Most Christians can say, “Jesus died to save us from our sins,” but can’t really explain much more than that. How does it all work? How does one man’s death make people right with God? Why didn’t God work it all out some other way? This history of Christianity has involved quite a few different ideas about atonement. Atonement (literally, “at-one-ment,” or making things right) is at the heart of who Christ is. Different metaphors have been used to explain how it works, each one having to do with A) what we are being saved from, B) what we are being saved for, C) the influence of cultural perspectives on the interpretation of scripture. Here’s the Cliff’s Notes Version of Atonement Theories:
RECAPITULATION – 2nd c. Irenaeus of Lyons. Christ succeeds where Adam failed, the union of human & divine in Jesus leads us into eternal life and moral perfection.
THEOSIS – PARTICIPATION – Athanasius said, “God became man so that man can become God.” Salvation is “expiation,” Christ died not to appease God’s wrath but to defeat death, in order to transfigure sinners to become fully human as God intended (conformed to the image and mind of Christ). Focus is on our participation in God’s intention for good in creation. Still one of the strongest understandings of atonement for Eastern Christianity.
MORAL INFLUENCE – Jesus’ purpose was to bring positive moral change to humanity through his teachings and example, ultimately the inspiring effect of his crucifixion & resurrection. First emphasized by the church fathers, (Ignatius, Hippolytus, Clement, Origen, Irenaeus, Augustine) and later brought into light by Peter Abelard and Peter Lombard (in opposition to the Satisfaction theory below). Now appeals to more Liberal Protestants in opposition to Penal Substitution (which tends to appeal to Conservative Protestants).
RANSOM – Humanity was in bondage to Satan, and a price had to be paid to release us from that bondage. Jesus, the Son of God, died to pay that bondage. Satan took the bait and set us free, thinking he would eternally have God’s Son in his keep. But God PRANKED that suckah! Jesus is alive, stupid! First emphasized by the early church fathers, with different ideas about who the ransom was actually paid to (Gregory of Nyssa, Origen of Alexandria, Irenaues)
CHRISTUS VICTOR – Similar to Ransom theory, the death and resurrection of God’s Son is victory over the powers of sin, death, and the devil which hold humanity in bondage.
SATISFACTION – 11th c. Anselm of Canterbury (rejecting ransom theory). Not a ransom paid to the devil but a debt paid to God on behalf of sinful humans. Based on a feudal understanding of a debt owed from a serf against the honor of the Landlord. Sin against an infinite God can only be paid with an infinite price – the Son of God.
PENAL SUBSTITUTION – 16th c. John Calvin extended the Satisfaction theory focusing more on God’s sense of justice rather than God’s honor. Many reformers rejected the Moral Influence theory of atonement. Jesus died in our place, receiving our punishment to appease God’s wrath against sin. This remains the predominant understanding of atonement in evangelical and Reformed circles.
GOVERNMENTAL – (Hugo Grotius) Sin must be punished in order to keep moral order. Punishment for sin is meant to deter future sin. One person cannot actually bear punishment for someone else’s sins, therefore Jesus’ death is NOT substitutionary. God’s wrath against sin is displayed to humanity by the cross of Christ. Christ is not punished for us, but to show us that God takes sin seriously, and thus to create a system of faith and forgiveness, where we stop sinning because we see.
There is beauty in the tension of these theories. Your average Methodist in the pew will probably relate most to the Penal Substitution theory because that is the predominant evangelical Christian view of atonement. This would have also been John Wesley’s default understanding. However, John and Charles always emphasized the LOVE of God on full display in the atonement, and very rarely mentioned the wrath of God. Moral Influence and Participation atonement are very important to the Wesley’s and Methodism in addition, rounding out Christ’s work with the call for our response to live like Christ lived. This ultimately works out in Methodism to mean that we are incapable of right living apart from the saving work of Christ: Jesus sets us free FROM the power of sin and free FOR a life lived towards God’s glory.
I am a huge fan of MC Escher, and spent FOREVER trying to figure out the logistics on perspective in his brilliant image called “Relativity.” I ultimately couldn’t do the art the way he did, so I free-handed a lot of the picture.