Reclaiming the Cross this Side of Paradise: Atonement in the Postmodern Church

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Penal substitutionary atonement is a wide-spread, wildly acknowledged, and often-repeated understanding of Jesus’s death on the cross in white, western Christianity. Found in inside the church in hymnody, Sunday school lessons, church pulpits, as well as in influences in the wider culture, it is considered by many to be the orthodox understanding of Jesus’s death on the cross. What is little known is that not only did this theory of atonement take significant time to develop within the history of Western theology, it includes some troubling theological implications.

It also remains true that many Christians, particularly in mainline Protestant denominations, are stumped when it comes to articulating in any coherent way the meaning of Jesus’s death on the cross for their faith and practice. In part, this deficit is due to the fact that while substitutionary atonement swims in the waters of popular white western culture, many mainline congregations do not necessarily hold to a penal view of atonement. Yet, they also do not have a compelling alternative. Additionally, for many Christian traditions, outside of fundamentalist and evangelical traditions, the atonement is not a defining point of doctrine. The cross might be thought about briefly on the way to Easter Sunday, or with a casually mentioned, but marginally understood phrase such as, “Jesus died for my sins.”

In the absence of a theologically rich account of the cross, Christian communities are at risk for being unable to articulate in any meaningful way how exactly this fundamental theology makes any difference for what it means to be Christian, and ultimately to the reality of people’s lives and the salvation of the world.

This paper proposes that the postmodern church must reclaim a robust theology of the cross in three ways: embracing multiplicity and variety, reconnecting the cross to Jesus’s ministry and therefore the first-century Greco-Roman context in which he lived, and articulating a nonviolent atonement. It offers practical resources to assist local congregations in teaching the topic.


Doctor of Ministry




Johnson, Sarah Anne (2019). Reclaiming the Cross this Side of Paradise: Atonement in the Postmodern Church. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from


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