theories of the atonement

6 Theories of the Atonement

Last week on Strong Sword I wrote a post about the nature of the atonement. I assumed a view of the atonement which basically states that Christ died on the cross in our place to pay the penalty for our sin. Today we’re going to take a look at six theories of the atonement and how the Church’s understanding of the atonement has changed over the centuries.

1. The Ransom Theory

The Ransom Theory was the dominant theory of the church for the first 1000 years. There are a couple of ways this view is expressed, the most popular being that Satan held captive humanity and required Christ’s blood as ransom. However Christ tricked the devil and was too much for him to handle, thus rising from the grave. Most who held to the Ransom theory were the Church Fathers including: Irenaeus (d. 200), Origen (d. 254), Gregory of Nyssa (d. 394), and John of Damascus (d. 749). In the twentieth century Gustaf Aulen also believed a version of the Ransom theory.

2. The Satisfaction Theory

The juggernaut theologian of teh medieval period, Anselm of Canterbury, formulated the satisfaction theory in his essay Cur Deus Homo? This theory was a theory of its time influenced by the surrounding culture. It likened God to a feudal lord whose honor had been injured and thus needed to be satisfied. This satisfaction was brought about by the death of Christ.

3. The Moral Influence Theory

Shortly after Anselm’s moral influence theory rose to prominence Peter of Abelard formulated his Moral Influence theory. Simply put Christ’s death on the cross was an example set for others to follow. In meditating on Christ’s death people would be motivated to love the Lord because of God’s demonstration of His love for them. This love is what would save them. While the Church has held to theories 1. and 2. theory 3. has never had widespread appeal to the Church.

4. The Penal Substitution Theory

Unlike the satisfaction theory this view sees sin as a violation of God’s law and not God’s honor. So Christ was sent in order to be the perfect sacrifice to pay the penalty of sins in our place.

Traces of this view can be seen in the writings of the Church Fathers: Clement of Rome (d. 96), Ignatius (d. 107), and Athanasius (d. 373). However the Penal Substitution theory was developed from the Satisfaction theory and fully formulated by John Calvin (d. 1564).

This is the view held by myself and most evangelicals.

5. The Governmental Theory

This theory was formulated shortly after the Penal Substitution theory. It is very close to Calvin’s theory except proponents of this view do not believe that Christ could bear the penalty of our sins since he was sinless. So his death was not payment for out sins but merely a token that allowed God’s law to relax enough so that He could forgive us of our sins.

The original proponent of this view was Hugo Grotius (d. 1645). John Miley (d. 1895) was instrumental in formulating it for the present age. This view is usually held by those influenced by the Arminian tradition.

6. The Universal Reconciliation Theory

This view was formulated by Karl Barth (d. 1968). He did not believe that Christ’s death payed the penalty for our sins. Instead Christ’s death along with his incarnation reunited humanity with divinity, that is he reunited man and God. In Barth’s view humanity was in Christ both when he died (so we bore the penalty) and when he was resurrected (we overcame sin, death, and the devil). We are also not forgiven on the basis of Christ’s death but because God wanted to forgive us.


There have been many ideas of what exactly Christ accomplished on the cross. There are actually many more than I mentioned here. Depending on whether someone has Calvanistic or Arminian leanings, the dominant views of the evangelical church today is the Penal Substitution Theory and the Governmental Theory.

But I want to hear what you think of all the different theories of the atonement. Have you heard any of the others taught or preached in your church? Let me know in the comments section below.

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