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THE CHRISTIAN CONCEPT OF ATONEMENT

The Satisfaction Theory

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Satisfaction theory: Jesus appeases God via a ritual human sacrifice:

The Roman Catholic Church teaches this theory of the atonement (or a variation on it), as do most Protestant denominations. However the Catholic Church does not raise the theory to the level of dogma.

This theory is grounded in the concept of personal honor found in the European feudal culture. During the Middle Ages, a serf had to honor both God and the feudal lord who controlled his/her life and land. Human sin dishonors God. A price must be paid to satisfy God and restore his divine honor. The only penalty suitable to God was Christ's obedience when he willingly suffered torture and death at his crucifixion. 8

The satisfaction theory is related to the ancient Hebrew ritual sacrifice of animals at the altar of the Jerusalem Temple. Such sacrifices were made in the centuries before Yeshua's (a.k.a. Jesus Christ's) birth, during his lifetime, and only ended with the destruction of the temple and much of the rest of Jerusalem by the Roman Army in 70 CE. By allowing himself to be ritually sacrificed, Yeshua's death replicated in many ways the ritual sacrifice of animals were slaughtered in the Temple.

The satisfaction theory is similar to the earlier ransom theory, in that a type of ransom was given. However, it was paid to God rather than to Satan. Theologians in the Middle Ages believed that there was no way that the deaths of one or more humans could satisfy God's requirements. The theory suggests that God's honor would only be satisfied by a ritual sacrifice of a god-man -- his own son. Michael Martin writes: "Only the God-Man is able, by his divinity, to offer something that is worthy of God and, by his humanity, to represent mankind." 1  Thus the incarnation was necessary: God coming to earth in the form of a man.

The death of Yeshua was not considered unjust since he voluntarily allowed himself to be executed. Because of the nature of the sacrifice, most denominations teach that all persons in all eras and countries can achieve atonement. However, many denominations in the Reform Tradition follow the teachings of John Calvin who believed that Yeshua only died for the elect -- a small minority of individuals who God chose before they were born. These alone would be saved.

The satisfaction theory is generally attributed to Archbishop Anselem of Canterbury, (1033 to 1109 CE). It is contained in his book Cur Deus Homo ("Why God became man"), which was written circa 1098 CE. 2 Its format is that of a conversation between himself and his friend Boso. He writes:

bullet"...without satisfaction, that is, without voluntary payment of the debt, God can neither pass by the sin unpunished, nor can the sinner attain that happiness, or happiness like that, which he had before he sinned..." 3
bullet"...the price paid to God for the sin of man [must] be something greater than all the universe besides God....Moreover, it is necessary that he who can give God anything of his own which is more valuable than all things in the possession of God, must be greater than all else but God himself....Therefore none but God can make this satisfaction." 4
bulletAs Yeshua is "...God, he will possess omnipotence....He can, then, if he chooses, lay down his life and take it again....Therefore is he able to avoid death if he chooses, and also to die and rise again....the gift which he presents to God, not of debt but freely, ought to be something greater than anything in the possession of God....Now this can neither be found beneath him nor above him....In himself, therefore, must it be found....nothing can be more severe or difficult for man to do for God's honor, than to suffer death voluntarily when not bound by obligation; and man cannot give himself to God in any way more truly than by surrendering himself to death for God's honor. Therefore, he who wishes to make atonement for man's sin should be one who can die if he chooses." 5
bullet"Therefore have we clearly found that Christ, whom we confess to be both God and man, died for us; and, when this is known beyond all doubt, all things which he says of himself must be acknowledged as true, for God cannot lie, and all he does must be received as wisely done, though we do not understand the reason of it." 6
bullet"...since all who are to be saved cannot be present at the sacrifice of Christ, yet such virtue is there in his death that its power is extended even to those far remote in place or time." 7

This essay continues below.

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Criticisms which have been made of this theory:

Philosopher Michael Martin makes a number of points in criticism:

bulletThe theory is based on the assumption that because God is infinite, even a single, minor human sin is an infinite insult to God; it can only be cancelled by an infinite satisfaction. But, using the same reasoning, it has been suggested that a minor positive act by a human would bring about an infinite amount of good. But that is irrational, because only God can bring about an infinite good.
bullet"Justice surely demands that at the very least the guilty party -- [i.e. humanity] -- provide as much of the satisfaction as he or she can." 1 But in the satisfaction theory, humans contribute nothing and Yeshua everything. The contrast of the death penalty for Yeshua and the zero contribution of humanity seems unjust and unfair.
bulletThe belief that God's pride is so wounded that he would demand as satisfaction the death of an innocent person "assumes a view of God's moral nature that many modern readers would reject." 1 Being omnipotent, God could simply forgive humans, or find some other way for humanity to attain atonement.
bulletPresumably, the satisfaction theory would require that any new human sins committed after Yeshua's execution would also damage the honor of God. They would necessitate the execution of a second God-Man. Thus, multiple incarnations and executions would be required over the millennia. An indefinite number of human sacrifices might eventually be required.
bulletIt seems logical that if the death of Yeshua satisfied God's damaged honor, and if humans made no contribution to the process, then salvation and atonement should be granted to everyone -- to Christian believers and unbelievers alike. It is unclear why only persons who trust Jesus as Lord and Savior would be rewarded.

In addition, one might argue that the essence of the Satisfaction Theory is that violence, suffering, and punishment of an innocent person is justified, if it produces beneficial results for other people. Many find this concept offensive and immoral.

Finally, some two additional criticisms listed for the Ransom Theory which also apply here. They attribute to God the same sort of punishing behavior seen in the lives of Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Saddam Hussein, etc. We repeat them below for convenience:

bulletThe Satisfaction theory, as well as other violence-based atonement explanations, suffer from an inconsistency in Christian teaching:
bulletThe church has traditionally taught that a person is responsible for their own sin, and that a person cannot morally be punished for the sins of others. Of course, they deviated from this teaching, as when they taught as late as the mid-20th century that modern-day Jews were responsible for the execution of Yahweh. But in general, people were not held responsible for the sins of others.
bulletThe church also teaches that the default destination for Adam, Eve, their children, their grandchildren and their descendents to the present time, after death, will be Hell because of the first parents' transgression in the Garden of Eden when they ate the forbidden fruit. All will be tortured in Hell, unless they are saved through sacraments and/or good works and/or faith. The sin of Eve and Adam were imputed to the entire human race.
bulletMost liberal and many mainline Christians believe that Adam and Eve were mythical humans. That is, they didn't exist as actual people. Without that belief, this atonement theory collapses.
bulletSome Christians note that Eve and Adam were created as proto-humans without a sense of sin. After all, they ate the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in order to develop a knowledge of good and evil. Being without a moral sense, they cannot be responsible for eating the fruit any more than an animal might. Again, if the first parents are not responsible for eating the fruit, the atonement theory collapses.
bulletThere is no obvious mechanism whereby a person can achieve salvation and atonement with God by simply expressing faith and/or trust in Yeshua.
bulletIf trusting Yeshua were the only path to atonement and salvation, then those who have followed a non-Christian religion would not achieve salvation and atonement. They would be sent to Hell after death for what is basically the commission of a thought crime -- believing in the wrong God or in no God. Current moral belief systems -- both religious and secular -- consider punishment for thought crimes to be immoral and unjust.
bulletThe ransom theory would also route many of the non-Christians to Hell after their death for the simple reason that they have not had the opportunity to learn of Yeshua, Christianity, or the gospel message. Being ignorant of Yeshua, they could not trust him as Lord and Savior and be saved. The Ransom Theory punishes non-Christians for not having made a decision in favor of someone of whom they are unaware. This appears to many people to be irrational, unjust, and immoral.

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References:

  1. Michael Martin, "The Case Against Christianity," Temple University Press, (1991), Pages 252 to 263. Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store
  2. "Medieval Sourcebook: Anselem 'Cur Deus Homo'," at: http://www.fordham.edu/
  3. Ibid, Chapter XIX.
  4. Ibid, Chapter VI.
  5. Ibid, Chapter XI.
  6. Ibid, Chapter XV.
  7. Ibid, Chapter XVI.
  8. Gavin Kingsley, "Cathedral studies On Atonement," (1999), at: http://www.geocities.com/

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Copyright © 2004 & 2005 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2004-APR-11
Latest update: 2005-APR-13
Author: B.A. Robinson

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