I've been a Christian for fifteen years and through most of that time if anyone asked me why Jesus had to die then I'd explain it in terms of punishment and substitution; we deserve eternal punishment for our sins but Jesus took the punishment in our place and placated God's wrath. In the jargon this is called penal substitutionary atonement or PSA. It's the idea of the cross bridging the chasm of sin that separates fallen humanity from a righteous, holy God.
All the books that I read in that time reinforced this view that 'what Jesus did for me' could only be explained in one way. And I think the situation is much the same today among evangelical churches. Look at these online definitions of atonement that I found the other day, which don't really cover any other ways of thinking about the atonement:
To atone means to make amends, to repair a wrong done. Biblically, it means to remove guilt of man... Man is a sinner (Rom. 5:8) and cannot atone for himself. Therefore, it was the love of the Father that sent Jesus (1 John 4:10) to die in our place (1 Pet. 3:18) for our sins (1 Pet. 2:24). Because of the atonement, our fellowship with God is restored (Rom. 5:10).
God's merciful action of atonement on behalf of his people... is rightly called "substitutionary," putting his Son in our place and so remaining just but also demonstrating his mercy.
If you're still with me after all that then I guess you'll remember the furore caused by Steve Chalke and Alan Mann when they wrote in their book 'The Lost Message of Jesus' that 'the cross isn't a form of cosmic child abuse'. Here's a longer quotation (from page 182 of the book):
“John's Gospel famously declares, “God loved the people of this world so much that he gave his only Son” (John 3:16). How then, have we come to believe that at the cross this God of love suddenly decides to vent his anger and wrath on his own Son? The fact is that the cross isn't a form of cosmic child abuse – a vengeful Father, punishing his Son for an offence he has not even committed.”
Chalke and Mann are rejecting the modern evangelical view that the atonement is about punishment. They give a brief insight into a different way of thinking about the atonement, a view called 'Christus Victor' which, some would argue, has been around since the earliest days of Christianity. In recent times the Christus Victor view was brought back into the mainstream by a Swedish pastor and then bishop called Gustav Aulén, who published a book about it in 1931. Briefly, the theory describes Jesus' death as a victory over the devil and all the powers of evil, releasing people from the grip of these powers (you can read a more recent defence of the Christus Victor idea here. Aulén claimed that many of the early Christian theologians and also Martin Luther understood Jesus' death in this way. Here are a couple of extracts from Luther's writings:
'He has redeemed me from sin, from the devil, from death, and all evil. For before I had no Lord nor King, but was captive under the power of the devil, condemned to death, enmeshed in sin and blindness.' (From the Large Catechism)
'He has delivered, purchased, and won me, a lost and doomed man, from all sins, from death and the devil's power.' (From the Small Catechism)
So Chalke and Mann were not really saying anything new. Yet their different way of understanding the atonement was treated by some as a modern, liberal heresy. I was thoroughly guilty of this 'historical ignorance' myself; looking back, I'm amazed that before reading Chalke and Mann's book I knew nothing of other ways of explaining the atonement. But it's sad that some people whose knowledge of Christian history ought to be rather broader than mine were so upset by Chalke and Mann's claims. This is what two very well-known Christian teachers and writers said about 'The Lost Message of Jesus':
'This is breathtaking coming from a professing Christian... God sent His Son to rescue me from His wrath and make me His child. How did He do it? He did it in the way Steve Chalke slanderously calls "cosmic child abuse." ' (John Piper)
'He [Chalke] is giving away the heart of the Gospel. I would never agree to give my approval to anyone who denies penal substitutionary atonement to be an elder at a church I attended, or to be a pastor or Bible teacher, or to teach at a theological seminary where I had influence on the appointment.' (Wayne Grudem)
I'm obviously happy for people to defend what they see as the best way of explaining why Jesus died and what his death achieved. But to say that someone presenting a different view is 'breathtaking' and 'giving away the heart of the Gospel' is an unhelpful attempt to close off debate, I think. They must know that the Christus Victor view has an ancient heritage, and also that many Christians from other traditions (especially the Eastern Orthodox) don't really emphasise the punishment-substitution idea? We should be open about our doubts and disagreements, treating with respect and grace those who hold different views to our own. Uncertainty and questioning are not enemies of Christ.