THE CHRISTIAN CONCEPT OF ATONEMENT
The Satisfaction Theory
Satisfaction theory: Jesus appeases God via a ritual human
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.
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
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:
|"...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..."
|"...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|
|As 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|
|"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|
|"...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.
Criticisms which have been made of this theory:
Philosopher Michael Martin makes a number of
points in criticism:
|The 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.|
|"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
|The 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.|
|Presumably, 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
indefinite number of human sacrifices might eventually be required.|
|It 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
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:
|The Satisfaction theory, as well as other violence-based atonement
explanations, suffer from an inconsistency in Christian teaching:|
|The 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.|
|The 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.|
|Most 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.|
|Some 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.|
|There is no obvious mechanism whereby a person can achieve salvation and
atonement with God by simply expressing faith and/or trust in Yeshua. |
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. |
|The 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.|
- Michael Martin, "The Case Against Christianity," Temple University
Press, (1991), Pages 252 to 263.
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- "Medieval Sourcebook: Anselem 'Cur Deus Homo'," at:
- Ibid, Chapter XIX.
- Ibid, Chapter VI.
- Ibid, Chapter XI.
- Ibid, Chapter XV.
- Ibid, Chapter XVI.
- Gavin Kingsley, "Cathedral studies On Atonement," (1999), at:
Copyright © 2004 & 2005 by Ontario Consultants on Religious
Originally written: 2004-APR-11
Latest update: 2005-APR-13
Author: B.A. Robinson