THE CHRISTIAN CONCEPT OF ATONEMENT
The Moral Theory
(a.k.a. Moral Influence Theory)
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.
Elements of the Moral Theory were initially suggested by
various Apostolic Fathers during the second century CE:
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.
Hemas, writing circa 150 CE, suggested that Yeshua reveals
to us the true God.
Barnabas (circa 1 to 60? CE) wrote that Yeshua came to
abolish death and to demonstrate resurrection after death.
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
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
Some brief descriptions of the Moral Theory are:
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
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
Phil Johnson of the conservative
Protestant Grace to You ministry disagrees with the Moral Theory.
He describes it as follows:
"Christ’s 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
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."
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."
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'."
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.
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:
|This theory, as well as other violence-based atonement explanations,
suffer from an inconsistency in Christian teaching:|
|The 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.|
|The 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.|
|Most 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.|
|Some 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.|
|There is no obvious mechanism whereby a person can achieve salvation and
atonement with God by simply expressing faith and/or trust in Yeshua.|
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.|
|The 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.|
|The 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:
|Hebrews 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.|
|A 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. |
|If 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.|
|The 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. |
|If, 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.|
|God 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.|
|William 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'."
- Ron Corson, "Atonement History," at:
- Michael Martin, "The Case Against Christianity," Temple University
Press, (1991), Page 257 to 258.
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- William Sasser, "Erroneous theories of the Atonement," (1997) at:
http://www.soundofgrace.com/ Sasser lists nine theories of the atonement
that he rejects.
- James E. Kiefer, "Biographical sketches of memorable Christians of
the past: Peter Abelard...," at:
- "Atonement, religion, General," at:
- Phil Johnson, "The Nature of the Atonement," Grace to You, (2003)
- Ralph Wilson, "Theories of the Atonement," Joyful Heart™
Renewal Ministries, at:
- Arthur Roberts, "The Atonement," QuakerInfo.com, at:
- "Peter Abelard," About.com, at:
- Michael Martin, "The Case Against Christianity," Temple University
Press, (1991), Pages 252 to 263.
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Copyright © 2004 to 2006 by Ontario Consultants on Religious
Originally written: 2004-MAY-10
Latest update: 2006-APR-07
Author: B.A. Robinson
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