The Atonement Theology of Ronald Goetz
Perhaps no Christian doctrine is finally of greater consequence than the Christian doctrine of the atonement. To answer the question, “Why did Christ die?” compels one also to say why he lived, who he was, and what he sought to effect and accomplish in his living and dying. Hence, atonement theory is a focal point around which answers to every other great theological question cluster and call for resolution.
This website collects the principal works of Ronald Goetz, whose career as a theologian, professor, pastor and writer spanned four decades. Goetz’s perspective on the atonement is unique, profoundly challenging—even revolutionary— and deserving of wide discussion and debate.
Why did Jesus Christ have to die? Why is there need for atonement between God and humans? From the earliest times, Christian theologians East and West linked the need for atonement to the fall of Adam and Eve. Augustine of Hippo, for example, held that the consequences of Adam’s sin were catastrophic for all creation. It is due to Adam’s sin, Augustine wrote, that “human nature was made subject to all the great corruption that we see and feel, and so to death also.” As a consequence, the first humans “came to be disturbed by turbulent and conflicting emotions, and so became very different from what [they] had been when [they] dwelt in Paradise before [their] sin” (Civ. Dei 14.12; Dyson translation). Decay, death, evil—Adam’s sin brought all this into what had been a peaceful and perfectly ordered earthly creation. Some version of Augustine’s teaching on the fall and original sin has remained, even to this day, essential to virtually every Christian doctrine of sin and so to every theory of the atonement.
Goetz believed that such ideas were no longer sustainable. Our theological ancestors could take the historicity of the Genesis creation narratives for granted. We cannot. The natural history of life on earth tells a different story. Human sin, Goetz argues, did not make the world what it is. Human beings, with all sentient life, have from their first appearance been engaged in an unremitting struggle for survival. Humanity, evolving in a world in which violence and violent struggle are the bases and inescapable preconditions of existence, inherited a tendency to sin before it could make a choice between good and evil. In such a world—a world in bondage to decay—sin and death cannot be the result of our first parents’ perversion of their freedom; rather, they are a function of biological existence, an epiphenomenon of creation. In short, while it may be said that human beings are responsible in their bondage to sin, it cannot be said that human beings are responsible for their bondage to sin. What is more, the creation that God declared good, the creation to which God has bound himself irreversibly in the freedom of his love, and which God intends to bring to consummation, is not the fictional world of the Augustinian imagination. It is this creation, this world, a world that God, as part of his ultimate purpose, created as it is—transitory, incomplete, and bound to decay and death.
Yet if this is the case, then it is not human sin, but divine responsibility that is the first consideration—indeed the decisive consideration—in diagnosing the need for atonement. Atonement—at-one-ment, the drawing together and reconciliation of God and humanity—is not a one‑way street.
Goetz’s atonement theology is grounded from first to last in the love and sovereignty of God. In eternity, God chose human beings for fellowship with himself. Creation is an outflowing of divine love: Human beings, created in God’s image, are to be united to God, raised from temporality and finitude and granted a share in God’s eternal being. This, for Goetz, is the gospel: that the God who loves in freedom wills to bestow the gift of God’s own life on humanity. A destiny so glorious can only be a gift of divine grace. But it is a gift given with a task. God’s will is that humans should be co‑creators of their own being in free partnership with God. There is no creativity without pain and sacrifice. And so it would be for God’s beloved. Human creatures, with God as their Lord, partner and friend, would forge their being in the crucible of struggle and finitude. All of what humanity and creation must endure in being prepared for their ultimate destiny with God, the “weal” as well as the “woe,” is part of God’s sovereign purpose—and hence God’s ultimate responsibility (Isa. 45:7).
Such ideas lead Goetz to a radically new theory of the atonement. Atonement is an act of divine solidarity, sacrifice, and reconciliation, manifested and effected in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, in which God not only atones for human sin, but makes atonement to an anguished and suffering humanity for what God has permitted in pursuit of his purpose. “All alienation, all hostility, all outrage finally comes to focus in the God‑man. He bears human sin—and God’s anger. He bears evil’s onus—and human anger.” “The cross,” writes Goetz, “is not only the focal point of divine wrath against us; it is also the focal point of human rage against God.” Atonement is not one‑sided; atonement is reciprocal.
This website brings together Ronald Goetz’s most important articles and lectures on the atonement. His fervent desire was that the church might face the issue of divine responsibility—what he called the “divine burden”— squarely, without defensiveness, evasion or denial. As a man of faith, he was convinced that the result would be the discovery of “even deeper dimensions of the righteousness of God.”