I object to the idea that Jesus needed to die on a cross to pay for my sins. For one thing, I object to the way individual sin is conceptualized. Yes, people do unkind and hateful things, but the entire framework of “sin” (and what counts as sin) and the penalty for sin (eternal torture) is fatally flawed. There are much better—and less traumatizing—ways of approaching humanity. For another thing, I object to the idea that an innocent man’s death can in some way pay the price for my own shortcomings. It offends my sense of fairness and justice.
This understanding of Christ’s death is called penal substitutionary atonement.
I have seen many atheists criticize penal substitutionary atonement as though in doing so they are criticizing Christianity as a whole. That is not in fact the case. Penal substitutionary atonement is only one way of understanding Christ’s death. More than that, it is less than five hundred years old—a relative newcomer to the scene—and is held by a minority of Christians today. According to Wikipedia:
In Christian theology, atonement describes how human beings can be reconciled to God. In western Christian theology the atonement refers to the forgiving or pardoning of sin through the death and resurrection of Jesus, which made possible the reconciliation between God and his creation. Within Christianity there are, historically, three or four main theories for how such atonement might work:
1. Ransom theory/Christus Victor (which are different, but generally considered together as Patristic or “classical”, to use Gustaf Aulen‘s nomenclature, theories, it being argued that these were the traditional understandings of the early Church Fathers);
4. The penal substitution theory (which is a refinement of the Anselmian satisfaction theory developed by the Protestant Reformers, especially John Calvin [1509—1564], and is often treated together with the satisfaction view, giving rise to the “four main types” of atonement theories – classical or patristic, scholastic, and idealistic – spoken of by Aulen).
In other words, not only is penal substitutionary atonement not the only Christian understanding of Christ’s death, it is also not the oldest understanding. What do these different theories actually mean? Let’s look at each for a moment.
The ransom theory of atonement is one of the main doctrines in western Christian theology relating to the meaning and effect of the death of Jesus Christ. The first major theory of the atonement, the ransom theory of atonement originated in the early Church, particularly in the work of Origen [184—253]. The theory teaches that the death of Christ was a ransom sacrifice, usually said to have been paid to Satan, in some views paid to God the Father, in satisfaction for the bondage and debt on the souls of humanity as a result of inherited sin.
In other words, the price was paid not to satisfy God’s anger or judgment, but to buy humanity back from enslavement to the devil. When I first read this theory, I was taken aback by how different it is from what I was taught growing up. The idea that Christ was paying Satan rather than God is fascinating. And then I realized something. I have heard this before! In the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Aslan hands himself over to the White Witch to die as a ransom for Edmund, who had fallen under the White Witch’s power. This was portrayed not as a punishment for sins committed but as a sort of ransom or prisoner exchange. Whether he realized it or not, C. S. Lewis was portraying a ransom theory of atonement.
The term Christus Victor refers to a Christian understanding of the atonement which views Christ‘s death as the means by which the powers of evil, which held humankind under their dominion, were defeated. It is a model of the atonement that is dated to the Church Fathers, and it, or the related ransom theory, was the dominant theory of the atonement for a thousand years, until it was removed in the West by the eleventh-century Archbishop of Canterbury, Anselm [1033—1109], and replaced with his “satisfaction” model.
For a thousand years Christians believed Christ’s death had been a defeat of the powers of evil, or a ransom payment to redeem humankind from the power of the devil. The idea that Christ was a substitute for humankind, receiving God’s punishment and wrath in our place, was absent from Christianity. You can even see this in Christian art, such as this mosaic from the 6th century:
It’s interesting to note that depictions of Christ’s crucifixion did not begin to appear in Christian art until the 4th century. Before this, depictions centered on a living Christ and minimized Christ’s suffering. I’m not completely sure how this fits with different views of atonement, but I’m sure there’s interplay.
Moving on, I know progressive Christians today who draw strongly on this “Christus Victor” image. Indeed, this image is very common in liberation theology. Christ was not dying for individual sins or even individual people. Rather, through his death he dealt a decisive blow to the forces of evil. And for a thousand years of Christianity, this was the dominant view.
The moral influence view of the atonement teaches that the purpose and work of Jesus Christ was to bring positive moral change to humanity. This moral change came through the teachings and example of Jesus, the Christian movement he founded, and the inspiring effect of his martyrdom and resurrection. It is one of the oldest views of the atonement in Christian theology and a prevalent view for most of Christian history. However, the fact that the concept of God’s redemptive love in Jesus was prevalent even among writers in the early church, resulted in some scholars claiming that the moral influence theory was universally taught in the second and third centuries. . . . Some writers also taught other atonement models in conjunction with it, but Wallace and Rusk claim that the majority of Christian writers in the second and third centuries AD expressed only the moral influence view.
When progressive or liberal or mainline Christians talk about the importance of Christ as an example and downplay the substitutionary nature of Christ’s death on the cross, they are not in fact abandoning traditional Christianity for some empty world of “modernism” as I was taught. Instead, they’re actually returning to some of the earliest of Christian teachings.
The satisfaction view of the atonement is a theory in Christian theology related to the meaning and effect of the death of Jesus Christ and has been traditionally taught in Western Christianity, specifically in the Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and Reformed circles. . . . Drawing primarily from the works of Anselm of Canterbury [1033—1109], the satisfaction theory teaches that Christ suffered as a substitute on behalf of humankind satisfying the demands of God’s honor by his infinite merit. Anselm regarded his satisfaction view of the atonement as a distinct improvement over the older ransom theory of the atonement, which he saw as inadequate. Anselm’s theory was a precursor to the refinements of Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin which introduced the idea of punishment to meet the demands of divine justice.
So here you finally, after a thousand years, have the idea that Christ in his death was a substitute for humankind. Before this, this idea was absent.
Penal substitution (sometimes, esp. in older writings, called forensic theory) is a theory of the atonement within Christian theology, developed with the Reformed tradition. It argues that Christ, by his own sacrificial choice, was punished (penalised) in the place of sinners (substitution), thus satisfying the demands of justice so God can justly forgive the sins. It is thus a specific understanding of substitutionary atonement, where the substitutionary nature of Jesus‘ death is understood in the sense of a substitutionary punishment.
In other words, the idea that Christ in his death on the cross was being punished in our place only developed with the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s and the teachings of Martin Luther and John Calvin.
It’s worth pausing to differentiate between Anselm’s satisfaction theory and the Reformation’s penal substitution.
The classic Anselmian formulation of the satisfaction view should be distinguished from penal substitution. Both are forms of satisfaction theory in that they speak of how Christ’s death was satisfactory, but penal substitution and Anselmian satisfaction offer different understandings of how Christ’s death was satisfactory. Anselm speaks of human sin as defrauding God of the honour he is due. Christ’s death, the ultimate act of obedience, brings God great honour. As it was beyond the call of duty for Christ, it is more honour than he was obliged to give. Christ’s surplus can therefore repay our deficit. Hence Christ’s death is substitutionary; he pays the honour to the Father instead of us. Penal substitution differs in that it sees Christ’s death not as repaying God for lost honour but rather paying the penalty of death that had always been the moral consequence for sin. The key difference here is that for Anselm, satisfaction is an alternative to punishment, “The honor taken away must be repaid, or punishment must follow.” By Christ satisfying our debt of honor to God, we avoid punishment. In Calvinist Penal Substitution, it is the punishment which satisfies the demands of justice.
The distinction may look small, but it’s huge. Growing up on the idea of penal substitutionary atonement myself, I saw a huge influenced placed on the idea of punishment. Sin must be punished, and God had to punish someone, so Jesus stepped in and God punished him instead of us. But under Anselm’s satisfaction theory, Christ is not being punished at all. Instead, Christ is giving honor to God through his selfless sacrifice of his own life, and thus making up for the deficit in honor humankind has been giving God. This view may be seen as a precursor to penal substitutionary atonement, and definitely laid the groundwork, but is not identical.
Finally, let’s look at one of the other views mentioned, outside of the big four.
The recapitulation theory of the atonement is a doctrine in Christian theology related to the meaning and effect of the death of Jesus Christ. Although sometimes absent from summaries of atonement theories, generally overviews of the history of the doctrine of the atonement include a section about the “recapitulation” view of the atonement, which was first clearly formulated by Irenaeus [early second century—202]. . . . In the recapitulation view of the atonement, Christ is seen as the new Adam who succeeds where Adam failed. Christ undoes the wrong that Adam did and, because of his union with humanity, leads humankind on to eternal life (including morality).
This view sees Christ as simply the second Adam, fixing the offkilter tilt that resulted from Adam’s actions. This definitely creates an interesting mental image! And here’s the thing: Christian theologians are not done playing around with these ideas. As a child, I thought that Christians had always believed that through his death on the cross Christ sacrificially took our punishment for our sins upon himself, and that anyone who interpreted his death differently (seeing Christ as just as an example, say) had been led astray into modernism and away from the truth of Christianity. How limited that understanding was!
Several years ago, shortly after leaving religion entirely, I read a whole slew of books by Bart Ehrman. I read others, too, books of the writings of the founding fathers and books about the early church. In some ways this was a continuation of my foray into Catholicism, when I turned to the writings of the church fathers on matters such as communion and baptism. What I read absolutely fascinated me and made me realize that essentially everything I’d been taught about Christianity as an evangelical was false. Christianity and Christian theology and ideas have an incredibly long, complex, and varied history. There is no monolithic “Christianity” and never has been.
Today, Catholics tend to hold the satisfaction theory of atonement, Protestants penal substitution, and Eastern Orthodox recapitulation theory. However, there is still variation within each of these. Many progressive Protestants today reach back to the Christus Victor view of atonement or combine the older theories in various ways, and some mainline Christians adopted the moral influence theory a century ago. Even the Catholic church has never elevated its satisfaction theory to the level of dogma. Pope Benedict XVI preached not only against penal substitutionary atonement but also against satisfaction theory, and much in Catholicism continues to harken back to Christus Victor.
I still think penal substitutionary atonement is both unjust and a toxic framework for approaching humanity. But you know what? So did Pope Benedict XVI:
[I]t is an unworthy concept of God to imagine a God who demands the slaughter of his Son to pacify his wrath. God must not be thought of in this way. Such a concept of God has nothing to do with the idea of God to be found in the New Testament.
In other words, I recognize that the toxic framework for approaching humanity that is substitutionary atonement is not common to all of Christianity, whether today or in the past. Next time you’re going to engage with a Christian on this topic, especially a Catholic or a progressive Protestant, it’s worth asking their view of Christ’s sacrifice—and the role it played—rather than automatically assuming that they believe in penal substitutionary atonement—because they might not.