Here is a short theory of the atonement.
Acts matter when they have real consequences. An act has real consequences if it benefits or deprives another person. If the consequences of our acts can be later fixed and fully compensated for by another person, then our acts matter only to the extent that the person who does the fixing is himself burdened by the fix. God loves us. He wants our acts to matter. We love ourselves. We also want our acts to matter. Therefore it is necessary that irrevocable consequences of one kind or another be decreed for our acts, regardless of who pays those consequences. Call this justice.
Christ is merciful to us. He does not want us to suffer irrevocable consequences. But his mercy does not rob justice. He wants our choices to have consequences. Therefore he takes the consequences on himself. This is the atonement. It reconciles mercy and justice. It allows us to make meaningful choices–choices so meaningful that they affect the very God of the universe–but gives us merciful relief from our choices too.
Here are some thoughts on the theory in no particular order:
Are there other theories this conflicts with? I hope not.
One way of reading the Fall is that we chose to have meaningful choice even at the cost of doing irrevocable harm to others. This is an evil but necessary choice and explains why the Fall was both felix and peccata.
Our choices are more meaningful the more that hangs on them. That is why, perhaps, our choices affect people other than ourselves. That we might do them undeserved and unasked-for harm makes our choices more meaningful.
The first man Adam chose choice for himself at the expense of doing evil to others. The second man Adam–Christ–chose that evil be done to himself that others might have choice.
To the extent I can transfer the consequences of my acts to myself I keep the meaningfulness of my act while undoing the evil that they affect others unjustly. Redress is in the similitude of the Atonement.
To the extent that I forgive someone who has wronged me, I am also ensuring that the bad acts were not done to an unwilling victim. I now accept them, I am now willing. Forgiveness is therefore also in the similitude fo the Atonement.
I don’t like the assumption in the theory that our choices only matter depending on their consequences. Choices can be inherently bad or inherently good no matter what consequences they actually cause,. Is there a way of recasting the theory to say that our choices need to have moral freight to matter and they don’t have moral freight if the punishment for the wrong can be wiped away without cost?
*Cross-posted at the Old Country.