Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Atonement: The Healing View

Today I read the third of four views of the atonement in the book, Four Views: The Nature of the Atonement (Intervarsity, 2006). The third view is called "The Healing View," or as it is sometimes called, "The Therapeutic View," and is presented and defended by Bruce Reichenbach. This view focuses on the OT theme of "shalom," which in Hebrew does mean peace--the definition with which we are most familiar--but more broadly means "wholeness," or something along those lines.

The argument goes like this: before sin entered the world, humans had "shalom" with God, each other, and creation. However, when sin entered the world there came a devastating rift between God and humankind, humankind and one another, and humankind and creation. In other words, the shalom of God granted to his creation was all but destroyed. This breakdown of "wholeness" is why God either causes or allows such things to exist as discipline, punishment, sickness, and calamities. These are the just response of a just God to the injustice of sin. Furthermore, the restoration of this breakdown is the point of the OT sacrificial system for it was instituted, in essence, to restore shalom where it had been shattered.

However, animal sacrifices could only take this restoration so far and thus Christ, the infinitely perfect Lamb of God, came to offer himself as the means of the ultimate restoration of shalom. Thus, when a person believes in Christ, the result is that he or she is reconciled to God, to others, and to the created order. In other words, for him or her, shalom is restored. This is the central meaning of the atonement.

Some 12 or 14 pages into his essay (pgs. 129-30), Reichenbach summarizes his view by saying that atonement as healing means, first and foremost, that sinners are restored to God because Jesus Christ has absorbed their sin, and second, that the consequences of their sin--most notably the wrath of God meted out against them--is also absorbed in Christ and so removed. These two interrelated meanings have many consequences but they are at the heart of what the atonement was all about.

Greg Boyd's response was predictable: he said a few nice things, then dismissed the view and argued for why his view (Christus Victor) is better. Joel Green's response was somewhat more stimulating. For instance, he asked why, in Reichenbach's view Jesus had to die. I asked myself the same question as I read the essay. Of course, Reichenbach did argue that it was because the blood of bulls and goats could only go so far, whereas the precious blood of the Lamb provided for perfect restoration of shalom. But this doesn't get to the heart of the matter: why, in this view, is the shedding of blood necessary at all for the restoration of shalom? He may have a good answer, but I did not perceive it in his essay.

Green's final question was even more penetrating: "In what sense can we speak of 'healing' as a way of making sense of the saving work of Jesus on the cross?" (155) In answer, he briefly shows that there are a plethora of "healing" motifs in the NT surrounding the subject of salvation, but that these are implications of the atonement and not the central meaning of it. "In short, it is far easier to argue that salvation itself must be understood as healing or that healing is really a consequence of salvation than to argue that healing is the means by which salvation through Christ's (life and) death is made available" (155). Well put.

As much as I appreciated Green's response, I thought that Tom Schreiner really put his finger on the heart of the matter: "The fundamental problem with the therapeutic view is that it centers on human beings instead of God himself. The God-centeredness of biblical revelation is shunted to the side and the consequences of the atonement for human beings comes to the forefront" (149). I agree with this critique wholeheartedly. As I read Reichenbach's essay, I just could not escape the feeling that it envisioned the event of sin, the consequences of sin, and the solution for sin in an all too human way. The consequences for us in these things are there, and they are very important, but they are not at the center. And this book is supposed to be about what's at the center. At many points in the essay I found myself thinking, "Indeed, the restoration of shalom is an important, and biblically defensible aspect of the atonement, but it's a consequence of something else and not the center."

So, in the end, I feel that this view gets many things right but that it misses the main point: the central problem with sin is that it is a rejection of, and offense to, the Most Holy God. His law, his justice, his wisdom, his goodness, his holiness--his very being--is violated every time sin is committed and therefore it must be punished in a way commesnsurate with the violation. Since "the wages of sin is death" (Rom 6:23), it follows that "without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins" (Heb 9:22). God graciously allowed for the blood of bulls and goats to atone for our sins, but in the end the problem of sin demanded an infinite solution--the blood of Jesus Christ, the infinitely holy and perfect and spotless Lamb. Once sin and its consequences are removed in Christ, by grace through faith, then shalom is indeed restored. But the heart of the matter is not our healing; the heart of the matter is the vindication of the glory and justice and mercy of God.

There's so much in this brief note that begs for further comment but I need to go enjoy dinner with my beautiful bride! If what I've said is confusing, please write and let me know so that I can clarify. Otherwise, you can always look up Reichenbach and read him for yourself. As I said at the end of the last note, regardless of your view, let's all (1) strive to remain faithful, and close, to the actual words of the Bible, and (2) let us not fail to worship this God who made a way to deal with our sin and reconcile us to himself in Christ.


  1. Charlie,
    I am currently doing a research paper on the atonement. I have read the book you mentioned but I have a question for you. What would be the denomination believing in this view? I am from Switzerland but live in the USA. thank you

    1. Thank you for the question, Martial, and know that I prayed for you this morning. As with all of the views, it's not so much that a particular view is held by a particular denomination, but that particular views are held by people in a variety of denominations and non-denominations. I don't know the scene in Europe, but in American, psychology and psychotherapy are all the rage, and thus this view has gained traction with a number of people. However, when carefully examined it does not stand up to the test of Scripture and this I tend to view it as an implication of the atonement and not central to the meaning of the atonement.

      I hope this helps, and again, know that I paused to pray for you this morning.

      With joy in Christ,