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The Christian concept of the atonement:


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Conclusions and comments:

bullet Phil Johnson, executive director of the Grace to You, believes that accepting the correct atonement theory is of vital importance. He writes in a set of study notes that the atonement is "One of the 'fundamentals' of the faith. At the start of the fundamentalist movement (end of the 19th century) this doctrine was one of the main battlegrounds. Many modern evangelicals seem to be of the opinion that it doesn’t really matter what view of the atonement you hold, as long as you believe that in some sense Jesus’ death atoned for sins. This erosion of commitment to a right understanding of the atonement is one of the main reasons the whole evangelical movement today is in serious trouble." 1
bullet The Ransom Theory has been the most successful of the many beliefs in terms of its longevity. It was accepted by the Christian churches for the first millennium after Yeshua's execution. It is still accepted by the Eastern Orthodox churches today. A case can be made for the validity of this theory over all others for two reasons"
bullet It was developed within about two centuries of the time of Jesus' ministry, when memories of his teachings were still relatively fresh.
bullet It is the longest lasting of all of the theories.
bullet The many variations of the Satisfaction Theory have probably been the most popular and influential beliefs in recent Christian history:
bullet It merges well with the Roman Catholic concept of the Mass as a ritual human sacrifice.
bullet Fundamentalists and other Evangelicals have widely adopted it. The concept appears in many of their hymns, which contain such phrases as "There is a fountain filled with blood," "What can wash away my sins? Nothing but the blood of Jesus," "Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?" "There's pow'r in the blood...There is pow'r, pow'r, wonder-working power."

A case can be made for the validity of this theory over all others because it was developed after many centuries of careful and thoughtful Christian theological development.

bullet The Moral theory has definitely been the least successful belief. It assumes that humans can be inspired by Jesus' death, lift themselves out of their sinful condition, and elevate themselves by their own efforts. This violates the very widespread belief among Christian theologians that salvation comes as a gift of God's grace, and that without God's grace, humans are hopelessly mired in their sin.
bullet Future trends: In the past few decades, some Black, feminist, and liberal theologians have expressed concern that the Bible contains many references to genocides, mass murders, religious intolerance and violence. They speculate that this violence has inspired some Christians to make similar attacks on non-believers in the present day. Conflicts between faith groups in Northern Ireland, Bosnia Herzegovina, and Kosovo, are sometimes cited. Some also link biblical violence to spousal abuse and child abuse. Arguably, the most vicious incident of violence mentioned in the Bible is Jesus' crucifixion. These theologians have developed new atonement theories which downplay the role of Yeshua's execution. They have been basing the atonement mainly on his life and teachings rather than his death.

Theories on the atonement may eventually come a full circle back to the teachings of Irenaeus (circa 128-200? CE), the Bishop of Lyons. At that time, "....there was the so-called 'physical' or 'mystical' theory...which linked the redemption with the incarnation. According to this, human nature was sanctified, transformed and elevated by the very act of Christ's becoming man." 2

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  1. Phil Johnson, "The Nature of the Atonement," Grace to You, (2003) at:
  2. J.N.D. Kelly, "Early Christian Doctrines," Harper Collins, (Revised 1978), chapter 14 .

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Copyright © 2004 & 2005by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2004-APR-6
Latest update: 2005-APR-12.
Author: B.A. Robinson

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