Atonement Theology

Jesus dead off crossChristian Theologians had invented at least eight Atonement Theories. Atonement theories are theological speculation about what was accomplished by Jesus’ death and resurrection.  When I was a Christian I  believed the “Penal Substitutionary Theory” but at that time I did not know there were other theories.  But after leaving Christianity, I learn that there are many more flavors of Christianity than I ever imagined.

Your average Christians claims that the Bible is clear on the issue of salvation.  But isn’t it odd that each of the contradictory theories we made by very smart theologians  who also felt the Bible was clear on how salvation works?  You’d think this central doctrine in Christianity could have been resolved over 2000 years of theologizing.

Atheists may say,

“Why does it matter?  Christianity is false anyway, who cares about the various spins?”

Well, first, in rightful deference to Christians, what if the Christianity you reject is not the Christianity of the person you are talking to?   Second, even if all the atonement theologies are incorrect, some of these mistaken beliefs may be less harmful than others.  Thus if we acknowledge that some theories are better than others, such support may benefit some Christians (and the rest of us) if they embrace the more generous and psychologically healthy theories.  See “My Favorite Christians” for more on this.

Well, with that, I will outline the main theories below hoping it is useful in forming dialogues between Christians and Atheists.

First, here is a simple, summary list of 8 theories:

trait Theory Followers
O Moral Influence Theory
(Subjective Theory)
some Apostolic Fathers,
some Liberal Christians,
some Emergent Christians
?R Recapitulation Theory
O Ransom Theory Eastern Orthodox and early church
St, Aygystube
D Satisfaction Theory
(Objective Theory)
D Penal Substitutionary Theory Calvinistic Protestants: many Evangelicals
D Governmental Theory
(Rectoral theory) 
Arminian Protestants: Wesleyan churches, Church of Nazarene.
R Participatory Theory
R Mystical Theory  Mystical Christians

Each theory assumes a certain “Theory of Sin” which is labeled in the left column. Below is the key: (Source: The Participatory Model of the Atonement)

Theories of Sin

  • O = “Ontological” – sin is a feature of human nature–something we suffer from.
  • D = “Deontic” – sin is a failure to fulfill our moral obligations.  Immoral behavior, resulting in debt
  • R = “Relational” sin is the breaking or alienating of relationship


(1) Moral Influence Theory

  • Summary
    • Jesus’’s death was the ultimate example of self-sacrificing love and obedience which believers should emulate.
    • AKA: ?”Exemplary Theory”
  • Key Scriptures:  1 Peter: 2
  • Churches & Theologians
    • Held by various Apostolic Fathers 100-200 AD:
      Clement (?-99 CE), Hemas (~150 CE), Barnabas (1-60 ad)
    • Formalized by Peter Abelard (1079 -1142). “Expositio in Epistolam Ad Romanos”, later declared “heretic”.  A reaction against Anslem’s “objective” Satisfaction theory.
    • Pelagius (354-420 AD) – “heretic”
    • Liberal Theologians: Pierre Abelard, Paul Tillich
    • Quinn (2000, “Atonement”) ,
      McNaughton (1992, “Reparation and Atonement”)
    • Emergent Liberals (only some, see this post)
  • Criticisms
    • PST criticism: little more than a warmed over “good ol’ boys get in” mentality
    • A meaningless or trivial death cannot reveal love; it reveals nothing – except perhaps foolishness.
    • The exemplary model needs to be able to characterize Christ’s
      death as accomplishing something in and of itself, apart from its inspirational value.

(2) Recapitulation Theory

  • Summary
    • Jesus reclaimed (recapitulated) the perfect original human condition through his incarnation and successful living out the human life without sin.
    • AKA: Physical Theory, (? Mystical Theory)
  • Key Scriptures
    • Romans 5:18-21, 1 Cor. 15:22, Eph 1:10
  • Churches & Theologians
    • Irenaeus of Lyons (125-202 AD): arguing against Gnostics
    • I don’t think this theory is widely held any longer
  • Criticisms
    • PST Criticism: Misses the vicarious nature of Jesus’ death

(3) Ransom Theory

  • Summary
    • Jesus’s death was a ransom paid to the devil to free us from bondage to him.  Adam and Eve had sold themselves to Satan by their sin at the fall of man.
  • Key Scriptures
    • Mark 10:45 : “For even the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
    • 1 Tim 2:5-6:   “For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus; Who gave himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time.”
    • 1 Corinthians 6:19-20
  • Churches & Theologians
    • Most of Eastern Orthodox and almost entire early church until the medieval period.
    • Protestants too:  Kenneth Copeland, Kenneth Hagin, Benny Hinn, Robert Tilton, and others in the Word-faith Movement teach a modern-day variation of the Ransom Theory
    • Origen (185-254 AD) – first widely held atonement theory.  Contrary to Recapitulation Theory.
    • Augustine, Gregory the Great, Gregory of Nyssa
    • Gregory of Nyssa in the 300’s a.d.  Variation called “Christus Victor” Theory.
    • Gustav Aulen (1931) “Christus Victor”, is the major book on this position
    • C.S. Lewis: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
  • Criticisms
    • PST criticism: glorifies Satan as the one who was to be appeased for the wages of sin

(4) Satisfaction Theory

  • Summary
    • Sin is debt.  The debt is paid when Jesus’s perfect gives God the honor that the human race owes God.
    • AKA: Necessary Satisfaction Theory
  • Key Scriptures
    • Hebrews 9:22
  • Churches & Theologians
    • Catholics
    • Anselm (1033-1109):  Why God Became Man (Cur Deus Homo) : argued against Ransom Theory.  Says Ransom theory gives too much power to the devil.
  • Criticisms
    • ?

(5) Penal Substitutionary Theory (PST)

  • Summary
    • Sin is debt. Jesus’ punishment satisfied God’s demand for each individual’s punishment.
  • Key Scriptures
  • Churches & Theologians
    • Most common among Calvinistic Protestants
    • John Calvin (1509-1564): Modified Anslem’s Satifaction Theory to emphasize not God’s stolen glory but his need to punish sin.
  • Criticism
    • It is unjust to punish an innocent person in the place of a guilty one
    • Richard Swinburne’s:  “talk of law courts and punishment make the whole process too “mechanical” for a means of reconciliation that ought to be intimate and personal” (Responsibility and Atonement, 1989, p. 152)
    • Make God a petty tyrant:  Why can’t god just to decide to forgive us
    • Why is Man held accountable for what he can’t avoid doing (sin).
    • Creates disunity in the Trinity

(6) Governmental Theory

  • Summary
    • Jesus’ punishment stood in for the punishment of all humanity.
    • AKA: Rectoral Theory
  • Key Scriptures
  • Churches & Theologians
    • Most common among Arminian Protestants –  Wesleyans.  Reworking Calvin’s views.  Whereas our need for propitiation in Calvin’s view was calculated on an individual basis (Christ paid for the individual sins of each justified individual), both Anslem’s and Grotius’ versions have Jesus satisfying a more general divine dissatisfaction.
    • Hugo Grotius, see:
    • Charles Finney(1851), see Systematic Theology: Atonement
  • Criticism
    • Shares most of PST criticisms

(7) Participatory Theory

  • Summary
    • the atonement involves participating in the death and resurrection of Christ.
  • Key Scripture:  Rom 6: 4-11;  2 Cor 5:21; Rom 8:19-22; Col 1:15-20; Gal 2:19-20
  • Churches & Theologians
  • History
    • Relatively new
  • Notes:  Sorry, I have not read this yet.

(8) Mystical Theory

  • Summary
    • the atonement of Christ as a triumph over His own sinful nature through the power of the Holy Spirit.  God became man so man could become God ( attain “god-consciousness”).
  • Key Scriptures
    • Gal 2:20 : I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me, and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.  — Paul
    • Matt 9: 13:  Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice. — Jesus (quoting Hosea 6:6)
  • Churches & Theologians
    • Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834)
  • Criticisms
    • PST criticism: relegates God to one of the plethora of pagan gods of yore; being reached via essential practices rather than his own initiative which is accomplished by grace through faith.  Furthermore, most of these theories place robust emphasis on man’s role in salvation; asserting that Christ’s work on the cross provided a means for man to complete the work of redemption rather than Christ completing the work himself.


General Resources to date:


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

28 responses to “Atonement Theology

  1. eeeehh… a little off on some of these theories. can’t say they’re entirely accurate but due to the compressed nature of blogging, it’s understandable. i’ll have to post a response to this when i get a chance. i would also recommend look’n up Schleiermacher and Jürgen Moltmann as well as they provide two other views not listed that i hope to get into. Moltmann i would claim is the primary emergent model of atonement vs. moral example. AND i resist the Calvin labeling as well. that was later CALVINISTS but not calvin himself. BIG differents between the two.

    thanks for your probe’n into this field, it’s a big one, central to the faith that many overlook and just carry around an Augustinian idea. i’ll post more later! thanks for your time and effort!

  2. Boz

    OP said: “Atheists may say, “Why does it matter? Christianity is false anyway, who care about the various spins?” Well, first, in rightful deference to Christians, what if the Christianity you reject is not the real Christianity?”

    It is all well and good to reject blue-winged fairies. But yellow-winged fairies, they deserve serious consideration.

  3. @ Boz

    (1) Who is “OP”?

    (2) Fairly good paraphrase, but the example you choose doesn’t fully capture my meaning. I have written about this in other posts, but perhaps you missed it. I could be wrong, of course, but I think there is something deeper than beliefs — there is the way beliefs are used.

    Imagine two villages both raise their kids believing in fairies. One tells of mischievous ones with blue wings who hurt children when they walk alone or cause sickness or destroy things precious to us. But the other village tells their children of yellow-winged fairies which bring the spring every year, give us unexpected surprises occasionally and give us nice dreams. Which village would you want to live in? You have to choose. You can’t opt for the village of scientists that don’t believe in fairies — or not in this thought experiment.

  4. @ Luke

    I am sure my summaries are not accurate and so I look forward to input. As you can tell, I am just beginning to learn about these differences between these views. I had heard them all in various forms but never differentiated them in my head. I am trying to make a manageable list with simple categories for easy remembrance.

    Ken Pulliam does a detailed analysis of these theories. I am not a theologian or scholar but want to get a handle of some sort on these issues so as to discuss the larger theme which I am interested in. You might find Ken’s site interesting.

    BTW, what theory of salvation did Calvin have?

    Thank you for the other names, I will look into them.

  5. a cheaper text than Prof Pete’s might be “Christian Doctrine” by Shirley C. Guthrie. i’ll post what he has to say about atonement here shortly. you didn’t do a bad job at all, didn’t want to imply that, but the theories are very nuanced and easy to mis-identify the meaning. I would actually say that Calvin is closer to the governmental model than his later adherents are. more on that later!

  6. @ Luke
    I found Moltmann readings here on-line. Any short ones you recommend to read his view on atonement?

    So if you don’t think Calvin is responsible for the PST version, who is? I’ll need more evidence. Maybe I will await your post.

    Now, something I think interesting is the interaction of the theory and the believer. Does it matter what a believer, believes? Does a relationship with Jesus change depending on one’s view of this doctrine? Is it equally effective no matter which view? Ah, but perhaps we should wait for a nother post dedicated to that issue.

  7. oh, those readings are very good. i enjoy moltmann a great deal.

    i think Calvinists are responsible, not Calvin himself. council of dort and later.

    “Does it matter what a believer, believes? Does a relationship with Jesus change depending on one’s view of this doctrine?”

    i’ve been struggle’n with this. i know “toxic beliefs” when i hear and see ’em but there are beliefs i don’t agree with theologically that really help others… beliefs like ‘healing prayer for miraculous healing’ i think are counter-productive. i think the relationship changes based on the personal relationship to christ, not the doctrine. i acknowledge that if you and i were brothers, we wouldn’t have the same relationship with our parents due to many things like birth order, circumstance, age, personalities, etc. same thing with faith.

    these are tough questions… some i need to spend more time thinking about.

  8. Boz

    OP is “opening Post” or “Original Post”

    About your thought experiment, I can’t really tell the difference. One group would curse the fairies when bad things happen, and the other would thank them when good things happen. What are the consequences of these two stances? I can’t really tell, it is too uncertain. On the information you have given, I have no preference for either village.

    “Well, first, in rightful deference to Christians, what if the Christianity you reject is not the real Christianity”

    In relation to christianity, I reject the ressurection, the existence of the deity, any actions ascribed to the deity, the creation of humans and our environment, the miracle stories, the idea of sin, heaven, hell, angels. I reject all of these things because they have no evidence.

    Now, if the “Real Christianity” avoids all of these things I listed, then there is no sect that I know of ascribes to “Real Christianity”.

  9. @ Boz — sorry, I failed to get my point across. I think I understand yours. Thank you.

  10. @ Luke — you said, “i know “toxic beliefs” when i hear and see ‘em”
    I do think you have a very good intuition for those !

  11. There seems to be a lot of room for overlap. Coming into this, I expected more of a lineup of competing theories, such as the idea that you can lose your salvation versus being saved for life.

    That said, the church I went to took all of those as basic tenets of Jesus’ crucifixion. They read like bullet points of some of the sermons, pretty much in that order as well. In fact, the “God became man so that man could become God” was basically the pinnacle and central focus of their theology, with all those previous points serving those ends.

  12. Hey Janus ! I messed with the idea of preservation of the saints here at this post “Am I still saved?” but no large list of the options. But you may enjoy.

    I agree, about most Christian churches mixing these. Heck, I don’t think Paul even pretended to be a systematic theologian and besides, all the epistles signed “Paul” were not Paul’s. Further, the writers of the NT probably disagreed or had mixed notions of atonement.

    Many Christians think the Holy Spirit guided the writing of the whole Bible and thus it ought to be able to be explored successfully with systematic thinking. Indeed, this assumption is wrong. The writers had different theologies and even then, they probably weren’t aiming at consistency as much as they were aiming at effect.

  13. Theodore A. Jones

    “It is NOT those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who OBEY the law who will be declared righteous.” Rom. 2:13. What is this law he is talking about?

  14. Pingback: Make’n Me-self Known « The Dread Pirate Scetis

  15. Pingback: Theories of Atonement | Unreasonable Faith

  16. GBM

    @ Boz

    I think the point is more like “If you want to avoid strawmanning your opponents, make sure that (1) your refutation of fairies does not turn on the blue winged nature of fairies, or (2) that you have refutations of green, yellow, purple, and red winged theories in your back pocket when entering an argument with a fairy-believer.”

  17. Theodore A. Jones

    Contemporary “Christians” are taught the assumption that Jesus’ crucifixion is a direct benefit, but actually it is not. His crucifixion is actually a unilateral accountable sin caused by bloodshed. The fact that all the theories you have listed are missing is this one. “For the priesthood being changed, there is made of necessity a change also of the law.” Heb. 7:12 A law has been added to the law after Jesus’ crucifixion so that salvation is predicated upon the Way this added law must be obeyed.
    The religious grouping that is making the claim of Christian under the protocols of the beliefs listed are actually pseudomorphic by those beliefs.

  18. @ Theodore Jones: Sorry, couldn’t follow that.

  19. Theodore A. Jones

    And what is your difficulty following that ? Even common law teaches you that murdering a man the murderer subjugates himself to the law’s penalty. There is no positive benefit to anyone just by murdering any man. But as that list of doctrines you have published shows it is falsely assumed that there might be.

  20. Pingback: Theories of Atonement « Darkly Through the Glass

  21. Click on for a discussion on “Christian” Origins, more properly “post crucifixion Jesus traditions” between a “believer” and a secular critic. You just might find it to be of interest.

  22. I just rediscovered the above comment.. Apologies for not naming a site. On the chance that someone might have the ineterst, the site for such a reconstruction: Ed Jones Dialogue – Vridar. A companion site # Ed Jones Dialogue – Vridar contains extended discussions on this theme.

  23. Reblogged this on The Chequer-board of Nights and Days and commented:
    This is a good prolegomena to discussion and examination of the theology of the Atonement. The chart below the break is especially helpful in schematically laying out the sources, emphases, and approaches of various schools of thought on the Atonement.

  24. @ turmarion,
    Glad you found my work on listing these different theories useful.
    I had to look up “prolegomena” = a preliminary discussion, esp a formal critical introduction to a lengthy text.
    I’m not sure such a technical word is either necessary or even appropriate in this case. The less mystical we keep the conversation, the simple the story becomes. The simpler, the easier it is to see what is really going on.

    Stop by again if you have suggestions on how to correct or improve my chart — thank you.

  25. Thank you–this post was immensely helpful in tightening up and clarifying where I wanted to go on my own blog, especially in reference to getting away from the Sadistic God Who Killed His Son For Us type of theology, which I find quite appalling. Anyway, I commend you on your blog–it has some great stuff on it. Also, I just like technical words! 😉 Thanks again!

  26. Excellent — glad it helped. Keep up the good work!
    BTW – I just started a poetry blog at
    I see you like some: well , certain Omar Khayyam’s poems

  27. Mark Dunbar

    Nice summary and overview. Might want to add a Girarrdian view (see Rene Girard “I saw Satan Fall” book and others (Thanks, your local Christian Athiest.

  28. @ Mark,
    Thanks, never heard of him. I read this on Amazon: “Rene Girard holds up the gospels as mirrors that reveal our broken humanity, and shows that they also reflect a new reality that can make us whole. Like Simone Weil, Girard looks at the Bible as a map of human behavior, and sees Jesus Christ as the turning point leading to new life.”

    This seems to me like so much liberal Christianity, which may be great for folks who have soaked up so much Christianity culturally, a sweet story of Jesus will be the only thing that helps them. Hindus do the same with sweetening the Mahabharata and Muslims with the Qu’ran. Hell, people give themselves new versions of their parents to make the family tradition keep working.

    Another thought, though, is that the Christian Mythicist may think this is in large part what Paul was doing, but then the writers of the Gospels just tried to put meat on the myth.

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