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LLU School of Religion Dean Compares Atonement Metaphors to Golf Clubs


In sermons at the Loma Linda University Church on Sabbath, April 20, Jon Paulien, dean of the School of Religion, compared the Bible’s metaphors for atonement to golf clubs.

He used this comparison to make three points:

(1) The Bible offers a wide range of metaphors in its interpretations of the execution of Jesus and, more generally, God’s reconciling endeavors;

(2) Although they are all valuable, some metaphors are more helpful in some settings than others;

(3) More than ordinary wisdom is needed when attempting to match alternative metaphors with different settings.

The sermon as a whole offered a third alternative to two common approaches. One of these is to make the penal- substitution metaphor the most important of all. The other is to reject it altogether. The metaphor in question pictures a legal transfer of guilt for human sinfulness and sins to the innocent Jesus such that in his suffering and death he experienced the punishment that others deserve.

Paulien contrasted the joyful proclamation of this metaphor by people such as Martin Luther in the sixteenth century and the harsh reviews it sometimes receives from those in the twenty-first who believe that it makes God look like a cosmic torturer. He also recounted an important point in his life when this metaphor was very helpful and how, as time went on, it became less so.

After explaining that the meaning of atonement to be “at-one-ment,” and surveying how many metaphors the Bible uses for it, he gave eight of them special attention. As I remember them, these are the (1) sacrifice, (2) ransom, (3) propitiation, (4) legal, (5) cosmic conflict, (6) revelation, (7) exemplary and (8) new covenant metaphors.

Paulien compared these metaphors to different clubs in his golf-bag. Emphasizing how important it is to use the right club in each setting, he told the story of a golfing companion who hugely overshot his target because he swung with the wrong club. Using the penal-substitution metaphor in a hospital setting might be a similar mistake, he suggested. He stated that he has provided much more material on this topic at

Pauline preached these sermons parallel to “The Cross: A Symposium on Atonement” which the Adventist Theological Society had convened at the Loma Linda University Campus Hill Church since Thursday evening, April 18. A subsequent report will cover its activities throughout the same Sabbath.

Editor’s note: The link to Paulien’s blog,, has been corrected. 

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