Jesus Doesn't Save

It seems like the news has been stuck on repeat lately. Every few months, we hear about another mass shooting, another sexual harassment lawsuit, another unarmed black man shot to death by a police officer. Any Christian would find it hard to disagree that our world is in need of Jesus.

But in what way? Most Christians confess that "Jesus saves", but few realize this means different things in different types of churches. In fact, there are at least three main theories of atonement (the "how" Jesus saves). And each one will have a significant influence over how you live and interact with the evil in the world.

Three Theories of Atonement

For most Protestant and Catholic Christians, atonement means Jesus paid our debt. This is known as the satisfaction theory. Our sin offended God, so Jesus satisfied him on our behalf. Catholics, in particular, will say that Jesus paid the price for our sins, whereas many Protestants will say he paid the penalty for our sins (this is a sub-theory called penal substitution).

Eastern Orthodox Christians, on the other hand, often hold multiple theories simultaneously. You might hear them say that Jesus paid our ransom while adding that the payment is figurative. The former, known as the ransom theory, suggests that Jesus paid off the devil (or sin or death in other variations). The latter argues that Jesus simply demonstrated how to live (moral influence theory).

At the heart of every atonement theory is reconciliation between God and people. Thus, each theory should encourage its adherents to live in such a way that pleases him. While Jesus paid the eternal price for their sins, Catholics pay the temporal price for their sins through penance. Conversely, Orthodox Christians make no payments but pursue union with God (theosis) by living as Jesus did.

Mainline Protestants will fall into one of the aforementioned categories, but evangelical Protestants are another story. They often struggle to find any reason to be better people at all because most of them subscribe to the penal substitution theory.

Penal substitution doesn't talk about penance or theosis; it talks about a paid penalty. Past tense. All of the other atonement theories include us in the process in some way, however small, but this one puts the onus entirely on God. He paid a debt he didn't owe because we owed a debt we couldn't pay. It's somewhat comforting until you realize he was literally just paying himself.

Despite their lopsided view of atonement, evangelicals still try to coerce life change. For example, Arminians make you question whether you lost your salvation while Calvinists make you question whether you ever had it. But at the end of the day, penal substitution can't inspire us to live better because it makes atonement all about us.

Atonement Involves the Whole World

While the satisfaction theory had its beginnings with Anselm in the 11th century, penal substitution didn't take off until the Reformation centuries later. Martin Luther's mantra, sola fide ("by faith alone"), soon became the springboard for an individualistic perversion of Christianity that stripped our external obligations from atonement.

The only concern evangelicalism has for others is conversion. Otherwise, even Sunday School lessons will teach you that our vertical relationship comes first (between us and God) and our horizontal relationship comes second (between us and others). Atonement, then, addresses the evil in you, not in the rest of the world. And your only obligations are found in the self-help section of Barnes and Noble.

Never mind those mass shootings and sexual abuse scandals. All of that was paid for by Jesus. Let me rephrase that: all of the evil in the world today was "paid for" by a guy who died centuries ago. It wasn't paid through the blood of 59 people in Las Vegas and it wasn't paid through the tears of Pat Baranowski. All of that evil is now magically copacetic because God said so.

No wonder atheists think Christians are dumb.

Imagine a father who abuses his children suddenly declares his evil and its effects are over. The scars on those little minds and bodies would beg to differ. The children paid the price for their father's evil, and sadly, one of them will likely perpetuate the father's evil onto others.

Evil didn't disappear when Jesus died. It's not some abstract force that can be retconned by George Lucas. Nor is atonement the one-and-done solution for a guilty lifestyle. Atonement is about reconciling us and God, which means atonement must be about addressing the thing for which we need reconciling: evil.

Evangelicals, however, do nothing about the evil in the world. They'll claim that conversion will make the world a better place (or dismiss this world as going to hell anyway), but they're more concerned about their own status before God than they are about the well-being of others.

To the contrary, Jesus' ministry focused on the well-being of others. And though the law sounds barbaric to our ears at times, it was undeniably progressive for the ancient world. Indeed, it's difficult to reconcile penal substitution's myopic plan for redemption with the entire testimony of Scripture's unparalleled concern for the victims of evil.

Sure, we could pretend that God invented a conflict in our relationship with him that only he could solve expecting our eternal gratitude in return (some would call this manipulation). Or we could embrace the fact that evil doesn't stop until someone absorbs it.

Atonement Comes by Absorbing Evil

Psychologists often talk about breaking the cycle of abuse. And abusers tend to be people who were also abused, so breaking the cycle means absorbing the abuse--the evil from another--and not passing it on. It's incredibly hard to do, but evil has to go somewhere.

An abuser doesn't merely think about abuse. An abuser abuses another person. Ergo, evil must have an object. And the object of evil pays the price. It should stop there, but evil begets evil and the victim of evil soon desires to exact payment from others.

The story of Adam and Eve teaches us how easy a single act of evil can spread. Adam could have absorbed it and broken the cycle before it started, but he shifted the blame to Eve who in turn shifted the blame to the serpent. The only way to stop the spread of evil is to absorb it.

With over seven billion people today, absorbing all the evil in the world gets complicated. If people only absorbed the evil directed at them, then everyone would have to be doing this. Since they're not, that means some people will have to absorb the evil of others as well. Let's call them Christians.

Jesus didn't call us to take up our crosses and follow him because he valued asceticism. He said that losing our lives was better than saving them. He said that there was no greater love than sacrifice. He said that we shouldn't resist an evil person. And he said that we would do greater things than he did. I believe those greater things refer to extending his work of redemption to the whole world.

In the first century, that meant the disciples risked their lives to bring the gospel to the Gentiles. Today it might mean risking our lives in other ways. Imagine if Christians were known not for talking about guns but jumping in front of bullets. The way of Jesus isn't visiting evil on the evildoers but absorbing their evil.

Of course, evil manifests through more than just violence. We can absorb evil by caring for the poor, paying for someone's bail, or taking the blame for someone else's mistake. Just as Jesus atoned for the evil of his opponents, so we atone for the evil around us (for those keeping score, this falls under the moral influence theory).

So in one sense, yes, Jesus saves. He saves through us as we follow his example and redeem the world. But in the sense that many understand it, no, Jesus doesn't save. His one-time sacrifice doesn't wash all the world's evil white as snow absolving us of any responsibility other than to ourselves.

Evangelicals can contend all they want that Christ's sacrifice was sufficient for all the evil of the world, but neither common sense nor the apostle Paul himself would agree. Atonement won't come through the spread of an esoteric gospel of intellectual salvation and self-involved sanctification (cue the light bulb that evangelicalism is nothing more than modern American Gnosticism).

Atonement comes when we deny ourselves and bring Christ's cross of redemption to the world in real, sacrificial ways.

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  1. Thank you for everything you've ever written. I left a "church" cult and changed my beliefs and your posts have been a huge influence. I share your posts as often as I can with people who really want to see the truth. Please don't stop writing. Your voice is powerful and needs to be heard.

  2. Jesus paid for sin. What that means is that for everyone who BELIEVES on Him, their sins are washed away once and for all. The thing is that whether you believe or you don’t the world is an evil place. Not because of God but because of man. God gave man a free will. Jesus didn’t die to control people and make them good rule following robots. He saved their SOULS. We live in a fallen world and You can expect bad things to happen but God has no part in it and He saves the souls of those who commit bad acts which are all of us. Every single person.

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