Here comes Scot McKnight from North Park University in Chicago, and he nicely summarizes the questions, concerns, and conclusions in my own current thinking:
Christians believe that God really did atone for sins in Jesus Christ and that God really did redemptively create restored relationship with God, with self, with others, and with the world. Christians believe that this all took place in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and (the silent part of the story) in the gift of the Holy Spirit. The atonement, in other words, is the good news of Christianity – it is our gospel. It explains how the gospel works.
The bad news, the anti-gospel as it were, is that the claim Christians make for the atonement is not making enough difference in the real lives of enough Christians to show up in statistics as compelling proof of what the apostle Paul called the “truth of the gospel.” Does this new relationship with God really transform the individual? Does this work of Christ and the Spirit to forgive sins and empower Christians make them forgiving people or morally empowered people? Does the claim of the gospel extend to what can be observed in the concrete realities of those who claim to be its beneficiaries?