The Death of Socrates

The Death of Socrates

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Theories of the Atonement

In this note, I present a number of partial views of the Atonement. Each has been proposed by some party or other as a complete rationale for the death of Christ; but it seems to me that all are inadequate, and that it is necessary to weave together a multi-threaded account, as I have just attempted to do, if full justice is to be done to this momentous divine act.

Christ offers an example of how we should live.{1} In dying for the love of sinners, He melts the hearts of those that understand the significance of His action, turning them in repentance towards the loving God who will go to any length to rescue them from their folly and wickedness.{2}

This is Peter Abelard’s rationalistic “Moral Influence Theory” of the Atonement.{3} It is true, so far as it goes, and has the advantage of fitting smoothly with the doctrine of Ezekiel{4} and Wisdom.{5} However, it suffers from the serious defect of making it seem as if nothing changed qualitatively as a result of Christ’s death and resurrection; which is not what either the Gospel writers or the Apostle Paul seem to believe.


Christ transforms human existence by revealing every aspect of our experience, including death, as being capable of perfection and apt for sanctification. In Jesus, God became fully what we should be, sharing completely in our every human experience;{6} so that we might become in turn what Jesus showed us was possible. By being united to human nature, God conveyed immortality to the entire human race;{7} Eternal Life spreading, like a benign infection, via the sacramental ministry of the Church.{8}
For He strove and conquered. He was as man contending on behalf of the Father and through obedience{9} cancelling the disobedience.{10} He bound the strong one and set free the weak and gave salvation to His handiwork by abolishing sin; for He is our most holy Lord, the merciful lover of the human race… Had He not as man overcome man’s adversary, the enemy would not have been justly overcome. Again, had it not been God who bestowed salvation we should not have it as a secure possession; and if man had not been united to God, man could not have become a partaker in immortality. For the mediator between God and man had to bring both parties into friendship and concord through his kinship with both; and to present man to God, and make God known to man… Therefore He passed through every stage of life, restoring to each age fellowship with God… The Law, being spiritual, merely displayed sin for what it is; it did not destroy it… He who was to destroy sin and redeem man from guilt had to enter into the very condition of man, who had been dragged into slavery and was held by death, in order that death might be slain by man, and man should go forth from the bondage of death. [Irenaeus (c 202 AD) “Adversus Haereses III xviii 6-7”]
This is Irenaeus’ “Recapitulation Theory” of the Atonement.{11} It implies that God and mankind were reconciled as a result of the Incarnation in general,{12} rather than specifically the crucifixion of Jesus – although His death is a crucial part of His life story. This has always been the view of the matter favoured by the Eastern Church.


There are three uses of  “redemption” in the Old Testament. The first is that of “buying back something which had been captured by an enemy or unwillingly forfeited in some legitimate but forced transaction”. The second is that of “exchanging something dear to man but which of rights belonged to God for something of less value or significance”.{13} The third is that of “rescue from danger”.

Christ’s teaching, life, death and resurrection gave the lie to the idea that wrongdoing can separate the soul from God’s benevolence. He took to Himself the enormity of human vice and injustice{14} (accepting the verdict of a show-trial and acquiescing in the death it meted out, “paying the price” demanded by our sin) and showed that it was of no consequence before the incomparably greater power of God’s love. Christ won victory over sin and death by proving that when these forces were given full reign to do their worst to Him they were powerless to constrain or frustrate His will. He descended into Sheol,{15} broke the bonds of the spirits that had been trapped there pending His triumph, and led them to paradise. He passes His victory on to us by His offer of divine communion and of sacramental sharing in His death and resurrection. This is the “Christus Vincit Theory” of the Atonement.

In Medieval times this theory was expressed in terms of Adam having sold himself and his descendants into slavery to Satan as a result of the Fall and Jesus paying a ransom to Satan in order to buy back humanity for God. There is, however, no scriptural justification for thinking that Christ “bought back” humanity from being in the thrall of any third party, other than the fear of death itself.{16} Saint Paul does make two passing references to a “price” being paid by God;{17} but he does not specify to whom it was paid. The epistle to the Hebrews refers to Christ’s death as “destroying” the Devil, but not of it being any price paid to him.{18}

Christ also redeems humanity in the sense that in becoming one of us God ratified the fact that we have our own legitimate autonomy and are worthy of divine respect, being taken seriously and being dealt with on our terms; even when we do not return the complement and fail to respect God and to deal with God on God’s terms. In this God demonstrates the implacable divine concern for justice and for dealing righteously with mankind. Christ, acting in His manhood, effectively bought-out God’s formal property rights over mankind, redeeming us from any residual slavish dependence upon God. In particular, Saint Paul tells us that Christ’s death redeemed us from the divine tutelage or pedagogy which was partly what the Torah represented.{19} This is the “Liberation Theory” of the Atonement.


Christ also acts as redeemer in an inverse sense. One way of another, God is responsible for the suffering that is characteristic of the world. Just as God is due some kind of apology from mankind for the contribution that humanity has made to the disharmony of the world, through greed, cruelty and conceit; so mankind is due some come-back from God for the fact that God has at least allowed so many people to suffer – sometimes terribly. All that God would have to do to avoid being held accountable “and paying the price” for these facts is to remain outside and aloof from the material creation. The divine nature is impassible and so is not susceptible to critique or correction, to punishment or pain. There is no possibility of penalising God. However, it is not equitable for a superior to require that an inferior or subordinate should suffer – for whatever reason – that which they are themselves not willing to suffer.

Now, no price{20} that God could pay the conscious beings of Creation so as to make recompense for their suffering would inconvenience – still less trouble or discomfort – God in the slightest, neither would any penalty exacted on God enable God to empathise with the plight of suffering mortals. Hence the need for the Incarnation: for God to enter into and experience our human reality first hand.

In our human reality, God has accepted due punishment from humanity for God’s responsibility as the Creator of a world of suffering. If any-one ever feels that “God is to blame” for the evil that pervades this world; if any-one ever feels that “God should be made to pay” for “turning a blind eye” to disease, disharmony and disasters; they need only look at a crucifix to see God “taking the rap” for this charge.

In our human reality, God has not avoided responsibility for the sufferings of the innocent and for the fact that the wicked often prosper and for the fact that the natural world is a dangerous and hostile place. Instead, God became one of us and was put on trial and was convicted and was crucified; though He was not arraigned on any reasonable charge, and the juridical process was entirely unjust.

In our human reality, God has experienced the kind of grave injustice which every day cries to heaven for vengeance: and God did nothing to mitigate the physiological and psychological suffering that resulted from this injustice. Instead, God suffered with us – God experienced compassion – in the agonies of Christ’s human soul and Sacred Heart.

This is the “Divine Compassion Theory” of the Atonement. It shares with the “Recapitulation Theory” the idea that it is crucial that Christ entered into our mod of life so that He could share our experiences. It shares with the “Christus Vincit Theory” the idea that Christ paid a price as a redeemer – but suggests that the price was paid to humanity, not to Satan.


Christ offered amends to God for human sin by His integrity of life, even to the point of death; which offering of complete conformity to justice, righteousness or “of obedience to God’s will”{21} was of superlative value and could more than compensate for any formal offence “of disobedience” against divine justice and so render any excuse for human shame absurd.{22}
For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous. [Rom 5:19 RSV]
Christ made this offering as a man and on behalf of humanity; yet the value of His act lies not so much in the perfection of the human nature in and by which the act was executed as in the participation of the divine person who acted. It was not necessary that Christ should die for the sins of humankind; for every single tear ever shed by the divine Messiah had infinite worth, and each one that fell individually served to adequately make up for all of human wickedness. God’s infinite love is shown in the fact that Jesus did not simply act in a manner which was sufficient to make up for and purge away (that is expiate) the offences of humanity, but rather acted in the most extravagant way possible.

This is Anselm’s “Restitution Theory” of the Atonement.{23} It has much to recommend it, but there is no solid Scriptural basis for believing it to be an exhaustive account of the matter. It was subsequently developed and promoted by Thomas Aquinas and so became the central thread of western Atonement doctrine. It is not popular in the Eastern Church, whose theologians view it as too legalistic in character and as placing too much emphasis on guilt, merit and suffering.


Anselm’s doctrine later became the basis of the Protestant theory of “Penal Substitution”. According to this account of the matter, God is somehow constrained by “justice” and a boundless “hatred of sin” to take revenge for sin to an infinite degree. However, in His love, He did not wish to punish humanity by sending us all to Hell for eternity. Hence, God determined to punish Jesus instead; substituting His Son in our place and venting His righteous wrath on the Messiah, punishing Him vicariously for our offences against the divine honour.

The main justification for such a view of the matter is the Old Testament text: “It was the will of the LORD to bruise him,”{24} and yet we are told only a little earlier that “we esteemed Him smitten by God and afflicted, but he was wounded for our transgressions”{25} – which suggests that it is wrong to think that God in any sense punished the Messiah for anything. Rather, the “will of the LORD” should here (as often in the Old Testament) be understood in a permissive way; such that it was in accordance with God’s purpose that the Messiah should be bruised, not that God set out with the objective of ensuring that this would happen as a precondition for the forgiveness of mankind’s sins.

The following New Testament texts can be quoted as secondary justifications for the Protestant doctrine.
For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. [Rom 8:3-4 RSV]

For our sake He made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.      [2Cor 5:21 RSV]

He himself bore our sins in His body on the tree,{26} that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By His wounds you have been healed.{27} [1Pet 2:24]
These texts are sometimes taken to mean that God punished Jesus, intentionally mistaking his “likeness of sinful flesh” for the real thing so that “the just requirement of the law” that sin ought to be punished could be fulfilled. However, they do not in fact present Jesus as being punished by anyone for anything. Moreover, even if Jesus had been punished by God this wouldn’t have satisfied any just and equitable requirement for sin to be punished, for two reasons.

First, it is not just for one party to be punished in the stead of another; except that one person may elect to pay a fine or make restitution for the offence of another – but this is not the issue here. Making restitution for an offence is not really punishment, it is rather the undoing of harm which has been done. Punishment is whatever penalty is imposed in addition to such restitution. Now in the case before us, no fine was payable and no restitution was made, other than in the sense that sin was in fact expiated; the harm of man’s alienation from God being somehow undone by Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. Rather, pain was inflicted and a life was forfeited – which is an entirely different matter.

Second, any punishment imposed on Jesus could only be finite. While it might well be thought infinitely offensive that God be killed in human form, and it is certainly of infinite significance that God should chose to accept, embrace and forgive this outrage; the actual suffering experienced by Jesus (in terms of the quantity and quality of the physical and emotional pain he endured) was strictly finite, being limited by the bounds of his human constitution. Hence, no punishment inflicted on Jesus could possibly satisfy the infinite wrath of a vengeful deity.

The texts actually speak of sin itself being condemned “in the flesh”; that is, by God’s initiative in becoming human and “sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin” “He made Him to be sin who knew no sin”{28} so that “He himself bore our sins”.{29} I understand this “condemnation” of sin to mean that sin’s power to enslave human nature was taken from it as a result of Jesus’ expiatory life, death and resurrection, with the result that those who “walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” are “healed” and enabled to fulfil “the just requirement of the law” and so “live to righteousness” by being “doers of the law”{30} and even “become the righteousness of God”.


Each of these accounts is inadequate (the last most especially so) and it is wise to affirm that the significance of Christ’s Life, Death and Resurrection is multifaceted. It serves as an example for our imitation; as a demonstration of what it means to be
fully human; as a template for our divinization; as a ratification of God’s commitment to Creation; as the means for God to identify with and experience the human condition; as the means for humanity to be redeemed from the vestiges of servile dependence upon God and as the rational and proportionate expiation for the frailties, failures and wickednesses of humanity.

Now that humanity is redeemed, the way is fully open for everyone to take advantage of the offer of salvation, healing and fellowship which God holds out to us in loving-kindness.

1. 1Pet 2:19-21.
2. Jn 12:32-33.
3. P. Abelard (1079-1142) “Expositio in Epistolam ad Romanos”.
4. Ezk 18:21-23.
5. Wis 11:23-12:2.
6. If God is to be omniscient it is necessary that God has knowledge of what suffering is and, arguably, has it from the perspective of one who has suffered. This is particularly true of the divine Messiah, if He is to act as bridge-builder between God and Man. [Heb 2:10; 4:12-5:9; 7:26-28 & Irenaeus “Adversus Haereses” II xxii 4]
7. Irenaeus (c 202) “Adversus Haereses” V i 2.
8. Mat 5:13; 13:33. Mk 9:50.
9. “He learned obedience through what he suffered.” [Heb 5:8 RSV]
10. Rom 5:19.
11. Irenaeus (c 202) “Adversus Haereses” III xvi 6, xviii 1, xviii 7, xx1 1, xxii 3; V xx 2–xxi 2.
12. Irenaeus (c 202) “Adversus Haereses” V xvii 1.
13. According to the Mosaic Law every first-born male child had to be redeemed. [Ex 13:13; 34:20. Num 16:15-18]
14. 2Cor 5:21. Gal 3:13. 1Pet 2:24; 3:18.
15. Eph 4:9-10, 1Pet 3:18-20.
16. Heb 2:15
17. 1Cor 6:20; 7:23.
18. Heb 2:14.
19. Rom 7:1-6; 8:2. Gal 4:1-5. The Mosaic norms such as circumcision, Sabbath observance and dietary regulations were provisional measures. They were designed to establish a robust cultural framework which would elicit both an awareness of the ideals of holiness and justice and a conviction of mankind’s inability to attain these desirable goals by their own effort; that is, a knowledge of sin. [Rom 7:7-23]
20. 1Cor 6:20, 7:23.
21. Rom 5:18-19. Heb 5:7-9; 10:5-10. Obedience to God’s will should never be servile, but flow from a rational appreciation of what is just and represent a willing conformance to this understanding.
22. Heb 9:9-14.
23. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) “Cur Deus Homo” Book I.
24. Is 53:10.
25. Is 53:4-5.
26. “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.” [Is 53:4]
27. “With his stripes we are healed.” [Is 53:4-5]
28. This is clearly impossible. “Sin” is a state of being and a person cannot be a state of being, as such. At most, their nature might be characterized by such a state. In Jesus’ case not even this is possible in any ordinary sense. I suggest that “sin” here means “separation from God” and that Jesus “became sin” in the sense of entering into that separation in the way that a bridge spans the gap between the two sides of a canyon. In a sense, the bridge becomes the gap while at the same time filling it and so eliminating it.
29. This could mean either bore the consequences of our sins, our “griefs and sorrows” as Isaiah puts it; or else bore human nature, which in us is compromised by concupiscence. [Rom 8:4]
30. Rom 2:13.

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