I believe that, along with a powerful understanding and presentation of the resurrection, we must have a firm grip on the doctrine of substitutionary atonement. Some current evangelical writers find this teaching to be out of sync with post-modern times. The concept of God needing sacrifice is abhorrent to them as it was to the fathers of liberalism in the 19th century. However, for the apologist, substitutionary atonement speaks to the following objections to the Christian message.
First, substitutionary atonement speaks to the objection that it is a logical contradiction that a loving God who is infinite would create a world in which there is suffering.
The doctrine of substitutionary atonement teaches us that evil is not an inherent trait in creation. God did create a world that is good. Evil arises within creation by free choice.
The presence of evil is abhorrent to God. However,the elimination of evil requires a very deep response from God. Here the depth and complexity of Christianity must be grasped, for it is so easy to retreat into what Lewis, in his drinking analogy, called “Christianity and water”. No, Lewis is saying, you must take your Christianity straight.
Evil produces actions that violate God’s holiness, righteousness and justice, that is, God’s core nature. Evil actions harm people, the creation and the evil person himself. To overcome evil God himself had to become involved in the fullness of his Trinitarian life. This involvement went to the length of joining with humanity in the Incarnation, and satisfying the justice of God in death.
Second, substitutionary atonement speaks to the objection that we suffer and God could help but doesn’t. Substitutionary atonement removes the god who somehow is distant from our suffering, unable or unwilling to intervene to stop it. I believe God is grieved, that when Jesus wept he showed the sorrow and suffering of God for all our suffering. But God the Father did not stand by somewhere out there and watch disease and famine spread and wars be waged.
The LORD said, I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them…” Exodus 3:7, 8
Christ came to rescue us. Christ took on himself our grief and our sin so that it might in the end be swallowed up in his victory. I would propose that the concept of Christus Victor is totally empty, simply a metaphor (for what?) without substitutionary atonement. But,Christus Victor is a powerful reality as we see Jesus our Pascal Lamb, who was on the cross in my place, who overcame the grave so that I also might participate in his life, and be given everlasting life. Truly, Christ meets me in my suffering and overcomes it.
Finally, substitutionary atonement speaks to the re-definition of evil and guilt. The sacrifice of Christ Jesus is the reason our guilt is removed. This culture has listened to Freud and believed him when he taught that there is no real guilt. If there is no God, then it does follow that there is no guilt. And, if there is no guilt there is also no evil. But people know better. The category of evil inserts itself into every morning newspaper, and sociopaths are the only ones who do not groan under the weight of wrongs done to others. The forgiveness of God does not come simply because “that is his job.” No,to overcome evil sin must be dealt with, and sin can only be dealt with by God himself taking sin on himself, which he has done in the sacrificial death of Christ at the cross. Because this sacrifice is final and complete we can truly come to the throne of grace for help in time of need.
This is why many, and I think rightly so, consider John 3:16 to be the key verse of the Bible: for God so loved the world that he gave his only son that whosoever believes on him might not perish but have everlasting life.
God responded to our plight because he loves us, and he did not respond with a metaphor. He responded by entering our pain, taking the guilt of our sin upon himself, and by washing our guilt away with his blood in a sea of mercy, forever. Because of the cross we can understand and experience, as Malcome Muggeridge somewhere said, that the universe is awash in love.
Ultimately then, we must not think for one moment that an effective 21st century apology to Canada will hide the cross, or come to the cross later, after many warm things are said. Rather, we must understand that a 21st century apology to Canada must be cruciform, shaped by the cross and cross centered.