Theories of Atonement

What Truly Happened On The Cross?

Did Jesus pay Satan a hefty ransom for humanity’s redemption? Is the devil a spiritual ransomware terrorist who hijacks humanity, forcing us into calamitous situations from which we have no control? 

Was Jesus a scapegoat? A victim of a Jewish lynch mob?

Whenever we read the word atonement in a hymnal or discuss it around Easter, we have a shared understanding of the term. Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines atonement in four ways:

1. Reparation for offense or injury.

2. The reconciliation of God and humankind through the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ 

3. Christian science: exemplifying of human ones with God

4. Obsolete: reconciliation

The beautiful nature of the atonement is in its ramification, namely, that we have the luxury of being reconciled to God. This pleasure affords us a bridge on which to connect with God. Almost as if there initially lay a chasm, a void of hopelessness between us and the Divine, and Christ’s efficacious work on the cross not only built this bridge of reconciliation but also carried us across it. 

Atonement is a great thing. It’s a marvelous thing. 

But which theory about Christ’s work on the cross is the right one? 

Stephen D. Morrison lists seven of the most well-known theories surrounding the atonement and I will quote his explanations of each one. 

He states the seven theories are: the moral influence theory, the ransom theory, Christus Victor theory, the satisfaction theory, the penal substitution theory, the governmental theory, and the scapegoat theory. 

The Moral Influence Theory

Point 1

“One of the earliest theories for the atonement is the Moral Influence theory, which simply taught that Jesus Christ came and died in order to bring about a positive change to humanity.”

Point 2

“Within this theory the death of Christ is understood as a catalyst to reform society, inspiring men and women to follow His example and live good moral lives of love. In this theory, the Holy Spirit comes to help Christians produce this moral change.”

Point 3

“This theory focuses on not just the death of Jesus Christ, but on His entire life. This sees the saving work of Jesus not only in the event of the crucifixion, but also in all the words He has spoken, and the example He has set. In this theory, the cross is merely a ramification of the moral life of Jesus. He is crucified as a martyr due to the radical nature of His moral example. In this way, the Moral Influence theory emphasizes Jesus Christ as our teacher, our example, our founder and leader, and ultimately, as a result, our first martyr.”

Thoughts on The Moral Influence Theory

Positive change after spiritual regeneration is without question an emblematic aspect of Christianity and one of the most questioned aspects about the faith when believers fail to live up to it. 

The Bible is by far one of the most, if not the most exhaustive user manual on how to live an upright life. Christian thinkers allude to Jesus’ conversation with a Jewish cleric, Nicodemus. In this dialogue, Jesus explains to this aged teacher of the Law (of Moses) that one must be ‘born again’ to enter Heaven. The old man does not understand the enigmatic command and so he asks of Jesus. 

“How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” 

But Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, unless you are born from water and the Spirit, you cannot enter God’s kingdom. Human life comes from human parents, but spiritual life comes from the Spirit.”

And this new life, this rebirth, this regeneration, the renascent aspect of a person exerts difference; outer and inner changes. It is not just a change in habits but a change in essence. The once spiritually dead person is now alive to God in Christ Jesus. They’re not just people who behaved badly and now, after some instruction, behave better. No. That’s antithetical to the gospel. The person, whose very spirit was dead and crippled with sin, is now alive and hidden in God. 

This spiritual quickening demonstrates change. These new behaviors do not lead to the change but the opposite is true. The rebirth is the catalyst for these changes. 

“But the Spirit produces the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. There is no law that says these things are wrong. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified their own sinful selves. They have given up their old selfish feelings and the evil things they wanted to do. We get our new life from the Spirit, so we should follow the Spirit.” Said Paul to the church in Galatia concerning the evidence of their new lives in Christ Jesus. If these characteristics, if these patterns are lacking, the person in question, or the congregation, for that matter, is most likely Christian in name only. 

Christ’s work on the cross is efficacious enough to transform a person’s life. It is not antithetical to a believer’s creed to claim this theory. The indwelling of the Holy Spirit in a believer’s life is evidenced by the change in patterns, habits, and also, the fruitfulness the Holy Spirits work in their life. 

But is this the only thing that takes place on the cross? 

The Ransom Theory

Point 1

“The Ransom Theory of the Atonement is one of the first major theories for the Atonement. It is often held alongside the Moral Influence Theory, and usually deals more with the actual death of Jesus Christ, what it actually means and the effect it has upon humanity.” 

Point 2

“This theory essentially teaches that Jesus Christ died as a ransom sacrifice, paid either to Satan (the most dominant view) or to God the Father. Jesus’ death then acts as a payment to satisfy the debt on the souls of the human race, the same debt we inherited from Adam’s original sin.”

Point 3

“Redemption in this theory means to buy back, and purchase the human race from the clutches of the Devil. The main controversy here with this theory is the act of paying off the Devil. Some have written that this is not a fair statement to say that all Ransom Theorists believe that the Devil is paid, but rather in this act of Ransom Christ frees humanity from the bondage of sin and death.”

Thoughts on the Ransom Theory

I’ve heard these words shouted from behind pulpit stands as ministers who were short of tripped over microphone wires rushed to and fro to remind the church that Jesus paid for their sins. Some, not all, even postulated that the debt was paid to the devil. 

This seems extreme because we must wonder, to whom is this debt owed? We remember the temptation of Christ in the desert, where, after forty days of fasting and prayer the devil approaches Christ, whether physically or as an apparition we do not know, and he attempts to entice Christ thrice. After the first two attempts are thwarted by Jesus the devil takes a different approach, one where the devil wagers the world.  

“Then the devil led Jesus to the top of a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and all their splendor. The devil said, “If you will bow down and worship me, I will give you all these things.”

But one must wonder further. Does the devil own the world? The people in the world? Perhaps, but to an extent.  

“You used to live in sin, just like the rest of the world, obeying the devil—the commander of the powers in the unseen world. He is the spirit at work in the hearts of those who refuse to obey God. All of us used to live that way, following the passionate desires and inclinations of our sinful nature. By our very nature we were subject to God’s anger, just like everyone else.” Paul does not hold back on the influence the devil has over the unregenerate. He explains to the church in Ephesus that the devil has power and dominion over the spiritually dead, those who are under the grip of Lucifer.

We can understand the power. We can understand the dominance. We can understand why early Christian thinkers deducted from this passage, isolated from the broader aspect of scripture, that Christ’s death on the cross was some sort of ransom to the evil overload of the spiritual world who at the time held humanity hostage.

But I don’t believe that is the case. One, because the devil doesn’t own anything. He may influence people to do things or he may even indwell an individual (Judas Iscariot) to commit certain evil acts, but, nowhere in scripture are we told that the devil has ‘one-up’ on God as if there was a wager somewhere placed between the two of them for the souls of humanity and God lost the bet in Eden. 

In truth, God foreknew the fall of mankind and in eternity past prepared a way for humanity’s redemption. So, if anything, if there were a ransom or a price to be paid for the redemption of mankind, it would be paid to Himself, not the devil. 

This atonement theory is problematic if it is taken out of context (which I believe it has suffered this err thousands of times) and made to purport the idea that the devil is an equal of or greater power than God in the universe. I can see why it flourishes within Pentecostal churches that overemphasize the devil’s power over unbelievers and believers alike. 

In truth, Jesus conquered the devil, not owing that damned unclean spirit a single dime – or spiritual dime. Plus, we must reason with ourselves, how could Satan benefit from Christ’s death? 

Did the ancient serpent truly believe that the Son of God would not rise from the grave? Also, what sort of temporary sadistic satisfaction could the devil derive from simply placing the Son of God on the cross well knowing that the very crucifixion would lead to the his loss of power and influence over mankind? 

What could that devil have merited from the atonement other than complete and catastrophic failure? 

The Ransom Theory sounds worthy of a second thought if the recipient of the ransom is God the Father. From there we can perhaps divulge into how or what the Father merits from the Son’s death on the cross. 

But to consider the devil a benefactor from this incident is antithetical to scripture. Jesus didn’t pay the devil anything.

Last note, I believe the devil was trying his hardest to get Jesus off the cross more than anything. He could have wanted to see the Son of God suffer pain at the hands of the Jewish religious council and also suffer the pummeling of Jesus’ flesh at the hands of Roman soldiers. But remember that once Christ reached the cross, the devil was influencing onlookers to ask that Jesus come down from the cross. Tempting Christ, yet again, to desist from His ultimate mission: redemption and resurrection. 

The idea that the atonement was reparations for the devil is not a biblically credible one. 

Christus Victor Theory 

(Previously accepted as the Classical Theory up until the 12th century)

Point 1

“In this theory, Jesus Christ dies in order to defeat the powers of evil (such as sin, death, and the devil) in order to free mankind from their bondage. This is related to the Ransom view with the difference being that there is no payment to the devil or to God.”

Point 2

“Within the Christus Victor framework, the cross did not pay off anyone but defeated evil thereby setting the human race free.”

Thoughts on the Christus Victor Theory

I favor this victorious theory to the ‘ransom’ one because, as the writer states, there is no ransom. Christ strongman’s humanity out of the hands of the devil, the Holy Spirit indwells the believer, and voila, victory. 

“But God is so rich in mercy, and he loved us so much, that even though we were dead because of our sins, he gave us life when he raised Christ from the dead. (It is only by God’s grace that you have been saved!)” Paul writes to the church in Ephesus. Truly, God’s kindness afforded us the gift of deliverance from the influence of the devil. We can now see that which we were once blind to while under the enemy’s delusion. And this gift affords us life in Christ Jesus.

Paul further reiterates this conclusive victory in his letter to the church in Colossae (modern-day Turkey). 

“You were dead because of your sins and because your sinful nature was not yet cut away. Then God made you alive with Christ, for he forgave all our sins. He canceled the record of the charges against us and took it away by nailing it to the cross. In this way, he disarmed the spiritual rulers and authorities. He shamed them publicly by his victory over them on the cross.”

This theory further reinforces Christ’s power over the spiritual world whereas the ransom theory alludes to the possibility that the devil may have something to hold over Christ, namely, human beings. 

Paul’s doctrinal instructions elucidate the infinite power of Jesus in ‘disarming’ spiritual rulers and authorities through the cross. He  ‘shames’ them publicly on the cross Paul informs the church. 

Again, this is why the devil may have influenced those spectators of the crucifixion to beckon Christ to step down from the cross. 

“Look at you now!” they yelled at him. “You said you were going to destroy the Temple and rebuild it in three days. Well then, if you are the Son of God, save yourself and come down from the cross!” Recounts the gospel of Matthew. 

I’m highly inclined toward this triumphant view of atonement because it is true. 

“Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil.” Said the unknown author of the epistle to the Hebrews.

Jesus wielded total and complete control over his mortal and immortal adversaries. His contemporaries lied to one another to nail Jesus to the cross and his spiritual enemies fought to keep him in the tomb. He not only came back to life but walked in the midst of those who previously thought him dead. 

Christus Victor or Christ Victorious/Victor is a biblically sound interpretation of the atonement. 

This idea concerning the atonement was held for nearly twelve hundred years. From the first inspections of the purpose of the cross and its ramifications for believers, the idea managed to survive a thousand years before a different interpretation covered the horizon of Christian thought concerning atonement. 

Now, I must inform you that just because something has been around for some time, say, a thousand years or more does it make it right or wrong. The longevity of an idea only informs us that it was widely accepted or perhaps left unchallenged because no one saw it as problematic or because no one knew any different. 

It is astounding to know this interpretation of the atonement endured the test of time. 

The Satisfaction Theory (Anselm of Canterbury)

Point 1

“In this theory, Jesus Christ’s death is understood as a death to satisfy the justice of God. Satisfaction here means restitution, the mending of what was broken, and the paying back of a debt. In this theory, Anselm emphasizes the justice of God and claims that sin is an injustice that must be balanced. Anselm’s satisfaction theory says essentially that Jesus Christ died in order to pay back the injustice of human sin and to satisfy the justice of God.”

Point 2

“This theory was developed in reaction to the historical dominance of the Ransom theory, that God paid the devil with Christ’s death. Anselm saw that this theory was logically flawed, because what does God owe satan? Therefore, in contrast with the Ransom theory, Anselm taught that it is humanity who owes a debt to God, not God to satan.”

Point 3

“Our debt, in this theory, is that of injustice. Our injustices have stolen from the justice of God and therefore must be paid back. Satisfaction theory then postulates that Jesus Christ pays back God in His death on the cross to God.”

Thoughts on the Satisfaction Theory 

So, as Stephen explains, this theory was promoted as a reaction to the Ransom Theory. Now, the Ransom Theory is only doctrinally destructive if we presume Christ died to pay the devil his money. That can’t possibly be true because Christ never owed the devil a single dime. St. Anselm, a genius for his time, a highly quotable individual who made some impressive ontological arguments for the existence of God, for his time, pushes back against the Ransom Theory with the Satisfaction Theory. 

Instead of a ransom being paid to the devil, here, instead, something is paid to God the Father. 

The injustice aspect of this theory is irrevocably true. 

“For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard.” Paul reminds the church in Rome. 

And it is true. Without a doubt, we are all guilty of injustice against the Divine. 

Our direct existence in a fallen world is an injustice to a Holy God. 

The late great R. C. Sproul explains the ramifications of sin as injustice in his book, The Holiness of God.

“Sin is cosmic treason. Sin is treason against a perfectly pure Sovereign. It is an act of supreme ingratitude toward the One to whom we owe everything, to the One who has given us life itself. Have you ever considered the deeper implications of the slightest sin, of the most minute peccadillo? What are we saying to our Creator when we disobey Him at the slightest point? We are saying no to the righteousness of God. We are saying, ‘God, Your law is not good. My judgement is better than Yours. Your authority does not apply to me. I am above and beyond Your jurisdiction. I have the right to do what I want to do, not what You command me to do.’”

We’re a mutinous bunch of transgressors who fail, time and again, to live up to God’s holy standards. This lacking, according to Anselm, was made up for on the cross. 

There was not a more perfect individual who could stand in our stead and supplicate for our redemption than Jesus.

“For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus.” Paul informs the young Timothy, pastor of the church in Ephesus.

He lived the perfect life of complete obedience. The life we could not live. He practiced the Law like no one else could. He sympathized with sinners the way no one else dared. He taught the Law in its purest form – better than any erudite teacher of the Law ever could, ever had.

And, as if gathering every possible act of good, living the most perfect possible life, Christ went to the cross to imbue to us, in God the Father’s sight, the most perfect life ever.

Transferring to us that which we lacked and what we could never attain: the perfect life. 

“You know that He appeared in order to take away sins; and in Him there is no sin.” Said apostle John in his first epistle.

“For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin.” Said the author of the epistle to the Hebrews.

“He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” Said Paul in his first epistle to the church in Corinth. 

Christ is time and again seen as the perfect example who satisfies in us that which we lacked before God.

I believe that what is ultimately paid to God is a perfect life. God requires of all of us, perfection. Anything short of this is an absolute failure since anything else would mean we have sinned and by fault, fall short of God’s perfect glory. 

So Anselm purports that Christ satisfied this lack in us by offering Himself in our stead to the Father.

It’s a beautiful rendition of the atonement and I will take it over the Ransom Theory any day. 

But I do believe it misses the entirety of the atonement. It does focus heavily on a romanticized view of Christ’s work, namely, His perfect life and selfless sacrifice. But it remains incomplete.

It is a biblically sound theory but one I don’t entirely agree with, not because it is doctrinally wrong but because I don’t quite understand all of it. Not yet, at least.

What is beautiful, however, is that in this theory, God is in the business of restitution and reparation. He is Righteous, Just, and Loving. He Rights the wrongs. He Justifies. And He loves. 

He makes up for what we lack.

Jesus loves us so much He went out of His way to Satiate the injustice in us with His just life. 

The Penal Substitution Theory

Point 1

“Penal Substitutionary Atonement is a development of the Reformation. The Reformers, Specifically Calvin and Luther, took Anselm’s Satisfaction theory and modified it slightly. They added a more legal (or forensic) framework into this notion of the cross as satisfaction.”

Point 2

“The result is that within Penal Substitution, Jesus Christ dies to satisfy God’s wrath against human sin. Jesus is punished (penal) in the place of sinners (substitution) in order to satisfy the justice of God and the legal demand of God to punish sin. In the light of Jesus’ death, God can now forgive the sinner because Jesus Christ has been punished in the place of the sinner, in this way meeting the retributive requirements of God’s justice.”

Point 3

“This theory of the Atonement contrasts with Anselm’s Satisfaction Theory in that God is not satisfied with a debt of justice being paid by Jesus, but that God is satisfied with punishing Jesus in the place of mankind. […] This theory of the Atonement is perhaps the most dominant today, especially among the Reformed, and the evangelical.”

Thoughts on the Penal Substitution Theory 

Stephen is correct that this theory is the most dominant one among evangelicals because I was introduced to it as a kid while in the Assemblies of God, Bethlehem Ministry, Campinas, Sao Paulo, Brazil. Although I was raised in a Pentecostal denomination it does not mean I was outside of the evangelical understanding of scripture and the Bebbington Quadrilateral understanding of the evangelical world. 

Our intellectual framework was protestant from the start with high regard for Luther’s work. We disdained Calvin’s theories about salvation but respected him as a Christian scholar. So it’s fair to say that our understanding of the doctrine of atonement was protestant in one sense and Ransom Theory in a Pentecostal sense. 

God’s wrath was not just a star in the midnight sky we discussed from time to time. God’s wrath was the very space in between each star, present in almost every single service, with altar calls made after every sermon and a zeal for souls to be won for Christ. Rejecters were made aware that to turn away from Christ meant that they were willing to receive the full weight of God’s anger in the afterlife – if he didn’t punish during the same service and alter call.  

Trembling adherents flooded the aisles on their way to the pulpit in hopes of mending their relationships with God because they wanted to receive Jesus’ sacrifice and also accept His selfless act on the cross, videlicet, taking on God the Father’s mighty wrath in our stead. 

God’s wrath is not anti-biblical. It is a very important aspect of God’s nature because His Holiness requires the righting of wrongs and the only consequence for cosmic treason, namely, sin, is death. 

“For all people are mine to judge—both parents and children alike. And this is my rule: The person who sins is the one who will die.” Said God to the exiled in Babylon prophet, Ezekiel, concerning the consequence of sin. 

“In which also we all conversed in time past, in the desires of our flesh, fulfilling the will of the flesh and of our thoughts, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest.” Said Paul to the church in Ephesus.

This view is not entirely antithetical to biblical doctrine concerning atonement. I do believe, however, that if the sole focus and purpose of the cross are perceived as God’s wrath being dished out on Christ and nothing else, it fails to fully comprehend the love and justifying aspect of the atonement. 

“Him, who knew no sin, he hath made sin for us, that we might be made the justice of God in him.” Paul reminds us again in his second epistle to the church in Corinth. 

Christ was willing to receive the punishment that was meant for us. It is biblically evident that the ultimate price to be paid for sin was paid for in blood by none other than the Son of God. No one else could have borne that wrath, died, and resurrected from the dead but Jesus, the Perfect One.

But again, if our only understanding of the atonement is one of wrath and punishment, this myopic view of the cross can distort our theology, our soteriology, and even how we act toward believers and non-believers when they sin. 

Our conduct toward sinners is then not one of love and correction, of restoration and fellowship. No. Our response toward sinners then becomes focused on wrath and unless they demonstrate an outward display of repentance we will chide them for being worthy of God’s mighty destructive wrath. We will promote altar calls and calls for repentance in perpetuity, not because we hope people truly repent and turn to God, but because it makes our egos blossom at the sight that dozens – if not hundreds, bow their knees at our behest every week.

A hyper and unhealthy focus on God’s wrath has deformed many theologians whose focus was skewed by this fanaticism, namely, the slave-owning white American theologian, Jonathan Edwards. Here is a snippet from his most famous sermon-turned-to-book called, hear it, without filter, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. 

“That the reason why they are not fallen [into hell] already and do not fall now is only that God’s appointed time is not come. For it is said, that when that due time, or appointed time comes, their foot shall slide. Then they shall be left to fall, as they are inclined by their own weight. God will not hold them up in these slippery places any longer, but will let them go; and then, at that very instant, they shall fall into destruction; as he that stands on such slippery declining ground, on the edge of a pit, he cannot stand alone, when he is let go he immediately falls and is lost.”

And again, he states: 

“The bow of God’s wrath is bent, and the arrow made ready on the string, and justice bends the arrow at your heart, and strains the bow, and it is nothing but the mere pleasure of God, and that of an angry God, without any promise or obligation at all, that keeps the arrow one moment from being made drunk with your blood.”

The author develops a near sadistic obsession with God’s wrath and views God as a restrained Rage Crazed Deity whose bloodlust is staved off by nothing other than his mere pleasure. The images produced by Edwards are gothic, grim, bleak, and haunting. The God displaced in this story and his other sermons serve only to direct people into heaven by fear and trepidation, not by love and sacrifice. 

“[the Devil]… stands waiting for them, like greedy hungry lions that see their prey, and expect to have it…” Said Edwards. 

It is as if Edwards’s formation of God, hell, damnation, and eternity were formed more so by medieval folklore than scripture. And it shows. It reminds me of the varied times ministers and church mothers and aunties made us believe the devil was behind every door, nook, and cranny, waiting to devour us or entice us to sin – as if the devil had the time and omnipresence to do so. 

But this fear-mongering tactic is used to this day as an attempt to convince the biblically illiterate that a vengeful God is out there salivating at the chance to send them to hell. 

“​​Say to them, ‘As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live.’” God reminds prophet Ezekiel.

As if God were not a Shepherd, a Prince of Peace, a Father, and Friend, and Brother, and a Creator who sent His Son into the world to save it. 

Wrath is evident within scripture (read Isaiah and Revelations). That’s a fact. But any of God’s attributes taken out of context diminishes and distorts our understanding of God and His goal in the atonement. 

Might I add, Jonathan Edwards was sadistically impassioned with this theory of God’s wrath concerning the atonement and the afterlife, but his care for his black slaves was absent. If only he turned his bloodlust writing into abolitionist sentiments, his legacy would be saved the fire of time. And his writings would contribute more invective for the slave trade than for unsuspecting and ignorant parishioners who trembled at Edwards’s homiletic theatrics about God, hell fire, and the devil. 

But I digress. 

Luther and Calvin both lived in a time of war, plague, starvation, and religious feudalism, where tyrants and kings warred for the right to rule their subjects with the power of God. Their times helped form their theologies, in some ways for the better, namely, the Protestant Reformation, and in other times, for the worse, namely, Calvin’s monergism and later, his five tenets of Calvinism. Life in Europe looked bleak then, as society was primed for a revolution that would steer civilization away from religious monarchs and toward religious freedoms or no religions at all. These newer ideas would spawn the later stages of the Renaissance and later yet call for democratic societies through revolutionary wars. But Calvin and Luther had not yet seen these revelations and lived under the threat of death, persecution, and torture. Their religious minds were formed by their culture and their teachings were so emphatic for their time that they spread like wildfire in a society that had little to no hope left for temporal relief and restitution. 

I believe that the Penal Substitutionary theory holds some water within a healthy and contextual reading of scripture but the distortion of it, namely, the obsession with God’s wrath in Reformed church circles, is a doctrinal aberration that needs rediscovery and reformation.

Here is a quote from one of my favorite books to date, written by Dane C. Ortlund, Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers. Note, Pastor Ortlund is part of the Reformed tradition.

“‘Slow to anger.’ The Hebrew phrase is literally ‘long of nostrils.’ Picture an angry bull, pawing the ground, breathing loudly, nostrils flared. That would be, so to speak, ‘short-nosed.’ But the Lord is long-nosed. He doesn’t have his finger on the trigger. It takes much accumulated provoking to draw out his ire. Unlike us, who are often emotional dams ready to break, God can put up with a lot. This is why the Old Testament speaks of God being ‘provoked to anger’ by his people dozens of times (especially in Deuteronomy; 1–2 Kings; and Jeremiah). But not once are we told that God is ‘provoked to love’ or ‘provoked to mercy.’ His anger requires provocation; his mercy is pent up, ready to gush forth. We tend to think: divine anger is pent up, spring-loaded; divine mercy is slow to build. It’s just the opposite. Divine mercy is ready to burst forth at the slightest prick.”

Jonathan Edwards’s corpse is throwing a dead man’s temper tantrum in the grave at the sound of these biblically sound words.  

The Governmental Theory

Point 1 

“The Governmental Theory of the Atonement is a slight variation upon the Penal Substitutionary theory, which is notably held in Methodism.”

Point 2 

“In the Governmental Theory, Jesus Christ does not take the exact punishment we deserve, He takes a punishment. Jesus dies on the cross therefore to demonstrate the displeasure of God towards sin. He died to display God’s wrath against sin and the high price which must be paid, but not to specifically satisfy that particular wrath.”

Point 3

“The Governmental Theory also teaches that Jesus died only for the church, and if you by faith are part of the church, you can take part in God’s salvation. The church then acts as the sort of hiding place from God’s punishment.”

Thoughts on the Governmental Theory

This theory is celebrated by Methodists, videlicet, adherents of John Wesley’s theological ideas and Arminians who synergism. Wesley held on to the Penal Substitutionary theory whereas his fellow theologians and adherents of the Methodist denomination took on to the Governmental Theory more. 

Kevin Jackson of the Wesleyan Arminian states: 

“The Governmental view is often held by Wesleyans, Charismatics, and Open Theists. It should be noted that Wesley himself did not hold to the view.” 

Christians who adhere to this theory are willing to accept that its definition, at best, is rather ambiguous. Unlike the Satisfaction Theory, Governmental Theory does not promote that Christ is paying God the Father a ransom or fulfilling for us something we could not. There isn’t necessarily a transaction going on here.

And unlike the Penal Substitutionary Theory, this theory shies away from the idea that Christ would be punished or suffer God the Father’s wrath in our place. 

It does away with the transactional aspect of the atonement where there is no satiation to fill in a gap nor is there justifiable punishment or wrath for sins. 

There is, however, a linguistic substitution, where, instead of Christ being punished in our stead, he now suffers for us on the cross. The pain we had deserved or rather earned through our fallen nature was supplanted onto Christ.

J. Kenneth Grider, a Nazarene Christian, theologian, and former seminary professor was a staunch supporter of the Governmental Theory and in his exposition of it, he explains why there is a need for a terminological shift from ‘punished’ to ‘suffering’ and its benevolent consequences for the Christian.

“Whereas Calvinists teach boldly that Christ paid the penalty for us-that He took our punishment-and believe their view to be biblical, it is altogether opposed to the teaching of Scripture. Neither the Hebrew Old Testament nor the Greek New Testament ever teach this view. The NIV, translated by Calvinists in the main, renders the Hebrew musar in Isa. 53:5 with “punishment,” which is unusual. The KJV, even though translated by 54 Calvinists, does not once use any form of the English word for “punishment” to describe what happened to Christ. Always the word is “suffering” or certain synonyms of that word. Scripture teaches that Christ suffered for us, not that He was punished for us. Three versions state 28 times that Christ suffered for us: the KAVA [1] , the NASB [2], and the NIV [3] ; and the RSV says it 27 times. [4]

The reason Scripture teaches that Christ suffered for us in stead of being punished is in part, as mentioned earlier, because He was sinless and therefore guiltless. It is in part also because God the Father really does forgive us—-whereas, if He punished Christ instead of us, He could not then have forgiven us. In Christ’s substitutionary punishment, justice would have been satisfied, precluding forgiveness. One cannot both punish and for give, surely.”

So in Anselm’s theory, Christ satisfied in us what was lacking, videlicet, a righteous and perfect life. He imparted His perfection onto us on the cross in the Satisfaction Theory. The transaction was made toward the Father as a gift to say, they have failed but I have not so please accept my life as the perfect offering

In Luther and Calvin’s theory, namely, Penal Substitution Theory, the focus is placed on wrath, not satisfaction. It’s a legal court, someone committed high treason, and someone must be punished. Wrath and justice must be meted out and someone has to be the recipient of this Holy Justice. 

This flaming arrow is then quenched in Christ’s bleeding heart on Calvary hill. 

But the ambiguity, I admit, I am still somewhat at a loss regarding Governmental Theory, is that the focus is shifted from satisfaction and punished altogether. The cross and atonement focus on Christ’s suffering instead. 

J. Kenneth Grider argues further that: 

“Christ suffered for us. Arminians teach that what Christ did he did for every person; therefore what he did could not have been to pay the penalty, since no one would then ever go into eternal perdition. Arminianism teaches that Christ suffered for everyone so that the Father could forgive the ones who repent and believe; his death is such that all will see that forgiveness is costly and will strive to cease from anarchy in the world God governs. This view is called the governmental theory of the atonement.”

I believe the primary focus within this theory is neither punishment nor satisfaction but it rests on God’s mercy and Christ’s selfless act of suffering on the cross for us. 

“For God called you to do good, even if it means suffering, just as Christ suffered for you. He is your example, and you must follow in his steps.

He never sinned, nor ever deceived anyone. He did not retaliate when he was insulted, nor threaten revenge when he suffered. He left his case in the hands of God, who always judges fairly. He carried our sins in his body on the cross so that we can be dead to sin and live for what is right. By his wounds, you are healed. Once you were like sheep who wandered away. But now you have turned to your Shepherd, the Guardian of your souls.” Said Peter in his first epistle to a church facing persecution, torture, and death. 

The focus is on Christ’s suffering. 

The Scapegoat Theory

Point 1

“This theory moves away from the idea that Jesus died in order to act upon God (as in PSA, Satisfaction, or Governmental), or as payment to the devil (as in Ransom). Scapegoating therefore is considered to be a form of non-violent atonement, in that Jesus is not a sacrifice but a victim.”

Point 2

“There are many Philosophical concepts that come up within this model, but in a general sense, we can say that Jesus Christ as the Scapegoat means the following. 1) Jesus is killed by a violent crowd. 2) The violent crowd kills Him believing that He is guilty. 3) Jesus is proven innocent, as the true Son of God. 4) The crowd is therefore deemed guilty.”

Point 3

“Christianity is a priestly religion which understands that it is God’s overcoming of our violence by substituting himself for the victim of our typical sacrifices that opens up our being able to enjoy the fullness of creation as if death were not.”

Thoughts on the Scapegoat Theory

Rene Girard, the progenitor of this theory was a French historian, professor at Stanford, and his focus settled on anthropological philosophy. A man of his genius sought to investigate the atonement theories and he put into mind that Christ’s death was seen as a societal necessity, a cultural phenomenon that occurs in society from time to time to develop or evolve a religious rite and belief.

According to him, most religions with a ritual and sacrifice, began this way. There is a series of sins or wrongs committed in a nation or tribe, there is some mentionable disaster or consequence which from there the local body of people develops righteous indignation against and then a single soul or several guilty people who suffer the justified wrath of the people for the betterment of their society. Someone becomes the scapegoat. Someone takes the blame. 

Here is Rene Girard giving us a detailed progression of his thoughts on the Scapegoat Theory.

“What I have called ‘bad sacrifice’ is the kind of sacrificial religion that prevailed before Christ. It originates because mimetic rivalry threats the very survival of a community. But through a spontaneous process that also involves mimesis, the community unites against a victim in an act of spontaneous killing. This act unites rivals and restores peace and leaves a powerful impression that results in the establishment of sacrificial religion.

But in this kind of religion, the community is regarded as innocent and the victim is guilty. Even after the victim has been ‘deified,’ he is still a criminal in the eyes of the community (note the criminal nature of the gods in pagan mythology).

But something happens that begins in the Old Testament. Many stories reverse this scapegoat process. In the story of Cain and Abel, the story of Joseph, the book of Job, and many of the psalms, the persecuting community is pictured as guilty and the victim as innocent. But Christ, the son of God, is the ultimate ‘scapegoat’ – precisely because he is the son of God, and since he is innocent, he exposes all the myths of scapegoating and shows that the victims were innocent and the communities guilty.”

Professor Girard’s initial demonstration of public lynchings is close to home for Black Americans, because, not too long ago, black bodies would hang from trees as a deterrent, as a sign of triumph by the local white militia, as a staple of racial dominance, and of black subjugation to that white dominance in the American Deep South. 

American history reminds us that photographers were asked to participate in these public lynchings. Asked to photograph the torture and then mutilation of black bodies. The photos, once developed, were used as postcards that one family would send to another as a holiday gift. Bits and pieces of the victim’s body, namely, their sexual organs, were severed and contained, treasured as souvenirs of a just cause won by a just people. 

The mass cult-think that took place in the United States after the Civil War where Black Americans were emancipated from slavery but re-subjugated to the bonds of terror from Klansmen, police forces, and lynch mobs was only possible because the people in power, white Americans, thought that what they were doing, the raping, bombing, hanging, mutilating, decapitating, and lynching of Black Americans, was a good and just thing. 

Girard points to this as an anthropological phenomenon that is evident in every aspect of society where sacrifices are offered. Whether those sacrifices be birds, oxen, cows, and goats, or if under more civilized eras who are pent up with anger and rage, they sacrifice people to appease their group or their deity. 

In the Scapegoat Theory, everything is reversed. The mob that initially saw itself as righteous, videlicet, the Pharisees, Sadducees, scribes, and teachers of the law were seen as innocent men ridding society of an evil man. The Roman soldiers who nailed Christ to the cross were seen as mere agents of a benevolent and just society who worked together to kill a man guilty of what they deemed was a crime punishable by death – death on the cross! Jesus’s crime? Jesus declared himself the Son of God, namely, that he was equal with God. 

And this theory reverses the guilt. It places the wrongs on the heads of society, the mad and rabid, foaming at the mouth, rage-filled society is the one at fault. And the victim, for once and for all, is innocent and righteous. 

This atonement theory settles well within Black Liberation Theology and the first ever Black Liberation Theologian, Professor James H. Cone’s work, The Cross and The Lynching Tree. 

“In the ‘lynching era,’ between 1880 to 1940, white Christians lynched nearly five thousand black men and women in a manner with obvious echoes of the Roman crucifixion of Jesus. Yet these ‘Christians’ did not see the irony or contradiction in their actions.”

And again.

“The gospel of Jesus is not a rational concept to be explained in a theory of salvation, but a story about God’s presence in Jesus’ solidarity with the oppressed, which led to his death on the cross. What is redemptive is the faith that God snatches victory out of defeat, life out of death, and hope out of despair.” 

Long live Black Liberation Theology for getting right what hundreds of years of Eurocentric theologians got wrong. 


Wakanda salute.


Greg Boyd of ReKnew, a theology and all things Christian network, has this to say about atonement theories.

“Atonement theories have customarily been grouped into two camps: a) subjective atonement theories, where the cross is understood to change something in us, but not fundamentally affect the way things are, and; b) objective atonement theories, where the cross is understood to fundamentally affect the way things are and only affect a change in us as a consequence of this.”

And I agree. 

Christ’s work on the cross was both subjective and objective. It did not focus more so on outer, societal, heavenly transformations than it did on inner, personal, interpersonal, and communal transformation. 

It did not decrease the value of one theory to elevate another. 

When it comes to atonement theories, the Christian cannot resort to an either/or fallacy mindset where we have to pick one theory over another. 

But more to the point concerning atonement theories is Stephen D. Morrison’s conclusion to his initial published work on the same topic where he informs us of something more important than atonement theories. 

“Each theory presented here is dense and complex, but I hope you can learn from the overall focus of each. I believe that we need to move beyond some of these theories and progress into a more robust theory of atonement. But thankfully, at the end of the day, we aren’t saved by theories. We’re saved by Jesus! How that happens may be fun to discuss and theorized about, but only in the sight of the fact that it’s the who that matters far more!”

So, if you’re tackling this subject and you are not sure if you should opt for the moral influence theory, Christus Victor theory,  ransom theory, satisfaction theory, penal substitution theory,  governmental theory, or the scapegoat theory, understand that we can live and move between them all since our focus is Christ. 

We are saved “by grace,” Paul teaches the church in Ephesus, and this “through faith.” 

A theory concerning the way things happened, what was accomplished, what transaction took place, – if any, whether wrath or satisfaction, whether suffering or triumph, is of less importance than the fact that we are saved, period. 

Truly, our focus must remain on the perfect work of Jesus Christ on the cross that saved us and afforded us the right to be indwelt by the Holy Spirit to live by the fruits of the same Spirit, sealed and protected by our Lord for it is He who holds our faith intact, not us. And, He granted us the right to rise from the grave; the right to resurrection and eternal life.

If anything other than this takes precedence in the life of a believer, chances are they have veered off the track of the gospel’s simplicity and settled for convoluted clouds of hidden knowledge that benefit no one.

Focus on Christ and He will settle the rest in this life or the next. 

Featured Image Alicia Quan.

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