Engaging Olson on the objective theories of the Atonement

I thought I was done posting about this subject for a while, but apparently I’m not the only one thinking about this! The following comes from Roger Olson, someone whose views I often find quite compelling. What does he think about the atonement?

…I do think denial of any objective-transactional aspect of the atonement is dangerous to the gospel.  Purely subjective theories fall short; they cannot account for how the atonement takes care of the guilt problem.  They are inextricably tied to an optimistic, perhaps even Pelagian, view of humanity when taken alone.

To me, anyway, the gospel IS that Christ died for our sins in the sense that his death made it possible for God to forgive sinners righteously.  Take that away and the preaching of the cross gradually (or suddenly) fades away.  So does the gospel.

via About the atonement | Roger E Olson

Olson seems to be working from popular but deficient definitions of two words.

The first problematic understanding is of the nature of sin: he still views sin primarily in terms of “guilt”. Then again, maybe it’s his definition of guilt that’s the problem. I believe that sin is real, and that it is the common enemy of God and man. But that’s just it: sin is the enemy, not the sinner. The idea that “the guilt problem” means that mankind with its sinful behavior is a fire that God needs to put out, that is, until Christ died, is the fuzzy logic behind the “objective-transactional” views of governmental and penal substitution theories of the atonement. But it’s not a logic that holds up very well if we take at all seriously the way that Jesus taught us to talk about God, namely as a Father. Any interest I might have in “tak[ing] care of the guilt problem” whenever my young son commits a sin (such as lying) would be nothing less than a perversity on my part. I do care about his guilt, but only insofar as it stems from my real parental concern for his well-being and moral development. He may be an offender, but a good parent first wants to address the fact that his child is a victim of his/her own acts. If my daughter stepped in to offer herself to receive my son’s punishment, and I took her up on her offer, either to demonstrate my sense of “justice” (which sounds disturbingly like the lex talionis superseded by Jesus himself) as in the governmental theory or, admittedly much worse, because I had an otherwise insatiable need to punish someone, anyone, for my son’s misdeeds, I would not be a good parent, much less the wise father of consummate love taught in the New Testament. No, sin is a sickness that must be removed from our souls, not “cancelled” or “paid for” through some clever “transaction”. The sinner must be cured, not left to decay as punishment for being sick. Olson and Piper, as rarely on the same page as they are, unite to disagree with this assessment just as emphatically as I reject theirs. [Note: the preceding paragraph has been edited slightly since publication for clarity.]

The other misunderstanding (puzzling to me in the extreme) that Olson and Piper agree upon is what the gospel is: “…the gospel IS that Christ died for our sins…” Please tell me, then, how Jesus could have been preaching the gospel from the very outset of his ministry! When did he once proclaim his death as the good news? This is massively, bewilderingly wrong, attributable only to the common tendency to allow Pauline theology (esp. from Romans) to trump that of the Gospel writers and their Jesus traditions (in point of fact, I don’t think Paul was so mistaken on that either, but that’s another discussion). The good news of the gospel is of the coming of the Kingdom of God, which was always that God’s heart would soon rule the day: the mighty would be brought low and the lowly exalted. Jesus’ gospel was extremely social; from what we can tell, it was conceived of as a political gospel as well (the return of Israel’s national status), so perhaps it’s best just to say that it was conceived of as a holistic new world order. It didn’t happen quite like they (even Jesus, apparently) thought it would. But in any event, in the Gospels we are never given any indication that Jesus proclaimed that his death was to bring about the Kingdom of God by taking the punishment for our sins. How else could Jesus tell people who called him “Lord” that he never knew them? It was those who “do the will of [the] father,” those who learn to obey their father who take part in the order of the Kingdom. What was Jesus’ solution to the sin problem? In the earliest Gospel’s first statement of Jesus’ ministry in Mark 1.14-15, it was “Repent and believe in the good news!” And notice that “good news” there couldn’t mean “trust in my work upon the cross.”

Olson’s quoted remarks are based on a presupposition: Jesus’ atonement must have been objective, or else Jesus’ death didn’t take care of our guilt. This implies that he is uncomfortable with admitting that perhaps Jesus’ death did not take care of our guilt in a substitutionary fashion, making it possible “for God to forgive sinners righteously.” A righteous father will always forgive his wayward children, will he not? He will punish or love (depending on the circumstance) his children’s misbehavior right out of them; what he will not do is make excuses for it.

Ok, I pledge it: I’m laying off of this subject for the foreseeable future.

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  • Paul D.

    Good post. Analogies to real-world parenting usually illustrate the point nicely, since we can expect God to be *better* than a human parent, not worse!

  • Tom

    Thanks again. I wish there were more voices out there like yours. It seems this traditional understanding of the gospel represented here by Olson and Piper is endemic to evangelicalism.

  • Paul D.

    I just came across the Youtube channel of Archbishop Lazar Puhalo of the Orthodox church in Canada. He strongly condemns the doctrine of substitutionary atonement and says that in his experience of decades-long service in the church, this doctrine above all is responsible for turning Christians into atheists.

    (His Youtube account is “allsaintsmonastery”.)

    • Thanks, Paul. This is one of those areas in which I feel a strong affinity
      with the Orthodox church.

  • Scott Gray


    You’ve peaked my interest in atonement. I ran some of your ideas up the flagpole at scripture study, and thought I’d share some of the results, if you’re interested.

    We started with ‘what is sin?’ Here’s where we got:

    –original sin
    –relationship screw ups
    –falling short of the mark of other’s expectations
    –bad thoughts
    –ethic/moral ‘not following the rules’
    –participation in structural sins
    –honor/shame issues

    Some of these lead to guilt, and some don’t. Guilt is a feeling. Atonement seems to alleviate the feeling of guilt, but doesn’t necessarily improve the situation that led to sin (for instance, forgiveness from Jesus, while still hating your son-in-law, doesn’t really improve anything.) it seems atonement can act as a reset button, but only if you’re willing to be changed in the process, and address the situations that lead to sin.

    I don’t know what Olson thinks the ‘guilt problem’ is; I only know of his writing from what you’ve written here. Problems have solutions. Maybe Jesus is the solution to the guilt problem, in which case atonement is really rooted in feeling better.

    Guilt is, I think, a predicament rather than a problem. Problems have solutions; predicaments have responses. At my house, we respond to the ‘guilt predicament,’ rather than solve the ‘guilt problem.’ Sounds like that’s what you do at your house, too.

    Most of the sins talked about in my scripture study were of the ‘broken relationship’ type (second was the ‘falling short of expectations’ sins). Some of the stories were about being wronged (by the storyteller), and the perpetrator of the perceived sin either feeling guilty, or not. Forgiveness for my crowd was closely tied to whether or not the perpetrator felt guilt. Once again, guilt for may of these stories is a predicament, not a problem.

    I find atonement to be an in-house Christian affair, rooted in theological principles. For me, personally, it has no value unless it manifests itself in a positive social principle (such as restoration of a broken relationship, or the confrontation and response to a structural sin). And it’s definitely an in-house issue when someone feels a theological interpretation is ‘dangerous to the gospel.’

    Then there’s honor/shame, and early Christian households, and how sin and guilt relate to these, but that’s a different issue…

    Thanks for the stimulus for a great scripture study.

    Scott Gray

    • Thanks for your remarks, Scott! I really like how you frame guilt as predicament. The Atonement ultimately brings about our reconciliation with God, but as you seem to agree, more as the beginning of the conversation than the entire “transaction”: where the rubber meets the road is in the subjection of our wills to what is right, to make voluntarily restitution. What a chasmic difference there is between Christian theologies that view sinners as dirtbags deserving pain and death in need of a good lawyer to find a loophole and those which view sinners as the pained and dying sick in need of a doctor to heal all their diseases!

      Thanks again for the feedback – I’m glad I could contribute to your group’s interesting discussion!

      • Scott Gray


        One of my friends from NYC who grew up Jewish told me about the principle of teshuvah. it goes like this: you perceive that something you said or did in a personal relationship was wrong (usually because they tell you so); you acknowledge to the wronged person that what you did was wrong and ask forgiveness; you make amends as far as possible; and then you take your perception, and acknowledgement, and amending, and make them part of your future relationship interactions.

        This process makes good sense to me. It’s not really about guilt or forgiveness, although both might be part of the process, but rather about reconciling with your relationship partners. You go through this process (I would say response to sin-as-predicament, not solution to sin-as-problem) because you care about person in the relationship, not because you want to stop feeling guilty, or need to hear the other person forgive you. Hopefully, if you are both earnest about the teshuvah process, your relationship is improved. Probably not restored to an earlier configuration, but at least improved.

        As you say, the recognition of one’s sin, and atonement, are just the beginning of teshuvah.

        Thanks again for the food for thought.


  • I really wish Paul hadn’t written 1 Cor 15:3! It’s spanners like this which destroy any attempt at making a rational theology work because the blood-thirsty theologians will say “See, it’s right there, the DEFINITION of The Gospel IS Penal Substitution!”. But Jesus’ death wasn’t a substitute at all and the little word “for” just won’t bear that weight.

    Aside from all the problems with that view, some of which you’ve covered Steve, there is that “according to the Scriptures” clause and the fact that the passage continues to say that it is the resurrection (not the cross) which is the key to justification. I know of no theologian who can explain that without affirming participationist atonement.

    Christ conquered sin for himself (by never sinning by the Spirit) and conquered death for himself (by being raised by God) AND WE MUST DO THE SAME in order to share in the same blessing (Rom 8:13). His life and death was “for us” in the sense of a leader paving the way to life, not a proxy walking the way instead of us.

    • Theodore A. Jones

      Well……. not exactly, but it is good to find others who are strongly in opposition to the doctrine of substitutionary atonement and any variation of the concept. This doctrine is entirely false and is the lie which has been exchanged for the truth of God about Jesus’ crucifixion. I have to admit that it does the best job of keeping people out of God’s kingdom that I know of and this is a begrudging admission. But there is something to note about a lie. Since it is an opposite explanation of truth in regard to relevant facts the facts themselves can expose the lie for what it is. The base assumptive of the doctrine of substitutionary atonement is the conjecture that the crucifixion of Jesus’ has annulled all claims that maybe assessed by pre-existing law as infractions of that law noted as sin. However this conjecture is a direct contradiction of a phrase that is a statement of fact by Jesus himself. “When he comes he will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin”. The doctrine of substitutionary atonement teaches the exact opposite by saying that all issues of guilt relative to sin have been resolved just by Jesus having been crucified. For the doctrine of substitutionary atonement to be true there MUST not be a revisit of the exact same issue this doctrine asserts to have been resolved by the person of authority who supposedly has resolved the issue. From this non-hypothetical illustration it is easily understood how the Bible has countered a false doctrine. 
      So then understand me. The Bible in order to be true has already recorded in it every objection to every false doctrine, but it also has recorded only a single proposal of salvation and any deviation from it is false. This does not mean that all translations are correct, but it does mean that the truth about Jesus’ crucifixion is not going to be decided by comparing one contemporary conjecture of salvation with another. All churches teach the same error. Every proposal of salvation that teaches that the crucifixion of Jesus is a direct benefit is false.