HOUSMAIL HM#114B -- THEORIES OF THE ATONEMENT -- PART 2                                              17 Feb 2004


In Part 1 of this paper we discussed some of the barriers to reaching a proper understanding of this subject. Part 2 will briefly describe some of the more popular speculative and false "Theories Of The Atonement" which exist.

As might be expected, there are sometimes points on which the different theories contain similarities, which overlap to some extent, whilst disagreeing on major issues. However, in this short article, I cannot possibly produce a "condensed version" which will adequately summarise all that. The task is further complicated by the fact that many of the sources of information I consulted, do not always agree about the content of some of the "theories" described. Just between you and me, I often wondered whether they were talking about the same subject! If any of you think you have better or more reliable information, or a better description, please let me know so that I can update this paper accordingly.

Many of these theories present the Atonement as some sort of complicated commercial transaction, with no more emotion attached than buying sausages at the butcher's shop! You would need to be a lawyer to work out the meaning of the "fine print". The place of repentance is frequently dealt with inadequately. There is little or no emphasis on the "broken spirit and contrite heart, without which sacrifice is meaningless ritual, and there can be no forgiveness and no reconciliation. (Psalm 51:17) Indeed for many, concentration on an unscriptural "cheap grace" view of Atonement completely overshadows the other equally important element of the Good News about the way of life that pleases God and prepares us for immortality!

As you read, and prayerfully assess for yourself the Biblical worth of any "Theory Of The Atonement" look for the following "marks":

1. Does it reveal God's love for a lost world? Or does it dwell on unscriptural things like God's alleged need for appeasement of "wrath" against us, or satisfaction due to His "offended deity and holiness"?

2. Does it motivate real, life transforming respect and love for God -- leading to REAL Faith, and Repentance, and the whole hearted LOVE which disposes men towards the goal of obedience, rather than sin? Does it promise ability to face temptation and overcome? (1 Cor 10:12-13; Rev 3:21) Or does it instead leave men with the hopeless sense of inability to obey, that lies at the heart of things like "Eternal Security", or "Original Sin", or ""Total Depravity" or "defiled Sin Nature" etc.

3. Does it call "believers" to love each other as much as Jesus has already demonstrated that He loves them?

4. Does it offer the Kingdom of God on Earth, and Conditional Immortality, as the Gospel Hope of those who become reconciled to God? Or does it instead offer the false and therefore unattainable hope of immortality inherent at birth, and transportation to "heaven" at the instant of death?

5. Has what you believe about this subject, achieved any of that for you personally?


Many, feeling justifiable revulsion for the unbiblical "Satisfaction Of An Angry God, Substitutionary Theory", have opted for an alternative which sees the death of Jesus as no more than some sort of divinely orchestrated Martyrdom. This, it is said, leaves us an example of faith and obedience and trust in God, which we also must follow, in order to be saved.
Of course Jesus did leave us an example of faith and obedience to follow - but experience suggests that it would be fairly safe to speculate that those who hold this theory, might not understand all the implications of that. The real problem with this theory, is that the Scriptures tell us very precisely that Jesus died as a saviour . They do not ever say that He was a mere martyr.
Certainly Jesus was persecuted, and the motives of the Jews in condemning Him to death include some elements of martyrdom. However, there is far far more to it than that. The entire Old and New Testaments are full of the language of "blood sacrifice". No one took the life of Jesus against His will. At every step of the way, He gave himself to provide a Ransom, for our need . (Matt 20:28; 1 Tim 2:6;1 Pet 3:18)
Nor are all Christians subjected to a Martyr's death, simply to prove their personal trust in God. What sort of a God would that be? How would that inspire love for God? In any case, if we read Paul correctly, martyrdom in itself, proves nothing! (1 Cor 13:3)
I found this theory mentioned briefly in Alva Huffer's "Systematic Theology". I did a fairly extensive Web search for additional information, but unlike most of the others, I was unable to find any detailed description. Nor was I able to find a reference to anyone actually promoting it at any time in history. The brief description below is adapted from P293 of Huffer's book.
The theory says that the death of Jesus was a mere accident, unforseen by God or Jesus. Crucifixion was not in God's plan. It took God by surprise, and things got out of hand, before He knew what was happening! God had to make the best out of this unfortunate situation, and incorporated it into His plan as an afterthought.
The death of Jesus was NOT an accident. Anyone familiar with the Old Testament, knows that it contains many prophecies of the death of Jesus, written hundreds of years before the time. They include many tiny details which cannot be written off as mere accident! It was all, says the Apostle Peter, according to the "definite plan and foreknowledge of God." (Acts 2:23 RSV)
This one is quite similar in many respects to the "Martyr" theory above. It describes the death of Jesus in terms which amount to some sort of "sacrificial suicide". (although it does not use that term!). It says the death of Jesus is designed to impress us with a sense of the love of God, soften our hearts, and influence us to walk in the same paths of holiness that Jesus did. It specifically denies that there was any requirement for a "blood sacrifice" for sin.
It is of course true that Jesus has left us an example of what it means be "made perfect" by learning obedience. (Heb 5:8-9) It did cost him his life. However that is only part of the story.
The rest of it is contained in the great wealth of Scripture which does refer to the "Blood Sacrifice" and "Ransom" aspects of Jesus death on the cross.
One would expect to find this more often amongst PAGANS than Christians! History records many pagan cultures in which the people lived in fear of the wrath of "gods" who had to be regularly placated by human blood. In the Law of Moses there were commandments specifically forbidding such evil practices by the Jews. They were frequently accused of worshipping these gods and sacrificing their children to them. It should not surprise us therefore to discover that this perverted pagan view should also have invaded the Christian Church, in a modified form, and influenced its theology of sacrifice.
Of course there surely will come a day when unrepentant sinners do face the wrath of God, for their wilful unrepentance and rejection of God's offer of salvation. (Luke 3:7; Acts 17:30-31; 1 Thess 1:10)) However for this present time, the Scriptures tell us over and over again, that it was not wrath, but love, that moved God to give His Son to save us from our sins. (John 3:16) It is simply not true that God needed to be placated. Rather it is our attitude towards God that needs to be changed.
Also known sometimes as the "military" theory
Attributed to early Church "fathers", including Gregory of Nyssa. (circa 335-395AD) It teaches that the death of Christ was a Ransom which has bought us back from the Devil. I have read that one version of this one uses a picture of God baiting a "fish hook" with Jesus, first tricking the Devil into releasing us in exchange for the 'greater prize", and then reclaiming the "bait" through Resurrection, thus cheating the Devil of both prizes!
This theory presents not only an unbiblical view of the "Devil", but also a VERY dishonouring view of God as a cheat and deceiver! This is VERY important! How could anyone ever really trust a God like that, to keep any of His other promises?
Attributed to Anselm of Canterbury. (1033-1109) Anselm is said to have developed it in reaction to the inadequacies of the "Ransom Theory". This theory has been said to reflect the "feudal" social outlook of Anselm's day, with its emphasis on the "honour" due to the lord who controlled the life and land of the peasants who lived on his estate. It was a time when men fought duels to defend their reputations against perceived insults to their "honour". Anselm taught that God's majesty had been dishonoured by sin, and required "satisfaction" or "appeasement", before sins could be forgiven. He reasoned that because God's majesty is infinite, it requires an "infinite punishment". (whatever that means!) And since Jesus was also thought to be infinite, punishing Him was an exact equivalent to the eternal torment due to finite sinners!
Anselm's Jesus is NOT a REAL man! No other man has ever been "infinite"! The teaching is just one more version of "Jesus is not come in the flesh"! Nor is God concerned with any "satisfaction" to Divine honour. It was all about saving US! And of course Jesus demonstrated how God really viewed it, by submitting without retaliation, to great insult and dishonour and physical abuse of the worst kind, from those who rejected Him.
This theory was propounded early in the seventeenth century by Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) in opposition to the Socinian theory described below. It says that although God requires no payment for sin, public justice did require some token display of how much God despises sin. Thus Christ suffered as an example of the penalty due to sinners, without bearing any punishment in their place. By this, God's law is suppose to be honoured and upheld, whilst at the same time the way is cleared for sinners to be pardoned.
This view is called "governmental" because Grotius envisions God as a ruler or a head of government who passed a law which says that, "The soul that sinneth, it shall die." (Ezek 18:4) However he says that God relaxed that rule. Thus, if He had wanted to, He could simply have forgiven sinners. Instead God chose to demonstrate His authority by using the death of Christ as a public example of the depth of sin, and the lengths to which God would go to uphold the moral order of the universe.
There are no supporting Scriptures for any of this. To suggest that God was free to forgive without the Cross, is VERY dishonouring! It presents God as some sort of MONSTER who unnecessarily required His sinless Son to die that terrible criminal's death, merely to reinforce a technical legal principle about who is "boss" in the universe!
The most popular current evangelical view of the Atonement says that God punished Jesus to appease His alleged wrath against us.
In many cases this sadly mistaken view of God is accompanied by a theory of "Substitutionary Righteousness", which says that "Jesus has done it all", and that there is nothing left for us to do. According to this theory, the righteous life of Jesus stands in place of any need for works on the part of the believer. Any discussion of "obedience" is arbitrarily rejected as "Legalism" and "Salvation By Works", and labelled as a denial of "salvation by faith and grace alone".
The Scriptures tell us over and over again, that it was not wrath, but love, that moved God to give His Son to save us from our sins. It is simply not true that God needed to be placated. Rather it is our attitude towards God that needs to be changed.
Further God does not punish anyone for the sins of another. (Exod 32:33; Ezek 18:3) There is however a vast difference between that unworthy view of God, and what actually happened when God and His Son loved us so much that they worked together, to ransom us from the penalty due to us.
As to "substitutionary obedience" the Apostle John says: "let no one deceive you. He who does right is righteous". (1 John 3:7) And subject to the proviso that "blood sacrifice" is also necessary, (Heb 9:22) there is no such thing as forgiveness without genuine life changing "Repentance".
When you think about it, the theory which says that the righteous deeds of Jesus, can stand in place of the evil deeds of sinners, is in fact not so very far removed from the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory. In this doctrine, the "surplus" good works of dead so called saints, can be used to cancel out the unrepented and unforgiven misdeeds of Church members, who die in good standing with the Church, but are nevertheless suffering awful torment in an intermediate state between death and heaven!

The most serious mistake of this theory is that it ignores the many Bible references which do call for a VERY high standard of works from those who believe. Faith, says James, that does not produce works, is not real faith at all. (James 2:18-26)


This theory appears to be unique to the several mutually exclusive groups of Christadelphians, amongst whom significant divergences in detail have been the source of a number of major divisions.
On the good side of things, the Christadelphians reject the theory that the death of Jesus satisfied God's "honour" and appeased his wrath against sinners, in order to change His attitude towards us.
The downside is that what they have managed to put in its place, is a most unsatisfying explanation which says that the death of Jesus was primarily to save Himself by exchanging His mortal body for an immortal one!
One extreme "version" has it that Jesus died to save Himself from a "defiled" and "sin prone nature", inherited from Adam, and so obnoxious in the sight of God, that it had to be deliberately put aside by nothing less than that awful "criminal's death" on the cross. In the most extreme variation which I personally encountered amongst them, Jesus was said to have deserved the cross because of his alleged defiled nature -- which sooner or later, it was claimed, would inevitably have led Him to sin! How truly MONSTROUS it is to say of the "Holy, Harmless, Undefiled" Jesus, (Heb 7:26) that he was in any way, or at any time, "defiled" and "obnoxious" in the sight of God, through mere possession of the nature He was born with! And yet it is claimed that this interpretation, is somehow supposed to "honour" God"!

In another much less extreme version, it is recognised that the use of words like "defiled", about Jesus is not acceptable. How could that be true of the sinless son of God? However, in rejecting "substitution" of any sort, the rather meaningless statement is offered, that Jesus died "for us or on account of us, but not instead of us". Nevertheless, the word "us" is passed over, in order to emphasise that somehow the death of Jesus was primarily for Himself, required of Him as an act of obedience to deliver Himself from "mortality". Had He not submitted, He would have been regarded as disobedient and therefore lost, along with the rest of us.

To be fair, there is today a significant number of the younger generation, who besides admitting that it is most inappropriate to use words like "defiled" about Jesus, are also prepared to endorse the view that the great weight of the Scriptures says that it was ALL FOR US, and that without our need, Jesus would not have been there on the Cross! Nevertheless, the other older views are still held by those "in authority", and the official Basis of Fellowship still retains the offensive words, "defiled" and "condemned nature", and places the major emphasis on the death of Christ as an offering "for himself" to escape from His mortality. The "Doctrines to be Rejected" section, insists that to be in fellowship, one must reject the teaching "that there is no sin in the flesh". (which is defined elsewhere in the writings of the author of that document as something within human nature that results in " our native tendency to disobedience, and our native inability to conform " !)

The third major opinion amongst Christadelphians is the "Socinian" version discussed below.


In the Scriptures the death of Jesus is NOWHERE described as a sacrifice FOR HIMSELF! In fact Daniel 9:26 says clearly that when Jesus was "cut off", it was NOT for Himself. Where is the justice in requiring that terrible Criminal's death of a totally innocent man, primarily to rid Himself of His mortal body? For those who truly know Him, God is not like that at all.
It is significant that amongst those who profess belief in these things, few know with any real assurance that their sins are forgiven, and will never again be remembered against them. (Ezek 33:16) Many remain in fear of the judgement, expressing the rather forlorn and wishful "hope" that if they "get lucky" on Judgement Day, God might somehow exercise a "mercy" they do not really expect!
(Almost Identical with "Clean Flesh" Christadelphians)
Personally I did not even know of the existence of the Racovian Catechism of the Polish Brethren until about 10 years ago. However now that I have my own copy of this remarkable 16th century document, I can recognise the considerable contribution it has made to the faith of my Christadelphian "clean flesh" spiritual ancestors.
I am grateful to them for faithfully upholding the truth, and opening my eyes to see that the Scriptures do NOT support the Roman Catholic doctrine of "original sin", (or anything like it amongst the thinly disguised Protestant alternatives), in human nature, before or after the fall. And of course this leads inevitably to the conclusion that there is nothing in our common human nature now, which might prevent us from exercising a freewill choice to obey God. Men are not condemned or punished for Adam's sin, but for their own.
The Socinian view also rejects the death of Christ on the cross as in any way, a "blood sacrifice" or "ransom payment" to purchase salvation or pay the penalty of sin. It says instead, that the sacrificial offering of Jesus was the whole of His 33 years of obedient life, -- not just His death on the cross. And it insists that if a "ransom payment" is required, it cannot with truth be said that God freely forgives the sinner's debt.
In some mysterious way, (which is not adequately explained), Christ's lifelong obedience, "even to death on the cross", (Phillip 2:8) has been made the ground for forgiveness and remission from the penalty of sins.

The Socinians also said that the death of Christ was in some measure part of the fulfilment of his prophetic office, in that it somehow communicated God's will to human kind and sought our response through it.


This Socinian theory, successfully rejects "original sin". It also refutes Orthodox Mainstream substitutionary teaching, in which an angry God vents His wrath on Jesus, until He is "propitiated", and His attitude towards us is thereby changed. It recognises that God is not like that at all. It was our attitude that needed changing -- NOT God's! And in those aspects one can find a great deal of Bible truth.
However, by teaching that God forgives sin without the need for a blood sacrifice, it neglects to come to grips with those Scriptures which say plainly that there is no forgiveness of sin without a blood sacrifice. (Heb 9:22)
Further, it fails to distinguish between the perfect life of Jesus, and His sacrificial DEATH. It was His sinless life which qualified Him to pay the "Ransom for many", through the offering of a "blood sacrifice". We must not confuse the two, lest we detract from the importance of either.
If you want to know more beyond the brief descriptions given above, you can do your own research by wading through some of the countless thousands of pages of technical "Religious Rhetoric"! To be frank, I think much of it is the sort of thing that Peter and Jude meant by " great swelling words" ! (2 Pet 2:18; Jude 1:16, KJV)
The problem with most of these, is that they concentrate rather too much on how the theory works ! -- at the expense of the Biblical emphasis on what is meant to be the end result !!
The simple bottom line is this question.
Has what we believe about the Atonement reconciled us with God? Has it caused us to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength? Has it caused us to love our neighbour as ourself? And has it caused us to pursue the ultimate goal of a completely holy character and lifestyle, modelled on that of Jesus?

If it has not achieved THAT for us, we have neither understood nor believed the Scriptural Doctrine of Atonement!


This is one of a series of papers on this topic. It should be read in company with:

HM#113 - What Do You Mean -- Atonement?
HM#114a - Theories Of The Atonement - Part1 - Faulty Foundations - A Barrier to Understanding.