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The atonement

Overview of (and objections to)
various atonement theories

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bullet "What can wash away my sin? Nothing but the blood of Jesus;
What can make me whole again? Nothing but the blood of Jesus
from Robert Lowry's late 19th century hymn: "Nothing but the Blood." 1

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In Christian usage, atonement means "at-one-ment." This is the state of being "at one" -- or reconciled -- with God. 2

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How did Yeshua's death make the atonement possible?

Some authors and scholars have been asking the "how" question about the atonement.

Theologian and author Paul Alan Laughlin writes:

"...Paul was certain and clear that the death of Jesus was the gracious act of God that brought atonement. But when it came to the sticky questions of just how one person's execution -- however unjust or agonizing -- could possibly be effectual and salutary for successive generations of people, Paul was at best sketchy and suggestive. Instead of presenting a clear and unambiguous explanation of cause (cross) and effect (atonement), he offered several terms to suggest to his contemporary readers some provocative images that would be meaningful to them:
bullet expiation (through sacrifice),

bullet ransom (from captivity),

bullet redemption (from slavery), and

bullet victory (in warfare)." 3

As scholar Michael Martin writes, the Christian Scriptures leave "many questions open. For example, how by dying on the cross did Jesus take away the sins of the world? And why in any case would God save sinful humanity through the death of his son?" 4

Unfortunately, the Bible appears to offer little explanation for the "how" questions. It is ambiguous on the mechanism by which the atonement actually works. Many Christian theologians have filled this gap by concentrating on specific biblical passages and creating their own atonement theories.

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Overview of five theories of why Yeshua's death brought atonement:

During the almost two millennia that have passed since the the Christian Scriptures (New Testament) were written, theologians have tried to complete Paul's work by developing a precise rationale for the atonement. They have developed many conflicting theories while attempting to link the atonement to Yeshua's life/or and execution. They have developed models in which the main actors are some combination of humanity, Yeshua, Satan and/or God.  The five major theories are (in alphabetic order):

bullet Moral theory: Humanity pulling itself up by its bootstraps: This views Yeshua's obedience and death as an example for the rest of humanity to emulate.

bullet Ransom theory: God paying off Satan: This assumes that, because of sin, Satan was in charge of the world and of humanity. The torture death of Yeshua was a payment by God to Satan in order to free us. This belief was held by most Christian theologians prior to the 12th century CE and is still taught by the Eastern Orthodox churches.

bullet Satisfaction theory: Jesus appeasing God: This currently the most popular theory among Christian groups. It is based on the ancient Jewish ritual sacrificing of animals in the Temple. Supporters of this theory believe that God is offended by human sin. By ritually sacrificing Yeshua, replicating in many ways how animals were slaughtered, God would be satisfied.

bullet Substitution theory: Jesus making a payment to God: This assumes Yeshua's death was a payment to God for the debt that humans owe to God because of their sins.

bullet Victory theory: Jesus overcoming the grip of the devil: This is based on the belief that Yeshua voluntarily allowed himself to be executed. This defeated the power of evil and released humanity from its sin. 3

There are also variations of the above five theories. In all, there are probably about a dozen different theories of the atonement.

A number of emerging theories have recently been created by Black, feminist and liberal theologians. They reject the violence which is found in the historical theories of the atonement. Their theories are based primarily on the life and teachings of Jesus, not on his torture-death.

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Objections to traditional theories of the atonement:

In recent years, some Black, feminist, liberal and other Christian theologians have rejected the idea of a blood atonement. They are troubled by the possibility of a link between classical violent theories of the atonement, and violence, murders, genocide, persecution of Jews, and other evil acts at the present time.

They raise a number of questions:

bullet What could Yeshua's torture-death by crucifixion have accomplished that the other approximately 10,000 Jews who were crucified by the Roman occupying forces during Yeshua's life failed to bring about? Many of them were probably innocent of the crimes with which they were charged.

bullet If the murder of one innocent person establishes a path to atonement, how more effective would have been the slaughter of the many innocent infants and toddlers ordered by Herod in Bethlehem circa 2 BCE, as described in Matthew 2:16. 5

bullet How could any father set up his son to be nailed to a cross and experience a very slow agonizing death by asphyxiation? Two feminist theologians, Joanne Carlson Brown and Rebecca Parker, referred to traditional theories on the atonement as involving "divine child abuse" of Jesus. They wrote that his death by torture is "paraded as salvific...the child who suffers 'without even raising a voice' is lauded as the hope of the world....this world view of divinely sanctioned, innocent suffering contributes to the victimization of women in both church and society." 6

bullet Anselem's satisfaction theory, which is accepted by the Roman Catholic church and taught by most Protestant faith groups today, is based on retributive justice. Brown & Parker comment that his "view of justice is not that wrong should be righted, but that wrongs should be punished." 7 They conclude that "The image of God the father demanding and carrying out the suffering and death of his own son has sustained a culture of abuse and led to the abandonment of victims of abuse and oppression....Until this image is shattered it will be almost impossible to create a just society." 8

bullet Wny was God unable to find any other way to restore his relationship with humanity? Could God not have simply forgiven us, as Jesus so often recommended during his ministry in Palestine?

bullet The basic principle of the atonement is that the torture death of an innocent person is worthwhile if it results in major benefits to many people. By the same logic, the death of a few hundred children in Beslan, Russia could be justified on the basis that it might allow citizens of Chechnya to achieve independence. Why is the former a great moral good while the latter is a profound evil?

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Related menu on this web site:

bullet A more detailed description of the above five theories, and more, of the mechanism of the atonement.

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The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Robert Lowry, "Nothing but the Blood," at:
  2. "Atonement,", at:
  3. Paul Laughlin, "Remedial Christianity: What every believer should know about the faith, but probably doesn't," Polebridge Press, (2000), Page 178 &179. Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store
  4. Michael Martin, "The Case Against Christianity," Temple University Press, (1991), Pages 252 to 263. Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store
  5. Gospel of Matthew 2:16-18.
  6. Joanne Carlson Brown and Rebecca Parker, "For God so Loved the World," in "Christianity, Patriarchy and Abuse: A feminist critique," ed. Joanne Carlson Brown and Carole R. Bohn, Pilgrim Press, (1989), Page 2.
  7. Ibid, Page 7 & 8.
  8. Ibid, Page 8 & 9..

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Copyright 2004 to 2007 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2004-APR-11
Latest update: 2007-JUN-10
Author: B.A. Robinson

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