In Defense Of Moral Influence Theory

Within Christianity, there are several theories of the meaning of the Cross and Resurrection. I think no single theory can fully account for this great mystery, but that each theory gives us a lens that together paint an impressionistic picture. We hear a lot about penal theories of the atonement, from Calvinistic friends, but this is also a theory that, under some forms, is present within Catholic Tradition. And we hear about Christus Victor, which is very important.

The one that isn’t very much in odor of sanctity (ha ha), as far as I can tell, is Moral Influence: the idea that Jesus went to the Cross to exemplify the meaning of morality and influence men’s morality. Moral Influence, as best as I can tell, is under suspicion in many orthodox and/or traditional circles, because it is seen as essentially trivializing the Cross, as making it have no transcendental meaning, and instead a pure historical meaning. It has been used by some progressive Christians to advance a Jesus whose divinity is obscured (if not denied) and whose Gospel is reduced to a moralistic or political message.

Despite that, and with the all-important caveat that I don’t believe Moral Influence is the full story, I do believe it is part of the story. And here’s why.

That is clearly part of the work of the Cross. It seems to me incontrovertible from the Gospel that, at least in part, the Cross really is intended by Jesus to serve as a moral example. When Jesus says “greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends,” you can almost hear Him add “…and I’ll show you.” Clearly, when a Christian contemplates his moral duty, he should look first to the Cross. I don’t think you can deny that moral influence is part of the meaning of the Cross. I don’t think anybody would disagree with this, but I do think we sometimes tend to take it for granted when we talk about the Mystery of the Cross, and I don’t think Jesus likes it.

Moral Influence does change the world. As y’all know, I am a Girardian. If we look at the Cross through a Girardian lens, we realize that the moral message of the Cross is not “just” an easy-to-sentimentalize message about brotherly love; it is also a profoundly subversive message that shatters the foundations of all cultures and all human institutions and pretentions. If Girard is right that through the Cross of the spotless Lamb, Jesus exposes the scapegoat dynamic at the heart of all civilization and at work within all human rights, and publicly proclaims to the entire world the vacuity of our scapegoat dynamics, that really is a world-changing message. And I would argue along with Girard that the arc of Western Civilization, this arc of history which does bend in many ways towards justice, down to the present day, can be looked at as our processing, without realizing it, in fits and starts, this immensely subversive message.

The moral example is stronger in the context of Christ’s Divine Sonship. I might be caricaturing a little bit, but there’s a sense of, well, people give up their lives for truth/their/friends all the time–if Moral Influence is true, then why is the Cross special? And the answer is: because of Who is on the Cross. If I give up my life for you, while subjectively I am giving up a lot, objectively, in the grand scheme of things, I’m not giving up much. For starters, I know I’m going to die at some point anyway, so why not do it with some panache and meaning (this is a way of thinking that is a little alien to the contemporary West, but wouldn’t have been to most of our forerunners). The difference with Christ is, of course, that he is the Word of God, only-begotten of the Father, dwelling with Him in all eternity. For Jesus to die on the Cross means to give up literally everything. It is literally impossible for us to imagine the “delta”, the difference, between the bliss of the Son living in perfect harmony with the Father in the Trinity, and the suffering of the man Jesus on the Cross.  What Jesus “gives up” on the Cross is more than we can ever give up, more than we can even imagine. This is the moral example set by the Cross: Jesus doesn’t just say “give everything”, he says “give more than everything.” Jesus didn’t just die, He died on the Cross, after scourging and humiliation. I find this to be a mystery impossible to contemplate too much.

Moral Influence Theory emphasizes the gratuitous nature of Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross. Y’all know I have a big of a bone to pick with Penal Substitutionary Atonement, and my main problem with it is that–and, as you know, this is another of my hobbyhorses–it portrays Jesus and God’s actions within a framework of necessity. God’s justice has to be satisfied by punishment of sin, so Jesus had to die to provide satisfaction or else God would have had to condemn us all. Moral Influence, on the other hand, is all about the gratuity of Jesus’ love for us. If we keep in mind what I just wrote above about the unimaginable, absolute, despoilment and pain that Jesus experienced on the Cross, being the Son of God and being deprived of everything, then how much greater is this gift if we think that Jesus did it not because He had to, but just because He wanted to. More than that, just to show us what love looks like.

This theme of the gratuitousness and the generosity of God is an important one, one that we can’t look at enough, and it is particularly present through Moral Influence Theory. Again, I don’t believe it’s the whole story. But I think it’s part of the story and we need to look at it more.


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  • I personally subscribe to what I call “the black hole theory of religious truth”: it is easier to describe around the truth than the actual truth. If that is true, it follows that we should not be surprised when multiple theories all seem helpful in describing something, but no one theory works as a coherent explanation. It seems to me that we’re all familiar with this phenomena in art: no one telling of a story, no one painting, no one piece of music captures everything.

    As I read what you’ve written here, I think – but I’m not sure – I agree but I am in tension with some of your ancillary assumptions.and I think it is my tension with Catholicism. I see the Jesus-Only-Begotten-Son narrative is not merely “love demands great sacrifice, even the highest of us is willing under go the worst form of torturous execution yet devised” but as an emphatic rejection of the notion of rank and worldly status outright.(The Kingdom is not as the kingdoms of man). What was demonstrated when Jesus washed his disciples feet was punctuated with his execution on the Cross.

    I don’t know if we’re actually agreeing or disagreeing, but its a thought provoked by your ruminations on the costs faced by Jesus. Perhaps I’m saying that Jesus isn’t giving up everything nearly as much as saying that what you think is everything is nothing at all.

    • NicholasBeriah Cotta

      I don’t think it’s an emphatic rejection of rank and wordly status – there are places for those things and they are good if ordered correctly toward God. God does not bemoan titles, wealth, rank,or any of those things – calling for their subservience to Him is what promulgated the passion of Christ and the cross represents what happens when you call for a strict and radical putting of God above all things- I think many times he affirmed that the worldly things you say “He rejects” have their place (render to Caesar, listen to them (the pharisees) for they are in the chair of Moses, so on and so on).

      • To clarify, what I mean by reject is more “no thanks” than “destroy it!”

        • NicholasBeriah Cotta

          I see, but even that, I would take issue with. Diversity of wealth, rank, and such are good things. Some people are poor and are happier that way and contribute to God’s goodness in their own way and some people are rich and also contribute to God’s goodness. Even discounting wealth as a method of rank, the ranking of clergy, faculty, business, etc. serves a useful function, one that can glorify God.
          I would agree with you if you take “rank” to mean a ranking solely of human dignity (which I would guess you are), but I think “emphatic rejection of rank” as a phrase encourages a sort of bland idyllic egalitarianism (which never works out anyway). Today, I think our generation finds it hard to accept authority because we have thrown both senses of ranking without differentiating.
          Saying “that Jesus isn’t giving up everything nearly as much as saying that what you think is everything is nothing at all” lends me to believe that you are at least not placing the proper value/emphasis on Jesus’ simple life – Jesus finds value in being a lowly carpenter as much as king of the state because human dignity is found just as much there as in a man who has worldly power. By giving up even the life of a lowly carpenter, Christ did, in fact, give up everything, not just “nothing at all.”

          • This is a concept that is inchoate in my mind and pretty difficult to describe with a vocabularly heavily influenced by Christianity, so I’m going to have to go outside in order to try to explain.

            Within Zen Buddhism there is a long tradition of subversion in thought, as epitomized in the traditional answer to Zen koans: “mu” roughly meaning without (I prefer the Chinese “wu”). Wu is a way of unasking the question, rejecting its underlying premises as incorrect or even absurd. I think Jesus has many messages, but one of them is that the correct answer to the Devil’s offer of worldly power is “wu.” If asked why he bothered being a lowly carpenter instead of a mighty king he would reply “wu.” When asked why he spent time with unworthy people he would reply “wu” (not exactly, and in fact he said other things but I hope the general idea gets across). Now, I’m the last one to say that Buddhism and Christianity are the same thing. They are not – but I think this idea of subversive rejection of the shared premises of wordly persons is a common thread.

            So, while Jesus isn’t preaching that life is suffering and we must reject it as an illusion, I think he is teaching us – and his contemporaries that what we think matters does not. I’m not saying that Jesus was teaching us to get rid of kings and differentiation in pursuit of harmony, I’m saying that Jesus was telling us that kings don’t matter, and we shouldn’t bother thinking about it too much. Maybe anyway – I don’t know how much of this is what I think and how much of this is my inchoate prejudice for the royal trappings throughout Catholicism.

          • NicholasBeriah Cotta

            I understand that Jesus is taking a definite stand against corruption and the thought that the powers-that-be thought they were better people because of worldly powers, riches and titles – his death on the cross would be a kind of “wu” to the status quo.
            He does not say wu to kings or suffering though, that is definitely where Buddhism and Christianity differ- that kind of “detachment” is just not present in Christianity (and runs current in much of gnostic thought, one of the earliest declared heresies). He wouldn’t say being a king doesn’t matter as much as say, “be a just king.” Jesus cares about the relationship of worldly things in relationship to God; his mission is to let people know that keeping God first is just the right relationship of the world and that no man can assume that authority or take away the dignity of other men which would also be denying that authority. The cross was God setting right the relationship of God to man and vice versa, a fulfillment of God’s promises, righteousness, and mercy; the only thing it rejects outright is sin and most of all, original sin (that from which all sin flows), the sin born of Adam eating the fruit of the tree (man assuming God’s authority.)
            Yeah, I don’t know how much I like the royal trappings throughout Catholicism either- regarding titles like Your Excellency for Bishops (or even Reverend for priests) and the fact that the Church is very hierarchal, I would say it is a pretty lax monarchy that is decently aware that using authorititative power easily trends toward abuse (I think it’s one of the reasons that reaction to the pedophilia stuff was slow and softer than it should have been.)

          • I think there is something to what you’re saying about being a just king, (a traditional Buddhist answer on kingship is that a just and salvation-headed kingship is impossible because the king must have attachments and cause pain in order to be just) and the Christian flirtations with mysticism are obviously a tiny part of the tradition compared to the mystic tradition within Buddhism. That all having been said, I think the underlying message of the Gospels is still pretty radical and subversive, meant to be a complete retooling of thought, rather than merely fixing what is currently broken. And, separate from whether or not Catholicism is correct, I think its fairly obvious that allying with the biggest, baddest of worldly empires has extracted some serious costs on (Western) Christianity. Christendom was an abomination, and it disappoints me when Catholic leaders seem to be longing for it.

          • NicholasBeriah Cotta

            I totally agree that the cozy relationship that Church and state had is still bearing bad fruit for Catholicism, and the lessons we learned were tough. That being said, it does not excuse us from maintaining a moral imperative to exact our influence on our governments in a direct way. Catholicism will never maintain that a government can operate outside of the dominion of the Church, Jesus Christ is the king of kings because all kings (and state governments) ultimately operate by his authority. Of course, people who think Catholicism is not correct think this is completely arrogant (and I sympathize) but ultimately this is for us to work out as human beings while petitioning the grace of God (there’s no easy solution given and I think that’s not only on purpose, but a gift).
            As to your continued insistence on the Gospels being a “complete retooling of thought, rather than merely fixing what is currently broken”: that is an idea that may gain some sympathy with the snow-covered-dung crowd (protestants), it is surely not a Catholic idea. We firmly believe that God made the world good and that the series of covenants following the first one with Adam are meant to be “reparitive” ones aimed at the original culminating in the complete mending that is Jesus Christ on the Cross. We are a fixed people (and fixed by God taking a human nature and then sacrificing himself), and there are many parables of the Gospels that exemplify this (prodigal son, lost sheep, lost coin). Matter of fact, I would say the prodigal son is the greatest parable and would directly attest to the differences between completely retooling and fixing what is broken.
            I wouldn’t continue to go back-and-forth except that I think it’s of extreme importance to let the world know that their intuitive sense that they are good and the world they live in is good is at its base, a correct sense – they do not need to abandon themselves or the world they know and love, they merely need to understand what is broken and give themselves away to Jesus to fix it.

          • Directly influencing (say, by lobbying against the death penalty and abortion) and insisting on dominion (say, by insisting that civil marriage laws reflect Catholic canon law) are different things in my book.

            And as you might have picked up, I am not Catholic, and never was one, so my sympathies naturally ally with the Protestant ideas and writers I’ve encountered, and here I think Lewis, Kierkegaard and Spufford (those three weigh heavily in my thoughts right now) have a pretty deep insight. We are quite broken, and Jesus’ sacrifice is an act of transcendent love. It is not however, magic. However washed away our sins may be, the patterns of thought, habits of sin still persist. I do not think we need to abandon ourselves or the world, but rather the assumptions we all have about that world.

          • NicholasBeriah Cotta

            I don’t think Catholics would disagree that we are “quite broken” or that “habits of sin still persist.” We believe very much in those things (we’d probably call habits temptations), we just believe that humans can be in a state of grace. The “total depravity” theory out of protestantism I think combines a few heresies the Church has battled but personally I would characterize it overall as not recognizing Jesus’ full human nature. Jesus was fully human and just as human as any one of us, there was no special caveat to his humanity except for his sinlessness- he experienced everything from anger to sadness yet still lived a life totally without sin. I think that fact speaks to the innate goodness with which God made human nature in the first place. If we were totally depraved now, it would mean that either he would have made us tainted with sin from the beginning, or that Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross didn’t correct original sin. Although our temptations to sin still persist, we believe that Jesus gave us the power and the duty to resist them.
            But convo. for another day- you can have the last word, I will bow out and note that this conversation was much enjoyable. Thanks for that.

          • I’ve enjoyed this conversation as well, so thank you.

            I think of humanity as neither good nor evil, neither innately good or bad. It seems to me that taking a position on either proposition is unnecessary and unwise. Whatever it is we are however, it seems that we are but a shadow of what we could be: that is what it means to be a sinner. For Jesus to be fully human could imply many things, but I think in this case it implies that he was the perfect human, with all the temptations of man, or something very nearly like it. Jesus was supremely human. We are human, but pretty mediocre at it. Perhaps broken isn’t the right word nearly as the right word is incomplete, and sin only further corrodes from us from what we ought to be – what in a real sense we truly are.

            To see humanity as inherently good, especially because Jesus was good, leads down the same dangerous path that WWJD does. We are not called to worship the little gods of goodness within us, we are not called to be as Jesus. Rather we are called to be who Jesus wants us to be. The raising the dead and judging all flesh is for another. Every sinner – that us, all of us – wants that power. And all of us cannot have it, because we are not good, but rather merely human.

    • I don’t see anything there I disagree with.

      And your “black hole theory”, also known as apophaticism, has a very long and rich history in the Tradition. It’s absolutely right that we can’t understand the core truths of God and so we must go about them in indirect ways.

  • Mike

    If I give up my life for you, while subjectively I am giving up a lot, objectively, in the grand scheme of things, I’m not giving up much. For starters, I know I’m going to die at some point anyway, so why not do it with some panache and meaning

    Interesting perspective: He didn’t have to die he didn’t even have to become incarnate and enter into our world, he could’ve spent eternity in blissful union but he didn’t he came into the world as an infant in a poor family. If i die you’re right i know i will die anyway so the “sacrifice” is not comparable even though it is still great. An infinite being with an eternal soul who enters into the world to die for it bc he loves it that much is the thing that is most appealing about Christianity. That and the whole conquering death thing. On a side note i wonder why no variety of atheism has yet proposed an after-life, purely natural of course but still it would just for me go a long way to overcoming my obstacles to it generally speaking.

  • montanajack1948

    I know I’m dense about these things, so please continue to bear with me. If, as you say, “It is literally impossible for us to imagine the “delta”, the difference, between the bliss of the Son living in perfect harmony with the Father in the Trinity, and the suffering of the man Jesus on the Cross,” how can you then go on to characterize, in whatever way, the suffering and loss that Jesus (the Son) underwent? You can’t possibly know anything about “the bliss of the Son” etc. How can you know that his death was more of a sacrifice than anyone else’s, or his suffering? After all, Jesus knew he would rise from the grave in three days (he’d already predicted it), whereas not a single one of us human beings knows for certain what will happen to us after death.

    And how can you write that your life–or anyone’s–is, “in the grand scheme of things” not much? Doesn’t Christianity teach that God values each and every human life, that each is precious to him–yet you say a life is “not much” in the grand scheme of things? I thought Jesus died for each of us precisely because we matter to God beyond our own understanding.

    I do like the part about Jesus’ actions being voluntary, gracious, and gratuitous. But I am having a hard time grasping what may seem like elementary and obvious truths to faithful Christians, so again I apologize.

    • Thanks very much for your comments.

      I do believe you’re overthinking things a little bit.

      When I say it is impossible for us to imagine, I mean it is impossible for us to fully comprehend the extent of the deprivation that Jesus underwent on the Cross. But it doesn’t mean we can’t say /anything/ about it.

      And yes, absolutely, we are all beloved children of God, and so in the /grandest/ scheme of things, God’s design, all our lives matter a great deal. My point was that Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross, even under the framework of Moral Influence, has a greater meaning than any other selfless sacrifice of a person’s life.

    • Kasoy

      [It is literally impossible for us to imagine the “delta”, the difference, between the bliss of the Son living in perfect harmony with the Father in the Trinity, and the suffering of the man Jesus on the Cross]

      God is infinite in every aspect – thus His dignity (so is His bliss) is infinite. If we assign numerical values to bliss, we can put Jesus’ bliss at infinity being God (though quite unimaginable) and our own earthly bliss say at 1,000,000. The DELTA between infinity and 1,000,000 is still infinity. If we compare our earthly bliss with that of God, it comes close to nil (not much).

      Analogy: (assume that wealth and fame are measures of bliss)

      Compare the bliss of well-known multibillionaire to that of a homeless man who has only $20 in his pocket. If both suffer the loss of all their money and has to beg on the streets to survive, the pain and shame felt by the multibillionaire will be more intense than that of the homeless man. Now, imagine the loss, pain, and shame suffered by Someone whose wealth and fame are infinite. [Even if the multibillionaire was promised financial help by his multibillionaire son, say 3 years from now, the pain and shame he will endure is more intense during those 3 years of begging on the streets.]

      [I thought Jesus died for each of us precisely because we matter to God beyond our own understanding.]

      Jesus gave up His life not to save man’s mortal body from death and suffering, but for man’s soul to attain eternal life and bliss (although the mortal body will eventually have a share in the soul’s bliss in heaven on the Last Day according to Catholic doctrine). It is the soul that gives human life its infinite value (What profits a man to gain the whole world, but suffer the loss of his soul?) The soul is imprinted with God’s own image which gives it that infinite value which in turn justifies an infinite Being (Jesus) to give up His life for the salvation of souls. Man (body and soul) is created by God for the ultimate purpose of sharing in His eternal life and bliss.

      • montanajack1948

        Thank you. I’m trying not to overthink, but your analogy is helpful. Still, I’m just not convinced–on a visceral level–that God is or even can be vulnerable in the sense of feeling “loss, pain, and shame”. That, no doubt, merely reflects my limited understanding…but thanks.

        • Kasoy

          Yes, that is right. God in Spirit cannot feel pain. This is why Jesus became incarnate (ie, took flesh and became man). Jesus’ human body suffered physical pain just like any other human being. This what is called the hypostatic union of God’s divine nature and human nature. Jesus is both true God and true man. This is also one reason why man has a very high dignity because Jesus (the 2nd Person of the the Trinity) took the form, not of angels, but of man. This is one of the reasons for Satan’s intense envy that he wants to deprive man of eternal life and bliss with God. (source: The Dialogue of Catherine of Siena – Treatise of Discretion – benefit of the Incarnation – free online version:

  • mochalite

    John 10:17-18: “… I lay down My life that I may take it again. No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of Myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again….”

    So much for the “penal” part of substitutionary atonement. But the Moral Influence Theory has always been hard for me. It’s always felt like a limp handshake, when the Cross is blazing, unapproachable power.

    Having absorbed this post, I think now that it comes down to the name, as silly as that sounds. “Moral influence” sounds like what you do with your child when you’re given too much change at the store … You give it back and use the moment to teach a moral lesson, hoping the child will follow.

    But what moral lesson can we extract from the Cross (not being Jesus and not having the cosmos depending on us) and actually put into daily practice? I think you answered that, for which I thank you! Now, let’s change that name to the Daily Self-Sacrifice and Scapegoating Elimination Theory.

  • Joseph Rhea

    M. Gobry, thanks for calling attention to this dimension (I love Derek Rishmawy’s piece calling us to think of “dimensions” rather than “theories” of the atonement) of the atonement. It certainly has biblical merit (Philippians 2, John 15) and deserves more than chuck-it-because-liberals-touched-it attention from the historically orthodox.
    With Derek, I think PSA is a dimension of the atonement so vital that we really miss something when we neglect it. Isaiah 53 is one of the clearer pictures of it: “he was wounded for our iniquities, crushed for our transgressions,” which I think recalls both the Passover lamb and the Yom Kippur sacrifice (also Hebrews 9 – “without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness of sins”).
    I don’t know your historical interaction with this doctrine, but I’d encourage you to think about PSA not as God being forced to offer sacrifice based on an external standard of justice, but rather as God freely offering sacrifice based on an innate quality of both justice and mercy. The curse of sin merits death – always has, always will – but God freely provides a way by which he might bear death on our behalf.
    It’s similar to the address of that objection to God’s existence – God isn’t good because he conforms to an external standard of goodness, he’s good because goodness is an innate quality of his being. Goodness (and justice, and mercy, etc.) aren’t external compulsions, but internal fountains.

    • Joseph Rhea

      Euthyphro’s dilemma is what I was thinking of. Had to look it up.

  • The popular theory of atonement based on penal substitution is typically thought of as that ‘God’s justice requires payment for sin and that Christ’s death on the cross was that payment’. The emphasis is on JUSTICE.

    I’m curious to know which verses are used to support that God’s JUSTICE requires man to suffer in eternal hell. Again DEATH and HELL are very different things. Are there verses that show that show INFINITE GOD requires INFINITE punishment?

    It is also popularly believed that people ignorant of Jesus will burn in HELL as Justice. Humanly it seems injustice. While HELL is not the topic of focus it seems to be part of the atonement theories.

    The conflict comes as we battle over the character of God – Which is important to him: JUSTICE OR FORGIVENESS?

    The other Question why does God require BLOOD to forgive? Does the SIGHT of BLOOD of a SINLESS MAN Propitiate the Eternal God?