Picture of Benjamin L. Corey

Benjamin L. Corey

BLC is an author, speaker, scholar, and global traveler, who holds graduate degrees in Theology & Intercultural Studies from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and received his doctorate in Intercultural Studies from Fuller. He is the author of Undiluted: Rediscovering the Radical Message of Jesus, and Unafraid: Moving Beyond Fear-Based Faith.

3 Reasons To Question & Rethink Your Theology of the Cross (Atonement Series)


As we now turn a corner during the season of Lent, we begin to look towards the climactic end of Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday. Each year as we approach this season, I find myself rethinking the cross.

Not whether or not it happened, but rethinking the significance.

As the years have gone by and I have processed this in my own journey, I have come to believe that rethinking the cross– reexamining our atonement theology– might be one of the most important things we can do for our faith. Here’s a few reasons why:

The cross is at the heart of the Gospel

The climactic moment in all of human history took place over the course of a weekend a few thousand years ago. For Christians, regardless of whether we are conservative or liberal, protestant, Catholic, or whatever, the cross is at the heart of the Gospel.

It’s why we hang crosses around our neck, and put them in our churches—it’s as if we all intrinsically realize, regardless of our differences in theology, that this moment was the moment.

Whatever happened on that cross— whether we accurately understand it or not, is at the very core of the Christian story. All other reasons aside, this one reason should strongly to compel us to reexamine what we think and believe about the cross, because whatever happened on that cross is the entire foundation we are building our faith on.

The image we have of God is often defined by our atonement theology.

If then, the cross is the defining moment of human history and the foundation of all Christian faith, we should also recognize that how we view the cross and the atonement dramatically influences how we see (and what we think of) God.

One could say that the cross reveals who God is, and what God does—essentially; the cross reveals God’s character in its purest, most visible form.

Thus, the character of God we think we see on the cross becomes our foundation of understanding who God is.

Is God one who demanded a blood sacrifice to satisfy his wrath? Is God Jesus on the cross, loving and forgiving his enemies?

How we answer these questions will define, in our own minds, who God is. Surely then, we should revisit this and make sure we’re asking the right questions and arriving at right answers, no?

Seeing the true identity and character of God depends on these questions and answers—so we must not be afraid in asking them.

Our view of the atonement influences our entire understanding of Scripture

If the cross is the climactic moment in God’s story, if it reveals the true character and nature of God, and if it becomes the foundational view that drives the rest of our beliefs about God, then it would also be true that how we view the atonement will also dramatically influence how we read Scripture.

How we view the cross influences how we interpret all of the events leading up to it.

How we view the cross influences how we interpret all of the events after it.

To be perfectly honest, how we view the cross influences our view of every part of God’s story.

If there were ever a theology or doctrine to question– not for the sake of questioning itself, but for the sake of getting it right– this is the theology to question.

For the vast majority of us, I think it would be safe to say that we grew up with a very specific version of the cross—one that is commonly called “penal substitution.” In this view, the cross is a symbol of God’s wrath against sin, and is the place where God brutally punished his own son in our place. Since a totally innocent person was killed in our place, so the theology goes, the rest of us can be set free and reconciled to God.

While for many of us this version of the cross was just assumed to be true and never questioned, I believe it is worth questioning—for the three reasons I articulated above.

For me, this version of the cross invites questions—hard questions. Questions like:

  • Why would God demand a blood sacrifice?
  • Why is God unable to simply forgive us, without blood to satisfy him?
  • Is it just to execute an innocent person to spare the guilty? How does that even work?
  • Why is it that our understanding of the cross seems so comparable to medieval concepts of justice?
  • If the cross was a payment, who was being paid off? Was it even God?
  • Is there a better view than the one we grew up with?

I’m sure this version of the cross invites more questions, but these are certainly some questions this theology invites for me—questions that have the ability to influence our faith from the foundation up.

When I was growing up, the rightness of this view was so assumed that I never thought to even question it—but now, I am.

If this is going to influence our understanding of God, of the Gospel, and drive how we read Scripture, I think we owe it to our faith to question this, and to explore the answers– wherever they lead.

This is precisely what I’ll be doing on the blog over the the next few weeks, as we begin to look toward Good Friday and Easter. If you have questions about the atonement you’d like to see answered, ask them in the comments or on Facebook, and maybe your question will become part of the series.

In the meantime, give yourself permission to question this doctrine—because your understanding of God, the Gospel, and how you read Scripture, is riding on it.

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Picture of Benjamin L. Corey

Benjamin L. Corey

BLC is an author, speaker, scholar, and global traveler, who holds graduate degrees in Theology & Intercultural Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and earned his doctorate in Intercultural Studies from Fuller.

He is the author of Unafraid: Moving Beyond Fear-Based Faith, and Undiluted: Rediscovering the Radical Message of Jesus.

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33 Responses

  1. I’ll be sharing this with our book study group tonight and in the weeks leading up to Easter. Thank you for your thoughtful insight, and for questioning the status quo. Because, isn’t that what Jesus did?

  2. All of these objections and questions have great answers. John Stotts book The Cross of Christ is the classic must-read for anyone wrestling with these questions about the atonement. Substitution is the doctrine on which any Biblical theology of the Cross is founded. It’s not something to “rethink,” but rather to be wrestled with and more deeply understood. It’s at the heart of Christian orthodoxy, like the Trinity or salvation by grace alone.

  3. I read this verse the same day you posted!
    One question though, doesn’t this make Satan too powerful? Does it not slide into dualism?
    I am really glad to be rethinking this theory but I am not sure if Satan being that important is a good trade off…..

  4. The classic theology of atonement calls for an god that can’t forgive two kids who displeased him, who condemned all their offspring forever. How can I reconcile that with the God of Love that I have experienced? As this unreasonable doctrine is increasingly rejected, since the churches have nothing else, people leave. How could they not?

  5. Perhaps the question is did God require a blood sacrifice for the
    benefit of himself? Or was it for our benefit and understanding? I think we need to answer these questions first. Then we can understand the cross better.

  6. …or maybe Jesus never went to the cross at all. Perhaps the entire story is, well, just a story. After all, other than his followers, no one else in Judea knew him or the story.

    Just saying…

  7. Just posting this as a test: A couple of replies I posted to comments on my own post earlier have vanished, and a reply asking where they went never showed on refreshing. Wondering if this will remain.

  8. Benjamin, you might want to read the following article?


    And I think of the following scripture.

    “18 And all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation; 19 To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation. 20 Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ’s stead, be ye reconciled to God. 21 For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.”
    2 Corinthians 5:18,21

    And just thinking, after reading the above article, in the first part of John 3:16, we aren’t told that God’s wrath was against us and had to be appeased by Jesus Christ and the cross; but instead, we’re told, for God so loved the world, etc. 🙂

    :16 For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son,” John 3:16a

  9. Fransiscan Brother Richard Rohr – OSF – stated in a podcast interview, “The Drew Marshall Show”, that he did not subscribe to the atonement theory of the cross. The following is the paraphrased gist. Jesus was not the sacrificial lamb of a pissed off God who needed a payoff for the sins of human kind. Jesus, though divine, came to us in human embodiment to live a completely human life. He experienced the same joys and sufferings we all do. In this he tells us I am in “solidarity” (communion) with you, I am one of you. Therefore, Jesus is a “gift” to us not a flesh and blood sacrifice for our sins.

  10. Perhaps the question is did God require a blood sacrifice for the benefit of himself? Or was it for our benefit and understanding?

  11. It seems to make sense to me following the progression of Judaism as to how this evolved. We start with a God who demands regular sacrifices in order to divert his wrath by expending it upon various animals and then along comes a messiah who takes the place of all animals now and forever, if only people just (various fees and restrictions apply see offer for details offer not valid in all states and territories official rules available with no purchase necessary see participating stores for details).

    The part that gets me is that the old laws are seen as impossible to uphold, and I think that’s valid — if not for the same reason as how others mean it. Yes, it was nearly impossible to live without sinning in some way for one reason or another, but the sheer number of necessary sacrifices were what made it impossible for me to imagine, just mathematically. If you read Exodus, Deuteronomy and Numbers, people would have had to have been sacrificing tens of thousands of animals every year, including things like birds, which aren’t exactly easy to catch in large numbers.

    Pulled between anxiety and guilt for not being able to maintain such a tremendously costly (and wasteful, as only the priests were allowed to consume the sacrificed meat) pace, I can see the appeal of a messiah who, despite prophecies never alluding to such a role, would make animal sacrifice unnecessary in exchange for any trivial cost, be it belief or otherwise.

    On the other hand, taken either in parts or as a whole, what it does is depict God as one in which sacrifice is necessary — animals or humans, God is filled with wrath and the only means of escaping it is to kill others. That’s not love, it’s terrorism. Love isn’t making another murder scapegoat available, it’s having nothing to do with a cycle of death and bloodletting.

  12. “Is it just to execute an innocent person to spare the guilty? How does that even work?”

    Reminds me of the dissection of the Chick Tract “The Execution”, in which the mother of a convicted murderer offers herself to be executed in his stead, and the dissector is all “How that does even work? The whole point of justice is that the perpetrator is the one who is punished. There isn’t some sort of arbitrary someone-has-to-be-punished-for-the-crime-even-if-that-person-is-innocent setup that keeps the universe in balance.”

  13. A simplified version of my suggestion: What if the “ransom” was not so much the “death” of Jesus as the “lifetime” (which included his death)–to pay everybody with healing words, freeing insights, caring patience and joyful Life–to give a Life that was more than existence–THAT was the payment–to everybody–to free them from themselves!

  14. “lytron” is the key word, and here is my take–never denying that someone else’s is better. “ransom” refers to getting back someone who is imprisoned, enslaved, kidneapped,. etc. the normal way is a money payment, of course, and clearly that context suggests that we consider “payment” of some sort. Now the metaphor continues to be “the blood of Jesus” as though it is a “bag of gold” or some such (a a “wrathful father), but my thought goes in an altogether different direction.

    What if the “ransom” is a lifetime of service. What If Jesus, as it were, indentures himself to “this generation,”–this world, with all its complexity, sickness, hypocrisy and so on, dedicating a lifetime to heating, forgiving, breaking the mechanical bonds of law (Pharisees and the Sabbath), and accepting a death as part–just part–of that lifetime of service to “free” people from the fear of death–to bring them spiritually to Life. What if, therefore, you and I pay the same price–share in that “ransom” by our lifetimes of service? We make people “live” with the Spirit of joy and peace. We free them not from cancer, but from the oppression of cancer? We free them not death, but from the fear of death? We free people by forgiveness and laughter and patience and caring? What if all of that is part of the payment by the Family of God to the forces that have kept so many imprisoned?

  15. “If the cross was a payment, who was being paid off? Was it even God?”

    Satan was one of the earliest views on who was paid off. Makes no sense to me at all. The only sense I could make out of the ransom (lytron) payment would be how the Gnostics/Marcionites saw it, that Jesus death was a payment (or even a trickery) to YHWH, who was an usurper to the throne of God, and the only one that can biblically lay a claim on humanity.

  16. I highly recommend reading work by Rene Girard and some of the very fine theologians who have expanded on his work. Biblically sound and congruent with the God of forgiveness and mercy revealed by Jesus. Does not “let us off the hook” by any means, but consistent with a God who does not condone or use violence…ever! (www.girardianlectionary.net is a place to start)

  17. what about Hebr. 9,22 in fact, the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness. Why God slaughtered a lamb after Adam and Eve sinned? This are the old testament shadows.

  18. “For the vast majority of us” is, I believe, an inaccurate, unfair assumption, unless only “Christian” fundamentalists ever read this blog. Few mainline Protestants, or Orthodox, or, for that matter, or all Catholics grew up with this sadistic interpretation of the atonement, if the doctrine was preached/discussed.

  19. simply put, without blood, life is impossible. think about it. as human beings without blood we cannot live and without the blood sacrifice of Jesus we have no life.

  20. I remember back when I was a baby Christian, I asked the question why Jesus gave up his life on the cross and I was told that it was a blood sacrifice. Blood sacrifices started off when Adam and Eve sinned and God killed a precious animal to clothe them. I never questioned it because the people I asked knew God better than me. Maybe they were right or wrong but I’m interested in hearing others ideas.

  21. What bothers me a lot lately is that the circles I was in for so many years never taught me that there were more than a few different theories of atonement. I found this truth out much later in my journey. If they hid that truth, how much more did they hide?

    My main point is — however — that no one view of the atonement can ever express the totality of Jesus´work at the cross. As much as we may be critical of the penal substitutionary atonement viewpoint, in my opinion it´s still one aspect of the many, many facets of Jesus´ nearly incomprehensible work at Calvary.

  22. Here’s a question:

    I always loved CS Lewis’ work, and his Narnia Chronicles were precious to me as a child with a newly found faith. I loved how he described the death and resurrection of Aslan as the White Witch knowing that he could sacrifice himself for another, but missing the ‘deeper magic’ of the universe that death could not hold Aslan captive.

    Likewise, in reading through scripture, the ‘blood sacrifice’ that is shown in the story of Cain and Abel, is presented as just a ‘fact’ that sin must be atoned for through blood (though the ‘why’ has never been presented to me), and so Jesus’ death on the cross simply fulfils that ‘requirement’. Is it not possible that the ‘deeper magic’ is that that story, and all the subsequent references to the shedding of blood throughout the OT was actually just a precursor to Calvary? God knew that his plan would come to fruition on that hill, and working backwards through time, related to us that blood would be the price. All of our efforts to provide sacrifices were just mere firing of matchsticks at the monster, and we never knew that it was only a gesture, until that great and final act occurred.

    Thus; are we looking at Calvary through human eyes rooted in history and not divine eyes rooted in eternity? Abel’s sacrifice wasn’t to provide a ‘reason’ for the cross, it simply foretold Calvary. (?)

  23. “[Jesus’] was a loving sacrificial act in that he gave up something so valuable—his life—to show us that we were caught up in a loop of never-ending violence. We follow his example by doing the same, exchanging rivalry and violence for sacrificial love. When we choose love over violence, we step out of the loop, and we are cured of the contagion”.~Tony Jones from Did God Kill Jesus? I love this explanation because it describes the character of Christ. He led by example and we are to follow. This makes Good Friday, not just good, but great(as in the Greek:’Μεγάλη Παρασκευή’) May the God we serve help us to live this out, not just once a year, but every day.

  24. Good start. You won’t really get there until and unless for some reason you’re willing or desperate enough to put your life on the line to get to the crfitical insight, but here’s a clue: it’s an ontological proof for the reality of a single thing in the whole universe, all the rest of which is otherwise empty of truth and unrelentingly hostile to the quest for it, not to mention the utter arrogance of merely believing in a vision you wish were true. That single thing is the death of the one for whom the cross was erected, and by utterly logical extention the reality of the person whose death it is. That anchors all of reality in Him, in the gift of the word and sacrament that deliver it to us in time, and in the unaccountable wisdom and kindness by which it is provided. It is the signature of the living God, the only one. And you are SO right: it makes every living consciousness a supremely precious possession of the God to whom each one is presented destined for life and joy by the gift of the Son. You come away from that cross the one because of and for whom it was done, grateful in your bones for every othe life and glad to breathe just so you can praise the Name of Jesus Christ, and Him crucified.

    Love to all!

  25. I was, frankly, astonished to read this line: “If then, the cross is the defining moment of human history ” I mean, really? Not the invention of fire, or written language, or the steam or internal combustion engine? Okay, one could call the first of those pre-historic events in man’s development, but even so I struggle with the idea that someone could believe that the execution of Jesus has any significance to anyone outside the Christian faith – or at least outside those cultures that were Christianised and where it has had an influence on their history.

    But I sort of understand where you’re coming from with this. In the US where Christianity is observed by the majority (or at least actively observed by a large minority – I forget the figures) it matters to the whole country how Christians understand the cross since their understanding will have a wider effect on their interaction with society and that affects everyone in that society. But if you compare that with the UK, my home, or with most of Europe, where only a small percentage are active Christians, then the idea that what people believe happened on the cross, or what it means, matters in the here and now to any other than the relatively small number of practising Christians is false.

    So it’s a piece with an important message for Christians, and as ever its heart is in the right place, but it has no meaning on those outside the Christian fold and should not make grand statements about ‘human history’.

  26. Thank you for this insightful piece. My thinking about atonement has begun to shift over the past couple years, thankfully. But it never occurred to me, until I read Stanley Hauerwas’ “The Cross-Shattered Christ,” that being hyper-focused on what Jesus did for me on the cross could actually be considered being hyper-SELF-focused. Hauerwas writes that “[atonement] theories try to help us understand why Jesus, the son of God, had to die. We think it is really very simple. Jesus had to die because we needed and need to be forgiven. But, ironically, such a focus shifts attention from Jesus to us. This is a fatal turn, I fear, because as soon as we begin to think this is all about us, about our need for forgiveness, bathos drapes the cross, hiding from us the reality that here we first and foremost see God.”

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