Theories of the Atonement

by Leon Morris

Throughout the Bible the central question is, "How can sinful man ever be accepted by a holy God?" The Bible takes sin seriously, much more seriously than do the other literatures that have come down to us from antiquity. It sees sin as a barrier separating man from God (Isa. 59:2), a barrier that man was able to erect but is quite unable to demolish. But the truth on which the Bible insists is that God has dealt with the problem. He has made the way whereby sinners may find pardon, God's enemies may find peace. Salvation is never seen as a human achievement. In the OT sacrifice has a large place, but it avails not because of any merit it has of itself (cf. Heb. 10:4), but because God has given it as the way (Lev. 17:11). In the NT the cross plainly occupies the central place, and it is insisted upon in season and out of season that this is God's way of bringing salvation. There are many ways of bringing this out. The NT writers do not repeat a stereotyped story. Each writes from his own perspective. But each shows that it is the death of Christ and not any human achievement that brings salvation.

But none of them sets out a theory of atonement. There are many references to the effectiveness of Christ's atoning work, and we are not lacking in information about its many - sidedness. Thus Paul gives a good deal of emphasis to the atonement as a process of justification, and he uses such concepts as redemption, propitiation, and reconciliation. Sometimes we read of the cross as a victory or as an example. It is the sacrifice that makes a new covenant, or simply a sacrifice. There are many ways of viewing it. We are left in no doubt about its efficacy and its complexity. View the human spiritual problem as you will, and the cross meets the need. But the NT does not say how it does so.

Through the centuries there have been continuing efforts to work out how this was accomplished. Theories of the atonement are legion as men in different countries and in different ages have tried to bring together the varied strands of scriptural teaching and to work them into a theory that will help others to understand how God has worked to bring us salvation. The way has been open for this kind of venture, in part at least, because the church has never laid down an official, orthodox view. In the early centuries there were great controversies about the person of Christ and about the nature of the Trinity. Heresies appeared, were thoroughly discussed, and were disowned. In the end the church accepted the formula of Chalcedon as the standard expression of the orthodox faith. But there was no equivalent with the atonement. People simply held to the satisfying truth that Christ saved them by way of the cross and did not argue about how this salvation was effected.

Thus there was no standard formula like the Chalcedonian statement, and this left men to pursue their quest for a satisfying theory in their own way. To this day no one theory of the atonement has ever won universal acceptance. This should not lead us to abandon the task. Every theory helps us understand a little more of what the cross means and, in any case, we are bidden to give a reason of the hope that is in us (1 Pet. 3:15). Theories of the atonement attempt to do just that.

It would be impossible to deal with all the theories of the atonement that have been formulated, but we might well notice that most can be brought under one or the other of three heads: those which see the essence of the matter as the effect of the cross on the believer; those which see it as a victory of some sort; and those which emphasize the Godward aspect. Some prefer a twofold classification, seeing subjective theories as those which emphasize the effect on the believer, in distinction from objective theories which put the stress on what the atonement achieves quite outside the individual.

The Subjective View or Moral Influence Theory

Some form of the subjective or moral view is held widely today, especially among scholars of the liberal school. In all its variations this theory emphasizes the importance of the effect of Christ's cross on the sinner. The view is generally attributed to Abelard, who emphasized the love of God, and is sometimes called the moral influence theory, or exemplarism. When we look at the cross we see the greatness of the divine love. this delivers us from fear and kindles in us an answering love. We respond to love with love and no longer live in selfishness and sin. Other ways of putting it include the view that the sight of the selfless Christ dying for sinners moves us to repentance and faith. If God will do all that for us, we say, then we ought not to continue in sin. So we repent and turn from it and are saved by becoming better people.

The thrust in all this is on personal experience. The atonement, seen in this way, has no effect outside the believer. It is real in the person's experience and nowhere else. This view has been defended in recent times by Hastings Rashdall in The Idea of Atonement (1919).

It should be said in the first instance that there is truth in this theory. Taken by itself it is inadequate, but it is not untrue. It is important that we respond to the love of Christ seen on the cross, that we recognize the compelling force of his example.

Probably the best known and best loved hymn on the passion in modern times is "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross," a hymn that sets forth nothing but the moral view. Every line of it emphasizes the effect on the observer of surveying the wondrous cross. It strikes home with force. What it says is both true and important. It is when it is claimed that this is all that the atonement means that we must reject it. Taken in this way it is open to serious criticism. If Christ was not actually doing something by his death, then we are confronted with a piece of showmanship, nothing more. Someone once said that if he were in a rushing river and someone jumped in to save him, and in the process lost his life, he could recognize the love and sacrifice involved. But if he was sitting safely on the land and someone jumped into the torrent to show his love, he could see no point in it and only lament the senseless act. Unless the death of Christ really does something, it is not in fact a demonstration of love.

The Atonement as Victory

In the early church there seems to have been little attention given to the way atonement works, but when the question was faced, as often as not the answer came in terms of the NT references to redemption. Because of their sin people rightly belong to Satan, the fathers reasoned. But God offered his son as a ransom, a bargain the evil one eagerly accepted. When, however, Satan got Christ down into hell he found that he could not hold him. On the third day Christ rose triumphant and left Satan without either his original prisoners or the ransom he had accepted in their stead. It did not need a profound intellect to see that God must have foreseen this, but the thought that God deceived the devil did not worry the fathers. than Satan as well as stronger. They even worked out illustrations like a fishing trip: The flesh of Jesus was the bait, the deity the fishhook. Satan swallowed the hook along with the bait and was transfixed. This view has been variously called the devil ransom theory, the classical theory, or the fishhook theory of the atonement.

This kind of metaphor delighted some of the fathers, but after Anselm subjected it to criticism it faded from view. It was not until quite recent times that Gustaf Aulen with his Christus Victor showed that behind the grotesque metaphors there is an important truth. In the end Christ's atoning work means victory. The devil and all the hosts of evil are defeated. Sin is conquered. Though this has not always been worked into set theories, it has always been there in our Easter hymns. It forms an important element in Christian devotion and it points to a reality which Christians must not lose.

This view must be treated with some care else we will finish up by saying that God saves simply because he is strong, in other words, in the end might is right. This is an impossible conclusion for anyone who takes the Bible seriously. We are warned that this view, of itself, is not adequate. But combined with other views it must find a place in any finally satisfying theory. It is important that Christ has conquered.

Anselm's Satisfaction Theory

In the eleventh century Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury, produced a little book called Cur Deus Homo? ("Why did God become Man?"). In it he subjected the patristic view of a ransom paid to Satan to severe criticism. He saw sin as dishonoring the majesty of God. Now a sovereign may well be ready in his private capacity to forgive an insult or an injury, but because he is a sovereign he cannot. The state has been dishonored in its head. Appropriate satisfaction must be offered. God is the sovereign Ruler of all, and it is not proper for God to remit any irregularity in his kingdom. Anselm argued that the insult sin has given to God is so great that only one who is God can provide satisfaction. But it was done by one who is man, so only man should do so. Thus he concluded that one who is both God and man is needed.

Anselm's treatment of the theme raised the discussion to a much higher plane than it had occupied in previous discussions. Most agree, however, that the demonstration is not conclusive. In the end Anselm makes God too much like a king whose dignity has been affronted. He overlooked the fact that a sovereign may be clement and forgiving without doing harm to his kingdom. A further defect in his view is that Anselm found no necessary connection between Christ's death and the salvation of sinners. Christ merited a great reward because he died when he had no need to (for he had no sin). But he could not receive a reward, for he had everything. To whom then could he more fittingly assign his reward then to those for whom he had died? This makes it more or less a matter of chance that sinners be saved. Not very many these days are prepared to go along with Anselm. But at least he took a very serious view of sin, and it is agreed that without this there will be no satisfactory view.

Penal Substitution

The Reformers agreed with Anselm that sin is a very serious matter, but they saw it as a breaking of God's law rather than as an insult to God's honor. The moral law, they held, is not to be taken lightly. "The wages of sin is death" (Rom. 6:23), and it is this that is the problem for sinful man. They took seriously the scriptural teachings about the wrath of God and those that referred to the curse under which sinners lay. It seemed clear to them that the essence of Christ's saving work consisted in his taking the sinner's place. In our stead Christ endured the death that is the wages of sin. He bore the curse that we sinners should have borne (Gal. 3:13). The Reformers did not hesitate to speak of Christ as having borne our punishment or as having appeased the wrath of God in our place.

Such views have been widely criticized. In particular it is pointed out that sin is not an external matter to be transferred easily from one person to another and that, while some forms of penalty are transferable (the payment of a fine), others are not (imprisonment, capital punishment). It is urged that this theory sets Christ in opposition to the Father so that it maximizes the love of Christ and minimizes that of the Father. Such criticisms may be valid against some of the ways in which the theory is stated, but they do not shake its essential basis. They overlook the fact that there is a double identification: Christ is one with sinners (the saved are "in" Christ, Rom. 8:1) and he is one with the Father (he and the Father are one, John 10:30; "God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself," 2 Cor. 5:19). They also overlook the fact that there is much in the NT that supports the theory. It is special pleading to deny that Paul, for example, puts forward this view. It may need to be carefully stated, but this view still says something important about the way Christ won our salvation.


There is much about sacrifice in the OT and not a little in the NT. Some insist that it is this that gives us the key to understanding the atonement. It is certainly true that the Bible regards Christ's saving act as a sacrifice, and this must enter into any satisfying theory. But unless it is supplemented, it is an explanation that does not explain. The moral view or penal substitution may be right or wrong, but at least they are intelligible. But how does sacrifice save? The answer is not obvious.

Governmental Theory

Hugo Grotius argued that Christ did not bear our punishment but suffered as a penal example whereby the law was honored while sinners were pardoned. His view is called "governmental" because Grotius envisions God as a ruler or a head of government who passed a law, in this instance, "The soul that sinneth, it shall die." Because God did not want sinners to die, he relaxed that rule and accepted the death of Christ instead. He could have simply forgiven mankind had he wanted to, but that would not have had any value for society. The death of Christ was a public example of the depth of sin and the lengths to which God would go to uphold the moral order of the universe. This view is expounded in great detail in Defensio fidei catholicae de satisfactione Christi adversus F. Socinum (1636).


All the above views, in their own way, recognize that the atonement is vast and deep. There is nothing quite like it, and it must be understood in its own light. The plight of sinful man is disastrous, for the NT sees the sinner as lost, as suffering hell, as perishing, as cast into outer darkness, and more. An atonement that rectifies all this must necessarily be complex. So we need all the vivid concepts: redemption, propitiation, justification, and all the rest. And we need all the theories. Each draws attention to an important aspect of our salvation and we dare not surrender any. But we are small minded sinners and the atonement is great and vast. We should not expect that our theories will ever explain it fully. Even when we put them all together, we will no more than begin to comprehend a little of the vastness of God's saving deed.

L Morris

(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)