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Theories on the Atonement

The word “atonement” is simply an old English term for at-one-ment and the theories of the atonement ask the question about how the death of Jesus makes humans right with God. Since Paul and the rest of the New Testament authors left later theologians with a variety of images for how Jesus’ death works, there have been different attempts to integrate all of the New Testament data into a total systematic theology. Here are some of the proposals:

  • Christus Victor (cf. Gustaf Aulén): Jesus’ death was a cosmic victory over the powers of darkness and death and liberates humanity from their control. In the Patristic and Medieval eras, this developed into the view that the death of Christ was a ransom paid to devil in order to release the devil’s captives. The spiritual forces of death, however, could not keep hold of Jesus and were defeated at Jesus’ resurrection.
  • Recapitulation/Participation (Irenaeus of Lyons): Jesus becomes fully incarnate, taking on our fallen human nature from birth to death and reverses the effects of death by his resurrection. By united ourselves with Christ, we die to our old way of life and are raised to become a new creation being conformed to the divine image (cf. the symbolism of baptism in Romans 6:1-11 and 2 Corinthians 5:14-15)
  • Satisfaction (Anselm of Canterbury): in a feudal political arrangement, land was given in exchange for honor and service. God is the ultimate lord who should be exalted and served, but rebellion is an affront to God’s honor. Christ’s obedience to the point of death pays back the honor that is due to the divine sovereign as a form of compensation and the merits of Christ can be attained by believers.
  • Penal Substitution (John Calvin): humanity stands guilty of breaking God’s law before the divine court and should be condemned at the final judgment, but Jesus takes the punishment in our place. The “Govermental Theory” is a variation on this model in that Jesus is not so much taking the punishment that is due sinners as demonstrating God’s just wrath against sin itself.
  • Moral Influence (Peter Abelard): the cross does not objectively atone for sin or satisfy divine wrath, but subjectively moves humans to repentance in response to Jesus’ example. Jesus’ death exemplifies divine love, selfless service, or non-violent resistance against the powers and sets a model for his followers to follow.
  • Girardian Scapegoat (Rene Girard): mimetic rivalry turns people into rivals for the same object (i.e. I desire the same thing that you desire) and leads to conflict over it. To prevent violence from spiraling out of control, society redirects the violence towards a third party (i.e. scapegoat) so that social order is restored. Jesus’ is executed as a scapegoat and, as an innocent victim of society’s violence, exposes the injustice of the scapegoat mechanism.
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