Writer Steve Schramm unpacks various atonement theories, looking at their historical and biblical origins
The doctrine of the atonement is central to Christianity, focusing on the reconciliation of humanity and God through Jesus Christ’s life, death and resurrection. This article aims to provide a balanced overview of major atonement theories, ultimately suggesting the adoption of a comprehensive understanding that draws on the valuable insights of each theory.
It is important to remember that atonement is a subject upon which Christians have speculated about and disagreed upon for centuries. While this author aims to provide an overview that is educational and historically sound, this article will not attempt a detailed defence or adoption of any particular theory.
Historical overview of atonement theories
Throughout the millennia of Christian history, influential scholars have tried to make sense of the biblical data and philosophical underpinnings of atonement theories. The following are some of those which have gained the most traction, along with some historical context and a brief articulation of the biblical data (all verses are in the CSB translation) to support each one.
The Ransom Theory posits that Jesus’ death served as a ransom payment to liberate humanity from the bondage of sin and Satan. This view is rooted in biblical passages like Mark 10:45 and 1 Timothy 2:6, which highlight Christ’s redemptive work as a ransom for many. Early church fathers like Origen and Gregory of Nyssa supported this view, which was widely held during the first millennium of Christianity.
“For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Mark 10:45
“For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, a testimony at the proper time.”1 Timothy 2:6
In Ransom Theory, these verses suggest that Jesus’ death on the cross was a payment to release humanity from the bondage of sin and Satan. The concept of ‘ransom’ implies that something was exchanged or paid to liberate those who were held captive.
Christus Victor Theory
The Christus Victor Theory emphasises that Jesus’ death and resurrection triumphed over the powers of evil, including sin, death and the devil. This understanding of the atonement is based on the New Testament’s portrayal of Jesus as the victorious king who conquers evil forces.
Irenaeus, a 2nd Century theologian, is a key proponent of this view, which also influenced the writings of other early church fathers. Two major Bible verses in support of this theory are:
“He disarmed the rulers and authorities and disgraced them publicly; he triumphed over them in him.” Colossians 2:15
“But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!” 1 Corinthians 15:57
These verses emphasise Jesus’ triumph over the powers of evil, sin and death. In the Christus Victor Theory, Christ’s victory is understood as a cosmic event that brought about the defeat of evil forces and established Jesus’ reign as the victorious king.
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The Satisfaction Theory, primarily developed by Anselm of Canterbury in the 11th Century, asserts that Jesus’ death satisfied the demands of God’s justice and restored the disrupted order of creation. In this view, sin is an affront to God’s honour, and Christ’s sacrifice restores the balance by offering a perfect act of obedience.
This theory was influential in mediaeval theology and continues to inform many contemporary discussions of the atonement.
“Therefore, he had to be like his brothers and sisters in every way, so that he could become a merciful and faithful high priest in matters pertaining to God, to make atonement for the sins of the people.” Hebrews 2:17
“God presented him as the mercy seat by his blood, through faith, to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his restraint God passed over the sins previously committed.” Romans 3:25
These verses highlight the idea that Jesus’ death on the cross satisfied the demands of God’s justice, making atonement for the sins of humanity. In the Satisfaction Theory, Christ’s sacrifice restores the disrupted order of creation by offering a perfect act of obedience to God.
Penal Substitution Theory
The Penal Substitution Theory, which gained prominence during the Reformation, maintains that Jesus bore the punishment for humanity’s sins, taking the place of sinful individuals and satisfying divine justice.
Key figures like Martin Luther and John Calvin endorsed this perspective, which is rooted in the biblical concept of substitutionary atonement found in passages like Isaiah 53 and 2 Corinthians 5:21. This theory remains prevalent in Protestant theology today and arguably provides a ‘core’ theory upon which to build and integrate the others.
“But he was pierced because of our rebellion, crushed because of our iniquities; punishment for our peace was on him, and we are healed by his wounds.” Isaiah 53:5
“He made the one who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” 2 Corinthians 5:21
In the Penal Substitution Theory, these verses convey the idea that Jesus bore the punishment for humanity’s sins on the cross, taking the place of sinful individuals and satisfying divine justice. The concept of substitutionary atonement is central to this view, as it suggests that Jesus’ sacrifice has a direct impact on the spiritual standing of believers.
Moral Influence Theory
The Moral Influence Theory suggests that Jesus’ life and death serve as a supreme example of self-sacrificial love, inspiring believers to follow his path and cultivate a transformed character. This view has roots in the teachings of the early church father Abelard and was later developed by theologians like Friedrich Schleiermacher.
The Moral Influence Theory highlights the ethical implications of Christ’s work and its transformative power in the lives of believers.
“No one has greater love than this: to lay down his life for his friends.” John 15:13
“Adopt the same attitude as that of Christ Jesus, who, existing in the form of God, did not consider equality with God as something to be exploited. Instead he emptied himself by assuming the form of a servant, taking on the likeness of humanity. And when he had come as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death— even to death on a cross.” Philippians 2:5-8
These verses underscore the importance of Jesus’ self-sacrificial love and his example of humility and obedience. In the Moral Influence Theory, Christ’s life and death serve as a supreme example for believers, inspiring them to follow in his footsteps and pursue a transformed character marked by love and selflessness.
An integrative approach
An integrative perspective on atonement theories recognises that each theory offers a unique and valuable insight into the complex and multifaceted nature of Christ’s redemptive work. Christians can—and should—develop a more comprehensive understanding of the atonement by taking the time to understand and appreciate each view on its own merits.
When one takes the time to do this, before long, a ‘mosaic’ begins to form. While there are modern attempts to discredit ‘uncomfortable’ theories like Penal Substitution in favour of others, a biblically coherent picture seems to integrate aspects of each.
Forming the biblical picture
For instance, the Penal Substitution theory highlights the need for Christ to bear the punishment for human sin, demonstrating God’s justice and holiness. At the same time, the Christus Victor theory emphasises Christ’s victory over sin, death and evil, showcasing God’s power and sovereignty.
Furthermore, the Moral Influence theory emphasises the transformative power of Christ’s love and sacrifice, inspiring believers to lead lives of moral virtue and love for others. The Ransom theory, on the other hand, emphasises the cosmic dimensions of Christ’s work, depicting his death as a ransom paid to free humanity from the bondage of sin and evil forces.
Considering these theories together, Christians can appreciate the multifaceted nature of the atonement, recognising that Christ’s sacrifice is not only a legal transaction or a military victory but also a profound expression of divine love and a catalyst for personal transformation.
This approach to atonement theories allows believers to explore the richness of Christ’s work on the cross, recognising that each theory captures essential aspects of the atonement.
Steve Schramm is an autodidactic writer, Bible teacher and host of the Bible Nerd Podcast. He’s authored four books, including Truth Be Told: A Believer’s Guide to Sharing Christianity, Overcoming Objections, and Winning More Souls for Christ