In particular, over the past week, I have been examining different theories surrounding the atonement. Several theories stand out to me, some for good reasons and some for bad. One theory that sticks out as a good theory is the "Christus Victor" model of the atonement. In this model, Christ overpowered the devil in His death and resurrection. The devil saw the man Jesus and killed Him in exchange for setting mankind free, not fully realizing that he had no power over Christ. Thus, according to this model, the devil ends up with nothing. As others have pointed out, this is the model implied in Aslan's sacrifice in C.S. Lewis's "The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe". There are aspects of this model that are incredibly attractive, and it makes sense of quite a bit of the biblical data that I have seen regarding the atonement. However, it seems to me that it is deficient because it gives the devil too much credit. While there are aspects of this theory that definitely ring true, it makes me uncomfortable to think about Christ being paid as a random to the devil.
A second theory that I find attractive is the substitutionary atonement model, or the penal substitution model. In this view, Christ is our sacrificial Lamb, offered up by God on our behalf to atone for our sins. To fully appreciate this view, one would need to have a basic understanding of the Old Testament laws regarding sacrifice (Leviticus 1:1-7:21). This view, as well, makes sense of much of the biblical data. However, there are questions that need answered regarding this view. However, as a view of the atonement, the substitutionary atonement model appears to be sufficient as an understanding of the atonement, despite the questions.
A third theory of the atonement, and one that I find not-so-impressive, is called the moral inspiration theory. In this theory of the atonement, what matters is not so much salvation from our sins, but the moral good that Christ's sacrifice has done throughout history. On this view, the point of the cross was moral good rather than atonement. While I do believe that the cross has inspired moral good, the Bible clearly speaks about Christ's work on the cross as an atoning work (1 John 2:2). Thus, this theory is not biblical. Others have pointed out that, if there was ultimately no atoning work done on our behalf, how can the cross and the suffering of Christ be seen as good?However, as I was learning about the theory, I noticed something. When a conversation with an atheist turns to morality and the cross, this is typically the view that they default to. Why? First, because it is easy to say, on this view, that the cross and Christ's suffering was not a good thing if there was no atoning work. Second, this theory of the atonement does not require a commitment to Christ's divinity. In fact, the individual who first articulated the theory did not believe that Christ was divine. Again, this theory as it stands does not find support from Scripture, but that won't stop someone from assuming it in debate. We need to be aware of the assumptions that are made when we speak to others about the redemption found in Christ.
One final point: while it is helpful to study the doctrine of the atonement, we do not need to understand exactly HOW Christ atoned for our sins in order to receive salvation. We only need to understand THAT Christ atoned for our sins to receive salvation. We can disagree on theories of the atonement. At the end of the day, we can be sure that Christ atoned for us if we put our trust in Him.