How Did Jesus Really Save Us? Exploring the Top Theories of Atonement

//How Did Jesus Really Save Us? Exploring the Top Theories of Atonement

How Did Jesus Really Save Us? Exploring the Top Theories of Atonement

Reading Time: 16 minutes

How do we understand the death of Jesus? Why did Jesus have to die, and how exactly does his death result in the forgiveness of sin? In today’s article, we offer an introductory glance at a few key views on the doctrine of the atonement. 

Introduction

Throughout Church history, every doctrine has been disputed — and the doctrine of atonement is no exception. Broadly conceived, the doctrine of atonement is about God’s reconciling work in and through the person of Christ. Though the crucifixion or death of Christ is central to atonement, atonement cannot be reduced to the crucifixion. If the doctrine of atonement is just about the crucifixion, then what about the Trinity, the incarnation, Jesus’ life and ministry, the sending of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and so on? Instead, the doctrine of atonement is much more comprehensive — it offers a coherent system or story of why and how God reconciled us to him.

This doctrine is, as Kevin Vanhoozer describes, “the heart of the gospel” (Vanhoozer, “Atonement,” 176). But in the past century this central doctrine has endured “the crucible of (post)modern scrutiny.” It is beyond the scope of this article to detail the complex relationship between modernity, postmodernity, and Christianity since the Enlightenment. To provide some background, however, let it suffice to say that the crucible of (post)modern scrutiny includes questions of historicity (“did it actually happen?”), ethical value (“what is it good for?”), coherence (“does it make sense?”), and mechanism (“how did it happen?”).

Additionally, the plurality of contexts have burgeoned new insights and critiques on some tired questions and answers. For example, two “older” atonement models — penal substitution and satisfaction — have been critiqued by some feminists and liberationists for depicting a violent and abusive God (see “Excursus: Atonement Language” below for further details), and these critics offer, instead, a nonviolent atonement or a model that does not capitalize on Christ’s innocent suffering and death.[1] Ultimately, the crucible of (post)modern scrutiny has proliferated a surplus of atonement views — some helpful and others utterly bewildering. Therefore, this article hopes to do three things: (1) briefly summarize four atonement models, (2) a short excursus on atonement language, and (3) three proposals for moving forward.

Four Atonement Models

Christus Victor

Much of contemporary atonement discussions is indebted to Gustaf Aulén and his short yet influential work: Christus Victor. Aulén surveyed the history of the doctrine of atonement and discerned three broad typologies: the classical view, or Christus Victor, of the Church Fathers, the objective view of Anselm, and the subjective view of Abelard.[2] This article follows Aulén’s typologies with the exception of making penal substitution a separate model for, as we will see below, its unique emphasis on penal consequences.

Christus Victor as a doctrine of atonement states that Christ “fights against and triumphs over the evil powers of the world, the ‘tyrants’ under which mankind is in bondage and suffering, and in Him God reconciles the world to Himself” (Aulén, 20). In other words, God overcomes sin, death, evil, the devil, and anything else contrary to God’s will in Christ’s death and resurrection.

One of the clearest biblical references can be found in 1 Corinthians 15:54, where Paul quotes Isaiah: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” The Book of Revelations can also buttress Christus Victor, especially with its vivid description of Christ as the rider on the white horse (Rev 19:11-16). Christus Victor imagery is palpable and attractive: Christ is victorious over all evil forces — what joyous good news! What’s wanting with Christus Victor, however, is why the cross is necessary. In other words, did Jesus have to die if God could achieve victory without death? If so, then the death of Jesus seems superfluous.[3] Victory language, especially Christ as victor, is important to atonement models but by itself it is lacking.

Related to the Christus Victor model is the ransom model. The ransom model goes like this: humanity in their sin “sold themselves” to the devil, and in order to win them back God ransomed Jesus Christ to the devil in exchange for humanity. The devil in ravishing greed foolishly took the ransom, unbeknownst to him that he took God veiled in human flesh. The God-man, Jesus, then defeated the devil and took the released and ransomed captives back into God’s domain. The ransom model overlaps with Christus Victor in its language of victory over the devil and the transfer of ownership of humanity – from the devil to God.

Centuries later, however, Anselm would discredit ransom models for at least two reasons: first, humanity never belonged to the devil, thus any repayment cannot be made to the devil; second, the ransom model depicts God being deceptive, which can make God morally ambiguous. Instead, Anselm offered the satisfaction view, the next major atonement model.

Anselm and Cur Deus Homo – The Satisfaction Model

Nearly one thousand years after Christ’s birth, Anselm posed his famous question in Latin: Cur Deus homo — “Why did God become human?” Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo attempts to give a coherent and rational basis for understanding why God became human, why the God-Man (Jesus) died, and how his death benefits us. Anselm’s answer is, in short, “if only God can make this satisfaction and only a man ought to make it: it is necessary that a God-man make it” (II.6).[4]

But what is this “satisfaction,” and why ought humanity make it? Humanity was created to enjoy life with God; this is their blessing and duty. But humanity dishonored God in their sin and thereby incurred an insurmountable debt — the debt of sin. Instead, dishonoring God might be best understood as refusing God’s gracious invitation into life with him. The language of honor and dishonor should not paint God as an egotistical Feudal Lord who is out for blood — a common critique leveled against Anselm.[5] Dishonoring God, therefore, harms humanity — not God or his honor.

In order to restore the broken relationship, humanity has to repay the debt of sin, but two problems prevent full repayment, or satisfaction: this debt is incalculable and sin taints all attempts at satisfaction.[6] Humanity is, therefore, in an impossible situation: humanity ought to make satisfaction but utterly cannot. Thus, God steps into the fray and does only what only God can do: make full satisfaction on behalf of man in and through the God-man, Jesus Christ. This satisfaction was super-abundant, far outweighing all debts because it was God who made the satisfaction. Jesus then received merits or “credit” for making satisfaction, but he mercifully shared it with his own kin — the rest of humanity. So, only in and through Jesus, the God-man, can humanity enjoy life with God.

It was stated above that dishonoring God does not harm or diminish God or his honor, so then what did Anselm mean when he said that God sought to uphold or keep his honor? God upholding his honor might be best understood as God upholding his character. God is good, gracious, merciful, just, loving, and so on; whatever God does must be aligned with these characteristics. For Anselm, God could have responded to humanity’s impossible situation of sin in one of two ways: just punishment or just and gracious satisfaction. So, according to Anselm, making satisfaction, therefore, upholds God’s honor more fully than punishment.[7]

Peter Abelard and Moral Influence

A few years after Anselm and his Cur Deus Homo, Peter Abelard retorted that the satisfaction model is a distortion of the gospel. Anselm’s God is, in Abelard’s opinion, cruel and wicked: how can the death of God’s innocent son — Jesus Christ — make satisfaction or please God? This is not the loving and merciful God of the gospel, but some other blood-thirsty deity. What’s more, any sort of penalty, punishment, or satisfaction is unnecessary because God can freely forgive sin. God’s grace forgives and justifies sinners. The prime example of God’s justifying grace is in Jesus: he is perfect and sinless because God gives him the grace to be so, and the same grace is offered to the rest of humanity.

So then why the cross — why did Jesus die if free forgiveness is offered? Abelard’s answer is that the cross shows the perfection of love and God’s offer of free forgiveness. The cross demonstrates not only how much God loves humanity but also how humanity ought to love God and others. Understanding the perfection of God’s love inspires and influences humanity to love likewise. The cross is, thus, a sign of God’s gracious invitation into life with him.

Abelard’s language is less precise than Anselm. For example, what’s the difference between seeing love displayed and receiving free forgiveness? How does seeing love influence sinful people to love? Does love or grace purify humanity? Did Jesus show the perfection of human love or Godly love? Is there a difference between the two? These imprecisions are partly because Abelard did not write one tightly argued monograph on atonement like Anselm and his Cur Deus Homo. But sparing evidence of Abelard’s moral influence atonement model is found in his commentary on Romans 3:19-26, which spans only a couple pages.

Abelard is, however, more influential than one might think. One can find traces of his language of God’s love displayed on the cross and its influence on humanity in contemporary songs, such as “When I Survey the Wonderful Cross” and “Sweetly Broken.” Abelard’s atonement is particularly attractive to those who repudiate a wrathful God. But what might the moral influence model neglect? For one, God’s justice. Does free forgiveness diminish the need for justice? Is Abelard’s God just? These questions and more ask essential questions of the relationship between God and what God does for humanity.

Penal Substitution

The penal substitution model is arguably the most popular and most foundational model for evangelicals. Penal substitution can be defined as follows: Out of great love for humanity, the Father sent his Son in the person of Christ to satisfy God’s justice. The punishment and penal consequences reserved for sinful humanity were laid on Christ instead of us. The cross, thus, shows both God’s holiness and love. Or, as a short-hand, “Jesus Christ died for us because of our sins.” The foundation of the penal substitution model can be found in Reformed theologians, such as John Calvin, Herman Bavinck, and Charles Hodge. The building blocks of the penal substitution model are penal consequences, God’s holiness (or justice), total depravity, and substitution. We’ll take each in turn.

All of creation — humanity included — were created to enjoy life with God, but sin disrupted everything.[8] After the fall, sin infiltrated all of humanity and effectively barred them from life with God. Sin prevents life with God for at least two reasons: humanity is dead in their sins, and God cannot allow sinful humanity into his presence because he is holy. The consequences of sin are death and more sin. Like a virus, sin multiplies and causes death in its host. These are penal consequences because sinning is breaking God’s law.[9] God’s laws are holy and perfect, and they reflect who he is. Therefore, sin is a violation against God. Indeed, sinful humanity could die from God’s fiery holiness: “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live” (Ex 33:20).

To bridge the chasm between sinner and a holy God, God’s justice needs to be a satisfied. But only perfect obedience can satisfy — another impossibility sinful humanity faces. For at least these two reasons (death in sin and God’s holiness), sinful humanity cannot save themselves, if salvation is understood as escape from sin and life with God. This is what total depravity claims. Then what or who can save sinful humanity? Christ as penal substitution, or Christ taking our place on the cross.

The penal substitution model is similar to Anselm’s satisfaction model. Indeed, Aulén does not differentiate them. But I do believe there are two important differences: for Anselm, Christ’s satisfaction is the alternative to punishment, and Christ is not a substitute — he is a superabundant gift to God. For penal substitution, however, Christ’s satisfaction is the punishment on behalf of or as a substitute for sinners.

Excursus: Atonement Language

In recent decades, atonement models — particularly satisfaction and penal substitution — have been severely critiqued for encouraging violence and subjugation of oppressed groups. One of the most common critiques is what critics call “divine child abuse”: God the Father punishing Jesus — his Son. What’s more, God the Father seems to “enjoy” his Son’s sufferings, because he is “satisfied” by it. Others point out that atonement language has been used inappropriately to subject people — notably, women and other oppressed groups — to “Christ-like self-sacrifice.” While these critiques are important for exposing sinful ways people — typically those with greater authority and power — use Christian doctrines for un-Christian agendas, a difference should be made between what a doctrine says and how a doctrine is used, or what an atonement model says and how an atonement model is used.

Is atonement an act of divine child abuse? This is a troubling accusation: if God reconciled the world to himself through child abuse, is this the kind of God we want to enjoy life with? I think not. So, how can we understand the troubling language of some atonement models? A good place to start is to ask ourselves if the language of the critique is a fair representation of what an atonement model says. The divine child abuse states that the Father abuses the Son.[10] The implications seem that the Father not only overpowers the Son into abuse — contrary to the Son’s will — but also the Father is a separate being from the Son. But orthodox Trinitarian theology rules out any different wills amongst the three persons of the Trinity (Father, Son, and Spirit), unequal share of powers, and plurality of essence or being in the Trinity.

Thus, trinitarian satisfaction or penal substitution atonement models affirm that when the Father sends the Son to the cross, there was one divine will. In addition, when God the Father was “satisfied” with Jesus’ death, God the Son was also “satisfied,” because the Father and the Son are one God. If we remember from above, the doctrine of atonement is not limited to just the crucifixion; it involves other doctrines as well. The charge of divine child abuse works best with an implicit or explicit tri-theist (three gods) or subordinationist (the Son is lesser than the Father) framework. But if atonement models adhere to orthodox trinitarian theology (1 God, 3 persons; equality of 3 persons), then the divine child abuse might not work.

To be sure, all four models can be used inappropriately to encourage unjust violence and suffering: this is not a unique problem to satisfaction or penal substitution model, nor even atonement theology. This is the problem of how any doctrine is applied or appropriated. This is the complicated problem of theological hermeneutics (how to understand) and ethics (how to live/apply), which is way beyond the scope of this introductory article. But here are some helpful tips for your own wrestling through atonement models and their critiques:

  1. Does your ethics align with the whole of scripture?
  2. Does your ethics align with other doctrines, such as creation, anthropology (humanity), and ecclesiology (church)?
  3. Does your ethics help people to love God and others?

If an atonement model is inappropriately used to subjugate people, then its ethics fails (1), (2), and (3).

Moving Forward

Atonement is a peculiar doctrine: as central as it is, it has no “dogmatic” or standardized form. For example, the doctrine of the incarnation and the doctrine of trinity have dogmatic form: the Incarnation holds that Jesus Christ is one person with two natures/essences; the Trinity holds that there is one God but three persons. These dogmatic forms reflect the first four ecumenical councils. Atonement, however, does not have dogmatic form, except that Jesus Christ died on the cross. Perhaps for this reason the doctrine of atonement has many models — far more than the four listed above. A question then arises: What are we supposed to do with all these models? Below are just three approaches to sort through the plethora of atonement models.

First, the “one-view” approach privileges one atonement model either as the only or as the most foundational way to understand how God reconciled creation to himself. This approach might be helpful to those who like one coherent system as an interpretative lens. One limitation is, however, that any one model cannot answer all the question and fully attest to the mosaic of scripture.

Second, the kaleidoscopic approach is popular amongst New Testament scholars, notably Joel B. Green. This approach allows all or nearly all atonement models to join the table. Every atonement model has unique emphases that other models cannot emulate. What’s more, Scripture seems to present a plurality of views, so the kaleidoscopic approach is faithful to scripture in that sense. The kaleidoscopic approach is appealing to those who enjoy different perspectives and are undeterred by tension. But a question comes to mind: Are all the models equal in value or are some more helpful or faithful to scripture than others? If not, then how does one determine that?

Finally, the “mash-up” approach is a light-kaleidoscopic approach. Instead of welcoming all or nearly all atonement models, mash-up privileges two or three models that can cohere together. Furthermore, the mash-up approach requires some adjustment to clear as many inconsistencies, contradictions, and tensions as possible. This approach is attractive to those who want the coherence of one-view but also some of the variety of kaleidoscopic. The questions that the mash-up approach needs to answer, however, are why these models instead of others, and what guides their adjustment — reason, scripture, tradition, or something else?

Another way to understand these approaches is using restaurant imagery. The one-view is like enjoying one-style of food, say German brats. The kaleidoscopic is like enjoying a buffet. Finally, the mash-up is like enjoying fusion food, say Korean-Mexican tacos.

Studying the doctrine of atonement is one of the most rewarding ventures a Christian can go through. It is a challenging endeavor that demands not only intellectual energy but also emotional, spiritual, and even physical energies. But let this short article whet your appetite to the doctrine of atonement’s richness. And as you wander through its depth, let these three anchors uphold you: reconciliation happened because Christ came, Christ died, and Christ was resurrected.

Which model or approach to the models struck you in reading this? Share in the comments below!

About the Author

Sooho Lee is currently working on his Master of Divinity at Fuller Theological Seminary. He plans and hopes to pursue a PhD in Systematic Theology, more specifically Christology. Lee is also the curator for www.sooholee.com.

For Further Reading

Peter Abelard, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans.

Saint Anselm, Cur Deus Homo.

Gustaf Aulén, Christus Victor. London: SPCK, 1953.

James Beilby, ed. The Nature of Atonement: Four Views. Downers Grove: IVP, 2006.

Joel B. Green and Mark D. Baker, Recovering the Scandal of the Cross. 2nd ed. Downers Grove: IVP, 2011.

Adam J. Johnson, ed. T&T Clark Companion to Atonement. New York: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2017 (in particular, Katherine Sonderegger’s “Anselmian Atonement” and Oliver D. Crisp’s “Methodological Issues in Approaching the Atonement”).

Fleming Rutledge. The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017.

Thomas F. Torrance. Atonement: The Person and Work of Christ. Downers Grove: IVP, 2009.

Kevin J. Vanhoozer, “Atonement,” in Mapping Modern Theology. Grand Rapids: Baker Academics, 2012, 175-202.

Footnotes

[1] For a recent example, see J. Denny Weaver’s The Nonviolent Atonement.

[2] In all theological discussions, terminology, such as “atonement view” and “atonement model,” is important and should always be nuanced. For our purposes, “view” and “model” are used interchangeably.

[3] For a fascinating reinterpretation of Christus Victor as victory over death – not the devil – see Benjamin Myers, “The Patristic Atonement Model,” in Locating Atonement: Explorations in Constructive Dogmatics. Edited by Oliver D. Crisp and Fred Sanders. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015.

[4] Note, Anselm’s usage of homo is not gendered, therefore “man” in Cur Deus Homo should be read as short-hand for “mankind” or, my preference, “humanity.” For my purposes, it is “humanity,” except when in direct reference to the unique God-man: Jesus. This is not to say “God-human” as reference to Jesus is improper or discouraged; I just prefer the terseness of “God-man.”

[5] The critique goes something like this: the feudal system of Anselm’s time infiltrated Anselm’s theology, therefore making it un-Christian, un-biblical, and un-theological. This is, I think, an unfair critique: Anselm is much more careful with his use of “honor.”

[6] Note, unlike the ransom model, this debt repayment is to God, not the devil.

[7] My language here might give the impression that Anselm is a universalist. In my reading, Anselm is not. So, the reader can happily read Anselmian satisfaction being either limited atonement, as in only the elect received the merits of Christ’s satisfaction, or unlimited atonement, as in the whole of humanity received the merits of Christ’s satisfaction.

[8] Here, I would like to brief two very different views of God’s plan for salvation:

  • Supralapsarian: God elects before the Fall
  • Infralapsarian: God elects after the Fall

These are polar opposites when it comes to when God elected or decides to elect, but both views can attest to the penal substitution model as the means for atonement/salvation for the elect.

[9] “Law” is not be equated to the Old Testament Laws. In Reformed theology, “law” is more broad: God’s law is an extension of who God is. What he allows and denies in his law reflects God’s character.

[10] Another layer of the divine child abuse critique is that the Father’s punishment of the Son is random. Or, put differently, why the gruesome cross as the means of punishment? I have limited myself to the problem of the Father-Son relation in the critique and did not touch on its randomness.

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2018-04-26T20:42:24+00:00Common Questions|