Theories of the Atonement
by Leon Morris
Throughout the Bible the central question is,
"How can sinful man ever be accepted by a holy God?"
The Bible takes sin seriously, much more seriously than do
the other literatures that have come down to us from antiquity.
It sees sin as a barrier separating man from God (Isa. 59:2),
a barrier that man was able to erect but is quite unable to
demolish. But the truth on which the Bible insists is that
God has dealt with the problem. He has made the way whereby
sinners may find pardon, God's enemies may find peace. Salvation
is never seen as a human achievement. In the OT sacrifice
has a large place, but it avails not because of any merit
it has of itself (cf. Heb. 10:4), but because God has given
it as the way (Lev. 17:11). In the NT the cross plainly occupies
the central place, and it is insisted upon in season and out
of season that this is God's way of bringing salvation. There
are many ways of bringing this out. The NT writers do not
repeat a stereotyped story. Each writes from his own perspective.
But each shows that it is the death of Christ and not any
human achievement that brings salvation.
But none of them sets out a theory of atonement.
There are many references to the effectiveness of Christ's
atoning work, and we are not lacking in information about
its many - sidedness. Thus Paul gives a good deal of emphasis
to the atonement as a process of justification, and he uses
such concepts as redemption, propitiation, and reconciliation.
Sometimes we read of the cross as a victory or as an example.
It is the sacrifice that makes a new covenant, or simply a
sacrifice. There are many ways of viewing it. We are left
in no doubt about its efficacy and its complexity. View the
human spiritual problem as you will, and the cross meets the
need. But the NT does not say how it does so.
Through the centuries there have been continuing
efforts to work out how this was accomplished. Theories of
the atonement are legion as men in different countries and
in different ages have tried to bring together the varied
strands of scriptural teaching and to work them into a theory
that will help others to understand how God has worked to
bring us salvation. The way has been open for this kind of
venture, in part at least, because the church has never laid
down an official, orthodox view. In the early centuries there
were great controversies about the person of Christ and about
the nature of the Trinity. Heresies appeared, were thoroughly
discussed, and were disowned. In the end the church accepted
the formula of Chalcedon as the standard expression of the
orthodox faith. But there was no equivalent with the atonement.
People simply held to the satisfying truth that Christ saved
them by way of the cross and did not argue about how this
salvation was effected.
Thus there was no standard formula like the
Chalcedonian statement, and this left men to pursue their
quest for a satisfying theory in their own way. To this day
no one theory of the atonement has ever won universal acceptance.
This should not lead us to abandon the task. Every theory
helps us understand a little more of what the cross means
and, in any case, we are bidden to give a reason of the hope
that is in us (1 Pet. 3:15). Theories of the atonement attempt
to do just that.
It would be impossible to deal with all the
theories of the atonement that have been formulated, but we
might well notice that most can be brought under one or the
other of three heads: those which see the essence of the matter
as the effect of the cross on the believer; those which see
it as a victory of some sort; and those which emphasize the
Godward aspect. Some prefer a twofold classification, seeing
subjective theories as those which emphasize the effect on
the believer, in distinction from objective theories which
put the stress on what the atonement achieves quite outside
The Subjective View or Moral Influence
Some form of the subjective or moral view is
held widely today, especially among scholars of the liberal
school. In all its variations this theory emphasizes the importance
of the effect of Christ's cross on the sinner. The view is
generally attributed to Abelard, who emphasized the love of
God, and is sometimes called the moral influence theory, or
exemplarism. When we look at the cross we see the greatness
of the divine love. this delivers us from fear and kindles
in us an answering love. We respond to love with love and
no longer live in selfishness and sin. Other ways of putting
it include the view that the sight of the selfless Christ
dying for sinners moves us to repentance and faith. If God
will do all that for us, we say, then we ought not to continue
in sin. So we repent and turn from it and are saved by becoming
The thrust in all this is on personal experience.
The atonement, seen in this way, has no effect outside the
believer. It is real in the person's experience and nowhere
else. This view has been defended in recent times by Hastings
Rashdall in The Idea of Atonement (1919).
It should be said in the first instance that
there is truth in this theory. Taken by itself it is inadequate,
but it is not untrue. It is important that we respond to the
love of Christ seen on the cross, that we recognize the compelling
force of his example.
Probably the best known and best loved hymn
on the passion in modern times is "When I Survey the
Wondrous Cross," a hymn that sets forth nothing but the
moral view. Every line of it emphasizes the effect on the
observer of surveying the wondrous cross. It strikes home
with force. What it says is both true and important. It is
when it is claimed that this is all that the atonement means
that we must reject it. Taken in this way it is open to serious
criticism. If Christ was not actually doing something by his
death, then we are confronted with a piece of showmanship,
nothing more. Someone once said that if he were in a rushing
river and someone jumped in to save him, and in the process
lost his life, he could recognize the love and sacrifice involved.
But if he was sitting safely on the land and someone jumped
into the torrent to show his love, he could see no point in
it and only lament the senseless act. Unless the death of
Christ really does something, it is not in fact a demonstration
The Atonement as Victory
In the early church there seems to have been
little attention given to the way atonement works, but when
the question was faced, as often as not the answer came in
terms of the NT references to redemption. Because of their
sin people rightly belong to Satan, the fathers reasoned.
But God offered his son as a ransom, a bargain the evil one
eagerly accepted. When, however, Satan got Christ down into
hell he found that he could not hold him. On the third day
Christ rose triumphant and left Satan without either his original
prisoners or the ransom he had accepted in their stead. It
did not need a profound intellect to see that God must have
foreseen this, but the thought that God deceived the devil
did not worry the fathers. than Satan as well as stronger.
They even worked out illustrations like a fishing trip: The
flesh of Jesus was the bait, the deity the fishhook. Satan
swallowed the hook along with the bait and was transfixed.
This view has been variously called the devil ransom theory,
the classical theory, or the fishhook theory of the atonement.
This kind of metaphor delighted some of the fathers, but after
Anselm subjected it to criticism it faded from view. It was
not until quite recent times that Gustaf Aulen with his Christus
Victor showed that behind the grotesque metaphors there is
an important truth. In the end Christ's atoning work means
victory. The devil and all the hosts of evil are defeated.
Sin is conquered. Though this has not always been worked into
set theories, it has always been there in our Easter hymns.
It forms an important element in Christian devotion and it
points to a reality which Christians must not lose.
This view must be treated with some care else
we will finish up by saying that God saves simply because
he is strong, in other words, in the end might is right. This
is an impossible conclusion for anyone who takes the Bible
seriously. We are warned that this view, of itself, is not
adequate. But combined with other views it must find a place
in any finally satisfying theory. It is important that Christ
Anselm's Satisfaction Theory
In the eleventh century Anselm, Archbishop of
Canterbury, produced a little book called Cur Deus Homo? ("Why
did God become Man?"). In it he subjected the patristic
view of a ransom paid to Satan to severe criticism. He saw
sin as dishonoring the majesty of God. Now a sovereign may
well be ready in his private capacity to forgive an insult
or an injury, but because he is a sovereign he cannot. The
state has been dishonored in its head. Appropriate satisfaction
must be offered. God is the sovereign Ruler of all, and it
is not proper for God to remit any irregularity in his kingdom.
Anselm argued that the insult sin has given to God is so great
that only one who is God can provide satisfaction. But it
was done by one who is man, so only man should do so. Thus
he concluded that one who is both God and man is needed.
Anselm's treatment of the theme raised the
discussion to a much higher plane than it had occupied in
previous discussions. Most agree, however, that the demonstration
is not conclusive. In the end Anselm makes God too much like
a king whose dignity has been affronted. He overlooked the
fact that a sovereign may be clement and forgiving without
doing harm to his kingdom. A further defect in his view is
that Anselm found no necessary connection between Christ's
death and the salvation of sinners. Christ merited a great
reward because he died when he had no need to (for he had
no sin). But he could not receive a reward, for he had everything.
To whom then could he more fittingly assign his reward then
to those for whom he had died? This makes it more or less
a matter of chance that sinners be saved. Not very many these
days are prepared to go along with Anselm. But at least he
took a very serious view of sin, and it is agreed that without
this there will be no satisfactory view.
The Reformers agreed with Anselm that sin is
a very serious matter, but they saw it as a breaking of God's
law rather than as an insult to God's honor. The moral law,
they held, is not to be taken lightly. "The wages of
sin is death" (Rom. 6:23), and it is this that is the
problem for sinful man. They took seriously the scriptural
teachings about the wrath of God and those that referred to
the curse under which sinners lay. It seemed clear to them
that the essence of Christ's saving work consisted in his
taking the sinner's place. In our stead Christ endured the
death that is the wages of sin. He bore the curse that we
sinners should have borne (Gal. 3:13). The Reformers did not
hesitate to speak of Christ as having borne our punishment
or as having appeased the wrath of God in our place.
Such views have been widely criticized. In
particular it is pointed out that sin is not an external matter
to be transferred easily from one person to another and that,
while some forms of penalty are transferable (the payment
of a fine), others are not (imprisonment, capital punishment).
It is urged that this theory sets Christ in opposition to
the Father so that it maximizes the love of Christ and minimizes
that of the Father. Such criticisms may be valid against some
of the ways in which the theory is stated, but they do not
shake its essential basis. They overlook the fact that there
is a double identification: Christ is one with sinners (the
saved are "in" Christ, Rom. 8:1) and he is one with
the Father (he and the Father are one, John 10:30; "God
was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself," 2 Cor.
5:19). They also overlook the fact that there is much in the
NT that supports the theory. It is special pleading to deny
that Paul, for example, puts forward this view. It may need
to be carefully stated, but this view still says something
important about the way Christ won our salvation.
There is much about sacrifice in the OT and
not a little in the NT. Some insist that it is this that gives
us the key to understanding the atonement. It is certainly
true that the Bible regards Christ's saving act as a sacrifice,
and this must enter into any satisfying theory. But unless
it is supplemented, it is an explanation that does not explain.
The moral view or penal substitution may be right or wrong,
but at least they are intelligible. But how does sacrifice
save? The answer is not obvious.
Hugo Grotius argued that Christ did not bear
our punishment but suffered as a penal example whereby the
law was honored while sinners were pardoned. His view is called
"governmental" because Grotius envisions God as
a ruler or a head of government who passed a law, in this
instance, "The soul that sinneth, it shall die."
Because God did not want sinners to die, he relaxed that rule
and accepted the death of Christ instead. He could have simply
forgiven mankind had he wanted to, but that would not have
had any value for society. The death of Christ was a public
example of the depth of sin and the lengths to which God would
go to uphold the moral order of the universe. This view is
expounded in great detail in Defensio fidei catholicae de
satisfactione Christi adversus F. Socinum (1636).
All the above views, in their own way, recognize
that the atonement is vast and deep. There is nothing quite
like it, and it must be understood in its own light. The plight
of sinful man is disastrous, for the NT sees the sinner as
lost, as suffering hell, as perishing, as cast into outer
darkness, and more. An atonement that rectifies all this must
necessarily be complex. So we need all the vivid concepts:
redemption, propitiation, justification, and all the rest.
And we need all the theories. Each draws attention to an important
aspect of our salvation and we dare not surrender any. But
we are small minded sinners and the atonement is great and
vast. We should not expect that our theories will ever explain
it fully. Even when we put them all together, we will no more
than begin to comprehend a little of the vastness of God's
(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)