This is the fourth post in a section on atonement in my ongoing series, theology in bullet points. The first set had to do with God and Creation, and I have also finished a section on Christology.
A4. In his death, Jesus took humanity's place.
1. While sacrifice primarily had to do with the satisfaction of a god, it could also have an element of substitution, where the sacrifice in some sense took the place of the worshiper. So the substitutionary theory of atonement holds that, while we deserved to die, Christ died in our place. Great care should be taken with this idea, for most of the verses used to support it probably did not exactly mean this idea.
For example, to say that Christ died "for us" is not the same thing as saying he died "in our place." I can do something for your advantage or in your favor that doesn't exactly have the sense of me taking your place. While we were still sinners, "Christ died for us" (Rom. 5:8). This verse is not saying that he took our place as sinners. The point is that it would have made sense for Christ to do something for a friend, but he died for us when we were his enemies.
"For us" in this context is certainly not some mathematical sense of penal substitution, where Christ takes our punishment in some criminal sense to some precise degree. In its most rigid form, this idea requires a substitute for sin to suffer the exact quantity of punishment that each individual sinner deserved. Some interpret the line in the Apostle's Creed, "he descended to hell" in reference to Christ experiencing the punishment for our sins there in between his death and resurrection.
But there is no biblical text that either says or means anything of this sort. It is a medieval idea that traces to Anselm and that became part of the Reformation through John Calvin. It is neither a biblical doctrine nor one that ultimately fits with the character of God.
2. The statement, "he descended to Hades," should be understood to say that "he descended to the dead." There is no verse in the Bible that indicates Jesus suffered in Gehenna, the hell of fire. Hades is the Greek word for the realm of the dead, not the place of punishment for the wicked dead. So Psalm 16:10 and Acts 2:27 cannot be used to support this position. Similarly, 1 Peter 3:19-20 and 4:6, where Christ seems to visit the dead after his resurrection, say absolutely nothing about him suffering there.
We must therefore consider this notion of Christ suffering in hell to be one element of the medieval perspective that should also have been abandoned as unbiblical in the Reformation. We are a few centuries late, but the spirit of the Reformation is semper reformanda, "always needing to be reformed." Jesus did not suffer in hell to take our punishment. It is an unbiblical notion.
3. The New Testament at times approaches using transfer terminology in relation to Christ's death. For example, Paul says in Galatians 3:13 says that on the cross Christ became a curse "for us." Even here, Paul does not exactly say that our curse was transferred to him. He certainly does not say that our guilt or penalty was transferred. This is the language of defilement and abomination, language from a different worldview than our modern legal mentality. It is purity language.
Israel was cursed for not keeping its covenant with God (Gal. 3:10). But Christ redeemed Israel from the curse of failing to keep the covenant, and everyone else with them (3:13). His cursing on the cross in some way seems to transfer or absorb our curse. More precisely, it "redeems" or "pays the price" for our curse. Redemption in this sense is obviously a metaphor, and accordingly we must be careful not to over-read it.
The image of the scapegoat on the Day of Atonement is relevant here (Lev. 16). Two goats were involved. One was sacrificed, the other set into the wilderness. The one that was sent out into the desert in a sense transferred Israel's impurity and uncleanness to it and carried it away from the camp, so that the camp could be clean (Lev. 16:10). Again, there is a transfer of impurity here, but not a substitution of guilt. The goat absorbs the defilement of Israel, perhaps similar to Christ taking on our curse.
Other verses in the New Testament that are often read to indicate some straightforward substitution also likely have the broader sense of Christ being a sacrifice for us rather than some precise replacement for us. 1 Peter 2:24 says, "'He himself bore our sins' in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness," and 3:18 says, "Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God."
In these verses, Christ clearly dies "for us," but no precise equation is given of some legal exchange. It is not said that Christ is some exact substitute. Indeed, it is a corporate atonement that Christ makes here, formulated in terms of humanity as a whole rather than, as we immediately think with our Western glasses, an individual substitution.
Christ tasted death for us (Heb. 2:9). There is an overtone of substitution here to be sure. He did it on our behalf, but he also did it so that we would not necessarily have to die. Most of us still do, of course. But the power of death has been defeated in the long term. There is a "taking our place" element here and in all passages like this one.
So there is certainly an element in the New Testament of Christ taking our place. We are just prone to over-read it. It is not formulated in legal terms--Christ taking our sentence and criminal punishment. It is formulated more in terms of defilement. It is not formulated in individual terms. It is our sins taken together corporately. And it is not mathematical, as if God must account for every last ounce of penalty. In short, the Bible does not teach penal substitution in the manner of Anselm or John Calvin.
4. Here we should say a note about 2 Corinthians 5:21. Wearing our modern glasses, it is very easy to think we see a transference of sin and righteousness in this verse: "God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God." It is hard not to hear overtones of transference in this verse, for the verse is arranged as a kind of chiasm: 1) no sin 2) becomes sin so that 3) we with sin 4) become no sin.
However, if it had these sorts of overtones, they were likely a play on words whose more basic meaning would have been obvious in the context of the earliest church. So what does it mean for God to make Jesus "sin"? The most obvious meaning in a first century context would be for Jesus to be a sin offering "for us," as in Romans 8:3.
Similarly, the phrase, "the righteousness of God" had a history at the time as well, not least in Old Testament passages in Psalms and Isaiah where God's righteousness is parallel to his faithfulness and his salvation (e.g., Ps. 85:8-11; Isa. 46:13).  The righteousness of God is thus that faithful propensity of God to save and rescue his people. The context of 2 Corinthians 5 is full of such imagery, for Paul is talking about how God is reaching out to the world to reconcile it back to himself. 
The first meaning of 2 Corinthians 5:21 was thus likely, "God made him who did not have sin into a sin offering on our behalf, so that we might demonstrate the righteousness of God in Christ."
Still, it is difficult not to think that Paul has worded this verse in such a way as to evoke a kind of double entendre. "In Christ," we have gone from sin to righteousness. In some sense, Christ took on our sin as a sacrifice of atonement. This is nothing like a straightforward exchange or transfer. It is a poetic exchange.
5. The phrase "in Christ" brings us to a more fundamental category for Paul. Paul's writings have a strong element of our participation in the salvific (salvation related) actions of Christ. We are baptized "into Christ." We are baptized "into his death" (Rom. 6:3). When he died, we died. As he lives, so we are raised (Rom. 6:8).
The phrase "in Christ" leaps repeatedly from the letters of Paul. When we are baptized, we are somehow, mystically, incorporated into Christ's body. Christians constitute the body of Christ (e.g., 1 Cor. 12:13). We have been crucified with Christ (Gal. 2:20), which allows us to die to the Jewish Law and its condemnation. In Christ, we will all be made alive, just as in Adam we all died (1 Cor. 15:22).
This is something more profound here than a mere legal exchange. We actually die ourselves "in Christ." It is not just Christ dying in our place, it is us dying in Christ's body with him. We participate in his death. We participate in his life. This is not substitution. It is incorporation.
6. With this groundwork laid, we should dispense with all sorts of other foolish rumors about atonement. God the Son, Jesus, is the one who suffered on the cross, not God the Father. Jesus learned what it was to suffer death on the cross. God the Father, however, did not suffer on the cross.  God the Father did not learn something on the cross.
The view that God learned what it was like to suffer--indeed, the idea that, in Jesus, God learned what it was like to be human--assumes that God was not all-knowing beforehand. Rather, since God created the possibility of suffering out of nothing, God knew exactly what it was like to suffer from eternity past. He created suffering as a possibility. There is no distinction in God between experiential knowledge and head knowledge for God. This is a human distinction.
In the same way, the popular notion that "God turned his face away" when Jesus assumed our sins finds no clear basis in Scripture. It is rather a romantic notion built on a series of assumptions that go far beyond anything the Scripture says. It both involves a significant anthropomorphism (picturing God in human terms) and a legalistic sense of God's justice.
The Bible simply says nothing of the sort. Our sins cannot harm God. Our actions are just not that significant. God does not throw temper tantrums when people do not listen to him. This is the reaction of someone who is insecure, and Go is not insecure. When the Bible pictures God getting angry at sin, it is impressing the seriousness of sin for us, not for God. We diminish God if we think these images, drawn from humanity as pictures we can understand, literally picture God's mind. He is far greater than that.
In his death, Jesus took humanity's place. That is, he took away our stain and our shame, our curse. He became sin, a sin offering in fact, so that we might become truly righteous in him. And in him we are, if we have the Holy Spirit. We are in Christ, incorporated into his death and incorporated into his life. We have been crucified with Christ, and the life that we now live, we live in the faithfulness of the Son of God, who loved us and gave himself for us.
Next week: A5. In his death, Jesus defeated the power of death.
 The discussion of the phrase, "the righteousness of God" is extensive in biblical scholarship. As good places to start, see N. T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997) and Richard Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul (New Haven, CT: Yale University, 1993).
 N. T. Wright has effectively set out this interpretation in, "On Becoming the Righteousness of God," in Pauline Theology, D. M. Hay, ed., vol. 2 (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993), 200-8.
 A false idea known as "patripassianism."