The Mystical Theory of Atonement

This entry is part 6 of 13 in the series Pastoral Soteriology

(A continuation of the series, A Pastoral Soteriology.)

Continuing the historical foray into the waters of poorly constructed atonement theories leads us to what can only be understood as a truly heretical contribution known as the “Mystical Theory” of atonement.  This theory has been contributed to by many philosophers and pseudo-theologians over the years.  Central among them was Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834), who utterly denied any aspect of a vicarious atoning work of Christ.

Before diving into the nuts and bolts (loose as they are) of this theory, the nature of mysticism should first be defined clearly.  By definition, that which is “mystic” is that which is “of the nature of or pertaining to mysteries known only to the initiated.”  (“mystic.” Dictionary.com Unabridged (v 1.1). Random House, Inc. 06 Jul. 2009.)  Thus, if you are a participant in a mystic encounter can you “hear” from God.  Such mysteries transcend ordinary human knowledge, by direct communication with the divine. 

To be perfectly clear, a mystical element does indeed exist in the life of legitimate believers in Jesus Christ.  Strictly speaking, any direct impartation of information from God to man is mystical by definition.  If a man hears from God in his spirit, then he has participated in a legitimate mystical encounter.  The Holy Spirit utters truths which are only revealed to the initiated- those who belong to him- through his own impartation.

John 14:26 (NIV)
26 But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.

It must be clearly pointed out, however, that this legitimately mystical aspect of our walk with the Lord is the result of atonement, not the source of it.  It must also be pointed out that such genuine mystical practices are taught in scripture to be subject to biblical testing, so that men are not misled.

With this understood, the mystical encounter defined by the Mystical Atonement Theory is not akin to the normal fellowship between the believer and the Holy Spirit.  Rather, this theory presupposes a mystical union which is more akin to the panentheistic and demonic doctrines of Zen Buddhism and other predominantly “eastern” originated mystic practices. 

The Mystical Theory shares one facet of its substance with the Moral Example Theory in that it presumes that the work of redemption stems from Christ’s influence rather than his substitutionary sacrifice.  In this belief system, Christ’s incarnation is of more importance than his death on the cross.  The idea is that Christ’s incarnation brought divinity to the human realm.  By Christ entering the human sphere at his advent, he elevated man to his own divine plane, making access to God achievable.  Salvation is attained through man’s entry into this open portal of access. 

Additionally, according to this theory, Christ – being human in nature – possessed all of the inherent corruption and sinful tendencies of man, yet without allowing such predisposition to lead him into actually engaging in sin.  He was in effect, one who successfully navigated the inborn sin nature, yet without succumbing to it.  At the moment of Christ’s death, then, he officially conquered and eradicated his original sin nature, thus completing his victory over sin.

As this theory has evolved into its modern form, a panentheistic (all is in God) element has been more clearly defined.   In essence, it is understood by many today that “God became man so that man could become God.”  The redeemed are elevated to the status of “God-men” through participation in the divine nature which Christ opened up to them.  Man is no longer subservient to God, but participants with him while sharing his attributes.  Those holding to this view today indicate that man’s real issue is not with his sin, but with his inability to connect to his “god-consciousness” and be thus freed from his human limitations.

(Please excuse me while I go throw up and take a shower.) 

There are simply too many issues with this theory to take them all to task in a singular post.  More is wrong with the theory than is right.  In fact, nothing at all is right with it. 

To begin with, Christ did not have a propensity to sin.  He was not born with a sin nature.  Rather, his nature was utterly contrary to sin from his advent by merit of his being the God who defines what sin is.  Perhaps oversimplified, one functional definition of sin is “disobedience to God.”  How can one be disobedient to his own nature?  Christ was God incarnate.  To that end, sin was not his propensity, but the exact antithesis of his will. 

Indeed, scripture does note that Christ was tempted:

Hebrews 4:15 (NIV)
15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are–yet was without sin.

However, to be tempted does not equate with one having a sinful propensity.  Jesus himself stated,

John 14:30-31 (NIV)
30 I will not speak with you much longer, for the prince of this world is coming. He has no hold on me, 31 but the world must learn that I love the Father and that I do exactly what my Father has commanded me.

And, the very same author of Hebrews notes,

Hebrews 7:26 (NIV)
26 Such a high priest meets our need–one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens.

While being tempted on this earth, perhaps for the benefit of man’s recognition of his righteousness, scripture teaches entirely contrary to the idea that Christ had an inclination toward sin.

Secondly, the Bible unwaveringly attests to the work of redemption as having been carried out on the cross rather than through Jesus’ completion of a sinless human life.  While the sinless attribute of Christ’s life was essential, redemption came not from the fact that the Son of God never sinned.  Redemption came from the fact that He who never sinned offered himself on a cross as payment for those who had sinned.  As Paul notes,

2 Corinthians 5:21 (NIV)
21 God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

And Isaiah prophesied,

Isaiah 53:6 (NIV)
6 We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.

Certainly Jesus’ sinless life was a requirement of his ability to atone for the sins of man, but it was not the functional substance of that work.  The actual application of his righteousness to sinner’s account came from his death on the cross.  Paul notes,

Colossians 1:19-20 (NIV)
19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

Make no mistake, redemption was attained through Jesus’ death on the cross.  Had he only lived a righteous life- and had not died for man’s sins- there would be no salvation for man.  God’s wrath against sin would remain.

This ultimately leads to the next major failure of this heritical theory, which is the annoying tendency of humanistic philosophies to attempt to relegate the atonement to something which enables man to overcome his sin through properly guided human efforts.  According to this theory, sin is not atoned for by Christ at all.  Rather, Christ grants man an opportunity to somehow “rise above” his sin by his mystical union with the deity.  (How can one purport to define an “atonement theory” for which there is no atonement??)  If Christ’s death were not vicarious – in man’s place – how then is man to pay for the sins committed before his magical elevation?  Does not the scripture say,

 Romans 3:25 (NIV)
25 God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished–

Even if man were enabled (through mystical union with Christ) to utterly conquer his sinful nature from the moment of conversion throughout the remainder of his life, who pays for the sins he committed prior to that magical encounter?  If one becomes righteous through a mystical communion with God after a life of sin, does his previous sin no longer count against him?  This theory makes no provision for such payment.  Yet, even proponents of this seriously flawed theory recognize and admit that man is infected with a sinful nature from birth.  How does a mystical elevation eliminate the sins of one’s previous existence if Christ’s death was not substitutionary in nature?

These issues alone identify the Mystical Theory as an utterly unbiblical – and ineffective- remedy for man’s problem of sin.  Yet, one cannot possibly give this theory a serious theological once-over without also pointing out the gross error of its message of mystical elevation.  The underlying postulate of such will ultimately lead back to a panentheistic view of God.  If taken to its logical conclusion, all who are redeemed – according to this theory – become participants in the overarching fellowship that is God.  Such false elevation promises in this theory relegate man back to his most base sinful tendency: the desire to be (his own) God.

There was, and will only ever be ONE God-man.  He was and is the person of Jesus Christ.  The atonement is not a means to elevate man to God’s level of consciousness, insight or authority.  it certainly was not the means by which God would share his glory with His creation.  Such aspirations, in no uncertain terms, are a demonic pursuit.

Isaiah 14:12-14 (NIV)
12 How you have fallen from heaven, O morning star, son of the dawn! You have been cast down to the earth, you who once laid low the nations! 13 You said in your heart, “I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God; I will sit enthroned on the mount of assembly, on the utmost heights of the sacred mountain. 14 I will ascend above the tops of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High.”


Most faithful readers of ReturningKing.com would quickly have relegated this flawed theory to the heresy that it is.  One may even wonder why time was taken to write against such an obviously erroneous postulate.  Sadly, the answer to that question is that it is very necessary in the body of Christ to reveal the error of this particular theory; for it is being reconstituted, rebranded and diligently served before our very eyes as daily table fare of several modern neo-Christian movements.

The Word of Faith movement is seriously committed to the idea that man becomes a “little God” through the atonement.  They do not subscribe to the Mystical Theory, per ‘se, but the god-man element of this theory fits perfectly into the theology of Hinn, Hagin, Copeland, Crouch and the rest of the high-roller preachers club.  The mystical elevation of man according to their (false) gospel includes man’s full power over the very elements of nature through his properly utilized “word of faith.” 

More frightening is the Emergent movement, perhaps the fastest growing subculture in the church today, which seems to have a literal disdain for valid atonement theory.  From the outside, Emergent congregations seem merely a post-modern “trendy-church” model by which the next generation may be reached.  From the inside, their mentors and un-official leaders are teaching doctrines which are actually defining the cutting edge of Mystical Atonement Theory.  They teach that atonement is not substitutional in nature.  They whole-heartedly affirm and teach a mysticism which is consistent with the views of the Mystical Theory.  As panentheism will tend to lead to, they have furthermore attempted to erase the lines between Christianity and other world religions, claiming that Christ is anything but exclusive in his work of atonement. 

The Mystical Theory of Atonement is one which will unconditionally lead to an apostasy which misrepresents God’s character, purpose and glory.  As obviously flawed as it is, this theory is being adopted at alarming rates – right from within the church itself. 

May the reader be inspired to contend for the faith that was once and for all entrusted to the saints.  We have been warned in scripture that apostasy will come.  We have been challenged to accurately handle the Word of truth. 

2 Timothy 4:3 (NIV)
3 For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.

Series Navigation<< More False Atonement Doctrine: The Moral-Example TheoryThe Necessary-Satisfaction Theory of Atonement >>

1 Comment(s)

  1. The view you describe seems to incorporate certain elements of the so-called “Christus Victor” theory of the Atonement.

    Elements of the view you describe also seem to be found in the Orthodox view of the Atonement. Theosis is now and has been a part of Orthodox theology from the start – as St. Athanasius of Alexandria said, “The Son of God became man, that we might become God”. (I don’t mean to suggest that this history makes the doctrine true, but it is quite old.)

    Orthodox theologians also teach that there was no sin-debt that had to be paid to God. They say instead that sin broke the bonds that before had bound humanity to God and thus introduced death, disease, etc. into the world. The effect of the Atonement, they say, is not to pay a sin-debt but instead to break the hold of death upon us and restore our relation to God. To this end, they emphasize not so much he death of Christ but instead his resurrection. His resurrection loosed the grip of death upon us and made our resurrection to life with God possible.

    On his approach to the Atonement, God’s love and mercy are made paramount. God’s justice is understood in terms of them, and does not introduce any debt that must be repaid.

    As best as I can tell (and I’m no expert), the idea that Christ had any inclination or propensity to sin is no part of the view; it seems to be conceptually distinct from the view of the Atonement sketched above.

    Franklin Mason | Jul 9, 2009 | Reply

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  1. Jul 7, 2009: from Posts about Holy Spirit as of July 7, 2009 | PRAYtheREVOLUTION
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