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14. Theories of atonement
How God puts us right with himself
Fundamental to Christian belief is the fact that in the death and resurrection of Jesus God has made atonement for our sin. In so doing he has reconciled us to himself. But how precisely does this atonement "work"?
There are many theories. Here are four main ones.
1. Payment of a ransom Because of their sin human beings have become captive to Satan. (In the first diagram this is represented by a window with prison bars.) To release them from their imprisonment the payment of a ransom is required. On the cross Jesus pays this ransom price with his blood, and thus redeems us (buys us back) for God. Through his sacrifice we are set free.
2. Payment of damages In a book entitled Cur Deus Homo? (Why the God-man?) Anslem (1033-1109), the archbishop of Canterbury, dismissed the idea of ransom from the Devil, and advanced his so called "satisfaction theory".
Sin, said Anselm, is the dishonouring of God. As recompense for this dishonour, "satisfaction" is required. [Think here of a civil court where someone has damaged the reputation (honour) of another. To right the situation requires the payment of "damages", that is, "satisfaction" needs to be made.]
Because sin is against God, argues Anselm, it requires infinite satisfaction, but while human beings are the ones who need to make the satisfaction they are in fact powerless to do so. Enter Jesus, the Godman. As sinless he has no need to make satisfaction to God. By his voluntary death, however, he gains merit. Since he does not need this merit for himself, it becomes available as satisfaction on the behalf of others. By sending his Son in this way God offers us mercy and forgiveness.
3. Payment of the penalty This theory is similar to that of Anselm, except that the scene is transferred from a civil court to a criminal one. At issue is not the dishonouring of God, but the breaking of his law. We human beings are sinners who have transgressed. As a righteous judge God must condemn the wrongdoing and impose the penalty. However, Jesus, the Son of God, volunteers to take our place. On the cross Jesus, as God himself, receives the punishment which should be ours. In this way justice is served, and we sinners are pronounced "not guilty". This theory is known as penal substitution – penal because it has to do with punishment, substitution because Jesus takes our place.
4. A change of heart In this theory, as the diagram shows, the circle is not closed back to God. The death of Jesus, the innocent One who suffers on the cross, excites in the believer such feelings of deep and penitent love, that he or she turns from sin, and is reconciled to God.
This fourth theory is sometimes called "subjective", in that atonement is no longer "objective" (on the cross), but "subjective" (in the human subject).
Q. In none of these theories does the resurrection play an essential part. Each of them would work if Jesus had never risen from the dead. Do you think this matters?
Is the resurrection just an incidental add-on, or is it somehow integral to the scheme of salvation? (See 1 Peter 1.3-5, 1 Corinthians 15.20-22.)