Atonement theories can be seen as efforts to synthesize the grace and judgment of God: How does He show grace to a race that deserves condemnation. Solutions are often sought systematic syntheses, and there is something to that: The cross proves God to be just and the justifier of those who are of the faith of Jesus. But the synoptics' resolution is different. In the history of Jesus, grace and judgment are two phases of a unified drama of Jesus' mission.

This is the argument of Raymund Schwager, who lays out a five-act drama of redemption in his Jesus and the Drama of Salvation: The dawning of the kingdom; the rejection of the kingdom; the savior brought to judgment; the resurrection of Jesus as the Father's judgment; the Holy Spirit and the new gathering. Schwager argues that the gospel announces a new gathering of God's people, initiated by God Himself in Jesus. That's plenty dramatic, but the drama becomes sharper when those to whom this good news is proclaimed greet it with indifferent or outright hostility. It's at that point that Jesus speaks of judgment:

“With Jesus, grace and judgment are not two alternative possibilities within one single appeal; the predominance of grace is shown by the fact that the offer of grace takes place in advance of human choice. The problematic of judgment, on the contrary, emerges from the other side, from the human decision actually made. In the framework of the message of Jesus, the judgment saying can therefore be taken completely seriously - without any weakening of the salvation sayings - only if they are related to a second situation of proclamation, which is distinguished from the first by the human rejection of the offer of salvation that is given without prerequisites. The two situations are . . . opposed to each other not as offer and refusal of offer, but as offer and demonstration of the consequences of rejection of the offer. The transition to the second situation is not made by Jesus, but it results from the reaction of his hearers. Jesus only makes clear the theological consequences of their decision” (56).

In sum, “the judgment sayings, which speak of resistance to Jesus' mission, disclose the actual consequences of open or more indifferent rejection. If the kingdom of God was dawning in his activity and his proclamation, then any human will which opposed Jesus' will for a new gathering blocked the fate of the basileia itself. The kingdom was caught up in a dramatic situation, since it was on the one hand unconditionally promised by God and yet on the other hand it was turned down by those whom it would have embraced and who should have contributed to its complete arrival” (58). Schwager quotes Girard's observation that the gospels are thus divided into two halves, a proclamation of the kingdom and then “apocalyptic announcements and the Passion” (54).

Schwager goes on to argue that the key question raised by the gospels is: How will God react to this rejection? But we can pause to reflect on the strength and limits of his paradigm. The strength is that he interprets the atonement within the dynamics of the actual history of Jesus, in the tug and pull and clash of real people making real events. It's also true that Jesus' judgment warnings intensify as the gospel story goes on, until His temple action demonstrates the Father's rejection of the temple and provokes a final showdown with the Jewish leaders.

The weakness is that Jesus begins His ministry announcing judgment. He does issue an invitation to all to enter His Father's kingdom and to join the feast, but that entry requires repentance. Even before Jesus, John says that the axe is already laid at the foot of the tree. The people of Israel, like the Ninevites, could have avoided judgment, but only if they had repented in sackcloth and ashes from the outset. By minimizing or ignoring this point, Schwager also minimizes the truth of the statement that grace and judgment are “alternative possibilities within one single appeal.”