Atonement theory


Adam and Eve’s disobedience of God is referred to as the fall because it introduced original sin, which all humans inherited, into the world. The result is that humans fell out of God’s grace, but Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross is seen as in some way fixing that problem of humanity’s original sin such that we can be in God’s grace again.

 All Christians agree that through the death of Christ, our sins were forgiven, but they disagree as to exactly how that worked. There are many different atonement theories as a result.

Early model: Sacrifice

A theme in the Old Testament is that sacrifice mends the relationship between people and God. Abraham is commanded to sacrifice a ram instead of his son. In Exodus 12:24-27, God commands the Jews to slaughter and eat lamb on Passover. John 1:29 refers to Jesus as the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.

This is taken to suggest that Jesus’ death was a sacrifice which allows humanity to atone for its sins. God himself had provided a sacrifice for them in Jesus, just as a provided a Ram for Abraham to sacrifice.

However this early model raised many objections and questions. Most notably, how could God’s mercy to sinful humanity be dependent on a sacrifice? Why would God need or want a sacrifice before he could be merciful?

Christus Victor

The Christus Victor model is based on the early Ransom model.

The Ransom model is that Jesus thought of his death as a ransom to redeem men and women from sin. It could have been a ransom payment for Satan, to free mankind from being owned by Satan after Adam and Eve’s sin. Satan was unaware that Jesus was God and therefore was deceived and suffered final defeat when Jesus was resurrected.

The Ransom model was rejected by many including Anselm and Abelard, because it seems to give Satan too much power. How could Satan have the power to demand a ransom from God, surely God can just do and take what he wants. Furthermore, God is pure goodness and could never deceive anyone, not even Satan.

In 1931, Gustaf Aulen reinterpreted and repopularised the Ransom Model, calling it Christus Victor.

God had a deal with the devil that God would keep the souls of good people and the devil cold have the souls of the bad. When Adam and Eve caused original sin, all humans became bad and so the devil tried to claim them all. God offered the life of Jesus instead, which the devil accepted, but Jesus then defeated the devil in a spiritual battle thereby freeing all the souls. Anselm saw the atonement as the payment of a debt of honour to God, whereas Aulen sees it as human being liberated from the slavery of sin.

N T Wright claims that the gospels contain a “dark strand”, a theme of evil “clustering around Jesus”, starting in Matthew where Herod slaughters the babies to try and kill Jesus until in Luke’s telling of the arrest in the garden, Jesus says “This is your hour and the power of darkness”. Wright claims the evil of the world is being concentrated into one place, and the victory of the cross and resurrection was a victory over that evil. Paul says that “God condemned Sin in the flesh of the Messiah” and that Christ “disarmed the principalities and powers” and made a public spectacle out of them (Colossians 2:15). The spirit of God and early Church then go out into the world to try and change it for the better, an unthinkable goal theologically, which signifies that Christ’s victory over evil has brought an opportunity for progress towards the kingdom of God coming to earth. For Wright, a central theme of the gospels is the kingdom of God coming to be established on earth “as it is in heaven”. The “primary” significance of the Cross was as part of that theme. It was a messianic victory over the “powers” of evil. Wright argues that the various theories of the atonement, representative, substitution, moral example, all flow out of that context. So, they are all valuable.

Satisfaction & Penal substitution theory

Satisfaction theory was proposed by St Anselm. Satisfaction means reparation. Adam and Eve’s original sin was an offense against an infinite being – God. The offense taken against God’s justice was therefore infinite and the repayment of the debt required to make up for that offense must therefore be infinite. Since humans are only finite, the only way to forgive their sins and offense was to for God to pay the debt by sacrificing Jesus, since Jesus was divine and therefore infinite. Jesus’ sacrifice was ‘supererogation’ of merit, meaning doing more than duty requires, so it counted as an infinite honour which countered the infinite offence.

In Anselm’s time, serfs worked on an estate for an overlord who protected the serfs, for which they owed a debt of honour. Anselm viewed God as an overlord of the world whom we had dishonoured during the fall.

Penal substitution theory is a development of Anselm’s satisfaction theory by the protestant reformers. They regarded substitution theory as inadequate because it was based on God’s offence taking or honour, whereas the reformers claimed it should be based on God’s justice. Anselm regarded Jesus’ death as making up for the honour God lost for the offense caused to him by original sin. Penal substitution theory argues instead that rather than God’s honour being satisfied, it was God’s moral law which was satisfied. God’s moral law required that punishment occur for justice to be done. Jesus sacrificed himself as a fulfilment of that justice by suffering the punishment instead of us. So, Jesus set humans free from sin by taking the punishment himself on the cross. This theory is based on the Suffering Servant Songs in the Old Testament where they made descriptions of a suffering God (Isaiah 53:6, Galatians 3:13)

William Lane Craig. The etymological root of the word “atonement” comes from a middle-English word meaning “at-one-ment”, so becoming one. So, atonement is humans becoming one with God due to Jesus’ sacrifice.

However the original Greek and Hebrew words in the Bible that the English word “atonement” is translated from means to cleanse, purge or to expiate sin or impurity.

Craig argues that Christ’s death served to “expiate” sin, which means to annul or cancel sin and also to propitiate God, which means to regain God’s favour or by putting to rest his wrath or satisfying his justice. Craig claims that Christ’s death was both expiating of sin and propitiating of God.

W L Craig argues that much of the work of Christian theologians on the atonement has focused on the etymological sense of atonement as reconciliation or oneness, but has “completely ignored the Biblical understanding of atonement as expiation or purging or cleansing.” So their theories of atonement “have nothing to do with atonement in the biblical sense of the word and therefore are not adequate theories of the atonement”.

The myth of redemptive violence. The method of the atonement that God chose was so horrible and gruesome, doesn’t that suggest that God would be cruel for requiring such a sacrifice, or that his wrath would be in contradiction to his love? Some theologians claim that a requirement of such a terrible treatment of his Son would make God bloodthirsty, or a child abuser. They conclude that a true understanding of God’s justice shows that it would not be satisfied by a violent punishment, because God is forgiving. Penal Substitution theory therefore portrays God as unwilling to forgive past actions, but the New Testament suggests God is willing to forgive past mistakes if the person has truly repented and thus changed. God also tells Christians that they should be forgiving of each other without asking for any kind of payment. It seems that the justice of the God of the Bible would not require the Crucifixion as payment for our sins, it would just allow forgiveness.

Craig responds that to get absolution from guilt, we need “more than just personal forgiveness”, we need a “pardon”. Forgiveness alone does not deal with God’s retributive justice and our guilt which needs to be expiated. Craig points out that the Levitical sacrifices show that animals bare the fate of death that the person doing the sacrifice deserves. This shows that God’s justice does demand death but is willing to accept a substitution. The purpose of these sacrifices was to symbolically expiate people’s guilt, so God would constitute them righteous again. Christ is called the “lamb”, which was traditionally a sacrificial animal. So, Craig insists that while the Bible does present God as forgiving and loving, it also presents God as requiring substitutionary sacrifices to satisfy his justice and his wrath against sin. Craig concludes that Christ saw his death as “expiatory sacrifice” to God which cleansed humanity of its sin and thereby reconciled them to God, similar to the animal sacrifices mentioned in the Old Testament that served to purge people of sin and impurity.

Wright claims that the link sacrifice in the old testament is limited. The only case where animals are loaded with the sins of others are scapegoats, which are specifically not sacrificed, because they are impure and so cannot be a valid offering. Instead, they are driven out of the village to die in the wilderness. That’s not what happened to Jesus, so it makes more sense to see his death as victory over evil which saves us from evil and sin, rather than as a substitutionary payment for our sins.

Whether God is cruel for holding all people responsible for the actions of Adam and Eve. If Jesus died so our sins could be forgiven, that suggests that all humans are somehow guilty of the sin that originated with Adam and Eve’s disobedience against God. Isn’t it a violation of moral responsibility for all humans to require forgiveness or deserve punishment for the actions of Adam and Eve? In that case, we could not be in need of divine forgiveness due to the actions of our ancestors, as that would be unjust. This is especially an argument against satisfaction/substitution theory.

The doctrine of original sin is what theologians typically draw on to justify the imputation of Adam’s guilt to us. St Augustine believed that when Adam sinned, all of his future descendants became ‘vitiated’ with sin.

Original sin violates moral responsibility: It’s not ethical for all humanity to be blamed for the actions of Adam and Eve. This suggests an indefensible view of moral responsibility – that people can be responsible for actions committed by others which is of special absurdity in this case since the action occurred before they were even born.

Augustine is not actually arguing that God himself blamed all humanity for Adam’s sin, he’s merely pointing out that it was a factual consequence of Adam’s sin that all future humanity, in Adam’s loins, became infected with original sin. It’s not God’s fault, it’s Adams’. So, Augustine argues that predestination is not unjust of God, since we are corrupted by original sin and so if we go to hell it is deserved.

It’s not our fault that we have original sin, so it still seems unfair and thus incompatible with omnibenevolence to suggest that we deserve punishment for it. Especially when considering cases like a child with cancer, it’s difficult to maintain that a child deserves cancer because it has original sin. Augustine would have to say that it is God’s justice for a child to get cancer and that God is still omnibenevolent despite allowing it. That is logically inconsistent with God being omnibenevolent.

Augustine insists that God’s reasons and justice are beyond our understanding. We should not try to use our limited human minds to judge God. It might seem unfair, but Augustine puts it down to the “secret yet just judgement of God”, indicating that it is inscrutable – impossible for us to understand – but we should have faith it is just. Augustine points to Psalm 25:10: ‘All the paths of the Lord are mercy and truth,’ and concludes: “neither can his grace be unjust, nor his justice cruel”.

Moral exemplar/influence theory

Peter Abelard developed this theory as a reaction against Anselm’s satisfaction theory. Abelard thought that God’s justice might indeed want an atoning payment to restore his honour, but that God’s love is so boundless and unlimited that it overrules his need for honour. God’s nature as omnibenevolent means that nothing prevents him from forgiving humanity. No satisfaction or substitution is needed.

Abelard does not completely reject the idea that Jesus’ death involved some kind of payment for our sins. His theory is that Moral Example is central and defining of the atonement.

Abelard points to Romans 3:19-26, where Paul claims that although humanity is sinful, we are redeemed through faith in Christ whom God put forward as a “propitiation” in order to “show God’s righteousness” because God’s divine self-control, restraint and tolerance allowed him to “pass over former sins”. So, God forgave us for our sins, and the point of the Cross was to show his righteousness so that he could be the “justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus”. Abelard concludes from this that the Cross was atoning by representing such an inspiring moral example that humanity is influenced by it to avoid sin.

For Abelard, the atonement; our redemption through the suffering of Christ, inspired “that deeper love within us which not only frees us from slavery to sin, but also secures for us the true liberty of the children of God.” This means that Jesus’ sacrifice did not itself directly save us from our sins, but because he sacrificed himself it provided such an inspiring case of a moral role model that it has the indirect power to influence us to act more morally ourselves, which will save us from sin.

There is significant focus in the Bible on moral preaching e.g sermon on the mount. The most obvious purpose of that is to influence people to act more morally. The passages referring to final judgement, like the parable of the sheep and the goats, link it to moral conduct, thereby implying that salvation is dependent on how we act. Influencing us to act better will therefore encourage salvation.

Moral example conflicts with the Crucifixion. The moral example theory is criticised because Jesus did not need to be crucified to be a moral example; if that were God’s goal, there were surely other ways to achieve that. In that case, God’s method for creating a moral example for us was unnecessarily cruel. This undermines the moral example theory because Abelard’s notion of a loving God wouldn’t do something unnecessarily cruel, and furthermore a cruel God doesn’t make for a good moral example.

Arguably God chose to provide a moral example through such horrible means for good reasons. Firstly, it serves to show the depth of human depravity and sin and God’s hatred of sin. Secondly, it serves to show the vast extent of God’s love for humanity, that he himself would take on human flesh and go to such depths in order to redeem us to himself.

Nonetheless, if there were other means of atonement then the crucifixion was still unnecessary and therefore suggests God is cruel.

Arguably the crucifixion was the only way to provide humanity with a significant enough moral example.

The crucifixion is Justice – not cruelty. Anselm’s satisfaction theory, and the substation theory of the protestant reformers is based on the idea that God’s justice is an immutable and necessary attribute of God’s nature. They would argue that God’s unavoidable justice cannot be taken to show that he is cruel, nor that his wrath against sin is contrary to his love, because the satisfaction of justice cannot be cruelty nor contrary to love. The satisfaction of divine justice is a necessary condition for a divine pardon, otherwise God’s justice would be compromised. So the satisfaction account of the atonement is required to consistency hold both that God is fully loving and merciful, and yet also fully just and holy.         

Abelard argues that God’s unlimited love should overrule his need for honour or justice.

Craig responds that God’s justice is “just as essential” to his nature as his love, and that justice involves wrath over sin. So God’s love cannot overrule his justice or the righteous wrath it leads to. Craig concludes that the Substiutionary model is successful because it fully expresses both God’s love and his justice “without compromising either one”. Craig argues: “at the Cross, the wrath and the love of God meet as we see God himself out of his love for us paying the penalty for his own justice and thereby satisfying the demands of justice on our behalf”.

Faustus Socinus argued that what Anselm and the reformers think of as God’s attribute of Justice is actually God’s “moral equity and rectitude”. This means there is no attribute of God which requires absolutely that sin be punished in a way that God cannot repudiate. God has the power, right and ability to forgive anyone for anything if he chooses.

The extent to which the theories of the atonement are contradictory

Many scholars, including Abelard, N.T. Wright and WL Craig claim that the atonement theories are not contradictory but that we can and should believe them to all be valid explanations of different aspects of the meaning of the crucifixion. However, all three scholars nonetheless claim that their preferred theory is the central or primary theory and that the other theories only make sense in light of that. So Abelard claims that Moral Example is central, Wright that Christus Victor is central, and Craig that Penal Substitution is central. 

W. L. Craig: consistency of atonement theories, but centrality of Penal Substitution. Craig argues that a “full orbed theory of the atonement is like a precious jewel that is multi-faceted” such that it includes elements from all the theories of the atonement as facets of a full atonement theory. Craig claims that each theory of the atonement has its contribution to make since they are all based on themes and motifs that are found in the New Testament. Because of this, Craig concludes that “a multifaced model is the only way to go to have a full and adequate biblical atonement theory”. Although Craig thinks all the models have some validity, he does nonetheless regard Penal Substitution theory as the “central facet which anchors all the others”.

However, either Abelard is right about God’s love overriding his justice, or the protestant reformers and Craig are right. It’s hard to see how theose positions could be merged in a way which avoids contradicting each other.

N. T. Wright: consistency of atonement theories, but centrality of Christus Victor. Wright argues that Aulen presented the Christus Victor model as in competition with other models as a reaction to “low grade presentations” of an angry wrathful God in substitution theory which made the atonement debate an “either/or” between substitution and Christus Victor. Wright goes on to argue that Aulen thereby influenced proponents of Penal Substitution to think they shouldn’t accept the Christus Victor model, but Wright claims that is “completely wrong”, because it ignores the theme in the Gospels of the “dark strand” of evil gathering around Jesus and his final victory over it.

Wright points out that theologians and preachers have found it very difficult to hold all atonement models together, which he argues is a problem because the bible seems to have themes which justify each model. If we are to be faithful to the Bible we need to explore how to hold all the atonement models together in our mind. Although Wright embraces the Christus Victor model, he only regards it as one way of understanding the meaning of the cross, since he’s not convinced that we can specify its exact meaning fully in one theory. He does think it is the “central” model, though, but not exclusive; it doesn’t rule out the other theories. Wright concludes that he wants “all the theories of atonement” because they all “fit together”.

Wright argues that if you only believe in one model, like Penal substitution, by taking it out of its biblical context, then you do get an image of a bullying and cruel God.

Response: Wright is too liberal. Some proponents of Penal substitution argue that theologians like Wright are part of a movement to liberalise Christianity by projecting 21st century childlike views of love onto God that discount God’s justice and honour and fail to take the depths of human sin and depravity seriously.

Wright responds that to deconstruct and contextualise the penal substitution view is not to slide into a “liberal melange where God is nice to everybody and that’s alright”. What Wright is really proposing is a Biblical reading which emphasises the motifs of penal substitution but within a “much larger” biblical narrative of the “victorious love of god”.


Moral example theory arguably depends on a theology of justification by works, which could make it incompatible with the theology of justification by faith of the protestant reformers.