Throughout church history, several different views of the atonement, some true and some false, have been put forth by different individuals or denominations. One of the reasons for the various views is that both the Old and New Testaments reveal many truths about Christ’s atonement, making it hard, if not impossible, to find any single “theory” that fully encapsulates or explains the richness of the atonement. What we discover as we study the Scriptures is a rich and multifaceted picture of the atonement as the Bible puts forth many interrelated truths concerning the redemption that Christ has accomplished. Another contributing factor to the many different theories of the atonement is that much of what we can learn about the atonement needs to be understood from the experience and perspective of God’s people under the Old Covenant sacrificial system.
The atonement of Christ, its purpose and what it accomplished, is such a rich subject that volumes have been written about it. This article will simply provide a brief overview of many of the theories that have been put forward at one time or another. In looking at the different views of the atonement, we must remember that any view that does not recognize the sinfulness of man or the substitutionary nature of the atonement is deficient at best and heretical at worst.
Ransom to Satan: This view sees the atonement of Christ as a ransom paid to Satan to purchase man’s freedom and release him from being enslaved to Satan. It is based on a belief that man’s spiritual condition is bondage to Satan and that the meaning of Christ’s death was to secure God’s victory over Satan. This theory has little, if any, scriptural support and has had few supporters throughout church history. It is unbiblical in that it sees Satan, rather than God, as the one who required that a payment be made for sin. Thus, it completely ignores the demands of God’s justice as seen throughout Scripture. It also has a higher view of Satan than it should and views him as having more power than he really does. There is no scriptural support for the idea that sinners owe anything to Satan, but throughout Scripture we see that God is the One who requires a payment for sin.
Recapitulation Theory: This theory states that the atonement of Christ has reversed the course of mankind from disobedience to obedience. It believes that Christ’s life recapitulated all the stages of human life and in doing so reversed the course of disobedience initiated by Adam. This theory cannot be supported scripturally.
Dramatic Theory: This view sees the atonement of Christ as securing the victory in a divine conflict between good and evil and winning man’s release from bondage to Satan. The meaning of Christ’s death was to ensure God’s victory over Satan and to provide a way to redeem the world out of its bondage to evil.
Mystical Theory: The mystical theory sees the atonement of Christ as a triumph over His own sinful nature through the power of the Holy Spirit. Those who hold this view believe that knowledge of this will mystically influence man and awake his “god-consciousness.” They also believe that man’s spiritual condition is not the result of sin but simply a lack of “god-consciousness.” Clearly, this is unbiblical. To believe this, one must believe that Christ had a sin nature, while Scripture is clear that Jesus was the perfect God-man, sinless in every aspect of His nature (Hebrews 4:15).
Moral Influence Theory: This is the belief that the atonement of Christ is a demonstration of God’s love which causes man’s heart to soften and repent. Those who hold this view believe that man is spiritually sick and in need of help and that man is moved to accept God’s forgiveness by seeing God’s love for man. They believe that the purpose and meaning of Christ’s death was to demonstrate God’s love toward man. While it is true that Christ’s atonement is the ultimate example of the love of God, this view is unbiblical because it denies the true spiritual condition of man—dead in transgressions and sins (Ephesians 2:1)—and denies that God actually requires a payment for sin. This view of Christ’s atonement leaves mankind without a true sacrifice or payment for sin.
Example Theory: This view sees the atonement of Christ as simply providing an example of faith and obedience to inspire man to be obedient to God. Those who hold this view believe that man is spiritually alive and that Christ’s life and atonement were simply an example of true faith and obedience and should serve as inspiration to men to live a similar life of faith and obedience. This and the moral influence theory are similar in that they both deny that God’s justice actually requires payment for sin and that Christ’s death on the cross was that payment. The main difference between the moral influence theory and the example theory is that the moral influence theory says that Christ’s death teaches us how much God loves us and the example theory says that Christ’s death teaches how to live. Of course, it is true that Christ is an example for us to follow, even in His death, but the example theory fails to recognize man’s true spiritual condition and that God’s justice requires payment for sin which man is not capable of paying.
Commercial Theory: The commercial theory views the atonement of Christ as bringing infinite honor to God. This resulted in God giving Christ a reward which He did not need, and Christ passed that reward on to man. Those who hold this view believe that man’s spiritual condition is that of dishonoring God and so Christ’s death, which brought infinite honor to God, can be applied to sinners for salvation. This theory, like many of the others, denies the true spiritual state of unregenerate sinners and their need of a completely new nature, available only in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17).
Governmental Theory: This view sees the atonement of Christ as demonstrating God’s high regard for His law and His attitude toward sin. It is through Christ’s death that God has a reason to forgive the sins of those who repent and accept Christ’s substitutionary death. Those who hold this view believe that man’s spiritual condition is as one who has violated God’s moral law and that the meaning of Christ’s death was to be a substitute for the penalty of sin. Because Christ paid the penalty for sin, it is possible for God to legally forgive those who accept Christ as their substitute. This view falls short in that it does not teach that Christ actually paid the penalty of the actual sins of any people, but instead His suffering simply showed mankind that God’s laws were broken and that some penalty was paid.
Penal Substitution Theory: This theory sees the atonement of Christ as being a vicarious, substitutionary sacrifice that satisfied the demands of God’s justice upon sin. With His sacrifice, Christ paid the penalty of man’s sin, bringing forgiveness, imputing righteousness, and reconciling man to God. Those who hold this view believe that every aspect of man—his mind, will, and emotions—have been corrupted by sin and that man is totally depraved and spiritually dead. This view holds that Christ’s death paid the penalty for sin and that through faith man can accept Christ’s substitution as payment for sin. This view of the atonement aligns most accurately with Scripture in its view of sin, the nature of man, and the results of the death of Christ on the cross.