Overview of (and objections to)
various atonement theories
"What can wash away my sin? Nothing but the blood of
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
In Christian usage, atonement means "at-one-ment."
This is the state of being "at
one" -- or reconciled -- with God. 2
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:
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:
expiation (through sacrifice),
ransom (from captivity),
redemption (from slavery), and
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.
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
humanity, Yeshua, Satan and/or God. The five major theories are (in alphabetic
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
They raise a number of questions:
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.
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
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."
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
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?
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?
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.