According to Paul, God was in Christ "katallassō" or "reconciling" the world to himself (2 Cor. 5:19). But what exactly is that supposed to mean?
The Greek word refers to an exchange of equivalent values, a settling of accounts, with the result being a reconciliation of parties. The term draws on an economic metaphor in which our alienation from God is likened to a situation of financial debt. While this is one way the New Testament writers describe the work of Christ, does it provide a satisfactory theoretical account of atonement? Some Christians think so. Here's the popular just judge illustration of this account (with a Judge Judy spin):
It was just another day on the set of television's highest rated courtroom reality program, "Judge Judy". Judith Sheindlin walked into the courtroom. Suzy was suing Jerry for borrowing money for bail and failing to pay it back. Yawn. Judy sat in her chair ready to humiliate this deadbeat Dave in front of "ten million people", until she realized that it was a Dave she knew, an old friend from her law school days who had fallen on hard times. Justice required that Judy find Dave responsible for paying his own bail and so she ruled in Suzy's favor. But Sheindlin's compassion was such that after delivering this ruling, she stepped down off the bench, embraced Dave, and generously paid the money owing to Suzy.
Now that would be a memorable Judge Judy case. And on the just judge account that is what Jesus did for us. Justice required that God the Father find us responsible for our debts of sin, but love saw God the Son step off the bench and pay the fine. A theoretically tight account of the atonement, right?
Well, perhaps not. You see it would be one thing if Jesus merely paid a fine. But the cross is much more than a fine paid, it is a life tortured and summarily executed. Let's move out of the relatively trivial stakes of Judy's court and to CBS's program "48 Hours". Now Dave is charged with a heinous crime: embezzlement and murder. Would it make sense for the judge to sentence Dave to death, and then step down and be executed in Dave's place?
Of course not. This does not mean that the economic metaphor captured in the just judge illustration is absolutely without merit. But it does mean that it still leaves us far indeed from a theoretical account of atonement.