Theories about Christ's death are not Christianity: they are explanations of how it works.
C.S Lewis in Mere Christianity.
One of the books that has had the most profound impact on my (and I suspect many others) spiritual life is Mere Christianity by C.S Lewis. It is, at once, accessible to most believers and a beautiful example of how the English language is not so vulgar after all. This may stem from the fact that Lewis, over and above being a philosopher, was a student and professor of Literature, and indeed the author of one of the finest fantasy series' ever written, The Chronicles of Narnia. What Lewis sets out to accomplish in this book is, not to expound something I could call 'my religion,' but to expound 'mere' Christianity, which is what it is and what it was long before I was born and whether I like it or not. This is one of the things I appreciate the most about this work. He is not telling us what it means to be Baptist or Methodist or even Anglican. He is trying, as a fallible human being himself, to boil Christianity down to the lowest common denominator. Enter the quote from the top of the post.
When I read that line from the chapter entitled "The Perfect Penitent" I was struck by both the truth of the statement itself and also one of the greatest flaws we, as believers, have: making mountains out of molehills, as it were. You see, one of the things I learned in seminary was that there are a variety of theories for each aspect of Christian doctrine. For instance, we spent and entire portion of our Systematic Theology class hashing out the doctrine of the Trinity. The perfect evidence of this is that while the Bible fits neatly into one volume that, depending on the font size, can be put in one's pocket, there are entire libraries filled with books about the Bible and all aspects of Christianity. In seeing that it is hard to take seriously the old adage, "The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it." While I agree with the underlying sentiment of that statement it seems that for the majority of believers that doesn't settle it! Even with just one authoritative body of Scripture there are a variety of theories regarding the essential doctrines contained therein.
Lets take the issue of Christ's atonement as an example here. If you type in "atonement theories" into Google you can find several lists of those theories. The website religioustolerance.org gives us four theories: ransom, penal substitution, satisfaction and moral. Each of these is espoused by various flavors of Christianity such as Roman Catholics, evangelicals, orthodox and liberal Christians. Each of these theories is an effort to explain exactly how Christ's sacrifice saved us from our sins. As Lewis puts it, this is a desire to not only agree that some law of nature works but to understand how it works as well. We believe that there is gravity, for example, but how does gravity actually work? I think the point that Lewis is trying to make is one that we should take heed of today, it doesn't really matter. Figuring out the "how" of the atonement is far less important than understanding that it happened at all. Beyond that it is much more important to understand the "who" of the atonement, e.g. Jesus Christ atoned you and I. I seriously doubt that when we stand before the Almighty He is going to quiz us on atonement theories to make sure we had it all figured out before we arrived in Heaven. In fact, I believe that if the "how" was that important it would have been made plain in the Bible so that there would be no question.
Now, let me say this so there is less room for misunderstanding. I do not believe that meditating on deep theological questions is completely useless. That, I believe, is part of understanding our faith and growing more mature as Christians. However, when our faith becomes nothing more than a cerebral exercise to the point that it grows impersonal we have a serious problem. First and foremost the Christian faith is about a relationship with a person, and that person is the Triune God of the universe. Understanding how God does everything is secondary to being in a relationship with Him. One of the beauties of the Christian faith is that it can withstand critical thought and you can plumb the depths of it until you die and never scratch the surface. On the other hand it is simple enough for a child to understand it and even the most unintellectual person can grasp the truth contained in the Gospel.
In American Christianity I see this issue most vividly in the divisions over theories regarding the end times. There are those who believe that the Church will be "raptured" before the Tribulation, those who say after the Tribulation and those who say during. No matter how hard I try I cannot figure out what difference it makes. This much is clear to me from the Bible, one day Christ will return for His people. Here is my question, how does figuring out when Christ is going to do that effect our lives? Are we going to be more or less likely to share the Gospel with people depending on our view of the end? Does our eschatelogical view effect people coming into a relationship with Christ? I would submit a hearty, NO. Does this mean we should spend no time pondering these things? Heavens no, but let us place them in the proper place as secondary to the larger message of the Gospel.
Let me wrap this up by taking us back to the quote from Lewis. Christianity is not about agreeing with the correct atonement theory. Christianity is about agreeing that Christ died for you and accepting that sacrifice however it was actually carried out. Never forget that our faith is not about a theory it is about a person and that person once lived on this earth, He died, was resurrected and now lives forevermore seated at the right hand of God. How did that all work? I have no idea but I know it happened and I know whom I have believed and I am convinced that He is able to guard what I have entrusted to Him until that day (2 Tim. 1:!2).