Economics of atonement


Most Christians I know, even those who don’t adopt a penal-substitutionary theory of the sufferings of Christ, believe that God’s sufferings in Christ accomplish or effect something in God which makes our theosis a possibility for God. God contemplates his suffering (not just the incarnation as such, but his suffering as such) and the contemplation of this pain is that about God which opens space in God for us. I used to see things this way myself. I now think this is entirely mistaken. I don’t think violence or evil do anything on the divine side of the equation (so to speak) to create space in God for us or otherwise make it possible for God to forgive us or to secure our union with him. The sufferings of Christ are entirely an economic manifestation within our fallen context exclusively for our sake because we, not God, require it.

7 comments on “Economics of atonement

  1. This makes most sense to me in conjunction with a previous post in which you implied that the baptismal theophany might be viewed as a sign that the incarnate Son’s life up to that point (ie., the 30 years of everyday suffering in the context we know only too well) was accepted by the Father as complete (or finished) BEFORE the crucifixion -“This is my beloved Son, in whom I am [already] well pleased.”

    There is also a saying of the Lord’s in at least one of the gospels in which he says “It is finished” BEFORE the arrest and crucifixion.

    So I would have to agree that the crucifixion is not ‘required’ by God for atonement n any logical or spiritual sense – as far as I can tell it was only demanded by the Sanhedrin for the transgression of their thing called ‘the Law’.

    You say it is necessary only in the economy of our fallen context. I admit that our Lord’s final and horrible suffering has sometimes served to silence my complaint in the midst of my own suffering. But as for a true and theologically pure atonement, I think we may find it completely outside the crucifixion – because I cannot see that a violent death is a necessary element in the efficacy of the resurrection, the ascension, or the bestowal of the Holy Spirit..

    Liked by 1 person

    • Tom says:

      Thank you for sharing John!

      I think some will struggle with the notion that God is not ‘empowered’ or ‘enabled’ to forgive us or accept us by the sufferings of Christ. Christ’s life, suffering, and resurrection are all required by us, yes. We require a demonstration of love (Rm 5.8). We require the cross and resurrection to be freed from the fear of death that enslaves us (Heb 2). So there’s a sense in which it’s not “finished” until these things are accomplished, but that’s because fallen humanity requires a demonstration of God’s love and forgiveness in terms of its fallen context.

      My own view is that since violence defines that fallen context, suffering violence was a necessary part of an ‘efficacious’ demonstration of God’s love (though not for God’s sake to empower or otherwise enable him to love or forgive). The resurrection, of course, demonstrated God’s approval of Christ and interpreted his death as a demonstration of love and not as God’s curse upon Jesus. Point is, we required a demonstration of God’s love and forgiveness of his in terms of the deepest despair of rejection and death.



      • thanks for your thoughtful reply Tom. You’ve got me thinking.

        I think we are not far off, depending on your view of the Trinity, because for me the crucifixion was quintessentially THE LORD’s choice and (while not outside the will of the Father) chiefly a demonstration of the love of the Divine Son (for us).

        My interpretation of Gethsemane is that our Lord saw that the path of suffering was a course which at that stage of mission was necessitated by his loyalty to the Father and to his own Gospel – above every other consideration, ie, plainly he was not called by the Father to resist the Sanhedrin; certainly not to escape into Egypt, nor in any other way to allow himself the luxury of more time with the apostles.

        So I believe it possible to admit that drinking the cup of suffering on Calvary was in line with the Divine Will without requiring that it have a soteriological purpose nor that it was necessarily ordained in detail by the Father.

        What the Father required from the beginning, I think, was that the Divine Son should be ‘made man’ – should endure incarnation as mortal man-of-God to its logical and spiritual end. This life in the beauty of its holiness was, I think, in a sense ‘finished’ at the moment of his baptism – but not terminated. To be a man in full required a life AND a death. But as to the manner of death, the course was in the hands of the Divine Son, and he chose a ministry of teaching in accordance with the Father’s will which brought him into conflict with the theology of the Second Temple.

        It is not easy (after 3000 years of atonement theology) to insist, as I would, that the plan of God for atonement did not begin ON the cross but AFTER the cross. In my view, the church needs to stop celebrating Pentecost as her own private birthday party and begin to teach that the unique divine indwelling which was inaugurated on that day represents a true atonement for all mankind.

        But I’m going on, aren’t I? Sorry, I should stop taking up so much bandwidth here and reopen my long-dead blog with a post referencing to your own interesting writing. Thanks, Tom, for accommodating me this far.



      • Tom says:

        Thanks John. We’re basically on the same page, yes. Thanks for sharing with us, and for challenging me.


        Liked by 1 person

  2. Robert Fortuin says:


    One must be very careful in positing a distinction or disharmony when speaking of divine willing. It has been established and affirmed dogmatically that there’s only one divine will; and, futhermore, in Jesus the human will is in full harmony and accord with his divine will. We must be careful in other words not to project our creaturely mode of existence (bound by the spatiotemporal, composition, and distinction as we are) onto divine existence so as not to fall into the error of univocal predication when theologizing.


    • Robert, I thought I was being pretty careful. Where did you see disharmony?

      The only conflict I mentioned was between the Lord and the Second Temple theologians. I hope you do not believe that those thinkers (from say Ezra to Caiaphas) wrote and acted in accordance with the Divine Will. If so, that’s another discussion.


      • Robert Fortuin says:


        The following can be read as a dichotomy, ‘the course was in the hands of the Divine Son, and he chose a ministry of teaching in accordance with the Father’s will,’ as if the course was not in the hands of the Father. This comes after the impression has been made the crucifixion was the Son’s idea of his demonstration of love to which the Father reluctantly and/or after the fact agrees with. At any rate the two are juxtaposed. Why else make a distinction between the Father’s and the Son’s course and demonstration? Again a similar dichotomy appears in the passage: ‘…without requiring that it have a soteriological purpose nor that it was necessarily ordained in detail by the Father.’ The Father’s will is juxtaposed in contrast to the Son’s will by the addition of the last three words, ‘by the Father.’

        At least that is one possible reading, which appears is not how you intended it. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

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