One of the things I'm going to miss about the Lenten season is Tony Jones' series of reflections on the atonement. He wraps things up with an article at Patheos.com on the subject of "If Jesus' Crucifixion is the Solution, What's the Problem." After surveying the main options, he concludes:
As with all theology, talk of the atonement is conjecture. God's truth is ultimately a mystery to which no human being is privy. However, as we approach Good Friday, Christians rightly consider the crucifixion and its implications. May we do so with grace and good humor.
For my part, it's clear. I'm not interested in a God who needs to bargain with the Devil, or in a God who is bound to a legal system, no matter how just it seems to us. The crucifixion was the single most pivotal event in the history of the cosmos. In it, we see that the true character of God is love. God loves with an immensity that is hard to fathom. So much, in fact, that he forsook much of that divinity in order to find solidarity with you and me.
So, without coming right out and saying it, Tony basically sides with the Moltmannian interpretation of atonement. I find this totally unsurprising, and as I've noted, that's a perspective with which I'm very sympathetic.
But it's worth spending just a moment to pursue another dimension of this, namely, that what's underlay all of Tony's reflections is the home truth that what you think of the atonement depends on what you think of the nature of Sin. This was a point that my theology teacher Gabe Fackre used to make all the time. Models of atonement are dependant on theories of original sin. The penal substitutionary model is rooted in a belief that sin is found in the affront our disobedience makes to the honor of God. The Christus Victor model is rooted in the idea that somehow we are captive to Satan, from whom we must be rescued. The model of Christ the teacher assumes that our main failure is ignorance of the truth, and Christ is our true pedagogue.
One reason why, at the end of the day, there is value to be found in all of the various models of the atonement (including the penal substitutionary model), is that they each reflect different facets of how we come to understand the problem of the human condition. We needn't choose one to the exclusion of the others, since they all represent some aspect of our universal human struggle. We our slaves to our passions, we are ignorant of the truth, we do affront God through our evil, and we are in some way captive to forces beyond our own capacity to free ourselves.
My own attraction to the Moltmannian account of Christ's solidarity with humanity on the cross is rooted in my recognition, at the end of the day, of how powerless I really am over the forces that buffet and beat me, how out of control I am on so many levels, and how the knowledge of Christ's solidarity with my suffering reminds me of a Grace that transcends my own capacity to deal effectively with my failures. But knowing that, I am also reminded that I fail because I am ignorant, because I am disobedient, because I am malicious, and because I am venal. Other models of the atonement draw me back to the contemplation of my own limitations, and enable me to see more clearly why it is important that, in Christ, God is in solidarity with me, even to the very depths of my despair.