For much of my life as a Christian, I accepted the theory known as “Penal Substitutionary Atonement.” There are three aspects to that: Penalty, substitution and atonement. The atonement aspect is about reconciliation, at-onement — union with God. That is what Christ came to bring about. “God was in Christ,” Paul tells us, “reconciling the world to himself, not counting their sins against them” (2 Corinthians 5:19). It is the ultimate expression and goal of the gospel — and praise God for it!
But over several years, I began letting go of the penal aspect and finally rid myself of the last vestiges of it in my thinking. It is centered on the idea that God was angry and could not forgive us without first somehow being appeased by bloody sacrifice. To me, that smacks of paganism, which is one reason why I have given it up. But the greater reason is that the Scriptures do not speak of the cross and the atonement as divine punishment or penalty. Nor was that how the early Church understood them. The penal idea did not arrive on the scene until the time of the Reformation, in the 16th century. Now, to be clear, the cross was a sacrifice, and it was for our sake, but it was not a penalty Christ paid on our behalf to appease an angry deity.
That leaves the substitutionary aspect of the atonement, and I have no problem with it. What Jesus did on the cross was for our sake, and something we never could have accomplished for ourselves. But I do want to qualify the nature of that substitution. What we usually think of as substitution is an exchange between two things, where one thing is treated or dealt with in place of another. In the penal substitutionary view, God’s anger, holiness and justice required a penalty that we could not pay, so Christ came and paid it on our behalf, and being God as well as man, he could pay an infinite price and satisfy an infinite debt. But that sort of substitution does not begin to grasp the depth of how Christ’s death on the cross relates to us. It was not a matter of Christ dying instead of us, as if thing A were exchanged for thing B. Rather, it was that thing A became thing B.
That brings us to the mystery of the Incarnation, when God “became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14) and was called Jesus. In becoming a man, Christ did not just become one like us, or even just one of us — he became one with us. In the Incarnation, God joined himself with all of humanity.
The truth about humanity is that we are all connected, for though there are many human beings, there is only one humanity. We are not merely a collection of individuals but we belong to one another. What affects one, though we may not necessarily realize it on the local level, ultimately affects us all. “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” So begins John Donne’s famous poem, which ends with the line, “therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” This connection, the relatedness of all humanity, is as old and as deep as Adam, and Paul tells us a profound and sobering truth about it: “In Adam all die.” The sin of one human being infected all humanity, bringing death to all, because we are all connected.
Of course, Paul’s message does not end with those sad words — there would be no good news in that —but he leads us to a deeper truth, and more joyful: “Consequently, just as one trespass [Adam’s] resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act [Christ’s] resulted in justification and life for all people” (Romans 5:18). “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22).
In Christ, God has joined himself to all humanity. The death of Christ on the cross, then, was not instead of the death of all humanity — that would have simply been the substitution of A for B. But the death of Christ on the cross was the death of all humanity. Christ did not just die for all humanity but as humanity, and all humanity therefore died with him. “We are convinced,” Paul says, “that one died for all, and therefore all died” (2 Corinthians 5:14).
But if we died with Christ, then to what did we die? For one thing, we died to sin, to the power and slavery of sin. “For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin — because anyone who has died has been set free from sin” (Romans 6:6-7). Sin is not the infraction of a divine law or code but the brokenness of fellowship with God, in whose image we were created. In turning away from God, humanity turned away from the source of life and thus was bound to die. We were under the power of death because we were under the power of sin. But the death of Christ frees us from power of sin.
In the death of Christ, all humanity died. Now, of course, where there is a death, there must also be a burial, and that brings us to the mystery of baptism. Paul says, “We were therefore buried with [Christ] through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (Romans 6:4). In baptism, we are buried with Christ so that we may live a new kind of life, a life of fellowship with God.
Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. (Romans 6:8-11)The death of Christ frees us from the power of death. Indeed, it was the death of death itself, for death had no power over him who is life. His death was our death so that his life could be our life. One day, even our bodies will be raised from the dead to be like that of Christ in his resurrection.
Yet, even now, we participate in the resurrection life of Christ, for we share in the same humanity with Christ. Paul speaks of how, “God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions — it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:4-6).
Made alive with Christ, raised with Christ, seated with Christ in the heavenlies — this is not just a promise about the future but a present reality. For the Incarnation of the Son was not temporary but eternal. He did not merely put on humanity like a suit to be taken off at the end of the day but he became fully human, yet remaining nonetheless fully divine. Nor did he merely lower himself down into our humanity — he raised humanity up into his divinity. Divinity and humanity are perfectly united in Christ, so that we may be one with God.
The death of Christ was the death of humanity. The resurrection of Christ is the resurrection of humanity. And the Ascension of Christ to his throne at the right hand of the Father, where he reigns forever as Lord of the Universe, is the ascension of humanity. This is the New Creation.