Despite what you’ve heard, there’s actually been a ton of debate.
The most important concept in Christianity is accepting Jesus as one’s savior. Ask all of the world’s two billion or so professing Christians and they’ll most likely agree with that. There also tends to be a general agreement that through Christ, humankind is somehow reconciled with God. This is called atonement. It’s one of the few distinctly English words in theology that doesn’t derive from Hebrew, Greek, or Latin. It’s the combination of “at one,” as in, “to be in harmony with”. You are at “at one” with God, you atone. The atonement then is “man’s reconciliation with God through the sacrificial death of Christ.”
What there is much less agreement upon is how and why this is achieved. Christ brought us back to God, but how? Why were we separated from God in the first place? Is the atoning work of Christ about the Son, the Father, or us? For such an important question, the Bible doesn’t really give a clear answer. Of course, for each theory one can find ample support in various Biblical passages, just like any other theological concept in Christianity.
To me, this is the most important question in Christianity: How did humankind reconcile with God through Christ? “Nothing in the Christian system,” wrote John Wesley, “is of greater consequence than the doctrine of the atonement.” How we answer this questions fundamentally shapes how we see the world and how we live our lives.
In this short essay, I will lay out five theories that have shaped (mainly Western) Christian thought. Note there are many more theories and much ink has been spent debating and rebutting this fairly simple yet incredibly complex question. I won’t attempt to change your mind to what I believe, but I hope that as you read, you’ll thoughtfully and prayerfully reflect on your own answers.
#1 — The Ancient View: Christ as Ransom
For the first thousand years of Christianity, most Christians believed that Christ was a ransom that was paid to Satan in exchange for releasing humans from the bondage of sin. Satan had control over humanity since the fall of man, and only the soul of perfectly innocent Jesus would be an acceptable payment for the return of humanity to the Father. But unbeknownst to the devil, Jesus was also God. So after three days, Jesus left Hell and returned to heaven to sit at the right hand of the Father.
The strongest biblical support for this theory, known as the Ransom Theory of atonement, comes from the words of Jesus himself: “Just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” — Matthew 20:28 (see also Mark 10:45 and 1 Timothy 2:5–6).
St. Greggory of Nyssa, who lived in the 300’s CE and profoundly shaped the way we still think of the Trinity, described it as sort of a bait-and-switch. God “was hidden under the veil of our nature, that so, as with ravenous fish, the hook of [God] might be gulped down along with the bait of flesh.” I use Greggory’s words here to demonstrate that this was not a fringe view. This was the main view of the atonement, the view of the church’s leading thinkers.
The idea that Jesus’s death was a ransom to the devil might seem crazy to us, but it’s not so crazy if you look at the culture that produced it. As one historian notes, it was not uncommon in late antiquity that “marauding gangs” would roam about “capturing travelers and demanding payment for their release.” There was also a very real sense of duality between good and evil that may seem very foreign to mainline and liberal Protestants today, if not contemporary Evangelicals. Writes one historian of theology: “So conscious were the early Christians of the pervasiveness of Satanically inspired evil (see the book of Revelation) that they developed strong dualistic tendencies: God on one side, the devil on the other, and no neutral ground in between.”
That dualism is what concerns most critics of the ransom theory. One writer called that dualism dangerous because “among other things, [it] threatens the very sovereignty of God.” Basically, in some respects, it makes Satan equal to God. Why would God have to pay Satan anything? Why would He be in debt to Satan?
# 2 — The Medieval View: Christ as Substitute
So troubled by those questions did one man offer a stern critique of ransom atonement, in a book whose influence is still being felt today. In 1099, St. Anselm of Canterbury wrote Cur Deus Homo, or “why God became man.” It took the ransom theory to task. “For Anselm,” writes one historian, “the notion that the devil’s originator, his creator, could ever be in his debt was absurd. The absolute freedom of the divine being is recovered because, for Anselm, God has the right to act in his own creation just as he pleases.”
In this theory, it is God’s honor that is offended by our sin. And that offense cannot go unanswered, God’s honor must be restored. But man, being so much less than God, can never restore that honor on his own. “The debt is total, the obligation to pay it, total, the power to pay it, zero.” The answer then is found in the sacrifice of Christ: fully human, he can atone for man, fully God, he can restore God’s honor. This is Substitutionary Atonement.
Anselm describes it this way in this dialogue from Cur Deus Homo he has with another monk named Boso:
Anselm: So no one except God can make the satisfaction.
Boso: That follows.
Anselm: But no one except humanity ought to do it — otherwise, humanity has not made satisfaction.
Boso: Nothing could be more just.
Anselm: … So if no one except God can make it and no one except man ought to make it, there must be a God-Man to make it.
Boso: Blessed be God.
Fun aside: Boso is Anselm’s main foil in Cur Deus Homo, constantly getting it wrong and constantly being corrected by Anselm. Some have hypothesized it’s where the name for Bozo the Clown has originated.
Again, it’s important to understand the culture in which Anselm was writing. At about the same time Anselm was crystalizing his theory that God demands satisfaction, the feudal system was emerging in Europe in the late middle ages. In this new system, order in society was built on the idea that you owed somebody something. The surfs who worked the land owed their protection to the lords and knights who owned it, who owed their loyalty to a regional lord or sovereign. The system of order was based on personal (or at least semi-personal) relationships, rather than a strict code of laws. If you did something wrong, you offended the honor of the person above you. The more noble the person you offended, the greater your reparation needed to be.
If this idea of Christ being a substitute sounds somewhat familiar to you, that’s because you’re about to see how it evolves.
#3 — The Reformed View: Christ Receives Your Punishment
Five hundred years after Anselm posited the atoning work of Christ was substitutionary, the thinkers of the reformation, most notably John Calvin, would go even further. To them, it was not that God’s honor was offended. It was that God, the ultimate judge of the universe, cannot let human sin go unpunished. But, as in Anselm’s theory, man has fallen so short of God that he cannot possibly come close to repaying God for his sins, only God can. Thus, Christ comes to earth as fully human and fully God, receives our punishment, and God’s demand for justice is fulfilled.
A modern conservative theologian describes it this way: “The Father, because of his love for human beings, sent his Son (who offered himself willingly and and gladly) to satisfy God’s justice, so that Christ took the place of sinners. The punishment and penalty we deserved was laid on Jesus Christ instead of us, so that in the cross both God’s holiness and love are manifested.”
This is called the Penal Substitutionary theory of atonement. That’s a term Calvin himself of course did not use, but was applied later in the 19th century. Although this theory was firmly codified in all Protestant confessions of faith by the end of the Reformation, its further development was in large part a reaction to the Enlightenment. It remains the dominant view of the atonement for most Evangelicals.
Conservative theologians say evidence for this theory can be found in both the Old and New Testaments. In the Old Testament, they point to Isaiah 53 (the suffering servant passage) and the various system of animal sacrifices and day of atonement described in Leviticus. In the New, like much of the foundational Lutheran ideas of the Reformation, support for penal substitution can be found in Paul’s words in Romans. They cite specifically Romans 3:21–26, which reads in part: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement (or a place of atonement) by his blood.”
The difference between Anselm’s substitutionary atonement and the penal substitutionary atonement of the Reformation is slight but important. One theologian describes it this way: “In [Anselm’s] theory, punishment is averted. In penal substitution, punishment is absorbed.”
The main objection by critics, however, is to the nature of God that is assumed by both of these theories. One modern theologian describes Anselm’s God as a “status-paranoid power-monger who deliberately humiliates and infantilizes human beings under the guise of justice.” Further, a thinker and theologian who lived around the time of Anselm, the French philosopher and ethicist Peter Abelard, wrote this:
Indeed how cruel and wicked it seems that anyone should demand the blood of an innocent person as the price for anything, or that it should in any way please him that an innocent man should be slain — still less that God should consider the death of his Son so agreeable that by it he should be reconciled to the whole world?
Abelard developed quite a different view of the atonement, and its to his own theory we now turn.
#4 — The Ethical View: Christ as an Example
Interestingly, the quote above from Abelard came from his own commentary on Romans. Obviously, Abelard came to quite different conclusions about the same passages conservatives would later exegete in support of penal substitution. From his ideas was developed the Moral Influence theory of the atonement, where Christ’s life, death, and resurrection shows humans the true nature of love and turns them back towards God. Thus, the cross speaks to us, but its power is enough to pull us in and atone—there is no transaction required of by God. Christ then becomes “an example of man’s best rather than the bearer of man’s worst.”
One theologian describes it this way:
The work of Christ chiefly consists of demonstrating to the world the amazing depth of God’s love of sinful humanity… There is nothing inherent in God that must be appeased before he is willing to forgive humanity. The problem lies in the sinful, hardened human heart, with its fear and ignorance of God… Through the incarnation and death of Jesus Christ, the love of God shines like a beacon, beckoning humanity to come and fellowship.
And just as every theologian has a Bible passage in support of their ideas, so to do the exemplarists (another name for this theory is moral example), notably 1 Peter 2:22, “For this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps,” as well as various passages in John (see John 13:13–16 and John 15:9–17).
Critics of moral influence atonement argue that at its best it doesn’t sound like atonement at all, and at its worst, dangerously veers into the ancient heresy of Pelagianism. Pelagius and his followers in the 400s CE essentially argued that Christians could be saved by their good works without divine help (his main and most vocal opponent was St. Augustine).
But more generally, critics say moral influence theology doesn’t answer the question, “what do we need saved from?” One theologian described the lack of an answer in moral influence atonement this way. Imagine siting safely on a pier, in a deck chair, when all of a sudden, out of nowhere, a man flings himself into the ocean and drowns. You later learn he did this because he loved you. You would probably think the man was a lunatic. But if, on the other hand, you yourself were drowning in the ocean, and a man came out to save you, succeeds, but drowns himself, you would understand, yes this is love.
A resurgence of moral influence atonement, however, came in the 19th century. This was also as a reaction to the rationalism of the Enlightenment, along with such liberal ideas as postmillennialism and the Social Gospel movement. All emphasized the goodness of God, the ethical example of Christ, and the human ability to improve oneself. In fact, the expression, “What Would Jesus Do?” was born out of these thoughts, popularized by the 1896 novel In His Steps(again, 1 Peter 2:22). And like much liberal Protestant theology, it was largely abandoned in the wake of the first World War, and utterly destroyed by the aftermath of the second. Popular theology, in the wake of the two most destructive and deadly conflicts in all of human history, once again began emphasizing a just God over a God of love.
#5 — The Battlefield View: Christ as Victor
It was into this world, one with a starkly different view of human nature, that arrived our final theory of atonement. In 1930, Swedish theologian Gustaf Aulén published Christus Victor (it would be published in English a year later). Translated from Latin, Christus victor means “Christ as conquerer” or “Christ as victor,” and that idea is at the heart of Aulén’s theory which has taken that name.
In a large way, Aulén reinterpreted our first theory of atonement, the ransom theory. The dualism demonstrated in that theory returns. The earth and heaven are locked in a cosmic struggle between good (God) and evil (Satan). Christ was sent to battle with and triumph over the elements of darkness in his kingdom. All of us are standing in the middle of a cosmic war zone.
The New Testament in several places calls Satan the ruler of this earth, and “everything Jesus was about centered on vanquishing this empire, taking back the world that Satan had seized and restoring its rightful viceroys — humans — to their position of guardians of the earth,” writes one theologian. Further, supporters point to many motifs found in various passages throughout the New Testament, like the power of Satan and his demonic hosts (example: Luke 13:10–16) and our slavery to sin (John 8:34). Not to mention literally the entire book of Revelation, which casts the end times as the ultimate and final battle between good and evil.
This view of atonement lies in sharp contrast to other views by its emphasis on the cosmic significance of Christ over the significance of personal salvation. “We are reconciled because the cosmos has been reconciled. Because the rebel powers have been put in their place, we can be presented ‘holy and blameless’ before God.”
Besides the same criticism of dualism in the ransom theory (making Satan equal to God), the most pressing question with this theory isn’t why, but how? How did Christ defeat Satan through the Cross? What was it about the cross that defeated all the elements of evil throughout the universe? And further, if we are freed from evil and sin, why then do we keep sinning? One critic writes this theory, like the ransom theory, falls apart when pressed too hard for details.
Should we press too hard for details?
To be fair, most, if not all, of these theories tend to crumble when pressed too hard. No theory of atonement seems complete or absolutely correct, at least to human understanding. In fact, most theologians who vocally support one theory will readily admit the other theories hold some validity. For example, one Southern Baptist theologian who ardently supports penal substitution does not deny the cosmic significance of Christ’s victory on the cross, nor does he deny the importance of Jesus as an ethical model for all humankind.
But no, I do not think we should stop pressing for details. We should not stop asking questions about or digging for answers to this, the most important question in Christianity. In doing so, I believe we come closer to God, through Christ, by the Holy Spirit. I know for many in more liberal churches, the idea of penal substitution is absolutely repugnant. I will admit, it was through more liberal theology that I found Jesus and accepted Him as my savior. If penal substitution were the only answer to our question, I probably would have abandoned Christ a long time ago, as I assume many have.
But, it’s not the only answer. I’m writing this on Easter Sunday, 2020. As I reflect on all the possible theories of atonement (and I again admit there are more not covered here), I am in awe of the power of the cross and the atoning work of Christ. Because despite of, or in fact because of, its mystery, this debate, and these endless questions, people still find the answer as they have for two thousand years—in Jesus.
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NOTE TO READERS: I’ve deliberately not included the names of theologians and writers quoted—except for the major ones worth remembering—for ease of reading. Most of the quotes cited come from two books: The Nature of Atonement: Four Views edited by James Beilby and Paul Eddy, InterVarsity Press, 2009, and Atonement Theories: A Way Through the Maze by Ben Pugh, Cascade Books, 2014. Also, all translations are from the New Revised Standard version of the Bible.