Selected Atonement Theories
Major Views on Jesus's Atonement

The following views represent the major theories of atonement which exist in the broader Christian world. While no model in any field fully captures the entirety of what it seeks to represent, models are useful to help us conceptualize complex phenomenon. The following theories are the best attempts of Christian thinkers through the ages to capture the complexity of what was actually accomplished by Jesus in and through his atonement.
The Payment/Penalty Models

Satisfaction Theory

The Problem: About 1100 A.D. Anselm, the Archbishop of Canterbury, argued in a book he wrote, Cur Deus Homo (Why a God-Man?), that Jesus died as a substitute for human beings and as a satisfaction for the sin-debt that humans owe God. As the argument goes, our sins have stolen honor from God which must be repaid if we are to be reconciled with him. Since God is just he cannot forgive disappointing human sin without some recompense, some payment; to do so would undermine his perfect justice because to let a sinner go without requiring payment would be unjust (like “forgiving” a thief without requiring him to pay back what he stole). Because of our fallen natures, or sinfulness, we continue to sin and to accumulate more and more sin-debt that requires additional payment or satisfaction.

The Solution: Because our sin-debt is human debt it must be paid by a human in order to bring about our forgiveness; and since no humans are perfect, God the Son became a mortal man in Jesus—a perfect, sinless man who owed no sin-debt to God—in order to be able to pay the full price we all owe to God. This he accomplished through his own excruciating suffering and death during the atoning process. He is the only one who could do it for all. Anything less would be unjust and insufficient. So Jesus dies (ie. gives his own life as payment) on behalf of billions of human beings who are incapable of paying off the debt they owe to God because of their sins. (See Did God Kill Jesus?, p. 111-112).

Penal Substitution Theory

The Problem: Penal substitution theory is nearly identical to satisfaction theory—and actually grew out of that theory a few centuries after Anselm first articulated it—yet it differs in a few important ways. Namely, according to penal substitution theory God isn’t just disappointed by our sins, he’s angry at us because of our sins—even full of wrath—and will not allow us back into his presence until a punishment is exacted for our sins. In other words, God doesn’t simply require a payment from sinners (the thief must return what he stole), he also requires that the sinner be punished through physical/spiritual suffering. Each sin demands the penalty of suffering.

The Solution: In this model, since God’s wrath burns against those who dishonor him (which is everyone but Jesus) Jesus suffered the penalty of our suffering on our behalf—or as our substitute—in order to appease God’s wrath toward us and to satisfy the judgment he has against us. God’s holiness demanded that a penalty be suffered. Jesus was allowed (or made) to suffer that penalty on our behalf to satisfy God’s demand. This theory was developed throughout the Reformation by several leading Christian thinkers (eg. Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Jonathan Edwards) and remains popular today (See Did God Kill Jesus?, p. 112, 114).

Governmental Theory

The Problem: Same as Penal Substitution above.

The Solution: “Governmental theory holds that Christ's suffering was a real and meaningful substitute for the punishment humans deserve, but it did not consist of Christ's receiving the exact punishment due to sinful people. Instead, God publicly demonstrated his displeasure with sin through the suffering of his own sinless and obedient Son as a propitiation. Christ's suffering and death served as a substitute for the punishment humans might have received. On this basis, God is able to extend forgiveness while maintaining divine order, having demonstrated the seriousness of sin and thus allowing his wrath to ‘pass over.’ This view is very similar to the satisfaction view and the penal substitution view, in that all three views see Christ as satisfying God's requirement for the punishment of sin. However, the governmental view disagrees with the other two in that it does not affirm that Christ endured the precise punishment that sin deserves or paid its sacrificial equivalent. Instead, Christ's suffering was simply an alternative to that punishment. In contrast, penal substitution holds that Christ endured the exact punishment, or the exact worth of punishment, that sin deserved.... It is important to note, however, that these three views all acknowledge that God cannot freely forgive sins without any sort of punishment or satisfaction being exacted….

“A second feature of governmental theory is the scope of the atonement. According to governmental theory, Christ's death applies not to individuals directly, but to the Church as a corporate entity. Individuals then partake of the atonement by being attached to the Church through faith. Under this view, therefore, people can fall out of the scope of atonement through loss of faith, a consequence which contrasts clearly with the punishment theory, which holds that Jesus's death served as a substitute for the sins of individuals directly.” (From Wikipedia: Governmental Theory of Atonement)

Because, according to this view, (1) Christ did not suffer for individual sins specifically and (2) his atonement applies to the Church as an entity which can grow endlessly as people are added to it, Governmental theory allows for an infinite atonement in which Christ’s suffering can be applied to an infinite number of people on an infinite number of worlds. One advocate of this view, William Booth, described it this way: “The Scriptures teach that Christ on the Cross, in virtue of the dignity of His person, the voluntariness of His offering, and the greatness of His sufferings did make and present, on behalf of poor sinners, a sacrifice of infinite value. And that this sacrifice, by showing all worlds the terrible evil of the sin humanity had committed, and the importance of the law humanity had broken, did make it possible for the love and pity of God to flow out to humanity by forgiving all those who repent and return in confidence to Him, enabling Him to be just and yet the justifier of him that believeth in Jesus.” (The Doctrines of the Salvation Army, 1892 Edition, Section 6)
The Victory Models

Ransom Captive Theory

The Problem: Ransom Captive theory is the view of atonement that was most widely held during the first thousands years after Christ (before Anselm's satisfaction theory emerged on the scene). According to the Ransom Captive theory, when Adam and Eve yielded to Satan’s enticings in the Garden of Eden and fell they placed not only themselves but all of humanity under the power of the devil. Satan could now not only influence mankind by tempting them to sin, but upon their deaths would forever reign over them in the realm of the dead. Adam and Eve had doomed us all by placing us under the captivity and power of the devil.

The Solution: To save us from this fate, God offered his own son—and Jesus voluntarily complied—as a ransom to Satan (see Mark 10:45).  That is, Jesus would give his own life in exchange for our release from Satan. But, to the devil’s chagrin, he was outwitted by God! For after Jesus was sent into the realm of the dead the devil found that he could not hold him there. His victory over the devil was complete when Christ burst the bands of death through his resurrection. Mankind could now go free. Christ's resurrection sealed God's victory over Satan. (See Did God Kill Jesus?, p. 143-144)

Christus Victor Theory

The Problem: Closely related to the Ransom Captive theory, the Christus Victor theory understands that humanity will be forever subject to Satan due to Adam and Eve's decision to yield to him in the Garden. That is, Adam and Eve's decision—together with our own sinfulness and death—ensure that all humanity will end up forever in the grasp of the devil in hell with no chance of heavenly reward.

The Solution: In the Christus Victor view, God is our warrior who sent his Son to defeat the devil and release us from his grasp upon our souls. Through his suffering, death, and resurrection Jesus defeated the devil. This view of atonement was a dominant theory for the first thousand years of the church and was held by many of the early church fathers.

The early church did not understand the death of Christ as paying a penalty in some transactional sense that only God's son could pay. The crucifixion is not cosmically necessary to reconcile God and humanity.

Instead, Christ's death is God's victory over sin and death. God conquers death by fully entering into it. God conquers Satan using the very means employed by his adversary.

Therefore, the crucifixion is not a sacrifice necessary to appease a wrathful and justice-demanding deity, but an act of divine love to rescue creation from Satan's grip. And it is ... a voluntary act. It's not required by a cosmic framework of justice, nor is it a legal transaction that must be paid. Instead it's an act of self-sacrificial love in which Jesus throws himself on the powers of evil and destroys them. God entered fully into the bondage of death, turned it inside out by making it a moment of victory, and liberated humans to live lives of love without the fear of death. (Did God Kill Jesus?, p. 145-146)

Further Reading:

Other Models

Moral Influence Theory (aka "The Magnet Theory")

The Problem: Foundational to Moral Influence theory is the idea that God will judge us based upon our inner moral character. Yet because none of us has the kind of bullet-proof character God requires, we are all inevitably doomed to receive a poor outcome at judgment.  

The Solution: God fashioned a way to help us develop the character we lack for salvation. God acted to bring about moral change in mankind by sending Jesus to die in such a way as to wake us from our selfish slumber, cause us to recognize God’s love for us, and inspire us to love God and one another. That is, Jesus’s life, suffering, and death serve as catalysts to inspire voluntary moral change within us. In the Moral Influence view, Jesus’s example of self-sacrificial love—crowned by his willingness to die for his friends—powerfully influences those who contemplate his death to the point of moving them to improve their moral character to more closely reflect his. In this view Jesus’s death and teachings are closely tied together in that his martyrdom has an almost magnetic sympathetic pull that draws mankind to him and inspires them to live his teachings, which then influences moral improvement. In fact, the love displayed on the cross not only pulls us toward God but also inspires a god-like love for one another. In this model, forgiveness of sins does not come directly from God but from the intensity of our own love which is inspired by God’s example of love. That is, the love that Jesus’s death inspires in us becomes so intense that that love itself overwhelms our sins and makes them fall away. Thus moral reformation inspired by Jesus’s teachings and exemplary suffering and death was God’s ultimate goal in sending Jesus to earth. (see Wikipedia: Moral Influence Theory of Atonement; Did God Kill Jesus?, p.158-159)

The Divinity Theory

The Problem: A theory held by some of the earliest Eastern Orthodox Church theologians (and continued to be held by Orthodox members today), the Divinity Theory interprets the story of Adam and Eve as the process by which humanity lost its divinity. According to this theory:

Human beings were created to share in the immortal divine life, as established by the telling verse, "Then God said, 'Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.'" But the sin of Eve and Adam began a process of distortion by which humanity lost its divinity and immortality. Death is the result of that distortion. That's what the initial sin did. Now we're broken, sick, and distorted because we're not divine as we were meant to be. Although a small spark of divinity still resides within us, we stand in need of repair. And death is the ultimate chasm between us and the immortal God. (Did God Kill Jesus?, p. 169)

The Solution: God sought to overcome this problem in a three-part process by which he built a bridge via his Son between our current humanity and our divine potential. This three-part process consisted of (1) Jesus's birth, (2) Jesus's death, and (3) Jesus's resurrection. Jesus's human birth clothed his divinity in the veil of mortality and gave him the power to die. Jesus's death gave him the ability to descend directly into the universal human experience of death (the final consequence of sin) where now, shorn of his mortal covering, he could unbosom his divine light and life into that awful chasm to overpower the darkness and death that reign there. Somehow, by sharing in our mortality and death, Christ became connected with us in such a way that we can now share in his divinity and resurrection. Jesus's resurrection somehow enables our resurrection and effectively destroys the one major obstacle standing between us and our immortal and divine potential: death. Hence the Divinity theory sees the cricifixion of Jesus simply as a means to this end: he must die that we might live. (See Did God Kill Jesus?, p.169-173)