122. Evaluating Atonement Metaphors

The Atonement Metaphor Evaluation Tool introduced here has been developed from the course “Contextualized Communication of the Cross” which I have taught since 2012.

It is not uncommon to hear gospel presentations that are either incomplete (e.g., “Jesus died to bring us to God”), inconsistent (e.g., “Jesus took our punishment so that we could be adopted as God’s children”), incomprehensible (such as my initial attempt to present the gospel in a Sindhi setting[i]), or even misleading (such as reducing Jesus’ suffering and death to an example we are to follow). This post introduces the Atonement Metaphor Evaluation Tool which can be used to  assess metaphors for completeness, internal consistency, and biblical integrity, as well as for resonance[ii] with the intended audience.

The tool uses a technical and rational approach to ensure that we do not confuse our listeners with inadequate presentations of the gospel. At the same time, I want to emphasize that explanations of the cross are not the heart of the gospel – Jesus is. Eternal life is relational (Jn 17:3). If we are “in Christ” (relationship) we have a heavenly father (relationship). This is important because the point of telling the story of the cross is not primarily to understand how Jesus saves us. The cross is not just a transaction, an accomplishment, getting something done, a gift, or a benefit for us. The story of the cross is told to lead people to faith and a commitment to Jesus, not just so we can appreciate what he did for us, to receive the benefits and then get on with our lives.  Faith in response to the gospel is analogous to a wedding ceremony. A wedding is not about signing a certificate to make the relationship official. Getting married is about giving yourself totally to someone else in a covenantal bond. The mechanism of the wedding ceremony is an important part of the process , but comparatively minor; the relationship is everything.

The goal of atonement metaphors is not to understand how the cross “works.” Rather the point is to recognize and express the hope of the cross which leads to commitment to Jesus. A focus on an intellectual, theoretical mechanism for the cross can be deadening – like a bride absorbed with the details of the wedding rather than the significance of the relationship. The purpose of a gospel presentation is to provide a vision of the cross that leads people into relationship with the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Nonetheless, the importance of the gospel invitation compels us to provide a clear, comprehensible, and resonating explanation of the meaning of the cross.

Integrating Text and Context for Gospel Communication

Any presentation of the gospel that introduces people to the significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection requires the interaction of two primary factors. First, the message needs to be shaped so that it does not come across as an irrelevant or strange idea to the intended audience and instead resonates with them using familiar language and concepts. Everything they hear is processed through cultural filters which includes their values, needs, concerns, and interests. The goal for the evangelist is to discover contextually sensitive metaphors of the cross that make sense in light of the way the people relate to each other and to the ultimate purposes of life. We see this contextual sensitivity in the New Testament through the variety of explanations and images from everyday life that are used to describe the impact and meaning of the cross. Baker and Green[iii] identify 5 categories of biblical metaphors borrowed from the public life of the ancient Mediterranean world that illustrate this principle:

  • Court of law (e.g., Justification)
  • Commerce (e.g., Redemption)
  • Personal Relationships (e.g., Reconciliation)
  • Worship (e.g., Sacrifice)
  • Battleground (e.g., Triumph over evil)

Paul’s reference to an altar with the inscription “To an Unknown God” in his speech in Athens (Acts 17:23) is an example of such contextual sensitivity. Paul uses an image of a judge (court of law language) to call people to repentance and faith claiming that the basis for Jesus’ authority to judge is grounded in his resurrection from the dead (17:31). The art of creating receptor-sensitive resonating metaphors has been discussed in previous posts.[iv]

The second primary factor is integrity with God’s word. An appropriate metaphor will truthfully communicate the meaning of the cross in a manner that faithfully represents biblical teaching.

An atonement metaphor is a lens through which we adequately describe God’s acts of resolving sin and of bringing humans back to a life-giving relationship with God. It is only as we are reoriented to God through the cross that our relationship with self, others, and the world can find true fulfillment and purpose.

“Atonement” used as an Evaluation Tool

The tool used to evaluate the appropriateness of an atonement metaphor and as a guide for the development of such metaphors is derived from the definition of “atonement:”

In Christian thought, the act by which God and man are brought together in personal relationship. The term is derived from Anglo-Saxon words meaning “making at one,” hence “at-one-ment.” It presupposes a separation or alienation that needs to be overcome if human beings are to know God and have fellowship with him. As a term expressing relationship, atonement is tied closely to such terms as reconciliation and forgiveness.[v]

From this definition, atonement can be summarized to include five distinct aspects: atonement is “an act /which removes /the cause /of separation /resulting in restoration.” This becomes an evaluation tool by which metaphors can be gauged for consistency and coherence. For example in a “deliverance” metaphor:

  • “Act” refers to the divine action that achieves atonement (e.g., deliverance)
  • “Removes” describes what the “act” accomplishes (e.g., raised from spiritual death),
  • “Cause” refers to what caused the “separation” (e.g., sin),
  • “Separation” refers to the problem that requires correcting (e.g., spiritual death),
  • “Restoration” is the result of the atoning “act” (e.g., alive in Christ)

By considering the five distinct aspects of this “deliverance” metaphor, the communicator of the gospel can ensure that there is consistency between the aspects in order to provide a coherent presentation. Each aspect can then be evaluated to see if it maintains integrity with God’s word and resonance with the intended audience.

To aid in the evaluation or construction of atonement metaphors, an Atonement Metaphor Evaluation Chart has been prepared which focuses on both primary factors: resonance with the audience, and integrity with God’s word. In addition, it provides an important logical assessment to determine if the metaphor used to describe the “act” is consistent with the explanations for “separation” and “restoration.”

The content of the metaphor is considered using the five aspects of the Atonement Evaluation Tool within five columns: “an act /which removes /the cause /of separation /resulting in restoration.” The following questions are asked:

  • Column 1: What is the divine act that achieves atonement?
  • Column 2: How is the removal of the cause of separation explained?
  • Column 3: What is the cause of the separation?
  • Column 4: How is separation itself described?
  • Column 5: What does restoration look like?

The appropriateness of the metaphor is considered by referencing the rows. In each of the five columns the metaphor is evaluated to determine if it

  • Maintains integrity with God’s word,
  • Resonates with the intended audience, and
  • Fits together and logically makes sense.

The chart guides us through a step-by-step evaluation of atonement metaphors so that we can avoid dissonance, that is, a lack of logical connection due to mixed metaphors. For example, if the “Restoration” is that God adopts us as children and the “separation” is that we are estranged from God, it would then be inconsistent to suggest as the “act” that Jesus died to pay our penalty. There is cognitive dissonance because “Restoration” and “separation” depend on a relational metaphor, while the “act” is forensic. In order to maintain metaphorical consistency, the “act” requires a relational metaphor (e.g., as our true and faithful “older brother,” Jesus brings us back into relationship with the Father). Alternately, “Restoration” and “separation” could be adjusted with a forensic image (e.g., we are guilty and deserve punishment – “separation” – but Jesus pays our debt so that we can go free – “restoration”).

Each section of the chart can be evaluated  to determine the appropriateness of each aspect of the atonement metaphor as it relates to biblical integrity (first row), resonance (second row), and logical consistency (third row).


The first example is an exegesis of a Bible verse from the English Standard Version without a particular audience in mind. It demonstrates how the gospel message is shaped for the 1st century Jewish context, using images and language that have significance for that audience (which the ESV seeks to represent through its choice of English terms). The second and third examples demonstrate the contextualization of the gospel message for a Papua New Guinea tribe and for a people group in a Pakistan context respectively.

  1. Romans 3:23-25 ESV

“…for all have sinned (cause = turned away from God – Rom 3:10-18) and fall short of the glory of God (separation = unworthy, unholy), and are justified (restoration = made right with God) … through … Christ Jesus, whom God put forward (act) as a propitiation (wrath removed) by his blood (act: blood = death), to be received by faith.”

  • Act(1) – God offers (“puts forward”) Jesus
  • Act(2) – Jesus’ blood (= sacrifice / death)
  • Removes – the wrath of God (“propitiation”)
  • Cause – sin (= rebellion, turning away from God’s path – Rom 3:10-18)
  • Separation – falling short of the glory of God (= unworthy, unholy)
  • Restoration – made right with God (“justified”)

It is unlikely that the language of the ESV (justified, propitiation, blood) would be understood by, let alone resonate with, the average English speaker; explanation and paraphrasing would be needed. Nonetheless, the terminology in the original language had a history and conveyed images that would have been understood by the readers. Without explaining “how,” Paul declares that Jesus’ sacrifice (blood) removes “sin” so that the wrath of God is no longer directed towards those who have faith in Jesus, and so they are made right with God. While the immediate reference may be to a sacrificial metaphor[vi] (Jesus’ blood removes sin and thus saves from God’s wrath), a penal substitution metaphor could also be used to explain the gospel message in the verse for an audience that has a strong legal presence (like in individualistic Western contexts).

  1. Peace child[vii]

In Don Richardson’s first attempts at telling the gospel, the message was incomprehensible to his audience. In fact, according to their value system, Judas was understood to be the hero. By using their tradition of the “peace child” as a gospel analogy, Richardson identifies Jesus as a significant and respected part of their culture.

  • Act – God sent the divine peace child (who was killed) and resurrected him to show his determination and desire for reconciliation
  • Removes – the estrangement
  • Cause – (implied offense or disaster in the past – communal)
  • Separation – at war with or estranged from God (communal)
  • Restoration – peace and blessing

The theme of this metaphor is reconciliation (cf. The Prodigal Son) and is internally consistent. Rather than an individual orientation calling for personal repentance, the focus is communal. “Sin” is not focused on specific moral actions, but on being estranged from God. The estrangement is removed by embracing the Peace Child (= Jesus) as God’s representative with whom they identify and to whom they conform their lives.

  1. My Epiphany[viii]

My initial communication of the cross used a Penal Substitution metaphor which did not make sense as good news to the listeners because it presented God as less gracious and less willing to forgive than God as portrayed in Islam with the titles “All Merciful and All Gracious.”

  • Act – Jesus took punishment to appease God as Judge
  • Removes – took our punishment on himself
  • Cause – because of the wrong things we have done
  • Separation – condemnation before God requiring punishment
  • Restoration – God no longer condemns but gives favor

After realizing that the metaphor I was using did not communicate a resonating message of the gospel as good news, I chose the image of the New Adam in Romans 5.

  • Act(1) – Jesus identifies with us in the incarnation
  • Act(2) – Jesus identifies with us in our shame and death
  • Act(3) – Jesus’ resurrection opens the way to God for all who are “in Christ”
  • Removes – takes on the consequences of our choices / disobedience
  • Cause – shame for not living as God requires
  • Separation – estrangement, no status as children
  • Restoration – Jesus brings us into relationship with God as Father through the resurrection as we gain our new identity of being “in Christ.”

Rather than judicial, the new metaphor is relational with the dual themes of restoration and reconciliation. Restoration of the status that God intends for humanity as images of him, and reconciliation to him as our Heavenly Father. This strongly resonates with Sindhis who welcome the vision of God as Father who loves them and desire their best.


[i] See CCI post No. 85: Shaping the Gospel Message so that it Resonates.

[ii] Resonance refers to the way the hearers perceive and respond to the relevance of a message. Resonance goes beyond comprehension to describe the impact of the message upon the faith (worldview, values and beliefs) of the reader or listener.

[iii] Baker, Mark D. and Green, Joel B. 2011. Recovering the Scandal of the Cross: Atonement in New Testament and Contemporary Contexts, 2nd Edition. Downers Grove: IVP Academic. P. 41.

[iv] See CCI post No. 85: Shaping the Gospel Message so that it Resonates, 87: Making the Gospel Understandable and 88: The significance of Metaphor in Communicating the Cross of Christ.

[v] Lyon, R. W., & Toon, P. 1988. “Atonement” in Baker encyclopedia of the Bible (Vol. 1, p. 231). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.

[vi] After a lengthy analysis of the use of the Paul’s term for “propitiation,” Leon Morris concludes that “the balance of probability is strongly in the direction of seeing in ιλαστηριον in Romans 3 a general reference to the removal of the wrath of God, rather than a specific reference either to the mercy-seat, or to the Day of Atonement ceremonies” (The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross, Third Edition, 1965. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. P. 198).

[vii] See the summary of Don Richardson’s Peace Child metaphor in CCI post 88: The significance of Metaphor in Communicating the Cross of Christ.

[viii] See CCI post No. 85: Shaping the Gospel Message so that it Resonates.

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Author: Mark Naylor DTh (missiology)

I have been with Fellowship International since 1984. Karen and I served in Pakistan for 14 years and returned to Canada in 1999. I have continued to be involved in Bible translation traveling twice a year to Pakistan. My current role with Fellowship International and Northwest Baptist Seminary is as Coordinator of International Leadership Development