Rooted at the heart of the Christian faith is the stubborn declaration that Jesus "died for us." Precisely why his death came to mean so much to Christians has, however, been a subject of wonderful and diverse exploration over the ages. The twentieth-century Christian writer and apologist C. S. Lewis noted that the exact meaning of Jesus' death would always lie beyond theories about its meaning.
"Somehow" by his death on the cross, Christians have come to trust that Jesus spans the divide between the human and the divine. "Somehow" by his death on the cross, Christians have come to believe that he bridges the moral chasm between our imperfection and God's perfection. The ideas explored by Jesus' first followers and then hammered out later by generation upon generation of Christians are often called theories of the atonement, even though the term atonement is relatively recent.
Christians have come to understand the "how" in the "somehow" power of Jesus' death in three general ways: forgiveness, inspiration, and revelation. This first cluster of atonement theories understands the cross in terms of human sinfulness and God's forgiveness. The second group of atonement theories understands Jesus' sacrifice in terms of how it inspires his followers to similar acts of love, integrity, and self-denial. The third way of understanding Jesus' death sees it in terms of the way it shows the depth of God's love for us and God's readiness to be with us in suffering.
This study explains the three understandings and encourages participants to appreciate the mystery, the "somehow," of our atonement through Jesus Christ.