Ranters of Mow Cop

Ranters of Mow Cop

Monday, 18 February 2019

What UK Evangelicals think about the atonement

This is another piece based on a compilation of data from the various surveys of the Evangelical Alliance 21st Century Evangelicals research Programme 2011 -2016. A version that is easier to download and print can be found here


Bebbington suggested one of the distinguishing features of the evangelical movement has always been what may be termed crucicentrism, a stress on the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. This emphasis may have originated in the European pietistic roots of 18th Century revivals, but rarely is expressed among evangelicals in sacramental form or devotion to the body and blood of Christ. Indeed when evangelicals celebrate holy communion it is referred to as the Lord's Supper or breaking of bread and is a symbolic shared meal described as a memorial of the passion of Jesus who died for our sins. In a number of our surveys we posed a range of specific questions around this issue some of which sought to unpack more detail about the various emphases and atonement theologies held by UK evangelicals today. In recent years theories of atonement have been debated and certain accounts have proved controversial. Our data show that the vast majority of evangelical believers accept and map their personal experience of Christ unto the penal substitution account. However there are some who are theologically educated or reflective, who countenance multiple perspectives or feel uneasy about taking the idea of blood sacrifice to appease an angry God too far.

The clearest evidence that the cross is important for all evangelicals is the finding that

  • 99% either agree (12%) or strongly agree (87%) that the message of the cross has made a huge difference in their own lives . Does belief touch society? - survey Easter 2011

In the same survey almost as many endorsed a penal substitution view.

  • 91% strongly agree (and a further 5% agree) that on the cross Jesus bore the punishment for my sins

Even among younger Christians surveyed for the "Building Tomorrow's Church Today" report in 2016

  • 89 % agreed that On the cross Jesus received God's punishment for our sins (81% agreed a lot – 8% agreed a little)

In Confidently sharing the gospel? - August 2012

  • 90% agreed (27%) or strongly agreed (63%) that the central message of the gospel is that on the cross Jesus bore the punishment for my sins.

In Does belief touch society? - Easter 2011 we tested out some other formulations of atonement theory.

  • 91% strongly agreed (and a further 6% agreed) Christ's blood is the final and only effective sacrifice for our sins

  • 89% strongly agreed (and a further 9% agreed) that Jesus defeated the powers of evil through his death

  • 84% strongly agreed (and a further 11% agreed)that God Himself was suffering in Christ for us in the crucifixion

  • 59% strongly agreed (and a further 36% agreed) that Jesus' sacrifice inspires Christians to make sacrifices for others

  • 39% strongly agreed (and a further 11% agreed) that at the cross God poured out His holy anger upon his son.

The most interesting response in this section was to the statement that at the cross God poured out His holy anger upon His son. Just 51% of people agreed with this particularly stark formulation about propitiation, with 22% unsure, and nearly 27% rejecting it. Women were less likely than men to agree, while those aged 35-55 were less likely to agree with the statement than younger people or older people. There was a significant variation in terms of denominational beliefs about the statement: members of the Pentecostal tradition and the Church of Scotland had high levels of agreement (50%+), compared with Anglicans, Methodists and those from emerging churches (less than 30%).

Although just a few denied the statement that Jesus' sacrifice inspires Christians to make sacrifices for others, the number strongly agreeing (59%) with the statement was significantly lower compared to most of the other statements, suggesting that this is not seen by many evangelicals as the central message of the cross

In Evangelical about Evangelicalism - March 2016, we framed a set of questions designed to delve deeper into interpretations of the atonement. The different theological emphases were mainly expressed in terms lines taken from of hymns and songs frequently sung in evangelical churches.. In all probability this would tend to raise the level of endorsement by evangelicals... which as the table shows was overwhelming. To underline the point that atonement theology remains a distinctive feature for evangelicals an additional column shows the proportion of the 140 or so respondents who did not identity as evangelicals who were totally convinced on each point.

Table How far do you believe in these statements?

Answer Options

I'm totally convinced

I accept and believe this in general terms

I have some doubts or questions about this

Non evangelicals who were totally convinced

On the cross as Jesus shed his blood and died the wrath of God was satisfied





The crucifixion is the greatest turning point in history





On the cross Jesus defeated all the powers of evil





Jesus died on the cross to take the punishment for my sins





Love so amazing so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all





Jesus died on the cross as the perfect sacrifice for the sins of the world





All who come in faith find forgiveness at the cross





answered question


skipped question


There were 283 comments on this block of questions; one can assume that most of these came from respondents who were more theologically literate than average, an more likely to be in church leadership roles.

95 responses highlighted the importance of the resurrection alongside the cross as central to the Christian Gospel. For example:

The cross cannot be separated from the resurrection. Only when the two are combined can one say that this was the turning point of history.

In Scripture the revelation of the cross is always accompanied, fulfilled and completed by the resurrection of Jesus. We do not worship a dead Saviour but a living Lord.

I believe the death and resurrection give us the greatest turning point in history and that the two shouldn't be separated as the coming of God's Kingdom depends on both events. The same applies to 'On the cross Jesus defeated all the powers of evil" - one of the greatest powers of evil is death itself.

But also

I think we jump too fast to the resurrection and don't stop and wait at the cross to take in how much pain Jesus takes on behalf of a suffering world. We've lost how to lament.

38 responses concentrated on the idea that there were a number of approaches to atonement and explanations of the purpose and power of the crucifixion to be found in Scripture and tradition and that mostly these were complementary and to be welcomed.

Modern evangelicals throw the baby out with the bath water - it's not just that it's correct to believe Jesus satisfied the wrath of God (although it is); it's that ALL these voices can be affirmed. It's the typically termed 'liberal' evangelicals that are not only wrong in denying penal substitution; they're actually *missing out*. Theirs is a deficient view but also a dissatisfying one.

The statements seem somewhat PSA ( penal substitution atonement) loaded. I don't have a huge problem with PSA, but as one approach to the atonement amongst many, a partial explaining in terms that we can grasp but which aren't necessarily 100% literal or accurate, because of the other problems raised if they are.

I believe there are many ways of explaining and understanding the cross and atonement and that they're not mutually exclusive. Often I find that the Church today makes this a very personal and individualistic thing and in doing so might sometimes miss the point.

The atonement can be seen in many ways - penal substitution, satisfaction, christus victor, etc, and I wouldn't want to be excessively dogmatic here!

I believe the cross is multi-faceted, both absorbing and defeating evil (Christus victor), and satisfying God's righteous anger at sin (Christus mediator), as well as being an example for all disciples (Christus exemplar).

Substitutionary atonement is only one way of understanding the cross, there are other biblical understandings, just as important, and some more understood in today's cultures, e.g conquering the powers of evil.

Penal substitution was the central theme of a further 38 comments, mostly endorsing this emphasis although 9 were clearly against the doctrine and 3 questioned or had some doubts on the matter.

I think that it is vital that we believe in penal substitution, that Jesus died on the cross for the forgiveness of the sins of those who have faith in him, taking upon himself God's righteous anger against sin. This isn't just 'a theory' of the atonement, it is the heart of the gospel.

Christ is my substitute on the cross. He died so that I don't have to.

It is not the Roman torture device that is worth remembering but the substitutionary death of Jesus Christ that's important.

I am totally convinced of penal substitutionary atonement, understanding that it is not the only work that occurred on the cross and that we should not necessarily regard any of these works as more or less significant than the others.

And with a different view

This is very hard to explain. I consider myself "evangelical" because I believe in the resurrected Christ and think the lives of others become complete when they do the same. I previously held a very mainstream atonement theology. Now I would view things very differently regarding how the cross works, and also believe the Bible can in fact support that alternative view. I still consider the cross pivotal in how we are brought home to the God who made us, shown how to live in His love, and reconciled with him in our sin and brokenness.

Difficult to understand how God who is love can decide that his Son must be killed even if it is because he "so loved the world". Easy to see that primitive cultures think that their god can be satisfied with a blood sacrifice (very simplistic), but harder to see that this is actually how it works with God who is so beyond us in everything

I don't find penal substitution in Scripture. I regard it as a human interpretation of the atonement that may in some contexts be useful in helping people to understand but is certainly not the only true model. I am concerned that in contemporary culture it can do more harm than good.

The Bible nowhere says that Jesus was punished - that would be the opposite of "justice". "The chastisement of our peace" does not say the punishment of the sacrificial lamb. How could the lamb be punished? Nowhere in OT or NT is there any such suggestion. Jesus stood in the way of the wrath of God.

The comments contained several (17) which discussed the doctrine of propitiation, or the satisfaction of God's wrath. Some wanted to affirm the importance of this view of the atonement but a majority of them expressed a disagreement or unhappiness (9) or at least a questioning (3) of this emphasis.

I believe the Bible teaches propitiation, that is, that there is an offence against God that needs to be dealt with (and was by Christ's sacrifice) as well as the removal of sin from man. The cross satisfies the wrath of a holy God as well as cleansing man from sin.

The wrath of God is against sin not people. I now find it illogical to believe in a God of love who would punish and take His wrath out on His only Son. God's wrath was not satisfied by seeing His Son die in agony - that is not the God of love I know and worship. Jesus did not therefore 'kill' Jesus. The sin of the people - us - did. Yes, His was the perfect sacrifice for the sins of the world and we can only find forgiveness at the cross.

I believe that Jesus did choose to fulfil God's plan by agreeing to go to the cross so that man could be fully in relationship with God. I do not think this was linked to God's anger and wrath being satisfied - rather so that God's love could be fully glorified.

I am unsure about "propitiation" as a basis for a theology of the cross.

Substitutionary Atonement is primary way of explaining the Cross and its efficacy, but should not be taken as a sacrifice to appease God's Wrath.

I understand that no 2. is a line from a song which I enjoy very much but if pressed I am uncomfortable with the use of the word 'wrath'.

There were 9 comments which specifically mentioned approval of the Christus Victor theory of atonement albeit recognising that the full victory is in the "not yet".

God is overall sovereign, but the devil still has limited control.

I would use the word 'overcame' rather than 'defeated' as the eschaton is ahead of us.

I have moved to a Christus Victor perspective - and believe this was the belief in the early church.

I also am attracted to some of the 'Christus Victor' views of atonement

The theme of redemption and reconciliation of sinners and the establishment of a new people was foregrounded in 9 of the comments.

Jesus was God's gift of love to us as He died on the cross because Jesus shared this overwhelming love for us with His Father and demonstrated perfect obedience to His Father. It was an act of His own faith in God the Father who's redemptive power would raise Him and all of us with Him. This perfect love removes our fear of death and prepares us for, and paves the way to heaven and empowers us in our lives before we leave this earth.

God redeems a new people for himself through His Son and by His Spirit - I know this and see it every week in our church life

One of the comments specifically included the notion of "ransom" in a multi-faceted account of the atonement.

I do not believe that Jesus died to satisfy His Father's wrath, but to be the sacrificial offering to release us from Satan's power - He ransomed or redeemed us. God was in Christ reconciling us . I do not believe forgiveness was ever a problem for God for any who would come humbly to confess their wrongdoing, ie agree with His view. I see He forgives His people many times in the Old Testament when they that come in repentance back to Him. His desire has always been for restoration of relationship, at measureless cost to Himself.

8 responses expressed a Calvinist view that the atonement is limited in it's effect to the number of God's elect.

I'm a Calvinist and believe in a limited atonement.

The cross atones for the sins of all those whom God will ultimately save, not for those who will be condemned. In practice, this means that since we never know the final outcome we can regard anyone as saveable but need not burden ourselves unnecessarily with the outcome of our evangelism since unbelief/lack of apparent salvation is not ultimately our responsibility but God's decision.

I generally lean more towards 'definite atonement' - i.e. Jesus' death was sufficient for the sins of all the world but only efficient for the elect who come from all kinds of people in the world. I do believe the Bible is unclear on this matter and am not 'totally convinced' and still think it generally right to speak of a sacrifice for the sins of the world.

A few comments (7) drew out the cosmic significance of the cross for the redemption of the whole created universe.

Any explanations of the cross that get too mechanical in how atonement 'works' makes me uncomfortable- I think it's too great and seismic an event for us to really comprehend so concretely. And also I feel there's more going on on the cross than just atonement for personal sin- that feels like a very me-centred way at looking at the central event in all of human history!

The word "sacrifice" was mentioned in 22 comments and was central in about a third of these. However, there is an ambiguity in the term as some usages seem rooted in the idea of substitutionary blood sacrifice as practised in the Old Testament, while other references are more in the ordinary language of "making sacrifices" or giving up something for the sake of others.

It also acts as the sacrificial model for the behaviour of the church and individual Christians

I don't see the Father punishing Jesus for my sins, but Jesus offering Himself to clear up the mess my sins have caused and the mess in my heart. The Father accepts me because of that sacrifice and its effect on me.

Working through some questions that suggest the cross was to show man that ongoing sacrifice are no longer needed. God does not require a sacrifice.

Half a dozen comments suggested that the respondent was unhappy to talk about the atonement without reference to the need for repentance on the part of the sinner.

"All who come in faith find forgiveness at the cross" leaves repentance out.

No sin is too great for Jesus to forgive when genuinely repented of. However there can still be consequence on earth for the sinner.

Repentance is necessary along with faith

A small number of comments wanted to stress the inclusiveness and solidarity that was shown (or won) for all humanity through Christ's suffering on the cross. Such thinking can not be easily considered as central to traditional evangelical understandings of the atonement and tend towards universalism.

I believe that Jesus died to redeem the world. The history of the Bible shows a continuous widening of people's understanding of God's inclusiveness.

Jesus crucifixion is the perfect expression of Father's love and commitment towards me and towards all mankind.

Jesus underwent physical, mental and spiritual torment beyond anything any human will ever have to endure, so he can identify fully with any horrible experience we have to go through.

In summary then it remains the case that the Cross of Christ remains of central importance to evangelical Christians in the UK. Almost all accept and easily use the Penal Substitution account of the atonement. However, most also understand the value of other explanations of what was happening through the cross, and the variety of comments suggest a rich multifaceted understanding of the death of Christ, as well as a desire to locate it in the context of the victorious Resurrection. There are two main issues where our panel is divided or uneasy. The firsts is around the effectiveness of the atonement (whether "for all for all my Saviour died" or just for the elect. The second is around the notion of an angry or wrathful God who needed to be satisfied or propitiated by the blood sacrifice of his own son.


Virus-free. www.avast.com

No comments:

Post a Comment

all comments are moderated so may take some time to appear