

The editors, James Beilby and Paul R. Eddy, teach theology at Bethel University in St. Paul, Minnesota and write the introduction. They define atonement as a uniquely English theological term meaning: “a reconciled state of ‘at-one-ness’ between parties formerly alienated in some manner.” (9)

Christus Victor View

The Christus Victor view asserts that spiritual warfare is the common thread running through scripture. In Jesus Christ, God broke into history to destroy the power of Satan that has kept us in bondage to sin and restored humanity into their rightful position of guardians of the earth (27-29). In this context, sin is both an individual behavior and a communal problem, which suggests why the power of sin cannot be broken without divine intervention. If evil is embedded in folkways and cultural institutions, then individual choices cannot bring full forgiveness, restauration, and healing.

This view has priority over the others because it ties together all strands of scripture and the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. All aspects of Jesus’ life and ministry work together to break the powers of the destructive systems and evil forces of Satan. Once Satan is defeated, the kingdom of God is established once again on earth (39-40). This is why the Christus Victor view has been the dominant view throughout the history of the church (46).

While some ask how a loving God could not just forgive us all. The response is that God could, but Satan, the accuser, would not allow it. This is why Satan must first be overthrown in order for God to allow forgiveness through Jesus Christ (103).

 Penal Substitution View

Penal Substitution view starts with an observation:

 “Our fundamental problem as human beings is not that outside powers victimize us. The root problem is that we ourselves are radically evil and we are wrongly related to God himself.” (68)

This view has priority among evangelicals today because the root cause of the problem is not that Satan has enslaved us, but the we ourselves are flawed—bad seed. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23 ESV). This view is accordingly easier for modern people to accept, in part, because they want to be in control, as with original sin. Still, you do not need to believe in God to understand that even Mayberry[1] has a problem.

Healing View

The Healing view begins with the idea that salvation is effectively the healing of the sickness brought about by sin—the wages of sin are death (Rom 6:23). We read:

“Both Isaiah 53 and Romans 8:3 make a symbolic connection of Christ’s atonement with Israel’s national atonement ritual (Lev 16). The sacrifice had two steps. One was the slaughter of animals for the sin offering; the other was the release of the sin-laden goat into the wilderness. The first brings atonement through suffering and death; the blood symbolically purifies the community, consecrating it from its state of uncleanness. The second symbolically bears the sins of the community away from the community.” (136)

Of course, Jesus in his healing ministry often started by telling those being healed that their sins had been forgiven. We read:

 “Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, Your sins are forgiven, or to say, Rise, take up your bed and walk? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”– he said to the paralytic—I say to you, rise, pick up your bed, and go home.” (Mark. 2:9-11 ESV)

The priority of healing is hinted at by the etymology of the word, salvation, which in the Greek is associated with medicine (152).

Kaleidoscopic View

The Kaleidoscopic view begins by asking why we assume that Jesus’ life, ministry, death, and resurrection should have only a single meaning. If his life touched on many social, political, and religious currents, then the meaning of his death must also have a more nuanced meaning (163). This is perhaps why the confessions of the church do not highlight only one meaning of the atonement.


The authors of The Nature of the Atonement: Four Views parse four views of the atonement: the Christus Victor view, the Penal Substitution view, the Healing, and the Kaleidoscopic view. Each view is presented and contrasted with the other views. I learned a great deal from this discussion; perhaps, you will too.


Richard Niebuhr. 1937.The Kingdom of God in America. New York: Harper Torchbooks.


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mayberry.

Dive Deep into the Atonement

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Mercy as a Path to Salvation

Life_in_Tension_web“Go and learn what this means, I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.
For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matt. 9:13 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

It is no accident that we feel the tension with God over the question of mercy. We do not want to admit to our sins (or our need for forgiveness) because we spend most of our lives trying to hide our sin from other people. We deny our sin from morning to night. And it is painful, in turn, showing mercy to other people —we would much rather have them fulfill their promises and pay their debts.

Our problem with mercy is that it requires action.  We would rather talk about love because it is a squishy sort of emotion.  Easy on the action; easy to redefine; easily to confuse with.  We are always in compliance with a law of love, at least in our own minds.  Mercy requires concrete action.  Billy Graham wrote:  “What are some of the areas in today’s world toward which we can show mercy? First: We can show mercy by caring for the social needs of our fellow men…Second: We can show mercy by doing away with our prejudices…Third: We can show mercy by sharing the gospel of Christ with others.” (Graham 1955, 61-65).  Concrete. Doable. Undeniable.  Highly personal.

God’s priority is showing mercy. Jesus cites the Prophet Hosea twice [1] in Matthew after citing the beatitude:

“For I desire steadfast love [2] and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” (Hosea 6:6 ESV)

The heart of paganism in the church lies in trying to bribe God with sacrifices other than the sacrifice of our own hearts.  We prefer to bribe God with sacrifices (”burnt offerings”) than own up to our own sin.   Arguing that we are basically good (denying original sin), in effect, denies Christ’s atoning sacrifice on the cross.  That is to say, we don’t need Christ’s mercy and, as a codicil, we do not need to practice mercy with those around us. The echo of Cain’s question still haunts us: “am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gen. 4:9 ESV)

It is interesting that in the Gospel of Luke, the double love command (love God; love neighbor; Matthew 22:36-40) is cited, not by Jesus, but by a lawyer (Luke 10:25-28) who then proceeds to narrow the definition of neighbor [3]. He asks Jesus: “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29 ESV) Jesus responds by telling the story of the Good Samaritan. At the end, Jesus pulls a Jedi mind trick asking: “Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” (Luke 10:36 ESV) Notice how Jesus substitutes the question—”who proved to be a neighbor” for the question—”who is my neighbor”. Jesus turns a direct object (neighbor) into a verb (to be a neighbor). To this question, the lawyer responds: “The one who showed him mercy.” (Luke 10:37 ESV)

Notice how in the story of the Good Samaritan we started out talking about love, but ended up talking about mercy? God’s identity—

“The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exod. 34:6 ESV)

—includes both mercy and love, but mercy comes first. Jesus’ brother James makes a similar observation saying:

“For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.” (James 2:13 ESV)

Judgment requires truth (אֱמֶֽת) which in Exodus 34:6 is translated also as faithfulness. Mercy also comes before truth and judgment. Interestingly, James has in the citation above restated Jesus’ beatitude in the negative—essentially it is now in the form of a curse—it is a curse to be judged without mercy.

The link of mercy and judgment necessarily brings us back to the atoning work of Christ. The Apostle Peter clearly linked these two ideas when he wrote:

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.” (1 Peter 1:3-5 ESV)

It is the mercy of God to provide us a path of salvation to Himself.

[1] Matthew 9:13 and 12:7.

[2] There is tension in the Greek and Hebrew texts on this word. The Greek reads mercy (ἔλεος) and the Hebrew reads love (חֶ֥סֶד).  The citations in Matthew 9:13 and 12:7 go with the Greek.  The translation of Hosea 6:6 in the English Standard Version (ESV) goes with the Hebrew.

[3] Today, the lawyer would not only try to narrow the definition of neighbor, he would narrow the definition of love.


Graham, Billy. 1955. The Secret of Happiness. Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, Inc.

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Ritchie Peers into the Heart of Darkness

Ritchie_06282014Mark Andrew Richie [1]. 2000. Spirit of the Rainforest: A Yanomanö Shaman’s Story. Chicago: Island Lake Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

When I was elementary school, the curriculum emphasized repetition. If one paid attention and got it the first time, then boredom was the big challenge. At first, I spent the extra time acting out in class, but I later learned to keep a pile of library books in my desk and simply read during repetitious lessons. To keep the pilot light running in seminary, I read books from the recommended reading lists or recommended by trusted friends in Christ.  Mark Richie’s Spirit of the Rainforest was one such book.

Understanding why this book is interesting requires a bit of background.  In the early modern era, humanists questioned the divinity of Christ and especially the doctrine of the atonement.  The atonement suggested that Christ died for our sins (1 Corinthians 15:3-6) and it implied that humans were inherently sinful (Genesis 3:6).  By contrast, the humanists believed that humanity was basically good (and was not in need of Christ’s atonement or absolute moral standards) and they sought to build a utopia without God. In this context, the idea of a noble savage arose—primitive human beings untainted by civilization who were inherently good, not evil [2].

Enter Jungleman, a Shaman [3] living among the Yanomanö people of the Amazon rainforests of Columbia who was untouched by the corrupted influence of civilization.  Spirit of the Rainforest is the narrative of his life told from his perspective (8).  Richie writes in his introduction:

The Yanomamö are one of the world’s most mysterious peoples.  Small, rarely over five feet tall, they have the speed, strength, and agility of a jungle cat.  Their woman can tote their own weight up and down a jungle trail that would challenge me even if I were empty handed.  Their men can call, track, and shoot anything that breathes in a jungle that is hostile enough to kill anyone but a trained survivalist (7).

As a young warrior, Jungleman invited demons from the spirit world into his heart and mind.  These demons offer him knowledge of far off events and strength in defeating his enemies. Jungleman knows these demons by animal names, such as Jaguar Spirit, Monkey Spirit, and so on.  For example, Ritchie writes about Jaguar Spirit, the dominant, warrior or hunting spirit:

“Don’t go in here.” [Referring to a Christian village] Jaguar Spirit told me.  “There’s too much danger here. We are afraid.” It was the first time I had ever heard fear coming from Jaguar Spirit, and it made me feel poor inside. My hands began to flutter and I held my bow tight to make them stop. (97)

But these spirits cannot be trusted and will abandon and turn on a Shaman when he shows weakness (like not following their advice to kill someone—especially children in a competing village) or for growing old.

Much of the violence among Yanomanö people historically arose in fights over women.  The Yanomanö traditionally practiced polygamy and raided other villages to procure young women.  Such raids were not easily forgotten because people would be killed and families broken up.  Consequently, longstanding blood vendettas existed among neighboring villages.

Jungleman eventually comes to know Christ.  His spirits abandoned him.  In turn, he abandoned his warrior ways and becomes an advocate for the right of Yanomanö women to marry men of their own choosing.

Those who want to believe the noble savage myth (or to disbelieve the existence of the spiritual world) will be disappointed with Ritchie’s Spirit of the Rainforest.  Critics question Ritchie’s claim that he simply wrote down what he was told (8).  I was not disappointed and found his accounts credible, in part, because his accounts of Yanomanö life are consistent with accounts of other native cultures.  For example, the purpose of head-hunting in pre-modern Taiwan was:

To gain a head, as noted earlier, was to qualify a young man to gain the young woman he wished to marry.  Revenge for the death of a loved one was also the occasion to take an enemy head [4].

There is also striking consistency in the influence of a Monkey Spirit (a spirit of lust acted out indiscriminately) in jungle culture and our own.

Ritchie’s Spirit of the Rainforest is a page turner and a great book to take along to the beach—reality is so much more interesting than fantasy.  As a narrative, this book lends itself to becoming a good screen play [5].


[1] http://markritchie.me/spirit-of-the-rainforest.

[2] The film, The Wild Child (1970) by Francois Truffaut chronicles the story of an abandoned child in 1798 who lived in the woods alone.  When he was discovered, he could not speak and was suspicious of other people.  A French scientist takes him in attempting to educate him and to learn from him as a potential validation of the noble savage hypothesis (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Wild_Child).

[3] A shaman is a term that replaced the politically incorrect term, witch doctor.

[4] Ralph Covell. 1998.  Pentecost of the Hills in Taiwan. Pasadena:  Hope Publishing House. Page 26.

[5] Another film about Amazon tribal life is:  End of a Spear (2006; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JeEF_3J0ZY0).  This film re-enacts the story of Mincayani, Waodani warrior, who leads the raid that kills Steve Saint’s father and four other missionaries in 1956.


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1 Corinthians 15: Resurrection Changes Everything

RPC_tomb_03092014bBy Stephen W. Hiemstra

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.  Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. (1 Corinthians 15:3-6 ESV)

The Apostle Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth reaches its climax in chapter 15.  The first two verses of the chapter build up to a short confession recounting the story of Jesus (vv 3-6).  Scholars believe that this is one of the earliest confessions of the church. Several points are striking about this confession, including:

  • The confession refers to Jesus of Nazareth as Christ.  Modern critics often assert that titles such as Messiah or Son of God are confessions of the latter church.  Here it is immediately confessed by the early church within a couple years of the crucifixion.
  • The use of Cephas to refer to Peter hints at the ancient nature of this confession.  Cephas is Aramaic; Peter is a Greek translation.  Because the entire New Testament (NT) is written in Greek, Aramaic shows up in the NT mostly in quotations where authenticity is important.  Paul uses Cephas 8 times; the Apostle John is the only other NT author to use Cephas. John wrote:  John brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him and said, “You are Simon the son of John. You shall be called Cephas” (which means Peter). (John 1:42 ESV)  By contrast, Peter is used 100 times in the NT.
  • Paul uses the word, scripture(s), 14 times in his letters.  The NT uses it 51 times.  This confession is the only place in his letter to the Corinthians where he uses the word, scripture(s).  Apparently, the early church felt that it was important to tie the Jesus story to Old Testament scripture.
  • This confession links the cross to forgiveness of sin.  This is called the doctrine of the atonement.  Some theologians have recently questioned the doctrine of the atonement because the existence of sin implies an absolute moral standard.  Yet, the confession makes it clear—Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures (v 3).
  • The confession makes it clear that Jesus’ resurrection was witnessed by large numbers of people, not just the disciples. While a small group might have made up a resurrection story (or have been delusional), a large public crowd could not (v 6).  Paul’s account accordingly throws cold water on many modern theories disputing the resurrection.

Because Paul’s letter was widely circulated and there were many eye-witnesses to what he wrote about, clearly this confession was a keystone of the early church.

The resurrection was also the key doctrine that Paul taught.  He writes: …if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished (vv 17-18).  In other words, without the resurrection there is no salvation from sin, no victory over death, and no eternal life.  There have been many martyred saints, but only one resurrection.  We remember Jesus.

The resurrection speaks of the power of God and the divinity of Jesus Christ. Because Christ is divine, then scripture as understood by the traditional teaching of church provides a reliable rule for life.

Resurrection changes everything.  This is why it is called the Good News.


  1. How was your week? Did something in particular?
  2. What questions or thoughts do you have about 1 Corinthians 14?
  3. What phases of belief does Paul outline? (vv 1-2)
  4. What is the basic framework of the Gospel according to Paul? (vv 3-8)
  5. Where did this Gospel come from? (v 3)
  6. Why did Christ die? (v 3)
  7. How do we know? (v 3)
  8. Who is Cephas? Why is this name important? (v 5)
  9. Why is important to mention that Jesus appeared to 500 people at once? (v 6)
  10. Why was important that Jesus appeared to James? (John 7:5; v 7)
  11. What does it mean to be untimely born? (v 8)
  12. What does Paul feel unworthy to be an apostle? (v 9)
  13. What sign of God’s grace does Paul mention? (v 10)
  14. What are the points in Paul’s argument about resurrection? (vv 12-14,15-17)
  15. What is the punch line? (v 14)
  16. If there is no resurrection, what 5 consequences follow? (vv 17-19,29,32)
  17. What is a first-fruit?(Exodus 23:16; Deuteronomy 18:4; Psalm 78:51)
  18. What is Paul’s argument about first-fruit? ( vv 20-21)
  19. What special relationship does Christ share with Adam? (vv 21-22)
  20. What allusion is Paul making about powers and authorities? (Psalm 110:1; vv 24-28)
  21. What is a triumphal victory parade? (2 Corinthians 2:14; Colossians 2:15)
  22. What does Paul compare resurrection to? (vv 36-38)
  23. What does Paul mean by different kinds of flesh? (vv 39-41)
  24. What is the transformation in resurrection according to Paul? (vv 42-53)

What is Paul’s conclusion? (vv 54-58)

1 Corinthians 15: Resurrection Changes Everything

First Corinthians 16

First Corinthians 14

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