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THE CHRISTIAN CONCEPT OF ATONEMENT

The Moral Theory
(a.k.a. Moral Influence Theory)

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The moral theory:

This theory suggests that Yeshua's (Jesus Christ's) life and death is primarily a moral example to humanity. It can inspire us to lift ourselves out of sin and grow towards union with God.

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History:

Elements of the Moral Theory were initially suggested by various Apostolic Fathers during the second century CE:

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Clement, (? - circa 99 CE) referring to Yeshua's life, wrote: "Through Him God has called us from darkness to light from ignorance to knowledge of the glory of His name." He also wrote that Yeshua's sufferings should bring us to repentance.

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Hemas, writing circa 150 CE, suggested that Yeshua reveals to us the true God.

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Barnabas (circa 1 to 60? CE) wrote that Yeshua came to abolish death and to demonstrate resurrection after death. 1

The Moral Theory was first fully developed in the writings of Peter Abelard (1079 - 1142) in the 12th century CE. 2 Abelard was an French abbot, theologian and philosopher. His birth surname was du Pallet; he took the nickname Abelard while in college. He had a rather interesting private life. Abelard fell in love with a woman whose uncle-guardian owned the house where he was boarding. After she became pregnant, they were secretly married. But in order to keep his job and professorship at Notre Dame Cathedral, he was forced to pretend that he was still single and celibate. The uncle became convinced that they were not married, that he had ruined her reputation, and that he was preparing to abandon her. The uncle hired some thugs to seize Abelard and castrate him. He recovered, but his wife, Heloise, went into a convent and became a nun. Later she became an abbess. After an unsuccessful experience as a monk, he returned to teaching.

Abelard wrote a book called "Expositio in Epistolam AD Romanos" ("Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans") in which he explained his theory of the atonement. After a church trial in 1141 by the Council of Sens at which he was not allowed to defend himself or his ideas, his books were ordered to be burned and he was forbidden to write. Fortunately, the church overlooked a few copies in the book burning. The Council declared Abelard a heretic. He was lucky to escape with his life.

The moral theory teaches that atonement is not attained through a payment to Satan -- as in the Ransom Theory. It is not attained by a payment made to restore God's honor -- as in the Satisfaction Theory. God's justice might demand such a compensation. But God does not ask for it. Rather, his limitless love overrules his need for justice. Yeshua's life and death becomes an inspiration and an example for Christians to follow. The focus of the Atonement is not Satan or God as in these two previous theories. It is the individual Christian believer seeking wholeness. Yeshua's life and death are intended to inspire us. We are to be "willing to take up our crosses daily in the service of some good cause to mankind, and thus work out our own salvation." 3

Some brief descriptions of the Moral Theory are:

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James Kiefer described the essence of Abelard's theory of the atonement: "...Christ came to win men's hearts by an example of reconciling love." 4

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AllFRefer.com describes the essence of the moral theory as emphasizing "...God's unconditional mercy and...the gradual growth toward union with God as inspired by Christ's selfless example. 5

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Phil Johnson of the conservative Protestant Grace to You ministry disagrees with the Moral Theory. He describes it as follows: "Christís death was an example for believers to follow, a radical expression of love that influences sinners morally and gives them a pattern to follow..." 6

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William Sasser writes that Yeshua's "...death was designed to greatly impress mankind with a sense of God's love, resulting in softening their hearts and leading them to repentance." 3

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Ralph Wilson writes that the Moral Theory: "Describes the subjective effects of Christ's cross on the sinner. Abelard teaches that when we look at the cross we see the greatness of divine love, which delivers us from fear and produces in us an answering love, putting aside selfishness and sin." 7

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Arthur Roberts writes that: "God's unconditional love is so powerfully revealed in the life and death of Jesus that it awakens within sinners a reciprocal response. 'We love him because he first loved us'." 8

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Austin Cline writes: "Christ did not die in order to repay our sins, but instead to serve as an example of love and mercy, thus reminding us of what we need to do and how we must behave.... Christ was supposed to be an influence on us rather than a ransom for us." 9

The Moral Theory of the atonement has considerable support in the more liberal wings of Christianity where it helps inspire believers to alleviate poverty, relieve suffering, and work for "liberty and justice for all" people including women as well as racial, religious, and sexual minorities.

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Criticisms which have been made of this theory:

Many of the earlier criticisms directed at the Ransom Theory and Satisfaction Theory can also be applied to the moral theory Theory. For example:

bulletThis theory, as well as other violence-based atonement explanations, suffer from an inconsistency in Christian teaching:
bulletThe church has traditionally taught that a person is responsible for their own sin, and that a person cannot morally be punished for the sins of others. Of course, they deviated from this teaching, as when they taught as late as the mid-20th century that modern-day Jews were responsible for the execution of Yahweh. But in general, people were not held responsible for the sins of others.
bulletThe church also teaches that the default destination for Adam, Eve, their children, their grandchildren and their descendents to the present time, after death, will be Hell because of the first parents' transgression in the Garden of Eden when they ate the forbidden fruit. All will be tortured in Hell, unless they are saved through sacraments and/or good works and/or faith. The sin of Eve and Adam were imputed to the entire human race.
bulletMost liberal and many mainline Christians believe that Adam and Eve were mythical humans. That is, they didn't exist as actual people. Without that belief, this atonement theory collapses.
bulletSome Christians note that Eve and Adam were created as proto-humans without a sense of sin. After all, they ate the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in order to develop a knowledge of good and evil. Being without a moral sense, they cannot be responsible for eating the fruit any more than an animal might. Again, if the first parents are not responsible for eating the fruit, the atonement theory collapses.
bulletThere is no obvious mechanism whereby a person can achieve salvation and atonement with God by simply expressing faith and/or trust in Yeshua.
bulletIf following Yeshua's example were the only path to atonement and salvation, then those who have followed a non-Christian religion would spend eternity in the torture chambers of Hell for what is basically the commission of a thought crime -- believing in the wrong God or in no God. Current moral belief systems -- religious, secular, and legal -- consider punishment for thought crimes to be immoral.
bulletThe Moral Theory would also route many non-Christians to Hell after death because they had not had the opportunity to learn of Yeshua, Christianity, or the gospel message. They would be punished for not having been inspired by someone of whose existence they are unaware. This appears to many people to be illogical, irrational, unjust, and immoral.
bulletThe belief that God would send his son to Earth so that he could be tortured to death "assumes a view of God's moral nature that many modern readers would reject." 10 Being omnipotent, God could have followed Yeshua's teachings and simply forgiven the sins of Adam and Eve and their descendents. Alternatively, God might have found another way that avoided the torture-execution of an innocent person.

There are also a number of criticisms unique to the Moral Theory:

bulletHebrews 9:22 says: "And almost all things are by the law purged with blood; and without shedding of blood is no remission" of sin. (King James Version) That is, a ritual human sacrifice is required before God is able to forgive sin. This negates the validity of the Moral Theory and all other non-violent atonement theories.
bulletA contemporary of Abelard, Bernard of Clairvaux, commented that if Yeshua's death was only an example for Christians to follow, than they could attain salvation through their own efforts. They would be able to do good and to avoid sinful behavior by simply following Yeshua on their own initiative. A major belief among Protestants is that salvation is by faith alone, and not by works; it is a gift of God. The Moral Theory is incompatible with that belief since it depends on personal effort.
bulletIf one can be saved through Yeshua's example of an ethical life, then his torture-death was not really necessary. Buddha died a natural death and was not executed. Yet his teaching and example has inspired hundreds of millions of Buddhists to lead exemplary lives.
bulletThe Moral Theory attacks the uniqueness of Christianity. It treats Yeshua as just another charismatic martyr whose life and death has inspired his believers. Roman Catholics, Mormons, Sikhs, members of the Bah'ai faith and followers of other religions all have influential martyrs in their history who inspired believers. Christianity becomes just another religion, another way to God. Those parts of Protestantism which consider Christianity to be an exclusive religion --the only true religions which offers the only way to God -- must reject the Moral Theory.
bulletIf, as the Moral Theory states, people are able to raise themselves out of sin by their own bootstraps, then Yeshua's death was really not that important. They can read any number of inspiring books, attend motivation seminars, liberate themselves from sin, and achieve atonement through their own effort. Yeshua death is not needed and can be dispensed with. For that matter, Yeshua himself is no longer needed. This violates many of the core beliefs of historical Christianity.
bulletGod has many attributes: love, holy, just, righteous, etc. They are in balance. To say that love is God's dominating characteristic, as the Moral Theory requires, distorts the image of God and implies that he has a warped, unbalanced nature.
bulletWilliam Sasser writes that the Moral Theory "...completely denies the spiritual condition of man, the deity of our Lord Jesus Christ, and 'necessitates a curtailment or surrender of every other characteristic doctrine of Christianity-inspiration, sin, the deity of Christ, justification, regeneration and eternal retribution'." 3

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References:

  1. Ron Corson, "Atonement History," at: http://newprotestants.com/
  2. Michael Martin, "The Case Against Christianity," Temple University Press, (1991), Page 257 to 258. Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store.
  3. William Sasser, "Erroneous theories of the Atonement," (1997) at: http://www.soundofgrace.com/ Sasser lists nine theories of the atonement that he rejects.
  4. James E. Kiefer, "Biographical sketches of memorable Christians of the past: Peter Abelard...," at: http://justus.anglican.org/
  5. "Atonement, religion, General," at: http://reference.allrefer.com
  6. Phil Johnson, "The Nature of the Atonement," Grace to You, (2003) at: http://www.biblebb.com/
  7. Ralph Wilson, "Theories of the Atonement," Joyful Heartô Renewal Ministries, at: http://www.jesuswalk.com/
  8. Arthur Roberts, "The Atonement," QuakerInfo.com, at: http://www.quakerinfo.com/
  9. "Peter Abelard," About.com, at: http://atheism.about.com
  10. Michael Martin, "The Case Against Christianity," Temple University Press, (1991), Pages 252 to 263. Read reviews or order this book

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Home > Christianity > History, Beliefs, Trends, etc > Beliefs > Atonement > Theories > here

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Copyright © 2004 to 2006 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2004-MAY-10
Latest update: 2006-APR-07
Author: B.A. Robinson

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