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Various Christian theories of the Atonement

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Quotations showing different beliefs about the theories of the Atonement:


"There have been several theories of the Atonement developed; some by God fearing upright men and others by servants of Satan himself." William W. Sasser 1


All 6 atonement theories "...have elements of truth in them but some are inadequate to stand alone." Ralph Wilson 2


"All of the historically important theories of the Atonement have serious problems. In particular, they either fail to explain why God sacrificed his son for the salvation of sinners or else make the sacrifice seem arbitrary." Michael Martin 3

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In a religious sense, atonement means "at-one-ment." This is the state of being "at one" -- or reconciled -- with God. 4

Christianity has historically taught that:

bullet A gulf was formed between God and humans because of the sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden
bullet Either:
bullet This sin was subsequently imputed to all of their descendents worldwide down to the present generation, or
bullet Through their sin, the universe permanently changed and became a place of death, destruction, sin and the alienation of humans from God
bullet Yeshua's life, and particularly his death on the cross, allowed some humans to bridge the gulf and be reconciled with God.

Early Christian theologians did not delve deeply into "how" the atonement came to be. Philip Schaff writes: "...the primitive church teachers lived more in the thankful enjoyment of redemption than in logical reflection upon it. We perceive in their exhibitions of this blessed mystery the language rather of enthusiastic feeling than of careful definition and acute analysis." 5

The Epistles of Paul and other writings in the Christian Scriptures do not explain exactly how the atonement actually works. Most of the theologians from Origen (185-254 CE) until the present time have believed that the atonement is related in some way to the sacrificial and/or voluntary torture-death of Jesus. They selected certain passages in the Scriptures that agreed with their beliefs, and ignored others. In this way, they arrived at very different, conflicting, yet bible-based theories. In recent decades, some theologians have rejected atonement theories based on Yeshua's death. They argue in favor of a non-violent explanation for the atonement. For them, atonement is based on Yeshua's life, not his death.

All of these theories are biblically based. All conflict with each other. There is little hope that a consensus will be reached in the foreseeable future on which theory is the "correct" one.

There is little standardization on terminology for the various theories. We have used what we believe to be the most common name(s) for each theory.

Various writers state that there are 4, 5, 6, 10, and probably more theories of the atonement. They often regard all but one as erroneous, and perhaps even inspired by Satan. Unfortunately, they don't agree on which is the true theory, or even if a true theory exists.

Broadly speaking, the current accepted theories are:

Group Most commonly accepted theory
Roman Catholic Church Satisfaction Theory
Eastern Orthodox Churches Ransom Theory
Conservative & some Mainline Protestants Penal Substitution Theory
Protestant Word-faith Movement Ransom Theory
Liberal Christians & post Christians Moral Theory or a non-violent theory

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Theories described in this section are:

Major theories of the atonement are listed below in chronological order:

bullet The Ransom Theory (God deceitfully pays off Satan with a bribe) Introduced by Origen in the third century CE.
bullet The Satisfaction Theory (Jesus appeases God by being a ritual human sacrifice) Introduced by Anselem, in the late 11th century CE.
bullet The Moral Theory: (Jesus' death is an example for the rest of humanity to emulate) Introduced by Abelard in the 12th century CE.
bullet The Acceptance Theory (Atonement comes from the arbitrary choice of God) Introduced by Scotus circa 1300 CE.
bullet The Penal (a.k.a. Penal-Substitution) Theory (God's mercy replaces his wrath after the infinite sacrifice of Jesus) Introduced by Reformation theologians circa 1520 CE.

Christus Victor Theory: Jesus voluntarily allowed himself to be executed. This defeated the power of evil and released humanity from its sin. Being written


Narrative Christus Victor Theory: Being written


Non-violent atonement theories: Recent theories primarily by African-American and feminist theologians Being written


Beliefs of some very liberal Christians and post-Christians

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  1. William Sasser, "Erroneous theories of the Atonement," (1997) at: Sasser lists nine theories of the atonement that he doesn't like.
  2. Ralph Wilson, "Theories of the Atonement," Joyful Heart Renewal Ministries, at:
  3. Michael Martin, "The Case Against Christianity," Temple University Press, (1991), Page 262. Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store
  4. "Atonement,", at:
  5. Philip Schaff, "History of the Christian Church, Vol. 2: Ante-Nicene Christianity (100-325)," Eerdmans, (Reprinted 1970) Pages 584-588.
  6. Gavin Kingsley, "Cathedral studies On Atonement," (1999), at: Kingsley compares only four views of the atonement.
  7. William Sasser, "Two views of the Atonement," (1998), at: Sasser compares universal with particular atonement.
  8. Arthur Roberts, "The Atonement,", at:

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Copyright 2004 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2004-APR-6
Latest update: 2004-SEP-07
Author: B.A. Robinson

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