Christianity’s Central Focus: Incarnation or Atonement?


Christmas or Good Friday? Which of these days on the historic Christian calendar holds greater importance for Christians? Should the central focus of Christianity be on the incarnation (Jesus Christ as God coming in the flesh) or on the atonement (Jesus Christ’s death on the cross for human sin)?

I had a theological exchange recently on Facebook with a pastor over this question of incarnation or atonement. The pastor took a quote from the conclusion of my book God among Sages and critiqued it based on his contention that the atonement takes priority over the incarnation. Here’s my quote followed by our exchange:

When we compare Jesus Christ to all the other world religion leaders, he seems to be exactly what a reasonable person would expect God to be like if he were to make an appearance among us. In a biblical context, Jesus seems to be exactly what the gracious, loving, and just God of Israel would be like if he were to walk among us.1

Pastor’s Comment (I’ll paraphrase for the sake of brevity):

When you say that he [Jesus Christ] is “what a reasonable person would expect God to be like,” someone else might see a failed leader of a movement who was nailed to a cross and died. Martin Luther would have referred to someone holding this view as a “theologian of glory” as distinguished from a “theologian of the cross.” The latter sees God “in suffering and the cross.” Luther concluded that true theology and recognition of God are in the crucified Christ and he refers to Isaiah 45:15 to support the notion of God’s hiddenness: “Truly you are a God who has been hiding yourself, the God and Savior of Israel.”

My Response:

I have a chapter on Luther in my book Classic Christian Thinkers where I discuss his idea of “a theology of the cross.” I think it is powerful truth and a type of theodicy to the challenge of pain, suffering, and evil. But other equally great Christian theologians like Athanasius and Anselm have affirmed that we should see God through the broader vehicle of the incarnation (John 1:1, 14). So in Jesus’s life and ministry we also encounter him as the great healer, the wise teacher, the fulfiller of prophecy, and the divine Son of God/Son of Man, and ultimately the risen Lord of glory. So I think Luther had a unique and helpful theological perspective but it can be overstated. We should also factor in the emphasis of Athanasius and Anselm.

Pastor’s Response:

I see Jesus’s life and work as God incarnate from the standpoint of the cross, which includes the resurrection of the crucified one. During his ministry, Jesus was acclaimed by some as a prophet, a teacher, and the Messiah of Israel. But I don’t think anyone, including his disciples, on seeing Jesus during that time thought, “There’s YHWH.” In some respect, he remained hidden. It’s the event of the cross that brought about such recognition. John Chrysostom said that he knew Christ as king because he saw him crucified.

My Response:

Jesus is prophet, priest, and king. The transfiguration and his prerogatives of deity (forgiving sin, raising the dead, judging humanity, hearing and answering prayer, accepting worship) show his deity. Thomas calls him Lord and God and the Jewish religious leaders accuse him of blasphemy. I don’t think we can ignore the Eastern fathers’ broader view of the incarnation. We’re saved by Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. Additionally, Athanasius said: “Jesus, whom I know as my redeemer, cannot be less than God.”

Pastor’s Response:

I certainly have no disagreement with that statement of Athanasius. What prompted my initial comment was not any objection to the idea that Jesus is God incarnate, but to your statement that a “reasonable person” would have no difficulty in believing that a person dying a humiliating death on a cross is God. Is the word of the cross not a scandal to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks? My point is not that Christianity is “unreasonable.” Different people can all think rationally and yet reach different conclusions about something if they started with different initial presuppositions.

My Response:

Jesus’s life and ministry give all the reasonable indications that he is indeed the Son of God. However, there is sometimes a difference between what is reasonable and what a person decides to believe. (I provide the full context of the quoted statement in my book.) Also, to refute the heresy of Arianism requires a robust view of God in the flesh so Athanasius emphasized the incarnation generally rather than focusing on the crucifixion or atonement.

A Final Thought

Let’s return to our initial question, Christmas or Good Friday? Should the central focus of Christianity be on the incarnation (Jesus Christ as God coming in the flesh) or on the atonement (Jesus Christ’s death on the cross for human sin)?

Well, the obvious answer is that both are critically important. We don’t want to engage in a theological false dichotomy. My view is that because Jesus Christ is God and man he can represent and reconcile God and man. So Christmas lays the foundation for Good Friday because the incarnation lays the foundation for the atonement.

I hope you enjoyed the spirited but respectful theological interaction. These kinds of discussions are not merely academic exercises. The question of who Jesus is and what he has done is of utmost importance and it carries implications for all of us.

Reflections: Your Turn

Visit Reflections on WordPress to comment with your response.


For a discussion of the incarnation and the atonement, see Kenneth Richard Samples, Without a Doubt: Answering the 20 Toughest Faith Questions (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004), chapters 9 and 11.

  1. Kenneth Richard Samples, God among Sages: Why Jesus Is Not Just Another Religious Leader (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2017),230.




Kenneth R. Samples

THE AUTHORKenneth R. Samples


I believe deeply that “all truth is God’s truth.” That historic affirmation means that when we discover and grasp truth in the world and in life we move closer to its divine Author. This approach r… Read more about Kenneth R. Samples.


Explaining Pagan Gods and Human Idolatry

People were created to be worshippers. That’s one way of defining the image of God in human beings. Humans are also fallen worshippers. Thus, our religious-based tendency to worship has expressed itself in distorted ways in human history.

Continue Reading »

Breakthrough in Star Formation History Helps Explain Life in the Universe

The proximity of Veterans Day made me think of the American flag and then, about stars. Astronomers like to think about the properties of stars, including their nuclear burning histories, in order to appreciate how they gave us the life-friendly conditions we enjoy today. Part of that stellar history involves detection of neutral hydrogen in galaxies more than 8 billion light-years away. Now, a team of astronomers has employed an innovative telescope technique to detect this hydrogen, a find that helps us understand star formation history and the conditions conducive to life today.

Continue Reading »

Standing against the Tide

Richard Dawkins, Lawrence Krauss, Christopher Hitchens, Michael Shermer, Victor J. Stenger. What do all these people have in common? They are all convinced that the God of the Bible does not exist and have each made strong, public cases in defense of that position. John Lennox, emeritus professor of mathematics at Oxford, had the opportunity to debate each of them, arguing for the truth of Christianity. The new movie, Against the Tide, articulates Lennox’s case and the subtitle, Finding God in an Age of Science, gives a hint as to what the “tide” refers to.

Continue Reading »

More Education Opportunities »


Get the latest delivered directly to you by subscribing to the RTB Weekly Digest.

About Reasons to Believe

RTB’s mission is to spread the Christian Gospel by demonstrating that sound reason and scientific research—including the very latest discoveries—consistently support, rather than erode, confidence in the truth of the Bible and faith in the personal, transcendent God revealed in both Scripture and nature. Learn More »

Support Reasons to Believe

Your support helps more people find Christ through sharing how the latest scientific discoveries affirm our faith in the God of the Bible.DONATE NOW

U.S. Mailing Address
818 S. Oak Park Rd.
Covina, CA 91724

  • P (855) 732-7667
  • P (626) 335-1480
  • Fax (626) 852-0178
  • © Reasons to Believe

Reasons to Believe is a nonprofit organization designated as tax-exempt under Section 501(c)3 by the Internal Revenue Service. Donations are tax-deductible to the full extent of the law. Our tax ID is #33-0168048. All Transactions on our Web site are safe and secure.

Copyright 2020. Reasons to Believe. All rights reserved. Use of this website constitutes acceptance of our Privacy P

About Will Myers

I am an "Intelligent Design" writer who has the Christian faith. Part of my background is that I have a degree in physics, and have been inducted into the National Physics Honor Society. Sigma Pi Sigma, for life. My interest has lead me into metaphysics, farther into Christianity. Optimum metaphysics becomes religion.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.