Theories of the Atonement

Atonement theories

From a theological perspective there are many theories and disagreements about what the death of Jesus on the cross actually means—what did His death accomplish? Ultimately, every significant “theory of the atonement” fits into one of three basic categories.

The first major category is typically called Christus Victor. There are perhaps the most variations in this group, but the major point is that through this seeming defeat (being brutally executed) Jesus actually won a great battle. One of the major theories in this group is called the Ransom Theory. It says that by choosing to sin humans had made themselves enslaved to Satan. So, when Christ—who was innocent—died for sins on the cross, He paid a ransom demanded by Satan for sin. Satan was willing to give up his slaves (us) if he could just be rid of Jesus. Imagine Satan’s surprise when Jesus rose from the dead.

There are several problems with the ransom theory, but perhaps the biggest one is that when mankind rejected God’s law, Satan had already rebelled against God and been expelled from heaven. When mankind “fell” we joined Satan as sinful beings and were then subjected to his influence. However, we did not become Satan’s property. When Jesus died, He did not pay any sort of debt to Satan.

Jesus did win a victory, but we will discuss that more in a minute.

The second major category is called Substitutionary Atonement. In this category you have variations on the theme that because Jesus is fully a man, but He is also fully God, and because He did not have any sin of His own, He was able to pay the penalty of our sin as our substitute. 2 Corinthians 5:21 says “For our sake God made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Jesus we might become the righteousness of God.”

One argument against substitutionary atonement is that Jesus is one man, so he could take the place of one man. How can He pay for the sins of billions?

The third major category is Moral Influence. Theories in this group tend to be more symbolic and subjective. They do not stress a particular enemy, debt, or other crisis. Rather, these theories state that humans were lost and confused and Jesus provided a perfect example of selflessness and sacrifice. By focusing on and embracing his death on the cross, we are inspired to live more closely to God’s ideal.

So, which is right? There are thick strands of theological truth in each. Jesus did win a great victory at the cross, but He did not pay a debt or ransom to Satan. The ransom theory is largely based on a passage in Colossians 2. It says,” And you, who were dead in your trespasses God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This Jesus set aside, nailing it to the cross. God disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in Jesus.”

We owe a debt to God as our Creator because He created us perfect. We sinned and ruined His perfect creation. Because God is perfect, we will always have a negative balance. We cannot repay that debt. Because God loves us, Jesus came to earth as a man. He lived perfectly and did not have a negative balance. In fact in His infinite perfection He has an unlimited positive balance. At the cross, He took the punishment we deserve for our sins, and gave us His positive righteousness.

Now, the reason the Bible says that Satan was involved is that Satan is an accuser. Satan loves to go before God and point out our failings. However, this passage in Colossians says that Jesus died, rose from the grave, and nailed our bill of debt to the cross. He put Satan on notice that He wouldn’t listen to his accusations anymore. We owed a debt to God as our Creator, but He paid our debt Himself and told Satan to be quiet. That is the victory Jesus won.

 Now that amazing act of selflessness should inspire us. The book of Philippians tells us, “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” So, while being an example was not the primary goal or end of Jesus’ work on the cross, it is absolutely a benefit to us.

Ultimately, though there is truth for us in Jesus being a victor and an example, if your atonement theory does not include the element of Jesus dying on the cross to pay for sin on our behalf, you are missing the main point. The argument that He could only substitute for one person misses the truth that Jesus is infinite. That means He was able to suffer infinitely. So, He could pay for all the sins of every person as a substitute.

Atonement theory is heavy stuff, and it can make your head spin, but having a good grasp on these concepts changes and sharpens the focus of the rest of your beliefs.  

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