I Don’t Know Why the Atonement ‘Works,’ But I Know It Does

Christ taking our place on the cross doesn’t always make sense. It doesn’t have to.

Of the many positive things one can say about the analytic philosopher and devout Catholic Eleonore Stump, this one stands out: She is no coward. During her career, Stump has tried valiantly to address the perennial problem of God’s goodness and omnipotence in the face of evil. And now she has published a book, Atonement, in which she dares to offer a new theory of this pivotal doctrine.

Not unlike professional climber Alex Honnold, who scaled 3,000 feet without ropes up the daunting face of California’s El Capitan rock formation, Stump is a person of uncommon skills (intellectual in this case). But unlike Honnold, she is glad to have a few ropes—especially those tethered to Thomas Aquinas—to help her grapple with daunting topics like theodicy and atonement.

Unfortunately, it is difficult to summarize her new view as we might with other atonement theories. For example, the ransom theory argues that Jesus’ death ransoms us from the hold of Satan. The exemplary theory saves us because we are moved by Christ’s sacrificial death to take up a life of sacrificial love. Penal substitution is about Christ paying the just penalty for our sins so that we might be united with him. And so forth.

Stump’s theory could be summarized like this: God is love from beginning to end. This, of course, sounds trite, but in her hands it is anything but. Using Aquinas as a guide to the meaning of divine love, she argues that her atonement theory deals not only with our guilt but also our shame. Not only our suffering but also the suffering our sin has inflicted on others. Not only our past sin but also our current and future sin. Not only our alienation from God but our alienation from others.

Stump puts it …

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