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."
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"
It was developed within about
two centuries of the time of Jesus' ministry, when memories of his teachings were
It is the longest lasting of all of the theories.
The many variations of the Satisfaction Theory have probably been
the most popular and influential beliefs in recent Christian history:
It merges well with the Roman Catholic concept
of the Mass as a ritual human sacrifice.
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
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.
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,
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