Is Atonement Essential for Christianity?
Ken Pulliam asks if penal substitution theory makes sense, which I think may be the wrong question for Christians to be asking. Of course, not being a Christian, perhaps I shouldn't opine. But there are Christians who seem to be able to live without it (or any atonement theory) easily enough, and on the basis of the bible itself.
A preliminary remark about penal substitution theory, however, which states that Christ died to satisfy the demands of God's justice. It is biblically based, to be sure, but so are satisfaction theory (that Christ died to satisfy the demands of God's honor) and ransom redemption theory (that God tricked the devil by offering Jesus as a payment, and Satan was foiled by the resurrection). It's not terribly hard to shoot down a theory based strictly on justice (which is what Pulliam's post is all about), but the bible on whole is more complex, and as we know, the demands of honor often oppose those of justice.
But must any of the three atonement theories be taken as essential for Christianity? Stephen Finlan rejects all of them, believing that the Incarnation is the central doctrine of Christianity, while atonement is something Christianity can and should do without. In place of atonement, he suggests the principle of theosis, whereby "the Word became man so that you might learn from man how man may become God" (see his Problems with Atonement, p 121). He emphasizes that he's not advocating gnosticism; in his opinion, "those who teach that every person is as divine as Christ is (such as the gnostic gospel of Philip) lose sight of the Incarnation, and cannot really be called Christian" (ibid, p 4). He's simply advocating what orthodox thinkers like Athanasius and Clement of Alexandria maintained, that people may be deified on account of the "the Word becoming man". He writes:
"Theosis has a biblical basis, and this should not be forgotten. There is the promise that 'you may become participants of the divine nature' (II Pet 1:4); there is the command to become perfect, Godlike (Mt 5:48); there are the prophecies of doing greater things than Jesus did (Jn 14:12) and of revelations yet to be seen (Jn 1:51). Theosis means each person incarnating divinity in his or her small way, inspired by the direct Incarnation of divinity that took place in Galilee and Judea." (ibid, pp 121-122)So perhaps, ironically, the bible carries within itself the seeds for transcending/rejecting atonement theories. In which case forgiving freely becomes divine indeed.