Ask Anything: Atonement Theory?

Another great question on Ask Anything regarding Atonement Theory.


Hey Rick!  Been reading a bit on different kinds of atonement theory. Feel like I’m getting a little lost in the weeds here. Was wondering if I could get your 101 break down on atonement theory and why there are different kinds?


This is a great area to get into, and kinda a big deal these days.  It’s become a bit fashionable to be against substitutionary atonement (the favored view of the Reformers) and for a return to the Ransom theory, or, in more progressive ranks, the Moral Influence Theory and the “Example Theory”.  I’ll explain those.

The good thing about all these different ways of looking at Christ, is they all point to the central, unavoidable fact of the New Testament: the death and resurrection of Jesus.  All views of that event tell us here, God and humanity are reconciled.  They are made one again.  Hence the best way to understand the word “atonement” is AT-ONE-MENT. 

Somehow, the cross set us right, made us one with God again.

But how? 

Christians all agree it “works”.  But HOW does it work?  WHY does it work?

The biblical material and descriptions answering those questions are quite broad and this should lead us to think right off the bat we are atoned in the cross in ways which will forever be mysterious to us.  The broadness should also lead us to think no one way of looking at the cross is sufficient.  A truth this amazing, an idea this lofty –humanity is made one with God by a single historical event – must be multi layered in the why’s and how’s.  No one view captures it all.

At the same time, there cannot be an unlimited scope of whys and how’s unless we risk emptying the cross of any meaning, so it becomes like a piece of abstract art: “it means what you want it to mean”.  Avoiding the problem is why famous Christian philosopher William Lane Craig just wrote a new book on this which I recommend: Atonement and the Death of Christ: An Exegetical, Historical, and Philosophical Exploration

Atonement Theory 101

So here’s my Atonement 101:  if you imagine the views on a spectrum, they would move from atonement as mere symbolism and subjectivity inside the individual on the left, toward an objective divine economy which needs dealing with in God on the right.  Here’s a basic outline of the views:


The cross shows us how to suffer under injustice and inspires us to do the same.  What Jesus did, love God through trouble, we can also do!  God is love and he doesn’t require payment for sin – the atonement is a metaphorical concept.  We are made one with God when we embrace non-resistance and when we love our enemies like Jesus did.


The effect of Christ’s death was not on God, but on us.  God was not “satisfied” by the cross, rather we were made unafraid of God, for the cross shows us God loves us unconditionally.  The cross shows God is sensitive to the pains of the world and its evil. This inspires us to love and trust him.


God is both law giver and lover of man. At the cross he shows as the author of moral law, which is violated in all sin, he cannot simply ignore it.  To do so would say, law doesn’t matter.  But the cross, in this view, is not retribution for our sin, it is simply showing God’s abhorrence of sin.  This view is partially objective as it says Christ’s death had an impact on God (he needs it to show us something).  But it is still mainly subjective because it detaches the cross from our sin.  Therefore mainly it has an impact on us:  to see how God hates sin so we turn from it.  Then we can be forgiven.  The cross is not technically needed for this, just God’s love.


This is a spiritual warfare view which sees humanity in bondage to Satan since the Fall of Adam.  God will not do what Satan does, gain by illegitimate means what is not his.  IE. he cannot steal us as we were stolen.  He must buy us back “fairly” – but what is Satan’s price?  The blood of Christ.  So the ransom was determined by, paid to and accepted by Satan.  The cross satisfied Satan’s wrath, not God’s.  We were then freed.  But Satan was deceived by God!, for the life of Christ was divine and “unkillable” and he took his life back after offering it, along with all who trust in him.  This is a fully objective view, because the effects are not merely inside us. However, in this view the cross does not affect God – rather it affected Satan.


Some draw distinctions between substitution, vicarious, penal and satisfaction theories, but all these fit under the same roof:  The cross satisfies something which needed satisfying in God, not us.  Thus they are all objective views.  In Satisfaction Views, sin is not just disappointing to God, it actually steals from him.  It injures him.  This injury must be rectified.  God would not be fully good to simply ignore the injury.  But we have no power to pay what we owe.  And God cannot simply wave away the debt.  Thus: Incarnation.  In this theory Jesus HAD to become a man, and HAD to die for God’s economy to be righted.  As a man, Jesus could offer payment for all of us.  As God, the payment was infinite, and now can be applied to all who repent and believe.

Some Additional Thoughts

The Progressive Christian Movement is very much in love with the first three views.  It sees all satisfaction views as “divine child abuse” which make God immoral.  But predictably, this goes with a diminishment of the abhorrence of sin and the authority of Scripture.  And how exactly does the cross show God’s love for us if it’s not doing anything for us?  It’s just an absurd tragedy.

Viewing the Cross Like a Theater

The cross is like theater in these views; a show God puts on to get us to stop being afraid of him or to act nicer etc.  It was in no way necessary.  Most importantly, Progressive Christians struggle to deal with the pervasive language of satisfaction/substitution which runs through Scripture.  The idea is behind the Abrahamic covenant, the cultic demands of Leviticus, the suffering Servant of Isaiah 53, John the Baptist declaration and Pauline language in the book of Romans.

Some today want a return to the Ransom view which has the most right to claim the title “classic”, because it was held so pervasively by the early church.  I do think Ransom theory very much underlines a biblical emphasis on spiritual warfare and must be part of our atonement picture, for sure.  The cross achieves a victory over Satan in some very real way.  It is a blow to his illegitimate ownership. (Colossians 2:15)

Satisfaction Makes Sense

But finally, I still think satisfaction makes the most sense of the most biblical material (the thing which should really determine our view).  And it can easily avoid the charges of “divine child abuse” when one remembers (as Anselm, its first defender did) the Incarnation.  God is not whipping his little boy, some poor 3rd party!  Ugh.  God himself is on the cross.  “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.” (2 Cor 5:19)

Also, the problem of God NEEDING satisfaction as some sort of barbaric attribute is a criticism built on a God who is altogether nothing like us.  It imagines a God who just snaps his fingers and forgives because he’s so impassive, so “above it all”.  A Computer, more than a Lover.  A God who is injured in sin, is pathetic in their view.  A God who extracts payment for his injuries by torturing another, even more pathetic.

Getting it Wrong

This is all so very wrong headed.  It starts by ignoring the fact that, in all human conflict, sin extracts a cost.  For reconciliation to happen, this cost must be paid.  This is peacemaking 101.  Cost sits in the offended party as a debt waiting for payment, retribution, or restitution.  When provided, this rights the account and only then can reconciliation move forward.

OR the offended party can choose to forgive the debt… However, when they do, everyone who has ever forgiven anyone of something big knows the debt is FELT.  Like a monetary debt, moral debt does not simply – poof – go away.  It always lands on someone’s ledger.  If I forgive, it lands on mine.  I pay, not you.  Forgiveness requires something… the forgiver must absorb the loss.  There is no “just declare them forgiven”.  To say the words “I forgive” means a transference has been made – a substitution.  A cost has moved from one account to another.

A Debt is Paid

This makes the most sense of Jesus own preferred monetary language of reconciliation, as in the Matthew 18 parable (and many others) where the servant has an unpayable debt.  Sin creates debt.  Broken relationship is often painted by Jesus in money terms (Matt 6:12, Luke 7:41).  Also, his use of the word “ransom” is monetary, for ransom involves a payment.  But can God pay ransom to himself?  Yes, if we mean he removes the bill from above our heads and puts it over his own.

This set of money metaphors attached to the atonement in scripture (also in Col 2:13-15 “the certificate of debt” – a passage which smashes the penal, satisfaction, moral and ransom theories into one!) also makes sense of substitution language and it eliminates the weirdness of vicarious punishment.  How so?  If I step in to take a beating for a friend who deserves it, maybe it impresses him with my love.  But it does actual nothing for the person he offended.  How is he helped by a substitute?


However, if the offense of my friend was a payment he extracted (money he stole, let’s say), and then if I offer this payment on his behalf, I both impress my friend with my love AND the offended party is satisfied and my friend is free because his debtor isn’t waiting around to be made whole.  Vicarious payment is not absurd in this metaphor, because the offended party’s interest is the account being balanced, not who pays.

When one sees sin this way, it lessens the need to think God is punishing the Son for us.  Rather in the Son, the Father receives our debt into himself. (“God made him who knew no sin to BE sin for us” – 1 Cor 5:21.) The blood and pain of the cross show what the human race extracts from God in moral debt accrued.  The voluntary embrace of the cross by the Son demonstrates God’s willingness to absorb sin – to become sin!  God “punishing” the suffering servant for us is no problem for again, the Servant was HIM!  If I choose to forgive you, I do truly punish myself, for I pay what I do not deserve to pay.

The atonement was fully objective, because the cross shows what sin DID, and what God required of HIMSELF rather than us.  This is WHY the cross is love and not tragedy.  This is why it is needed, not mere theater telling us to be nice or to suffer better.  It paid a near infinite debt with infinite capital which now a mere mustard seed of faith may access.