What an odd thing to imagine, a Hayekian account of the atonement! From what I’ve seen, Hayek was not a Christian and didn’t write theology. Why then would I imagine that any of his insights might be of use to Christian thinking about atonement?
My justification is the fecundity of atonement metaphors. The Bible, whether we consider Old Testament or New, the teaching of Jesus or the writers of the epistles, give us more pictures and ways of thinking about atonement than theologians through the ages have been able to cram into a single theory. Because of this, I judge atonement to be too large and complex a phenomenon for one imaginary to be sufficient.
One image Jesus uses is that of ransom. He says, “The Son of Man came to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45) Delving into the ransom metaphor, some have thought along the lines of their experience (usually merely literary) of ransom. It usually goes something like this: A person is kidnapped. The miscreants to do the kidnapping send off a request for ransom. If the ransom is paid, then the person will be set free. If that’s how the concept of ransom works, then we sinners are the kidnap victim. Jesus is our ransom, paid so we can go free. But to whom is the ransom paid? Well, the devil is the evil one, so he must be the kidnapper. If this is so, then the ransom – Jesus – is paid to the devil. But that, to say the least, seems very awkward.
This is the point where Hayek may be useful. Rather than speaking of ransom, Hayek speaks of price. We are in the same semantic ballpark here: a price and a ransom are something that is paid. The ransom is the price of the sinner’s freedom. Hayek’s account of the working of price, as shown in this little video, suggests that prices function to tell us about the relative value of something. They, as a single point of information, aggregate many other points of information that remain hidden from us. We don’t know all the details that have caused the price to be what it is, but the price gives us the information we need if we are to act in the world.
If Christians bring Hayek into their thinking about the atonement at this point, we can, perhaps, become willing to recognize the reality of atonement even in the face of our lack of information about how it works. We know Jesus died for us. We know Jesus paid the price for our freedom from sin, for our eternal life. We don’t know the mechanism, we don’t know the entire logic of how it worked, but we can know it is real. It might even be the case that the pricing mechanism in this case is unknowable by us. It doesn’t matter: the price tells us what we need to know to act.
Taking this one step further, we can say that God is the one who put a price on our freedom, on our redemption. God didn’t think we humans were of such little consequence that we were not worth saving or could be saved by mere verbal fiat. The price God paid, the life of Jesus the Son, tells us what God thinks of our value. Notice this is different from Anselm’s thinking. Anselm and the tradition that flows from his work speaks of an infinite offense against a holy God. We as finite, sinful beings cannot pay the infinite price that is due, so we need a God-Man to do it for us. The strength of Anselm’s account is that it ties Christology and Soteriology together nicely. We need a savior of a particular type (Christology) to perform the saving action we cannot do (Soteriology).
But what do we make of an infinite offense? At least some Christians have trouble imagining how even the smallest sin can be counted as an infinite offense against the God we see depicted in Jesus. If the god we’re dealing with is modeled on a feudal lord, then maybe, perhaps, we can imagine something called an infinite offense that would be worthy of infinite punishment. If we take the Hayekian account of price into account, however, we can skip that stage entirely, just as I suggested earlier that his account of price would allow us to ignore the question of the recipient of the ransom payment. Acting in accord with Hayek on price, can we say that God paid this price – the life of Jesus the Son – without giving an account of why this price had to be paid?
In addition to preserving us from troublesome theorizing, this move also helps us stay away from an abstract account of justice as something that God is forced to bow down before. Too often atonement accounts in the Anselmian tradition are framed in terms of the necessity of justice. God has been offended. The offense is an infinite offense. Why cannot God just say, “Ok, I love these sinners, and my love is bigger than their sin, so I will forgive them?” Well, God’s cannot say that because the demands of justice do not allow God to. I feel uneasy when people start talking about God not being allowed to do something. But if I am allowed this Hayekian insight, I need say nothing of the sort. Why did Jesus have to die for my sins, then, if the demands of justice did not require it? I don’t need a theory. I just look at the price that was paid – his life – and say that he paid it.
The failure to provide a theory at this stage will likely be dissatisfying to many theologians. What if the need to provide comprehensive explanatory theories is more at home in the logic of science, than in the logic of redemption, a system (surely there’s a better word than system that I could use here, but it’s not coming to me) more historical than scientific. History is necessarily and irreducibly a matter of temporality, events that have happened, agents that have acted. The account I have suggested here, fits such a domain. In history we know more about what happened, than why what happened, happened. Likewise with the atonement. We know something of the logic of atonement, but we face serious limits on our knowledge. We do know that God has acted in Christ, and that the price Jesus paid points to the high value God put on us.