In thinking about the cross as a psychologist I have been much influenced by a brilliantly insightful article on ‘Anxiety, Shame and Guilt in the Atonement’, by Paul Pruyser (1916–1987), a Dutch-American clinical psychologist and psychologist of religion, based at the Menninger Clinic in the USA. Pruyser’s insight was that different ways of understanding the atonement speak to different kinds of people. Which way of understanding the atonement seems most compelling to a particular person will depend on which are their predominant emotions. Different theories appeal to people according to whether their outlook is characterised mainly by anxiety, shame or guilt. The distinction between shame and guilt is especially important. Guilt is more a response to bad things we have done; shame is more focused on a poor self-esteem and a general feeling of personal inadequacy.
As Pruyser sees it, satisfaction theories, that see Jesus offering himself in place of humanity, as a sacrifice for human sin, will appeal to people whose main emotional focus is on guilt. Jesus lifts the burden of guilt off people’s backs, as is depicted by John Bunyan in Pilgrim’s Progress. On the other hand, seeing Jesus on the cross as an example of sacrificial love (‘Love so amazing, so divine’) will appeal to people whose main focus is on shame, people who are very aware of the gap between how they wish to be and how they are, and who see Jesus as a bridging that gap in an exemplary way.
The debate about whether to emphasise satisfaction or moral example theories often seems to be a purely theological one, and to divide conservative and liberal Christians. Pruyser suggests that it may be largely a matter of psychology, and to depend on whether people are guilt-focused or shame-focused.
It is helpful to bring a historical perspective into this. It is widely recognized that some periods have a predominant focus on guilt, while others have a focus on shame. Which approach to the atonement features most strongly in a particular period will depend on whether it is a guilt period or a shame period. Ours is generally thought to be mainly a shame period, so approaches to the atonement that speak to shame are likely to be seem more convincing than those that speak to guilt.
The church is well practiced at proclaiming forgiveness to those who feel burdened by guilt, both in its preaching and its sacramental ministry. It is perhaps less adept in reassuring those who are burdened by a sense of shame and personal inadequacy that they are lifted up and restored to wholeness by God’s love.
Pruyser thought that people whose main focus is on anxiety will connect best with ransom theories of the atonement. However, it seems to me that victory theories assuage the sense of anxiety even more powerfully. We live in an anxious age when things seem out of control; we are beset by many problems that seem almost insoluble. It is very appealing to see Jesus as having defeated the dark forces of sin and evil. The challenge with such victory theories, of course, is in finding a convincing eschatology that acknowledges that Christ won a victory on the cross, even though things are still difficult on the ground. Victory theories of the atonement hold cross and resurrection together more effectively than the alternatives; that seems to me one of their big strengths.