Christians affirm that through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God forgives sinful human beings and restores them to right relationship with himself. However, when asked to explain exactly how this atonement occurred, they have offered a variety of theories. A gracEmail subscriber requests more detail concerning these different explanations.
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New Testament writers do not try to explain the inner workings of God’s accomplishments in Jesus. Instead, they tell the story of Jesus and call attention to the blessings, obligations and warnings that flow from it. Along the way, they employ a variety of metaphors that suggest numerous ways to think about what God has accomplished through Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. Each metaphor reveals some truth. No one of them tells all the truth. And even when we have considered all the metaphors that the Scriptures suggest, we must still live with mystery.
Through the centuries, Christian thinkers have reflected on the various biblical metaphors in an attempt to explain how Jesus actually set sinners right with God. In the Western church (Roman Catholic and Protestant), this reflection has resulted in five major theories of the atonement. These are commonly known as the ransom theory, the satisfaction theory, the moral influence theory, the Christus Victor theory and the penal substitution theory.
Ransom. This explanation is attributed to Origen of Alexandria, a second-century, Greek-speaking Egyptian who shaped Christian thinking in many areas. According to a common version of the ransom theory, Jesus’ death was the price that “ransomed” or bought back the human race from Satan, who had taken ownership of all people when Adam and Eve first sinned in the Garden. Jesus then tricked Satan by rising from the dead, leaving him with nothing to show for his efforts. Jesus himself speaks of his own approaching death as a ransom (Mark 10:45). However, neither Jesus nor any New Testament writer suggests that Satan owned humankind (although he controlled it through deception and fear). Nor does the Bible teach that God owes Satan anything or that God paid the death of Jesus to the devil as the price to redeem humankind from his clutches. Nevertheless, the ransom theory was very popular for about 1,000 years.
Satisfaction. This theory was popularized in the 12th century by Anselm of Canterbury in England. It reflected the thinking of the feudal society of the Middle Ages, which demanded “satisfaction” for any offense against the honor of someone higher in society than the offender. Anselm reasoned that God occupies the highest position in the universe and that human sin offended God’s honor to an infinite degree. To avoid the necessity of God punishing the sinner, Jesus (being God-man, of infinite honor) vindicated God’s honor by offering himself to death. The Bible does present God as infinite in position and honor, and it says that God was satisfied with the Messiah’s death (Isa. 53:11). However, it does not develop the idea of the atonement in terms of feudalistic “honor” and “satisfaction.”