It may seem odd that Christian theology is still struggling with what actually happened at the cross. We’ve had two thousand years to consider the matter. One would think it not that difficult to come to some conclusion, especially since it stands at the heart of Christianity - the sina qua non, if you will.
But the cross event is unique. And it is called foolishness by the Apostle Paul. So perhaps it is not unusual that our explanations don't necessarily measure up to the event itself. I won't criticize those who struggle to comprehend the cross. I've found that I’m certainly not immune from wondering about the wonder of it all myself.
I don’t wonder about the historical accuracy of the event or who exactly was involved. Questions of this nature don’t interest me. The crucifixion itself and the divine nature of Jesus have long ago been settled questions - settled at least to my satisfaction and most who consider themselves Christian. But the question of why still lingers, and the why raises questions of what actually took place - beyond the physical crucifixion of the Son of God.
Why did Jesus have to die? Could not have God reconciled the world to himself some other way? When we enter this realm, we encounter differing theories of the atonement, and now even the word theory sounds strange. Don’t we know for sure? Are we still speculating about all this? The use of the word theory seems dangerous in itself. But that is what we seem to be faced with - atonement theories.
I was first confronted with the whole notion of atonement theory when I discovered that my new-found theological hero, Gerhard Forde, was accused of denying the vicarious satisfaction of Christ. Now, as it turns out, I don’t believe he really denies it so much as challenges us to think of it in an entirely new way. But I will get to that later. The point is that vicarious satisfaction is but one of several theories of atonement, all of which come in various flavors. It is the most common and the one I had always believed without question. It was also the one I assumed Luther taught, and what had been taught down through the ages.
Christ had to die because the justice and wrath of God against us had to be satisfied. The sins of the whole world had to be paid for, and the sacrificial death of Jesus was the only price acceptable. Theologically, this is called vicarious satisfaction - Jesus taking our place in satisfying the justice of God the Father. It is also sometimes called substitionary atonement - Jesus substituting himself for us in order to make us acceptable to God.
So I was faced with the question, why would a Lutheran theologian, especially one of Forde’s stripe - someone obviously devoted to Luther’s theology of the cross and the radical preaching of the unconditional Gospel - why would such a person seem to question the vicarious satisfaction view of atonement?