The Bible teaches that Christ died as a substitute for sinners. God transferred our guilt to Christ, and he bore our punishment (Isaiah 53:6). This satisfied both the wrath and the righteousness of God (Romans 3:23-25), so that He could forgive sin without compromising His holiness. Theologians call this Penal Substitution, and this is what I taught on Sunday.
Some Christians (and skeptics) claim this is divine child abuse. God is a cruel father unjustly punishing his son for an offense he has not even committed. Such critics have replaced this view of the atonement with another called Christus Victor. The idea is this: Christ in his death and resurrection defeated the devil, sin, and death. This is also biblical (see Hebrews 2:14-14).
The above criticism has a good point: The picture of God having his anger appeased by the death of his innocent Son is a barrier to faith for some people. But the criticism is partly wrong: it assumes God the Father and God the Son have different concerns. It assumes the Father is only concerned with righteousness, and the Son is only concerned with compassion. If that were true, it sounds like the Son saves us from His angry Father! But while we were sinners, God, not just the Son is determined to reconcile with us (2 Corinthians 5:19). God does not stand in another room, waiting for Christ’s work to be completed before he’ll have anything to do with us.
I like both Penal Substitution and Christus Victor explanations of Christ’s death. The first view reminds us that when He wanted to demonstrate His love for us, God substituted himself for us on the cross. God is both just and merciful (Romans 3:24-26). I like the second one because it reminds us that we (and all of creation) were slaves to sin, but are now free through Christ’s victory on the cross.