POC Blog

The random technotheolosophical blogging of Reid S. Monaghan

Atonement Theories and the Gospel

The subject of the atonement of Christ, what his death accomplished for human beings and the world, has been one of theological debate throughout church history.  The word atonement is defined by Wayne Grudem as the work Christ did in his life and death to earn our salvation.1 Discussions of the atonement explore what it means when we confess, Christ died for us.   There have been many theories throughout history and in contemporary discussion.  The debate about the atonement within evangelicalism has reemerged in the past few decades as it has become a subject of controversy in both theological and popular circles.  In theological circles Joel Green and Mark Baker's Recovering the Scandal of the Cross brought criticism to the view of substitutionary atonement that many consider central to the gospel.  Emergent authors such as Steve Chalke and Brian McLaren have openly questioned the same.  What follows is a tiny sketch of some of the views of atonement offered over time.

Example Theory

Demonstrates how we too can suffer well and do good in standing against injustice.  His meek, submissive and non violent stand against imperial power is to inspire us, as humans like him, to do the same. Typically the divine nature of Jesus is minimized or denied with those who hold this view.  The view usually holds that God is not angry against sin and will not mete out justice to the sinner.  This is the view of today's universalists-those who believe all are saved.  It is sort of a salvation by being alive and having Jesus as your role model.  This view has a grain of truth, but for the most part misses the point of the cross of Christ.

Moral Influence Theory

The effect of the atonement is upon human beings and their moral choices, the cross does not do anything before God.  This theory was made popular by Peter Abelard a French scholastic theologian who lived from AD 1079-1142. The theory is that we would see that Jesus became one of us and died for us.  This act should make our fear of God dissolve.  Seeing that Jesus would do this demonstrates to us the love of God so that we might change morally. We need to feel bad about sin and have the moral inspiration to live for and obey God.  Jesus' influences us towards making a change, but the atonement doesn't remove God's wrath or pay a penalty.  Unfortunately, if taken alone, this view leads to a salvation by morality which again is an adventure in missing the point.  Some have wondered what influence it actually had on Abelard...but that is another discussion.

Ransom Theory

This view has a long history dating back to Origen (AD 185-254) and refined by Gregory of Nyssa in late 4th century AD. This view holds that the universe and human beings are currently under the power and control of Satan due to the sin of our first parents.  God's goal then was to righteously win back his people from this bondage.  The view notes that Jesus himself taught that he came to offer himself as a "ransom" for many (See Mark 10:45).  Naturally, they asked, to whom is this ransom paid?  Satan of course.  This brought up much discussion and debate as to why God had to "pay off the devil" to win back his people, whether God "tricked" Satan by offering him Jesus only to "take him back" by raising him from death.  This theory had many difficulties and has not been in favor for some time, though some see the ransom view in the work of CS Lewis' The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe.  In this work Aslan has to offer himself to the evil witch to ransom Edmund from bondage to her due to his chosen treason.  The Ransom view has a problem.  The Scriptures teach that the death of Christ paid a ransom, it does not however say it is paid to Satan.  Yet you can still love Narnia-I sure do.  Prince Caspian is coming to theaters May 16, 2008.  Check out the trailer here.

Satisfaction View

The medieval philosopher and theologian Anselm of Canterbury  (AD 1033-1109) put forth this theory in his classic work Cur Deus Homo - Why God Became Man? In this work he explores the incarnation and the reasons God became a human being.  He made a break with the Ransom theory in claiming that people belong to God, not Satan.  Anselm defined sin in terms of denying God the honor he is due.  Jesus became human, to take punishment for sin, to repair the dishonor brought to God by our rebellion.  We can be condemned for our sin or God's honor can be satisfied.  There is much more to be said of Anselm's view, but it would take us into all matter of discussions of Anselm's view of the necessity of the incarnation...that it had to be GOD to satisfy the problem of sin.  One weakness of the view is that it seems a bit tied to the social/legal structures of the day where dishonor towards a feudal lord would demand reparation.2

Penal Substitutionary Atonement

One of my friends articulated the central theme of the atonement, both Old and New Testaments as God's Self-Satisfaction through Self-Substitution.  In other words, sin is an offense against God, a violation of his law and a turning aside to worship that which is not God.  Our sin deserves his just condemnation but he chose to satisfy his own wrath by a cooperative effort between Father and Son.  The Son willfully and joyfully goes to the cross where the wrath of the Father is satisfied.  Hence-God's Self-Satisfaction.   Secondly, the death that we deserved-the death for sin-was willfully and joyfully accepted by the Son as our substituted.  He quite literally, dies for us; for the wages of sin is death.  God himself bore the penalty and punishment (hence the word-penal which refers to penalty/punishment) for our sins so that we would receive redemption, the forgiveness for our sins.  There is simply no explanation as to the question why.  God did not have to do this.  Yet in love and mercy for human beings he freely chose this plan.  It is a free gift of Grace from God to forgive the guilty by accepting their punishment.  God is just and will punish sin, yet he provides a sacrifice for our sins which satisfies the wrath of God (propitiation) and removes our sins (expiation).  This is the witness of the Bible.  Let me briefly demonstrate this.

Atonement in the Old Testament

The concept of atonement for sin is most on display in the sacrificial system of worship set up by God in the law of Moses.  Atonement in the Old Testament is the dealing with of sin by the offering of various sacrifices or payments and is seen in the books of Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers.  Payment for sin must be made as part of the covenant God established with Israel.  To worship God they did not need to bring sacrifices to pay off God as if he were an angry King Kong.   Rather, the sacrificial system was a gift of grace by which worship and relationship were maintained.  God was holy and sin was an offense to him-in his love he set up a system of priests and offerings by which they might be forgiven and he would freely forgive.   This system of sacrifice was a "type" or foreshadowing of the redemption which would be brought by Jesus the great high priest who would give himself, once for all, as a sacrifice for the sins of God's people.  Most of the book of Hebrews treats this very topic.  In Leviticus particularly the sacrificial system and atonement is described in detail.  On the day of atonement, once a year, two goats would be brought which were without defect.  One would be killed for the sins of the people.  The other would have the sins of the people conveyed upon it by the hands of the priest.  This goat, the "scapegoat" would be sent away from the people, in effect taking away their sins (see Leviticus 16).  Additionally, the great prophet Isaiah recounts a savior who would suffer and bear the punishment for our sins (See Isaiah 53).  So the idea of penal substitution is not a recent theological construct of western Christianity, it is found in the ancient writings of the Hebrew scriptures. 

Atonement in the New Testament

It should not surprise us that all the theories of atonement has some biblical moorings and are indeed a portion of the truth.  The Cross of Christ is a multidimensional act which has many effects on behalf of God and people.  Substitution is central, yet the other theories also describe a part of what Christ accomplished.  1 Peter 2:23 tells us that Jesus is indeed our example of suffering under injustice.  The entire book of 1 John will show us that if we claim to know the crucified one that it ought to affect the way we live.  Our lives ought to reflect to love of God expressed in the cross (John 3:16).  There has been a ransom paid but it has been paid by Jesus on our behalf to the Father thereby redeeming us from sin, death and hell.  Christ did not trick and pay off Satan, but he triumphed over him at the cross (Colossians 2:15).  Yet if any of these are presented without the central teaching of Old and New Testament that Christ died for us, we have removed the crux of the Cross of Christ.

The substitutionary nature of the atonement is reflected in Mark's gospel (10:33-45; 15:33-34), John's gospel (3:14-18,36; 6:50-58; 11:47-52;), Romans (3:21-26; 4:25;5:1-10; 8:1-3), Galatians (3:10-13) and 1 Peter (2:21-25 and 3:18).  For those who want to read a delightful treatment of these passages see Pierced for our Transgressions from Jeffery, Ovey and Sachs.3

The cross of Christ is the center point of our faith, the turning point of history and the place where justice and mercy meet.  Indeed, Paul, an early Christian leader and apostle said of the cross that it would be his only boast.  I will give him the last words:

But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation. And as for all who walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God.


1. Wayne A. Grudem, Systematic Theology : An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 568.
2. Millard Erikson, Christian Theology-2nd Edition (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1998), 814.
3. See the excellent work Pierced for our Transgressions: Rediscovering the glory of penal substitution by Jeffery, Ovey and Sach (Notingham, England: Intervarsity Press) 67-99.  This work just out in the US from Crossway books.  If you are building a theological library-buy this book!  Another excellent work on the cross is John Stott, The Cross of Christ (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1986).