This page in brief
It is one of the most central teachings of christianity that Jesus died to save us from our sins, a doctrine known as the atonement. But it has come under scrutiny in recent years – from believers, who want to understand and explain it better, and from non-believers (and a few believers) who attack it as barbaric and illogical.
There are many approaches to understanding the atonement, based on whether Jesus’ death changed God, or changed the forces of evil, or changed us. Many complex theological terms are employed to try to explain the atonement, and christians are not always agreed on their definitions. This page tries to outline the main ideas simply.
I conclude that many of the theories have elements of truth, and none can fully explain what is in the end probably beyond our comprehension in this life. It may be best for christians, and churches and denominations, to avoid being dogmatic about theories while agreeing on the basics, and to present their views lovingly to both other believers and non-believers.
Jesus’ death wasn’t just an accident
It is clear from the New Testament that the early christians didn’t think Jesus’ death was an unfortunate accident, a brilliant leader cut down in his prime. Paul’s letters (the earliest christian documents we have) are full of his death and resurrection, and what they mean for us.
Even secular historians recognise it. For example, Michael Grant and Maurice Casey, neither of them christians, conclude from the historical evidence that Jesus knew he was going to die, probably predicted it (Mark 8:31, 9:30-31, 10:32-34), and perhaps was determined to die in Jerusalem. And, significantly, both say that Jesus believed his death would be redemptive for Israel.
Theories on why he had to die
The Bible doesn’t fully explain why Jesus had to die. The basic questions are these:
“Why did Jesus have to die to purchase our forgiveness?
Why couldn’t a loving God just forgive us without Jesus dying?
How does Jesus dying change anything?”
Over the years christians have come to a wide range of understandings, with a few broad themes:
1. Jesus death changed God’s actions towards us
- Penal substitutionary atonement (PSA) – Sin breaks God’s law, so God’s justice demands punishment for sin, and that punishment is death. Jesus, the perfect sacrifice, accepted the punishment so we don’t need to, e.g. Romans 3:25, Galatians 3:13, Isaiah 53:6. Some versions of PSA emphasis God’s wrath.
- Satisfaction – Our sin has offended God’s honour. Jesus died, not as a punishment, but in obedience, to repay our debt to God’s honour.
- Sacrifice – The Old Testament requires sacrifice for sin, so Jesus died as the ultimate sacrifice.
- Legal debt – We are in debt (presumably to God) and can’t pay the debt, so Jesus does, e.g. Colossians 2:14.
- Vicarious repentance – Perfect repentance is required to atone for sin, and Jesus is the only perfect person. God accepts his death as a confession of human sin and thus of perfect repentance on our behalf.
All but the last of these have a lot in common with penal substitution, which is the probably the primary theory in Protestant christianity, but several other understandings were earlier.
Penal substitution is criticised sharply by many christians today because:
- It seems to suggest that God is angry while Jesus is loving, which obviously can’t be a true understanding.
- It suggests that God needs to change (i.e. stop his wrath) before he can forgive us, which seems to demean God.
- Jesus calls us to forgive others unconditionally, yet on this theory God isn’t able to do this. In fact, God doesn’t really forgive at all, he just punishes someone else (Jesus) instead of us.
- Some christians who emphasise (as Jesus did) non-violence believe that penal substitution justifies violence, anger and even “divine child abuse”, and so can’t be right.
Some believe the satisfaction theory (which originated centuries before penal substitution, and was gradually developed into the penal substitution theory) solves some of these issues, but it is hard to find BIble references for this idea.
Nevertheless, for all its faults, many passages in the Bible can be interpreted to support penal substitution.
2. Jesus’ death defeated evil
The earliest christians saw this as the main reason Jesus died. The idea has been developed in several different ways.
- Ransom – Human sin places us all under Satan’s power and in his debt. Jesus pays the ransom to Satan to set us free, e.g. Mark 10:45.
- Christus Victor – Jesus defeated the devil and so by his victory we can be set free from Satan’s oppression, e.g. Colossians 2:15, Hebrews 2:14-15, 1 John 3:8.
- Swallowing up evil (I don’t know the correct name for this one, so this is my name) – before he could establish God’s kingdom of love, Jesus had to take on all the worst that evil could offer and “swallow it up”.
Critics of these views argue that they don’t address human sin (only the power of the devil), that penal substitution has much more biblical support, and Christus Victor makes God’s triumph over evil a matter of force rather than moral right.
I think all these objections can be answered. For example, Jesus didn’t defeat the devil by force, but by submission and by dying.
Supporters argue against penal substitution (as noted above) and point to many statements by Jesus himself that seem to express either the Ransom or the Christus Victor views – e.g. Mark 10:45, Luke 11:21-23, John 10:10, 12:32 and perhaps Luke 4:18.
3. Jesus’ death changes us
A number of theories try to avoid the violence and mystery of the previous theories, and look at how we are affected by Jesus’ death.
- Example – Jesus’ life and death provide an example of obedience for us to follow.
- Moral influence – Jesus’ death shows us the extent of his love for us. Recognising this will influence us to live according to his teachings. (The hymn When I survey the wondrous cross expresses this view.)
- Mirror model – Jesus’ death mirrors back to us our violence, and shows us that violence cannot be defeated by violence, but can only be defeated by forgiveness.
- Governmental – Jesus didn’t need to die to save us, but to reveal to us that God, as Governor of the universe, views sin very seriously.
- Recapitulation – By his obedience, even to death, Jesus reversed or undid what Adam caused by his sin, and draws God’s plan to a conclusion.
- Healing – This view is based on the idea of shalom, which encompasses salvation, peace, wholeness, health, and argues that Jesus’ ministry was all about bringing shalom through healing and exorcism. However it isn’t clear how Jesus’ death contributes to this.
- Representative – Jesus was the first, the representative, to go through death victoriously, and open up the way for the rest of us, e.g. 1 Corinthians 15:20-23.
These views all take scriptural themes, but don’t seem to grapple with human sin or the many Biblical references to Jesus’ death being something more than portrayed here.
I am not a great fan of systematic theology when it delves deeply into concepts which are probably beyond our understanding. It can then draw theological conclusions in finer detail and greater precision than is necessary and has been revealed to us. I think we are probably fooling ourselves. It also tends to divide the body of believers unnecessarily, and divert us from the more important task of obeying Jesus.
But to address some contemporary issues it is necessary, I suppose, to delve a little deeper.
If like me, you think this not always helpful, please feel free to jump to my conclusions. And if you think systematic theology is very important, you might better look elsewhere, because I am simplifying and summarising. But if you want to go just a little deeper, please read on.
Is Penal Substitution essential?
Many churches are committed to PSA being the one true and necessary understanding of the atonement (see, for example, this 2017 resolution of the Southern Baptist Church in the US). What exactly is involved in this commitment, and is it one all christians should follow?
A number of complex theological words are used in discussion of the atonement. In order to assess the truth of PSA and other theories, it will be helpful to examine these (I have used the NIV translation for these definitions).
In English, to atone is to make amends – to undo the effects of a bad action. In the Old Testament, especially the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), God’s repentant people atoned for their sin by making animal sacrifices. In the NT, Jesus is the sacrifice that atones for believers’ sins. The theological question, and disagreement, is how does this occur?
The word justice doesn’t appear in English translations of the New Testament. But related words (just, justification, justified – Luke 18:44, Romans 3:24) all have the same root, with the meaning of equitable, innocent or righteous. So these Greek words can mean either justified/justification or righteous/righteousness.
The concept of justice is found in several approaches to the atonement, either as retributive justice (where God punishes) or restorative justice (where God restores). But nowhere in the NT do we find the concept that God’s justice requires him to punish, as is often stated.
Judgment is the idea that, at the end of life, God, via his appointed judge, Jesus, will make an assessment of whether each person have lived in the way that gains his approval (John 5:27). In the New Testament, it often has overtones of condemnation (Luke 10:14) though, of course, judgment can be favourable (Romans 2:16).
In the NT, punishment generally means having failed the judgment of God and now facing the just penalty (Matthew 25:46).
Wrath is a word with a range of meanings. The root meaning in both Aramaic (that Jesus spoke) and Greek (in which the NT is written) is passion or emotion, so it has come to mean God’s fierce opposition to sin. So while it is generally translated as “wrath” or “anger” (Romans 1:18), it is once translated as “indignant” (Mark 1:41).
Very few of the NT uses of wrath refer to Jesus or are his own words. His more common word when criticising the religious leaders is “woe”, an expression of grief more than anger. Nowhere in the NT does it say explicitly that God’s wrath was poured out on Jesus.
Today “wrath” probably tends to mean “fierce and uncontrolled anger”, which would convey a more negative view of God to today’s readers than the word originally meant. Some believe wrath isn’t so much God’s active punishment as people suffering the destructive consequences of their sin. Reformed theologian JI Packer defines “wrath” as “punitive justice”, which has no connotation.
So wrath can carry a range of meanings, and we need to be careful we are not giving it a meaning contrary to how it was originally intended.
Propitiation is only used a few times in the NT, and refers back to the mercy seat in the OT tabernacle, where the blood of the sacrifice was sprinkled on the Day of Atonement. The literal meaning is to make favourable, and hence to reconcile or show mercy (i.e. the outcome of the sacrifice), but in the NT the word tends to refer to Jesus as the atoning sacrifice (1 John 2:2) which provides our reconciliation to God.
Thus the most common (though not unanimous) understanding is that propitiation in the NT means turning away God’s righteous anger or wrath.
The word for propitiation has sometimes been translated as expiation, meaning to have sins removed or washed away, without any reference to God’s righteous anger.
Substitution refers to Jesus dying in our place. Most views of the atonement believe this is what happened, but disagree on what Jesus achieved. The word doesn’t appear in the NT, though the concept does.
Penal is obviously related to “penalty” or “punishment”, and refers to the idea that the punishment we deserve was laid on Jesus. Some would say that God’s wrath was also felt by Jesus, though I’m not sure the Bible says that.
Satisfaction is an old concept which says that God’s honour has been offended by humjan sin, and we can never give him the honour he deserves. But God’s honour is satisfied by Jesus’ death.
Ransom comes from a word meaning to loosen or free, and has the meaning of Jesus redeeming sinful human beings, or buying us back from bondage to the devil (Mark 10:45, 1 Corinthians 6:20).
The differences between the theories
We can now see more clearly what are the essential differences between the different theories.
- Most theories include substitution, judgment (whether retributive or restorative) and forgiveness.
- Penal substitution, and other theories which say Jesus’ death changes God’s attitude, stress punishment (and hence penal), retributive justice, satisfaction and propitiation which turns away God’s wrath.
- Christus Victor, and other theories which say Jesus death changes the power(s) of evil, stress expiation, ransom and restorative justice, and are quite opposed to the idea that God is wrathful.
- The theories that death changes us tend to incorporate far less of these concepts.
Some proponents of PSA seem to think that rejecting it means rejecting atonement, or substitution, but this isn’t so. It is wrath and punishment that are rejected by other theories, on the grounds that:
- Jesus calls us to forgive, without any conditions or qualification (Matthew 18:21-35). It is therefore difficult to believe that God cannot forgive without receiving a payment.
- Even a human judge should be impartial rather than wrathful, so it is possible to see Jesus death as penal without it involving God’s wrath.
- God’s justice should be seen as restorative, not retributive.
- We see Jesus responding to people (apart from some of the religious authorities) with love rather than anger (e.g. Luke 7:44-50), and showing God’s character in that way (Luke 15:20-24). So if Jesus is the full revelation of God’s character (John 14:7, Colossians 1:15, Hebrews 1:3), how can we conclude that God will certainly respond wrathfully to sin?
On the other hand, the concepts of punishment, propitiation and wrath are certainly present in the New Testament. It seems likely that the words carry some meanings today that weren’t present in Jesus’ day, but they cannot be fully stripped of negative meanings.
Is there one clear truth?
In summary, most supporters of the prevailing penal substitution view agree that other views contain elements of truth, but they believe penal substitution contains the essentials. Critics of the theory find it abhorrent, and are generally willing to see some good points in most other theories.
And so some theologians believe it takes more than one view to explain God’s actions. For example:
- Leon Morris believes we need “all the theories. …. Even when we put them all together, we will no more than begin to comprehend a little of the vastness of God’s saving deed.”
- One of the four views outlined in the book The Nature of the Atonement is called the Kaleidoscope view, which argues a number of different metaphors are used to depict the atonement (Christ the conqueror over sin and evil, Christ satisfying the debt owed to God, and the moral influence that showcases Christ’s life and death).
- CS Lewis said in Mere Christianity that christianity requires belief in the atonement, but not in any particular theory.
- JI Packer cautions against thinking we can fully understand these mysteries, and believes all three approaches contain truth.
The truth as I see it
I see the terrible way penal substitutionary atonement is so often presented. God is said to be angry and wrathful, and his love is not always spoken or shown. Sin and hell are emphasised, even though Jesus rarely spoke that way to anyone except the religious leaders.
But I also see that the whole sacrificial system providing atonement in the Bible leading up to Jesus’ words at the Last Supper (“this is the new covenant in my blood”) mean that something like substitutionary atonement or Satisfaction must contain truth. However I feel that insisting that judgment and propitiation must include wrath is not an essential part of PSA, and it could stand without these emphases.
I see that Christus Victor or Ransom also have strong support in the New Testament, especially in the words of Jesus. I think something like these theories must also contain truth.
I recognise too that there is truth in the ideas behind the Example view, and others like it, though I cannot see that they get to the core as much as other theories – it seems that Jesus’ life could have been sufficient example, or moral influence, or a mirror to us about the folly of violence.
Finally, I feel there is merit in the Biblical idea of Jesus as representative and the first of many brothers and sisters to conquer death and open up the way for the rest of us.
It is obvious that God is so far “above” us that we cannot possibly understand him anywhere near completely. So I think we can only really understand God and his ways analogically – God is a father, but not exactly like a human father; Jesus is a lamb but also a shepherd and also a lion, but none of these are literally true, etc. These are all analogies, and they each give us a picture of an aspect of God, but not the complete picture.
I think the different theories of the atonement are much the same – each one (or most of them) gives us some picture that is an analogy of what God was doing. But I don’t think any one gives us the full picture, and if we take any one on its own, we’ll get some things quite wrong.
For example, penal substitution has a good deal of truth, but on it’s own God may appear to be angry, unjust and sadistic – conclusions we wouldn’t want anyone to draw. On the other hand, the moral influence theory must be true up to a point, but it makes you wonder why this action was loving unless it was necessary.
So I am with CS Lewis and Leon Morris on this. Let’s keep the truths that are found in all of them, and let’s not argue so vehemently with those who hold, or emphasise, a different theory to ours. Personally, I find Christus Victor the most compelling, but not at the exclusion of others.
God is love
And let’s also be very careful to speak whatever we believe to be the truth in love. Christians believe Jesus is the ultimate picture of God’s character given to us (“Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” John 14:9), and his attitude towards ordinary people was always compassionate and loving – only the religious leaders earned his strong criticism. And so we believe that love is the essence of God’s character (“God is love.” 1 John 4:8).
So if we communicate anything about God in an unloving way, we are allowing that aspect to overshadow the most important aspect of his character.
So I believe supporters of penal substitutionary atonement would do well to be very careful how they express the view, basing it on God’s justice rather than on his anger, and to balance that view by also sharing some of the other theories, so hearers get a full picture of the God who loved us and gave himself for us.
I guess I just wasn’t made for these times
It was Tony Campolo who first introduced me to the idea that there had been various different atonement theories over the centuries, and different approaches seem to have resonated at different times.
I think that, rather than hanging firmly onto a particular theory, we might trust that God will bring different understandings forward at different times to suit the particular needs of those times.
Pictures of the atonement
The atonement has been pictured in fictional literature, and I believe we can learn from the authors’ understanding. Here are two of my favourite examples:
- In the Narnia book, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, CS Lewis simply talks about the “deep magic” that gives a sinful person into the hands of the white witch, and the “deeper magic” that frees the person if an innocent victim dies voluntarily in their place. He doesn’t try to explain it more than that, but Aslan defeats the white witch via voluntary submission to death.
- In the last Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Harry voluntarily gives his life, as his mother did before him, not knowing the outcome but knowing it was necessary to stop the killing. When she died, her love averted the effect of Voldemort’s curse, but when he died, he came back from death able to defeat Voldemort. The emphasis is on love.
Do some more reading
- Theories of the atonement. Leon Morris
- What did the cross achieve? The Logic of Penal Substitution. JI Packer.
- Is Penal Substitutionary Atonement Necessary? Derek Vreeland
- The atonement of Christ. Theopedia
- The Nature of the Atonement. J Beilby & P Eddy
- Atonement: What is the Christus Victor View? and 10 Problems with the Penal Substitution View of the Atonement – Greg Boyd
- The Problem with Christus Victor. Christianity Today
- Divergent Theories of the Atonement. Biblical Training
- Satisfaction theory of atonement. Wikipedia
- Did God kill Jesus? Tony Jones