The Substitutionary Doctrine of the Atonement


Question & Answer

Andrea from Atlanta, GA writes:


How does the death of Jesus 2000 years ago save me? What is the substitutionary doctrine of the atonement?

Answer: By Cassandra Farrin

Cassandra Farrin
Dear Andrea,

Thanks for this challenging question! The standard definition of substitutionary atonement is that Jesus, as God’s son, fully human and fully divine, took the sin and corruption permeating the world upon himself and was sacrificed on the cross like a lamb on the altar. He did this as a radical act of divine intervention to rescue the world from darkness.

If you go hunting in the Bible for the explanation I just gave, you won’t really find it there. It is an amalgamation of many different statements and stories from the sacred texts of the Christian and Jewish traditions. Actually one of the best places to read and thoroughly understand the Christian concept of substitutionary atonement, ironically, is John Bunyan’s 17th-century work Pilgrim’s Progress, or the children’s version, Dangerous Journey, as abridged by Oliver Hunkin in 1985. A man named Christian embarks on a journey to remove a terrible burden, which only leaves him after the following encounter as recounted in Dangerous Journey:

.………At the foot of a hill, he passed an open tomb. Then up again,
……….upon a little knoll, he found himself beneath a wayside cross.
……….And as its shadow fell across him, so suddenly the burden,
……….slipping from his shoulders, fell from off his back. It tumbled
……….down the hill, it tumbled into the mouth of the tomb. It was
……….never seen again.

The vision continues from there, but it’s important to see that this idea of atonement is not due to the work of the person but is envisioned as a gift freely given to those who seek it. All Christian had to do was set out on his journey, and once he did, the relief from his burden came almost as a surprise—an unforeseen event. Christian’s journey is not even close to finished at this point in the narrative, as he still has to make his way to the heavenly city without returning to the old life with the old burdens (sin), but it is clear that the moment of freedom was not the result of his own actions.

When I was a teenager attending a Pentecostal church, one of our youth ministers created a vivid “choose your own adventure” game based on this and the works of C. S. Lewis to help instill the message in our young minds. Do I believe in this anymore? Well, no. I hate that it requires God to be so rigid and punishing, an old-world being that demands an old-world sacrifice in blood. Also, I think it fundamentally misunderstands corruption. Decay is a natural element of creation. Decay is an underpinning of life. We literally are born out of the destruction of what came before us, carrying with us the energy of the past lives of other entities, both living and nonliving. I think our biggest mistake (like the Apostle Paul) is in collapsing moral corruption with physicalcorruption. That’s a necessary assumption of atonement theology, and I can’t go along with it.

What I do believe and will carry forward from this childhood belief I held, is that we can find relief from our burdens in this life. We do not have to cling to and carry our vices and our failures as burdens with us into every new relationship and situation. We can carry them in other ways, such as a commitment to do better next time, but we don’t have to remain shackled. And sometimes, amazingly and wonderfully, we are unshackled by free acts of love done on our behalf by others. If we can be that person for someone else, too, we should.

~ Cassandra Farrin

This Q&A was originally published on Progressing Spirit – As a member of this online community, you’ll receive insightful weekly essays, access to all of the essay archives (including all of Bishop John Shelby Spong), and answers to your questions in our free weekly Q&A. Click here to see free sample essays.

About the Author

Cassandra Farrin is the marketing director of the Westar Institute and the editor of Polebridge Press. Her poetic retelling of the Nag Hammadi text On the Origin of the World is forthcoming in Gender Violence, Rape Culture, and Religion (Palgrave Macmillan). A US-UK Fulbright Scholar with more than ten years’ experience with cross-cultural and interfaith engagement, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University.

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