Theories of the Atonement: Can I Sort of Say “All of the Above?”

In recent years, there has been more talk among Protestant/evangelical circles around the nature of the atonement.  More specifically, there is increased disagreement on penal-substitutionary atonement and more emphasis put on others.  Many evangelicals, mostly in the Reformed camp, have aggressively defended penal-substitutionary atonement as THE theory of the atonement, and I heard one Reformed radio host say that “everything” about Christianity hinged on penal-substitution.  Other Christians have grown uncomfortable with the notion that God needed to “vent his wrath” on somebody just to feel good enough to start forgiving, and penal-substitution has been likened to divine child abuse.

Theories of the atonement of Christ are very important because Christ’s death and resurrection are among the key, foundational claims of the Christian faith.  Christians should attempt to try to explain what exactly happened, and any view of the atonement that expressly avoids accounting for sin and the need for something like the cross are sorely lacking.  However, I must say that while I find the debate interesting, I also find it a bit puzzling.  All of these theories of the atonement are mostly analogies that we use to try to understand Christ’s work, and none of them capture everything that we see in Scripture and all of them can start breaking down when we push that analogy to its limits.  The atonement is ultimately a mystery, and while that does not mean we just throw up our hands and use the “mystery” card, it does mean that we have to be cognizant of the fact that any single theory probably won’t encompass everything.

Because of that, I like to say “Yes” to many of the different views on the atonement.  I had a systematic theology professor who went through various theories on the atonement and concluded that they all had something important to contribute to the overall picture.  That said, neither he nor I would say that each theory holds equal importance.  There are “controlling” theories that more nearly capture the essence of the atonement, but that doesn’t mean we have to go about discounting the other ones.  I’ll discuss several theories, some of their strengths and weaknesses, and list them in order of importance or comprehensiveness (as I see it).  It is important to note that all of these theories have variations, so I will be talking rather generally.

Christus Victor

One area I disagreed on with my systematic theology professor is that he thought penal-substitution is the most important, controlling theory of the atonement but I think it’s Christus Victor (Christ the Victor).  The reason is because that was clearly the overarching goal of the atonement: Christ being victorious over sin, death, and the devil (1 John 3:8).  This view is closely tied to the ransom theory of atonement and was dominant in the first millennium of Christianity.  One of the weaknesses of penal-substitution and the strident advocacy of it over anything else is that it puts very little emphasis on the resurrection or none at all.  The late John Stott in his good book The Cross of Christ even explicitly says that the cross has greater importance than the resurrection, which to me sounds like saying one wing of an airplane is more important than the other.  Small wonder why many Christians even leave out the resurrection when sharing the Gospel and simply stop at “Jesus died for your sins.”

In fairness to the champions of penal-substitution, they may argue that I’m making a category mistake: It’s not that they want to minimize the resurrection, but that’s simply not what’s under review when discussing the atonement.  However, I would argue, like a Reformed blogger at The Gospel Coalition, that no comprehensive view of the atonement is adequate without understanding what the goal was.  This is the “big picture” of the work of Christ.  Without the resurrection, we could be confident about nothing about the atonement because Christ would not have demonstrated victory.

Penal-Substitutionary Atonement

This view holds that Jesus took on the penalty for sins of mankind and God poured his wrath upon him.  It was developed from Anselm’s satisfaction theory by the Reformers which was in turn developed from the ransom theory, and it remains the dominant view of the atonement among Protestants.  As stated above, there are two main objections to it: It makes God seem petty that he needs to vent his wrath on an innocent man and it makes God seem like a divine child abuser.

I think a few considerations can lessen the force of those objections.  One, God’s holiness and justice are radically opposed to sin.  If God is just and holy, then sin demands a response.  Furthermore, Jesus submitted to the cross willingly and out of love for the world, which is why he who knew no sin became sin for us (2 Cor. 5:21).  Lastly, and this is very important, the Incarnation and the Trinity help inform us that this was not God simply “venting his anger” on some innocent dude.  If Jesus was fully man and fully God and the second person of the Trinity, then it’s not God punishing some innocent third party; it’s God entering into the fallenness of man and taking the penalty on himself.  Such an understanding removes the idea that God is uncontrollably angry and just wants to pummel somebody, though I admit that many Christians have unfortunately shared the Gospel with such a description.  It instead highlights the scandalous love and grace of God.

Again, I do think this theory falls short when it comes to the resurrection, and many adherents have tried to push the bounds of the analogy too far by speculating that specific individuals’ sins must have been put on Jesus or else God is punishing the sins of people twice who do not believe (the view of limited atonement).  I address that objection briefly here, and I’ll repeat what I say there: By pushing the analogy to its breaking point, we may rightly wonder what the role faith plays if penal-substitution itself accomplishes salvation all on its own, and others may object that it hardly seems just that someone else takes a person’s punishment, even if it is done willingly.  We probably would never accept such an arrangement in our own court system.  However, again considering Jesus status as the God-man and the second person of the Trinity, it is clear that his blood was enough to satisfy the justice of God as a representative of both man and God.

The Ransom Theory

This theory was dominant in the first thousand years of the Church, but it fell out of favor after Anselm’s critique of it.  It has the benefit of being more explicit in Scripture: Jesus himself says that he came to be a ransom for many (Matthew 20:28, Mark 10:45), and Paul echoes that he paid a ransom for all (1 Tim. 2:6).  Personally, I think it should be elevated back up to equal importance to penal-substitution.  What was Anselm’s problem, then, and why did it quickly fade?

Anselm asked a rather simple and understandable question: If Jesus paid a ransom, who did he pay it too?  God?  Well, why would God need to pay himself?  Is God our “captor”?  That seems silly.  The most common explanation in the early church is that this payment was given to Satan, and C.S. Lewis even allegorizes this in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.  This makes sense in that Satan would fit the role of the kidnapper more, but Anselm and others after him bristled at the idea that Satan had any sort of just claim over humans and that God had to pay up.  Furthermore, the view holds that Satan was surprised by the resurrection and saw his supposed victory turned to defeat, but this “sting operation” by God made God look like a deceiver in the eyes of many Christians because he “tricked” Satan with the resurrection.

I actually do not find these traditional objections to the ransom-to-Satan view all that convincing.  For the first one, there is no need to see Satan’s power over the sinful world as “just;” in fact, the very notion of being a kidnapper or captor means that you’ve taken someone unjustly, or it’s, well, not kidnapping.  He doesn’t have a rightful power, but he has a de facto power due to the sin of man, such that even Scripture will say that the world lies under his control (1 John 5:19).  For the second, there is also no need to see God as a deceiver.  If Satan deluded himself into thinking that he could achieve victory by killing the Son of Man, then that was his doing and God merely allowed him to think that.  It’s not like Jesus was quiet about his intended goal and the resurrection before the cross.

However, that doesn’t mean that thinking this doesn’t have potential problems.  Even if it is acknowledged that Satan’s “kidnapping” of mankind is unjust, one may still wonder why God didn’t instead perform a rescue operation rather than pay a ransom… then again, a defender of this view could say that’s exactly what he did on with the cross and resurrection.  Regardless, though, I think this speculation is unnecessary because, again, it’s pushing the analogy too far: I think it’s enough to see that sin is A) An enormous debt/price that must be paid but cannot be paid by man in this life and B) That Jesus provided that payment that can free people from bondage.  Asking who it’s being paid to seems to be missing the point, in my estimation.

Moral Government Theory

Adherents of this theory often use it to try to deny penal-substitution, but it’s not necessary to reject penal-substitution to affirm certain parts of it.  The moral governance theory of the atonement is that God could not “simply forgive” all the sins of the world without the moral order of the universe breaking down.  Think of it this way: If you “just forgive” your kids whenever they screw up without any idea of justice, the order of your house will quickly fall to disorder.  Thus, Jesus had to die, but not necessarily to take on punishment for individual sins or for mankind’s sins in general but to show God’s displeasure towards sin and to show the world what God could justifiably do to sin.  In this way, God’s justice is “satisfied.”

I find no problem in the idea that the cross can serve as a demonstration of God’s justice to the world and that he views sin as abhorrent, and this theory does give a good reason why God simply could not turn a blind eye towards sin and remain the just and moral ruler of creation.  However, I think it misses concepts in the Scripture like 2 Cor. 5:21 cited above (and 1 John 2:2) that Jesus paid something on our behalf, whether it’s some debt or the penalty of sin, so I haven’t been convinced yet that this suffices as a more central theory of the atonement.

Moral Influence/Example Theory

Peter Abelard is famous for this theory (some split it into two), and it basically says that Jesus died on the cross as a moral example of suffering that should motivate us to live and serve like he did.  Which is absolutely correct (Philippians 2:1-8, 1 John 4:10-11)… as long as one doesn’t make this the sole reason why Jesus died on the cross.  Without other theories informing this one, this theory would simply make Jesus’ death unnecessary and rob it of much of its power, nor would it do much to address the problem of sin.


There are some theories I left out, such as the recapitulation theory and the satisfaction theories of both Anselm and Aquinas, but for the most part, the ones discussed above are the most common among evangelical circles.  I think Christus Victor is the big picture view, while the ransom theory and penal-substitution show how he achieved that victory.  Moral governance shows the preservation of God’s moral order and the demonstration of sin’s horribleness, while the moral example view provides those who are saved with a picture of how to live in humble service.  I say “Yes” to all of them without saying “Yes” to all of one of them (perhaps with the exception of Christus Victor), and I find Christians who try to draw hard battle lines for and against other theories to be doing themselves a disservice.  We should appreciate the richness of Jesus’ work on the cross and let it come out in our preaching and teaching.


One thought on “Theories of the Atonement: Can I Sort of Say “All of the Above?”

  1. Pingback: Evaluating John Owen’s Trilemma and Double Payment Argument for Limited Atonement | leesomniac

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