Clearly they are not angels whom he helps, but the descendants of Abraham. Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every way, so that he might be merciful and faithful as their high priest before God, to make expiation for the sins of the people.

-Hebrews 2:16-17

Christ-Melchizedek-Church5I wish in this post to paint a very big picture on how the atonement has generally been understood in the Christian tradition in terms of two distinct traditions. It would naturally be grossly, to the point of irresponsibly, simplistic and utterly lacking in nuance, but this is inevitable as I am not so much concerned about historical precision but about using this vague picture to bring into focus my own sketch and view of the atonement.

With these caveats, I shall begin.

Upwards Traffic versus Downward Traffic

Atonement theories can be broadly categorised in two ways. One I shall call “upward traffic” atonement theories and the other I shall call “downward traffic” theories.

“Upward traffic” atonement theories are characterised by the idea that the events of Christ’s life on earth effects something “in the heavens” or in the transcendental realm. Whether it is satisfying the wrath of God or balancing some divine accounting book of debt “up there”, or paying off the ransom to some cosmic forces or securing some victory over them, the upward traffic atonement theories are focused upon how Christ’s earthly life somehow brings about a change in the transcendental realm, literally “up there”.

Admittedly the majority of atonement theories have been “upward traffic” theories in that there is often a tendency to move from the events of the life of Christ “down here” to speculate on how it changes things “up there”.

“Downward traffic” atonement theories on the other hand are characterised by the idea that God “came down” in Christ to effect or change things “down here”, on earth. Peter Abelard’s “moral exemplar” theory of the atonement is one of the better known “downward traffic” theories whereby Christ came down to set an inspiring example for humanity to follow and thereby become saved.

In this post I will be arguing for a species of a “downward traffic atonement” theory but before I do that it would be necessary to sketch a little of the traditional critique of the “upward traffic theory”.

The Traditional Critique of the “Upward Traffic” Theory

One of the main complaints about “upward theories” is that we are so focused on the Cross as propitiation, payment for a cosmic debt or ransom, or some weapon against some cosmic forces, etc, that we lost sight of the basic down to earth fact about how the Cross is basically a murder, a grievous sin committed by us. People are so anxious to turn the Cross into a necessary prerequisite or entailment of some cosmic or metaphysical scheme that we forgot this little inconvenient this-worldly fact.

Peter Abelard, whom we have just mentioned, was one of the few thinkers about the atonement who realised this inconvenient fact. Arguing against the logic of “satisfaction” theories of the atonement he writes:

If [the] sin of Adam was so great that it could be expiated only by the death of Christ, what expiation will avail for the act of murder committed against Christ, and for the many great crimes committed against him or his followers? How did the death of his innocent Son so please God the Father that through it he should be reconciled to us—to us who by our sinful acts have done the very things for which our innocent Lord was put to death?

To frame this as a reductio, the absurdity of “cosmic scheme” “upward traffic” theories of the atonement is that it makes sin, and a sin of horrendous proportions, the reason or cause for our atonement. Thus whether God needs his wrath propitiated, his account books balanced, or to get his cosmic beings in a row, he needs sin to make atonement for sin. Abelard zooms in into the inconvenient fact that Christ’s death was an “act of murder”, yet how could God the Father be pleased with such a terrible sin, which must almost by definition be displeasing to him? How could sin make atonement for sin? If this great sin of deicide atoned for Adam’s sin, what shall atone for the sin of the murder of Christ? An even greater sin? How could sin be the foundation of salvation?

(To make a brief historical detour, Abelard in fact did not reject the penal substitutionary theory of the atonement. Even after making his objection he does state categorically:

In two ways he is said to have died for our faults: First, because the faults for which he died were ours, and we committed the sins for which he bore the punishment; secondly, that by dying he might remove our sins, that is, the punishment of our sins, introducing us into paradise at the price of his own death, and might, by the display of grace such that he himself said ‘‘Greater love no man hath,’’ draw our minds away from the will to sin and enkindle in them the highest love of himself.

Commentary on Paul’s Epistle to the Romans

Thus while ironically Abelard has often been acclaimed as teaching the “gentle” moral exemplar theory of the atonement, he in fact grounds Christ being an exemplar of grace upon his dying for our sins by bearing our punishment.)

To be sure technically the majority of the tradition on atonement did not postulate the Cross as necessary for salvation (with perhaps the exception of Anselm, and even that needs to be nuanced). Aquinas himself insisted that, “it was possible for God to deliver mankind otherwise than by the Passion of Christ”. (Summa Theologica, Q. 46, A. 2) Nevertheless there is the uncomfortable idea that somehow a sinful deed enabled salvation or was the cause of such a great good, even if it may not be strictly necessary.

The Franciscan Attempt at a “Downward Theory”

The Franciscan tradition, in contrast to the Thomistic tradition, felt keenly the problems of letting sin be the cause of salvation or letting sin have any role to play in salvation at all. The Franciscans speculated that if we are to avoid letting sin be the cause of salvation, we need to relocate the cause of the incarnation elsewhere. The Franciscans argued that God had willed, or predestined, absolutely and before the creation of the world, that the Son of God would dwell in the world in the flesh independently of the presence of sin there. The Cross is simply what happens when God continues to carry out his intention in a sinful world. Sinful man cannot stand the Light and would seek to put it to death. Thus the sin of the cross is the effect, and not the cause, of the incarnation and the will to love. However it is clear that our salvation is somehow rooted in this absolute will for the Son of God to become incarnate and to love us in the flesh rather than on the Cross itself per se. John Duns Scotus in particular was notorious for his acceptio theory of the atonement whereby the Cross of Christ made satisfaction for sin because God decided or willed to accept it as meritorious and not because of its intrinsic qualities.

Today the idea that God had absolutely willed the incarnation independently of the presence of sin in the world is known as “Supralapsarian Christology”, that the Son of God was predestined to become incarnate anterior to the event of the Fall. The problem with the Franciscan tradition however is that it became highly speculative based on God’s hidden predestination intentions “in the heavens”, falling foul of the same problems which “upward traffic” theories have that it is too focused on what goes on “up there” over what’s happening down here. The “Cosmic Christ” passages would need to be stretched in order to accommodate this theory and traditionally the theory has involved a lot of speculations about counterfactuals and arguments about Christ being incarnate if sin did not occur, etc. The main problem however with this tradition is that, even if the Cross was not necessary to save us, it does not tell us exactly how does the incarnation save us. The necessity of the incarnation is simply relocated to the predestinatory will and the question as to how it is necessary to resolve sin sort of vanishes.

The Lutheran Living Word Approach

Despite my criticisms of the “supralapsarian Christology” approach to the atonement it hits upon a right vein in atonement thinking. The conviction that somehow the incarnate presence of Christ was the locus and source of our atonement rather than his death or the Cross per se. Somehow Christ’s incarnate life effected our salvation, but how? To answer that we need to turn to the Lutherans.

Gerhard Forde, a Lutheran theologian, had spent a lot of time and energy explicating the problems of “upward traffic” theories of the atonement and helpfully points to certain core intuitions and strands in the Lutheran tradition towards a more robust theory of a “downward traffic” theory of the atonement. His basic thesis is that the incarnate presence of the Son of God saves us by concretely, and in the flesh, forgiving, loving and blessing us by Father’s authority.

Forde draws us away from “upward traffic” theories, which would make the events of Christ’s life about rearranging some heavenly accounting books or parade of cosmic beings “up there”, to what happened “down here” in this world of flesh and blood. So what did happen? The Gospel message is astonishingly simple. The Son of God came down to earth to live a fully human life, as God had intended, but for his love and faithfulness we in our sin murdered him. However he rose again from  dead and continued to love and forgiveness us. Finally he ascended into heaven to be our human advocate before the Father and sent down the Holy Spirit upon his Church to speak his Word of love and forgiveness in his place.

But why was the Son of God’s incarnate presence necessary for our salvation and how does it effect it?  If we are not to commit the error of the “upward traffic” theories, salvation must be about changing things down here and changing us or our human condition. We need to connect the dots from the incarnation to the human condition at large and explain how the former changed the latter.

The Heart of Sin

We first need to begin with the problem. The problem of course is sin. However we want to avoid “passing the buck” of sin to the heavens or making it an “up there” problem, e.g. a problem of some unpropitiated wrath, some unpaid debt, some demonic forces lurking about, etc. We need to understand sin as a “down here” problem a problem involving us as living and breathing humans in this-worldly flesh and not as cogs in some abstract cosmic or metaphysical deductive scheme.

We begin then with the idea of wrath of God. Let us look at the classic Biblical exposition of the wrath of God from Romans 1:18-32.

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.

First, what is the wrath of God against? The answer is ungodliness and unrighteousness of men. What is so terrible about this unrighteousness? It suppresses the truth. What truth? The truth about God and his invisible nature as the Romans passage goes on to explain. Thus, men do not want to honour God as God or give thanks to him for their good (verse 21), but choose instead to create images and idols and worship these as God. So this is the reason for the wrath of God, how is the wrath of God revealed and effected? “…since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness…” (verse 28-29) and “God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity” (verse 24).

Thus at the heart of wrath is sin in us, and at the heart of sin is our own hearts which suppresses the truth, which refuses to believe or acknowledge or know the truth of God’s love for us and the source and giver of our good. Since the serpent in the Garden of Eden first planted the thought that God might not be entirely open or honest with us, we have been doubting God’s goodness to us. “Did God say…” that he loves you? Are you sure that the good things you enjoy comes from him? Or was it not rather this idol, your wealth, your talents, your power, your family, your nation, maybe even your own righteousness and good works! And thus from this heart of sin which suppresses the truth of God’s love comes idolatry where, in our mistrust of God’s goodness, we attribute our good to other sources of our own invention.

However we must be clear that this wrath of God which is expressed in God “giving us up” to your false desires and false ideas about God, exists only in our hearts. It is not a characteristic of God who in himself is pure love. Thus, it is not that God has ceased to love mankind or to seek to be their good, it is that mankind has turned away from God, and the refusal to have God as God or their good is to have God as Wrath. As the Lutheran theologian Paul Althaus explains,

The wrath of God then appears to be a figment of man’s imagination. Man sees not the true God but an idol, not God as he is in reality but only a dark cloud overing God’s face. This cloud, however, exists in man’s heart and is therefore not objectively but only subjectively present. It exists only in the false thinking about God to which Satan constantly seduces man.

The problem of wrath is therefore that of a sinful heart which clouds our vision of the true God; it sees God as wrathful and veiled as unloving and uncaring, twiddling his thumbs silently in the heavens.

Piercing the Veil of Darkness with Human Love

If the problem is our subjective lack of experiential knowledge, in the biblical sense, of God’s love, the solution must therefore be of living experience and knowledge of God’s love. God must show us in concrete and experiential terms, his love. As Philip Melanchthon explains in his Apology:

…a certain Victim was to come to make satisfaction for our sins and reconcile God, in order that men might know that God wishes to be reconciled to us, not on account of our own righteousnesses, but on account of the merits of another, namely, of Christ.

(bold mine)

Why was the “Victim” sent? Despite the satisfaction and reconciling God language, the final purpose is clear, that we might know that God loves us unconditionally by virtue of his grace, not on account of our own righteousness.

This knowledge however is not just a matter of announcing a set of propositions about God’s love. This is experiential knowledge which we need to know in the flesh, against our suspicious and rebellious hearts perennially casting doubts upon God’s word and love. God needs to show his love, not with mere words or booming voices from burning bushes, but with miracles and deeds which touches us at our hearts and which we can experience in our own flesh.

In other words only an all too human love which speaks our language, heart to heart, voice to voice, flesh to flesh, can communicate God’s love. And it is precisely this gift of human love which came down from heaven, full, perfect, and holy, as it was meant to be lived and practiced before Adam’s fall, which pierced the heart of darkness with its human life, lived in holy union with God’s own. He healed the infirm, fed the hungry, succour the poor, rebuked the oppressors, and above all, forgave the sins of his wayward people, telling them that God does love them all, not only with words but in deed.

However the heart of man continues to believe the lies of Satan, persuaded that this man was not from God but from the Beelzebul, here to subvert the present peace so necessary for our survival and bring chaos. In our sinful obsession to suppress the truth of God’s love, we resorted to bloody murder of the innocent Lord of Love that we might once for all silence any more talk of God’s unconditional love.

Yet the darkness of man’s heart cannot overcome the love of God, and God raised Christ from the dead, and he returned to break bread with us once more and speak his words of love and forgiveness. The veil in our hearts are taken away, we now understand, we now know, the truth of God’s love, and that not even the greatest crime of the blackest hearts of man can overcome it, nor can it ever negate its reality and its truth. And the naked love of God has broken through the veil through the veil of flesh, the cloud is lifted, and we understand the cloud for what it is, merely an illusion of our own sinful heart.

From the Empty Tomb to the Spirit Spoken Word

It could very well be objected here at this point that this is very well and good for Jesus’s own contemporaries who enjoyed his personal ministrations in the flesh. However none of us, who lived after Christ has ascended into heaven, enjoys this privilege. How then can we experience Christ’s concrete presence in our flesh? Especially in the light of how necessary I made this concrete experience to be?

It is here where we bring in the Holy Spirit which Christ promised to send after he has ascended into heaven. To the apostles and his disciples has been entrusted the testimony of God’s love in the life of the man Jesus Christ. In that testimony is exhibited the love and life of Christ in real historical space concretely continuous with us. That Word of witness becomes the source of Church’s power to speak and love in Christ’s stead and name. The Church becomes empowered to both speak Christ’s forgiveness of our particular sins and to perform concrete deeds of charity and love in aid of our particular needs in his name in our time, that we might experience Christ’s love as his own contemporaries did, in our own flesh. Ultimately however, the Church’s deeds and words successfully communicate the love of God to our hearts, not by arts of rhetoric or by cleverness of deeds, but by the Holy Spirit speaking in the words of the Church, to convict the world of sin, the sin of their rebellious hearts, and to pour the love of God into the same. (Romans 5:5)

How then should we understand the ascension of Christ? Why was it necessary for him to take his place at God’s right hand and serve as our high priest there instead of continuing his life on earth? This final step is necessary that our trust in God maybe complete, that whenever we turn our countenance to God, no longer would we see the darkness of a God hidden in silence, but we would see instead Christ at God’s right hand, his human love and his arms held out to us, encouraging us to speak, to raise our petitions and prayers to God, for in his name shall they be heard, by his grace they shall be received, and by this knowledge of Christ’s enthronement at God’s right hand, we have full assurance of God’s love for us. (For a more in-depth exposition about how in the Eucharist we offer our prayers to Christ who offers them to God and gives us the tokens of his Body and Blood as assurance that they are heard, see this old post of mine.)


As the title says, this is but a sketch of a theory of the atonement. There is still a lot more to be said about how the sacraments, the kerygmatic preaching and absolution communicates God’s love. There is also a lot of loose ends to tie up, especially about the sacrificial language which seems to be intrinsically an “upward traffic” language (I once sketched a conception of sacrifice as simply referring to the “sacrifice of obedience”, not meaning that Christ’s life and obedience was to off set some heavenly account book, but as simply the cost of dedicating all of one’s life and possession to God.). We shall also need to reframe the traditional language and categories of satisfaction into this account. (We could for example say that Christ’s life and death does “satisfy” the wrath of God in the sense that it overcomes or removes it by revealing to us his love stronger than judgement for us, etc.) Such a general framework of the atonement, as focusing upon what Christ atonement effects for us down here on earth rather than editing account books in the heavens, can also accommodate the insights of penal substitution and Christ bearing our punishment as ways to exhibit and communicate to us the consequences of our sin as I sketched out in this post on the Rectoral Theory of the Atonement. However the main gist of the theory are more or less here.

Perhaps in future I might develop it further, however the core conviction of this theory is simply that divine love for mankind needs to be mediated via human love to be effective, and to that end he sent his own son in human flesh, to speak and communicate his love to us.

Appendix: Some Considerations of the Metaphysical Framework for this Theory

I decided to separate this from the main body because it involves some discussion of a slightly more abstract nature and does not affect the main body of my argument.

I wish to revisit again the question of relating the concrete deeds of Christ to his contemporaries to us who are not. How exactly does Christ’s deeds to other people relate to us? One of the main appeal of “upward traffic” theories is that by reframing the events of Christ’s this-worldly life in “up there” terms, it universalises it at the same time. If Christ balanced some divine accounting book, he then potentially balances it for all of us since that accounting book is precisely a heavenly one which includes our account logs. If Christ defeated cosmic powers or pays off the devil, then presumably he has also disarmed the demons tormenting us too.

Thus by elevating the temporal events of Christ in eternal universal terms, the universalisation problem is solved. Christ’s life in the 1st century has an effect upon us because it effected this heavenly change which directly has an effect upon us.

It is clear that our “downward traffic” theory cannot help itself to such a solution since we insist that the divine action effects change directly in this world, not by rearranging heaven’s furniture.

It seems to me that some sort of resemblance nominalism maybe a suitable framework for understanding the theory sketched out here. The idea behind resemblance nominalism is that various particular things come under a general name or concept because they resemble each other in a certain network of relationship. Thus deductive and causal relationships are simply coordinated relationships between networks of these various resembling particulars.

Thus, we are confident that Christ will treat us the same way he treated someone in the Gospels is because of the resemblance between our situation and ours. The basic ontological “cement” of the universe is resemblances, and God’s actions tracks unto resemblances.

Interestingly enough the Lutheran Confessions seems to gesture at this logic in its exposition in the veneration of the saints. It argues that we ought to keep the feast days of the saints and uphold them as examples of recipients of God’s grace that we might likewise be encouraged. As Melanchthon writes in his Apology about the benefits of honouring the saints: “The second service is the strengthening of our faith; when we see the denial forgiven Peter, we also are encouraged to believe the more that grace truly superabounds over sin.” Thus the basic idea is that as Christ concretely demonstrated his love to great sinner like Peter, we, who are in a similar situation, might likewise be encouraged to believe that Christ will show a like love for us.

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