19 June 2023
There are several theories regarding what Jesus accomplished on the cross that have been put forth in Christian thought. Two of the earliest are called the Moral Influence and Ransom theories. Both these theories were accepted by Augustine in the 4th century.
The Ransom theory proposed earlier by Origen held that Jesus died as a ransom sacrifice paid either to Satan (which was the dominant view) or to God the Father. Robin Collins (Understanding Atonement) explains the Ransom theory in this way.
“Essentially, this theory claimed that Adam and Eve sold humanity over to the Devil at the time of the Fall; hence, justice required that God pay the Devil a ransom to free us from the Devil’s clutches. God, however, tricked the Devil into accepting Christ’s death as a ransom, for the Devil did not realize that Christ could not be held in the bonds of death. Once the Devil accepted Christ’s death as a ransom, this theory concluded, justice was satisfied and God was able to free us from Satan’s grip.”
The Moral Example theory (propagated famously by Abelard in the 12th century) views the cross as God’s means to change humankind as they consider Christ as providing a moral example of a life that is lived in obedience to God and in love. The Holy Spirit is given to provide the spiritual power to effect such moral change in humans.
They are to view not only Christ’s death on the cross, which is connected with His saving work, but also His entire life, His teachings, motives and actions that serve to inspire them to live as He did.
A third theory, that of Christus Victor (Christ as Victor over the powers of evil), has also been a dominant theory since the early days of the church. Gustaf Aulen in 1931 argued that this theory has been the most consistent theory in the history of the church until the 12th century when Anselm came up with his Satisfaction theory.
Aulen writes that “the work of Christ is first and foremost a victory over the powers which hold mankind in bondage: sin, death, and the devil.”
In the 12th century, as a reaction to the dominance of the Ransom Theory, Anselm of Canterbury argued in his Cur Deus Homo (Why God Became Man) that God did not owe Satan anything. Instead, the death of Christ is the satisfaction of the justice of God. Sin is an injustice against God, and God’s sense of justice, which belongs to His character, needed to be satisfied, and this is what happened at the cross.
The reformers in the 16th century, especially Luther and Calvin, adapted Anselm’s theory to propose the Penal-Substitution theory. They took a forensic view and held that Jesus was punished (the penal aspect) by taking humankind’s place (the substitution aspect). He accepted the punishment for our sins and bore the wrath of God against sin. This view has become the dominant one among evangelicals today.
Support for each of these views can be found in Scripture. For example, Mark 10:45 (“For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many”) and Hebrews 9:15 (“he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant.”) can be used to support the Ransom theory.
The Moral Example theory can find support in 1 Peter 2:21 – “To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.” We note here that Christ not only suffered for us, but also is the example for us.
Scripture passages such as Colossians 2:15 (“And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.”) and Hebrews 2:14 (“Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil”) can be used to support the Christus Victor theory.
Passages such as Romans 3:25 (“God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood —to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished”) and Hebrews 9:28 (“Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many”), and 1 John 2:2 (“He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world”) speak in support of the Satisfaction and Penal Substitution theories.
It can thus be argued that the atonement is a single event but with multifaceted significance. Depending on our theological emphases, we may be drawn primarily to one of these views. The evangelicals like the Penal Substitution theory while the more liberal wing of the church prefers the Moral Example theory. The Pentecostals and charismatics like the Christus Victor theory.
In reality, depending on our favoured theory of atonement, we may have to find good balance by recovering other theories that the church had considered in history. For evangelicals, it would be helpful to rediscover the implications of the cross and the sufferings of Christ as a model for Christian living, as John Stott has tried to do in his The Cross of Christ.
C.S. Lewis, in discussing various theories of atonement, expresses difficulty in understanding and accepting the Penal Substitution theory, at least initially. He was a man of his modern times and suggests that we can set aside any of the theories aside if they cause difficulties and lay hold of those that make sense. For him, the cross works, even though we may struggle to understand its full implications.
This raises some practical questions. How do we present the gospel? How is one converted and come to a saving knowledge of Christ? If the salvation experience is like a house, how many doors are there in this house? If it is only one, then which of the atonement theories does it represent?
In reality, if we were to talk to Christians, their experience might suggest that there are several doors. The truth that Christ paid the penalty for our sins and was substituted on the cross for us remains a big and visible door.
But there are also other doors – an example is that the death of Christ overcame the power and influence of the devil. This might make better sense to some people who fear evil and feel trapped in it. There is also a door that represents the moral example of Christ.
But this door may not always be a door. Mahatma Gandhi was deeply influenced by the teachings and example of Christ and tried imitating Christ. But when he fell to the ground after being fatally shot, he uttered a name other than that of Christ. It appeared that while Christ was his Example, He was not accepted as his Saviour and Lord.
A person may enter the house of salvation through a particular door, but having entered, he needs to notice the other doors and gain a deeper sense of what Christ has achieved on the cross. In this sense, the moral example theory may not be a door but more a window as it may not lead one to a genuine experience of conversion but helps a Christian grow in discipleship.
It is helpful to think through the meaning and implications of the cross, and to let our reflections influence our evangelism and disciple-making.