Formation: The Metaphors of the Atonement

This week we embark on a new Formation series "What on earth did Jesus die for?" Although the death and resurrection of Jesus has been at the heart of Christian faith for the past 2,000 years, its meaning and relevance to human experience continues to be explored and debated. So what does it mean to think about the death and resurrection of Jesus in the 21st century?

It’s a complicated question. And some of the answers provided by the church can sound a bit awkward. Sometimes Christians can get so used to believing certain things that it is easy to forget how problematic they might be, and I think understanding Jesus’ death can be a bit like that. Do we really believe that God is so angry with all of us that He can’t forgive any of us unless the blood of a truly innocent man is offered as a human sacrifice to appease his wrath? But if that’s not what the story is about, then why does it matter at all? Does Jesus save us? And if so, what from, and how?

As a starting point, it can be helpful to remember that the scriptures (and the Christian tradition) often employ metaphors to communicate ideas that are too big, too profound or too mysterious to be encapsulated in propositional statements. One of the primary ways that a metaphor works is to help us understand something new, or to see something in a new way, by using a familiar object or idea. Of course, metaphors help us to see something new, but they also have their limitations. There are helpful ways to employ the metaphor, but there are also unhelpful ways. For them to work well, we’re supposed to be able to see the similarities, but also intuitively pick up the limits. If we over-literalise or overplay a metaphor it can become problematic.

Ransom and Rescue  

In relation to the cross, the first set of metaphors that were most popular in the first few centuries of the church were the slavery and freedom metaphors. e.g. ransom, redemption, rescue. In these metaphors the emphasis is on some kind of captivity/enslavement and liberation/freedom in which Jesus’ death was understood as necessary for our freedom.

One of the earliest theologians to develop rescue metaphors from symbol and metaphor into literalistic interpretation was Irenaues.[i] Irenaues took the concept of ‘ransom’ found in the early church writings and began to apply it to the work of the cross literally.  In the articulation of these rescue metaphors, humanity is caught in bondage and slavery to the devil because of sin. Because God is a fair and reasonable God, He must treat even the Devil with fairness and pay the price (or ransom) demanded for our release, Jesus Christ.[ii] Gregory of Nyssa continued the expansion of the metaphor to include a ransom theory in which the devil is deceived by God.[iii]  The devil is tempted to take into his grasp the perfect man, Jesus, not realising until it is too late that he has in fact overplayed his hand.  That Jesus is the ‘divine man’ who defeats him by resurrecting from the dead.[iv]  

So what can we say about this: the metaphor is supposed to provoke images of freedom and liberation, but if pushed too far it is as if God and the devil are two equal but opposite forces fighting for humanity, and God wins the battle because He deceives the devil.  We have simply become bystanders in a cosmic war in which we are fought over, but don’t necessarily bear any responsibility for.


The second set of metaphors relate largely to sacrifice, a common theme in ancient societies. From the 11th century onwards this became one of the really popular ways of talking about Jesus’ death on the cross. A prominent theologian at this time, Anslem, developed something called the ‘satisfaction theory’. He lived in a medieval feudal society of lords and peasants, and the system was built on honour. In Anslem’s theory, sin dishonours God and so requires satisfaction or punishment. Without satisfaction to God the divine order of the universe is upset, and because it is the infinite God who is dishonoured, humanity is unable to make satisfaction to Him. So Jesus comes and dies as a sufficient sacrifice to God, his life is given to restore the honour to God that we could not.

Several centuries later the reformer John Calvin built on Anselm’s idea, suggesting it was not an issue of God’s honour, but rather about God’s justice and His wrath against sin.[v] As a former lawyer, Calvin’s ‘penal substitution theory’ centred around ideas of guilt, punishment, justice and wrath. Humans have sinned against God. Therefore, humans are guilty. God is the judge. And God is holy and just. Therefore, the only right response to our sin is death and eternal punishment, because God is eternal. But Jesus enters the picture and His death as a sacrifice pays our sentence. He stands in our place, taking the death that we deserve. Jesus’ death is enough to satisfy the wrath of God.

But there are a few problems with taking this sacrifice metaphor so literally and in this legal framework.

  • Why can’t God just forgive us - that’s what he asks us to do?
  • What kind of God requires the blood of a truly innocent man in order to appease his wrath?
  • Are the angry crowd who cry out for Jesus to be killed actually the ones doing God’s will
  • Is Jesus saving us from God?

With both of these metaphors, we can see profound problems in the way they’ve been played out in church tradition. But they’re not the only ways of making sense of the Jesus story, and certainly not the only ways that Christians over the centuries have sought to understand and explain why Jesus died on the cross!

In this series, we’re going to suggest that there are far more helpful, healthy, and biblically faithful ways to understand what is going on in the story of Easter. In the New Testament, we are offered a story. If we remove metaphors from the story and over-literalise them in isolation, we get confused. But our aim in the coming weeks is to try and get back inside the story again, and see what it can offer us if we dive into it with fresh eyes.


[i] W. Pannenberg, Jesus - God and Man (SCM Press, 1968), 276

[ii] S. Grenz, Theology for the Community of God, (Regent College Publishing, 2000), 445

[iii] N. Ormerod, Creation, Grace and Redemption, (Orbis Books, 2007), 95

[iv] J. Denny, Weaver, “Violence in Christian Theology”, Cross Currents (2001):151

[v] S. Grenz, 449