in my mind, one of the great over-simplifications of 20th C protestantism is the belief that there is only one way to understand salvation.
and - yes - i realize that even saying that much already makes me sound like a heretic :)
see, substitutionary atonement [the atonement theology that talks about jesus dying for our sins to pay the penality of death on a cross as a sacrifice for all the world to be saved] is a great way of understanding what jesus has made available to us; but, it's not the only way.
neither is it the only atonement theology represented in scripture.
equally, biblically credible atonment theories include christus victor, cleansing theory, and theosis to name just a few of the several dozen that have recently returned to theological vogue.
what's important about all of these is that they are all attempts to illustrate [and textually support] the centrality of jesus christ to the redemption of the world.
what's important for us is to recognize that he hasn't just saved the world in one way, but makes salvation available in every way.
by which i mean that he was indeed a sacrificial offering for our sins,
but he also justifies us by paying the price for our sins [which is different, but accomplishes the same thing],
and he also pays our metaphysical debts [which is different, but accomplishes the same thing],
and he also reconciles us to himself [which is different, but accomplishes the same thing],
just as his death was an act of defiance, exhausting the powers of evil
and his incarnation and ascension were echoes of the image of god placed into us in the garden of eden - which ultimately re-awoke that image in us and allows us presently to be participants in the divine nature.
why is this important?
briefly? because i find that substitutionary atonement is an atonment theology that doesn't make any sense to our world. alan mann did a great job of unpacking this in his book "atonement for a 'sinless' society", wherein he made note of the fact that no one in our world believes in sin anymore - so, a gospel that begins by telling people they've been separated from god by sin isn't useful.
to some people it must sound like we're just making stuff up.
i mean, if no one believes that sin exists
and if those same people have a foggy/shadowy notion of a god that probably exists but is unknowable
then it must sound a bit odd for us to begin talking about being separated from that god by virtue of something that they don't believe is real
so we find ourselves trying to convince them that sin is real
and that their sin is real
and that they are sin"ful"
which is tantamount to saying "you're a crappy human being"
which most people don't particularly appreciated
so now, instead of introducing them to the life-giving and transformative power of jesus christ
we've told them they suck and are going to hell unless they listen to our abstract theological concepts
which rarely works
and mostly pisses people off
and then we get confused as to why no one wants to be a christian anymore in america?
however; if we begin to mine historical theology i believe we gain access to innumerable other atonement theologies that actually DO make sense to people today
like christus victor - which tells us about the story of a revolutionary rabbi who defied the imperial powers of injustice and advocated for the justice of god to be present with the poor, the lonely, the disenfranchised, and the unloved
or, theosis - which tells us that we are fundamentally spiritual people [a statement which rarely breeds any disagreement], and that we have been made in the shadow and image of the supreme being. theosis tells us that our image has been damaged, that we are spiritually separated from ourselves and from god, and that we can participate in the nature of god and in our true nature by embracing jesus christ.
if we are willing to hold loosely to our articulations of jesus' significance; and simultaneously unwilling to diminish his significance today; then i believe we can learn from our forebears about how else to biblically and credibly articulate how jesus saves so that people can get it and embrace it in our world today.