When I Struggle to Make Sense of the Atonement

I’ve been struggling with the atonement lately. During Holy Week, I sobbed and sobbed when Jesus got nailed to the cross.

It shouldn’t be like that. It shouldn’t take God dying in order for us to be saved. It feels so unfair, so wrong.

I’m no theologian, but between being a PK/MK, attending a Christian college, and reading on my own, I’ve heard most of the atonement theories. Honestly? They feel like easy Sunday School answers, and those don’t satisfy me anymore. I’ve read the ransom theory, the debt theory, the penal substituion theory, and the moral exemplar theory. I’ve heard the metaphors about judges and sacrifices. But I keep coming back to the question: Why? Why did Jesus have to die in order to save us? What exactly was he saving us from?

Atonement theories always go back to The Fall, which I may or may not believe in anymore. I suppose I still believe that our communion with God is broken, but I don’t know if I really believe in the actual Adam and Eve story. I recently found this incredible article that talks about the Eastern Orthodox approach to the Fall and to salvation. (Note: The article could be more generous to non-Orthodox churches, and I think that some Protestant churches share the Orthodox beliefs presented here. BUT this is an EXCELLENT explanation of a variety of approaches to sin, death, and salvation, and worth the read.) Here’s an excerpt:

“In Orthodoxy, sin is much more than a moral shortcoming or the failure to live up to some external code of behavior. Sin is the failure to realize life as  love and communion, the failure to be whole, healthy, complete . . . Our offense against God is not that we have “offended His  honor,” but rather that we have turned from life itself. Sin is the denial of  God’s image in man and of God Himself.”

I like that a lot better than the theories that say we owe God something, or we’ve broken some kind of law, or that sin is just doing bad things. The article goes on to address the issue of how far humans actually fell. Thankfully, I grew up in a denomination that didn’t believe in total depravity; they believed in prevenient grace, a God-given ability to seek Him, a grace that worms its way into our hearts even before we know Him. Orthodoxy doesn’t believe in total depravity, either. Since we were created by God and bear His image, there has to be some good in us:

“The Orthodox position is that the image of God is distorted by sin, but never  destroyed . . . in the words of a hymn sung by Orthodox at the  Funeral Service: ‘I am the image of Your inexpressible glory, even though I bear  the wounds of sin.'”

Unknown_German_-_Canon_Page_from_a_Sacramentary,_with_the_Crucifixion_-_Google_Art_ProjectI am encouraged that my church acknowledges this truth, because I tend to see good in people all the time, even in people who aren’t Christians. I really think I am turning into a humanist, because I find so much beauty, truth, and care in the lives of human beings. But my question about the atonement hasn’t been answered yet. Here’s more from the article:

“The original Orthodox Christian understanding of atonement is incarnational.  It has as its basis not the law or the courtroom, but God’s unconditional love  and grace. We begin with the understanding that forgiveness and atonement  (“at-one-ment” or reconciliation with God) are not essentially legal or  juridical concepts. They are principally therapeutic, organic, synergistic,  transformational, and ultimately ontological in nature. In fact, the Greek word  translated as “salvation” is soterias, whose root meaning is “health.”

So being saved means more than being saved from something, such as death or hell; it also means being healed or made whole. When Jesus says, “Your faith has saved you” (Luke 7:50), He means, “Your faith has healed  you,” or “Your faith has made you whole.” Forgiveness and atonement pertain to God’s participation in His creation in order to renew His image and  likeness in us, bringing us to wholeness and fulfillment.”

This explanation of salvation is so freeing. I used to think that salvation was just not going to hell. I used to feel like salvation meant perfection – being a good girl and following all the rules. But being saved simply means being whole. I am revising the chapter on holiness in my book right now, and what I’m writing about is how I see holiness in the life of Jesus: wholly human, wholly divine. I no longer envision holiness as spiritual perfection or complete godliness. I don’t believe that our human selves have to be consumed by divinity. I think that holiness is the wholeness we saw in the incarnated Christ: the perfect blend of our humanity and our movement toward divine love.

The article above did not specifically go into Jesus death beyond what I’ve shared here. I wonder if Jesus had to die in order to experience every human experience, even death. I’ve quoted my friend before: “Maybe he had to enter into death in order to redeem it.” Or maybe he wanted to show us a God who is familiar with pain and who suffers alongside us. Yes, I still struggle to find an answer to this.

At any rate, I do think that it wasn’t just Jesus’ death that makes us whole; it was also his life. It was a life lived in the world, among the trees, dirt, and seas, among ordinary people who made bad choices, had diseases, were mentally ill, were haughty leaders, were humble servants, and were in need of love. It was a life lived out of that love-essence, in the midst of the energies that emerge from the image of God.


Images from Wikimedia Commons


  1. Karla says:

    I love this. I have this same struggle and I sat through all the classes! 🙂 I think sometimes we put too much emphasis on the death of Christ as saving us. I believe his entire incarnation saved us. It brought us back into right relationship with him. I think part of life is death…so He has embraced life…in its entirety.

    • kksorrell says:

      We have talked about this before, Karla, so I know you know my questions well. “I believe his entire incarnation saved us.” So true. So far beyond a mere, “Jesus died for our sins.”

    • kksorrell says:

      I was so happy to find that article, and glad to know that at least the explanation of atonement that feels the most right is from the OC!

  2. I’ve not been able to read your blog regularly for the last while, being the single parent of a son who is almost 15, and is making many wrong choices.

    Much of what was in the article you referenced, I agree with. It lacked a bit though in not bringing in the importance of the Law of God…a common failing in today’s Christianity. The moral Law defines what sin is. If it is seen in it’s proper spiritual meaning, it reaches to the heart, and shows that the wrong impulses are there because the wrong life is there.

    Sin is a corruption of something that was once good. As the founder of our church often wrote, “sin is not what you do, it is what you are.” Therefore, the solution is not simply saying “I’m sorry”, but trading the old life for the new life.

    So I agree with the statements made here that forgiveness is not just a legal transaction, but an exchange of life: giving up an old stony heart for a heart that can live and love again.

    I enjoy reading about the struggles you go through. Would to God that more Christians would struggle to get a deeper hold on God. Non-satisfaction was a strong attribute of the publican, who went to his house justified.

    I wouldn’t throw away the Bible, or doubt parts of it, just because they may be clouded by misinterpretation. Simply hold on and wait for a better explanation that clarifies God’s character.

    To me, the whole essence of the Bible, from even before man’s creation, was the battle over God’s character. This seems to have been the issue in heaven, and was the main reason why Eve succumbed to the temptation. First comes misrepresentation of God’s character, then doubting His love, then breaking His law. The cure then must first be a correct view of God’s character, then faith and trust in Him, then obedience to His law.

    What I did not get from the article you referenced was how the Orthodox church deals with the idea of hell or eternal punishment. This is a crucial point in the right understanding of God’s character. In my church, we do not believe in immortal souls, therefore, we see that sin and sinners will eventually destroy themselves, and be no more. Thus it will be proved, “all that hate Me, love death,” (Prov. 8:36), or as it is stated in the NT, “the wages of sin is death.” (Rom. 6:23). Although God’s withdrawal from the sinner plays a part, in the end it is sin that punishes and destroys. So it was with the destruction of old Jerusalem in Christ’s day, and so it will be again in the end with the whole world.

    I believe that this matter about the end of sin and sinners is another thorny issue that causes many sincere Christians much grief and struggle.

  3. Alison says:

    Wonderful to hear your honest thoughts on struggling with the atonement. I am too. Nice to know that we are not alone in our struggle, even when (or because) we love Jesus.

    I have found it helpful to listen and read to a lot of Greg Boyd’s stuff on the atonement and the cross. I believe he calls it the ‘christus victor’ view. And he also has a bunch of resources on a ‘non-violent atonement’ which is the direction in which I am leaning toward.

    Anyway, bless you in your gracious journey!


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