Views of the Atonement
I am using the term “view” intentionally here. The Atonement, I think, is best described as a mosaic; there are several different things stitched together to form one complete image. By themselves they don’t make much sense, but taken together they form a single image.
The Atonement basically refers to humanity being reconciled back to God. Previously humanity and God were separated. Now union is again possible. This purpose of this article is to give a brief overview of several views on how exactly this reconciliation was accomplished.
The categories that I use here are not hard and fast. One writer may indeed fit into more than one of these categories. In reality they are really, I think, more points of emphasis that were chosen based on the circumstances that the writer was in at the time. Irenaeus, for example, was arguing against people who claimed the flesh didn’t matter, so he emphasized Christ’s recapitulating humankind’s experiences in his (Christ’s) flesh. Athanasius on the other hand was arguing against Arians who said that the Son (Jesus) was a created being, so he emphasized and argued why it was necessary for the Son to be eternal and of the same nature as the Father. I am willing to bet that if you did a thorough analysis of the writings of both of these men you would find that their actual view fits into more than one of these categories.
We should also avoid the error of choosing one view as the “correct” view and relegating the others to being “wrong.” The views that I am going to discuss here all get something right about the atonement, but by themselves they are not a comprehensive picture of the atonement. As mentioned earlier, they are really points of emphasis that, I think, were likely brought out in order to meet the needs of the people when they were written.
Nevertheless, these categories are commonly used when discussing the Atonement and so I am going to stick with them for the purposes of this post. However, just keep in mind what I said above: by themselves they are lacking, but when stitched together they form a complete picture of the Atonement.
The Recapitulation View
The main proponent of this view is Irenaeus (d. ~200). There is a more detailed explanation of this view in his Against Heresies 5.21.1-3. A condensed version is available in his Apostolic Preaching, 31:
So he united man with God and wrought a communion of God and man, we being unable to have any participation in incorruptibility if it were not for his coming to us, for incorruptibility, whilst being invisible benefited us nothing: so he became visible, that we might, in all ways, obtain a participation in incorruptibility. And because all are implicated in the first formation of Adam, we were bound to death through the disobedience, it was fitting, therefore, by means of the obedience of the one, who on our account became man, to be loosed from death. Since death reigned over the flesh, it was necessary that, abolished through the flesh, it released man from its oppression. So, “the word became flesh” that by means of the flesh which sin had mastered and seized and dominated, by this, it might be abolished and no longer be in us. And for this reason our Lord received the same embodiment as the first formed that he might fight for the fathers and vanquish in Adam that which had struck us in Adam.
– Irenaeus, On the Apostolic Preaching, 31
The basic idea here is that because death reigned over the flesh (i.e. humanity) the Son took on flesh like the rest of humankind, so that death’s domination over the flesh might be abolished. Essentially then, Christ became incarnate and united a full human nature to his full divine nature so that he could defeat death, sin, and the devil, the things which ruled and dominated human nature.
If you are interested in what exactly Christ recapitulated (repeated) I refer you to the previously mentioned references in Against Heresies, which should be freely available online.
The Ransom View
The basic idea of this view comes from Mark 10.45: “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” There are also several other passages in Scripture that employ “ransom” in describing Jesus’ work: 1Tim 2.6, 1Peter 1.18, Rev 5.9.
Gregory of Nyssa (d. 395) also employed “ransom” terminology in explaining Jesus’ work. In his Great Catechism, 22-24 he lays out his view:
- It would be unjust for God to simply use violence and wrest a slave (humanity) away from their master (Satan). The just way to free a slave is to pay whatever ransom their master demands (ch. 22).
- The only ransom that Satan would accept would be something better than what he already possessed, therefore when he saw the power and miracles that Jesus did he demanded him as a ransom for those who were in the prison of death (humanity).
- However, Satan could not see that Jesus was actually God incarnate, he only saw that Jesus was a man, albeit a very powerful one (ch. 23). This was done so that:
…the ransom in our behalf might be easily accepted by him who required it, the Deity was hidden under the veil of our nature, that so, as with ravenous fish, the hook of the Deity might be gulped down along with the bait of flesh, and thus, life being introduced into the house of death, and light shining in darkness, that which is diametrically opposed to light and life might vanish; for it is not in the nature of darkness to remain when light is present, or of death to exist when life is active.
– Gregory of Nyssa, Great Catechism, 24
This view is often criticized on the basis that implies the devil has rights and that God is somehow obligated to respect those rights. However, as I have briefly illustrated above, I do not believe that to be Gregory’s view. For Gregory it appears that the basis for the ransom being paid is that God is just and he cannot act unjustly, therefore he had to free humanity by just means, which meant paying a ransom.
Now, before moving on I would like to clarify what is meant by the word “ransom.” First, to state the obvious, “ransom” is an English word. It is used oftentimes in Scripture to translate the Greek word λύτρον (lytron) or something derived from it or related to it. That Greek word basically refers to being released from something. In English the word “ransom” usually seems to imply that someone kidnapped someone so that they could demand money (or something else) from their family; it puts the kidnapper in the position of power and gives them leverage to make demands in exchange for the safety or return of the victims. Most of the time lytron and its related words are used in a context where someone is enslaved or imprisoned and needs to be freed. The lytron (ransom) is paid to set them free from prison or their master. It is not paid because someone is demanding it in exchange for their safe return. So then, lytron is not necessarily, like the English word “ransom” implies, something that was paid to Satan because he demanded it or else he was going to do something bad to us. It was “paid” to Satan in order to set us free from his rule and being in the prison of death. Now, I am not sure what word is being used here by Gregory, but in any case I felt I should clarify that the English word “ransom” is not always a good translation of lytron or any words related or derived from it.
So, to summarize, for Gregory of Nyssa it appears that his view is that humanity ended up being ruled by Satan and was bound in the prison of death (through our own fault). God wanted to free us from this prison and Satan’s rule, but God, since he is just, cannot act unjustly. Therefore, God had to compensate Satan for our release. The only compensation Satan would accept would be something that was better than what he already had. So Jesus was presented to Satan as compensation for humanity. Satan accepted this compensation, but he did not realize that Jesus was actually God incarnate (“in the flesh”). This resulted in humanity being freed from his rule and the prison of death and Satan being unable to keep his compensation because it was too powerful for him to contain.
The Satisfaction View
This is also known as the juridical view. Its origin lies in Anselm of Canterbury’s (d. 1109) Cur Deus Homo (“Why the God-man”). The argument in the book is complex and it is not really focused on the Atonement; it is really focused on showing why it was necessary for Jesus (the God-man) to come. Ideally, I would have read it and summarized it myself, but time did not permit me to do this. So instead, I will rely on the summary given by Alister McGrath in his Christian Theology:
- God created humanity in a state of original righteousness, with the objective of bringing humanity to a state of eternal blessedness.
- The state of eternal blessedness is contingent upon human obedience to God. However, through sin, humanity is unable to achieve the necessary obedience, which appears to frustrate God’s purpose in creating humanity in the first place.
- In that it is impossible for God’s purposes to be frustrated, there must be some means by which the situation can be remedied. However, the situation can only be remedied if a satisfaction is made for sin. In other words, something has to be done, by which the offence caused by human sin can be purged.
- There is no way in which humanity can provide this necessary satisfaction. It lacks the resources which are needed. On the other hand, God possesses the resources needed to provide the required satisfaction.
- A “God-man” would possess both the ability (as God) and the obligation (as a human being) to pay the required satisfaction therefore, the incarnation takes place, in order that the required satisfaction may be made, and humanity redeemed.
This view, like the others, has its share critics. First, it is not trinitarian. That is, Anselm does not show an awareness that in sending the Son the Father is actually sending himself. Second, sin is conceived as an offense against God; there is no awareness that sin might be an ongoing an issue that requires healing and forgiveness. Finally, Anselm seems to insist that Christ’s death was necessary in order to accomplish human salvation. Other writers do not insist on this. They recognize that it did happen, yes, but they do not insist that it had to happen; they seem to hold that, in theory anyway, God could have accomplished human salvation another way.
It does get right, I think, that sin is offensive to God and that amends must be made for this offense. I also think it gets right that only a “God-man” could make these amends. However, there is a lot it leaves out.
This view is very influential and some version of it is still held today by many Christians. That being said, it is good to keep in the mind the reminders at the beginning of this article to not feel like you need to choose one view over the other. If you only hold to this view you end up in a situation, I think, with a God who was so angry at humanity that he sent himself to save us from himself. There appears to be no recognition of the defeat of sin, death, and the devil that was so prominent in the writings of the early Church.
Penal Substitution View
The basic idea behind this view is that Christ was our punishment (penal) replacement (substitution). In other words, the punishment (death) that was due to us was taken by Jesus instead. This is not, to be sure, like the aforementioned Satisfaction View where we offended God and somehow amends had to be made for that offense. In fact, this idea is also mentioned by writers in the early Church. One of them is Athanasius, one of the most prominent theologians in Church history.
First, it must be said, again, that the punishment that God decreed for sin was death. Not just in a spiritual sense, but also in the physical sense. Athanasius (d. 373) recognizes this and says in ch.6 of On the Incarnation of the Word:
“For it were monstrous that God, having spoken, should lie—so that, when He had imposed the law that man if he transgressed the commandment should die in death, after the transgression man should not die, but His word be broken. For God would not be true if, having said he should die, man did not die.” However, it was also unfitting and unworthy of God’s goodness for mankind to disappear for any reason or for them to be carried off by corruption.”
So for Athanasius there are two problems: humanity must be punished with death because we sinned and that was the punishment that God decreed for sin, but God’s work (humankind) must not perish nor be carried off into corruption. So there must be a solution to this. Later on he says:
“But since what was due from all must needs be paid—for it was due that all should die, as I said before—for this reason specially He dwelt among us; to this end, after the proof of His Godhead from His works, He then offered up the sacrifice also on behalf of all, surrendering His own temple (body) to death in place of all, to make all men no more liable to the account, and free from the old transgression; and to show Himself also mightier than death, showing forth His own body incorruptible as firstfruits of the resurrection of all.”
– Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Word, 20
So the purpose of Christ’s death was not only to take the punishment that was due to us, which was death, it was also to bestow on us incorruption and resurrection, or in other words, eternal life. Not only is communion with God possible through Christ, but also eternal physical life.
This is basically what Christians (should) mean when we say: “Christ died for us.” We mean that he not only took our penalty of death, but that he also made it possible for us to have eternal life and to be restored to the original state that God created us in.
If you’re seeing echoes of the theme of the defeat of sin, death, and the devil in this you would be correct. These themes were a huge emphasis in the early Church.
What about wrath?
I will briefly mention, being pressed for time, that the idea that somehow Jesus’ work also satisfied God’s wrath is controversial within Christianity. To my knowledge it seems to have been introduced by Augustine, who is perhaps the most influential figure in Western Christianity, but who also has some really problematic ideas. It does not appear to my knowledge, at least explicitly, in Scripture or in the writings of the early Church (aside from Augustine’s of course). Some denominations and congregations have divided over this issue. Some have even edited their hymnals to remove all mentions of God’s wrath being satisfied. Ideally I would say more about this, but I unfortunately ran out of time to really research this issue.
To conclude I will say that a major theme in the early Church and in Scripture is the defeat of sin, death, and the devil and the benefits that humanity gains as a result of that victory. Over time, I think, we have lost that emphasis and perspective and ended up with a wrathful and angry God instead of a loving God. As a result we have ended up with people on the one extreme who are afraid of God. Or on the other extreme people who are so repulsed by the idea that God might call to account their wrongs they believe in a God so loving that he will not punish them at all. Both are extremes and both are wrong. The ideal is, I think, to keep in balance that sin is offensive to God and that we did have a debt that needed to paid, but also to realize that God freed us from that debt and offers us eternal life because of his love for us. Unfortunately what happens in reality many times is that this balance shifts to one extreme or the other and Christians are worse off for it and people who are not Christians end up confused.
In any case, the point of this article has been to show what Christians believe about Jesus’ work and how exactly it accomplished salvation for us. As is probably clear there has never been any one definitive view or answer on the topic. However, all these views presented do get something right about the Atonement. If you stitch them all together you end up, I think, with a fairly complete picture of the atonement and what Jesus accomplished for us.