Atonement Theories

Dramatization of ancient Jewish priests with blood on their clothes preparing another sacrifice at the ancient temple in Jerusalem.

National Geographic has put together a 3-DVD set about the life of Jesus in a series called Science of the Bible.  Each DVD contains a different aspect of his life.  In a documentary called The Arrest, they document the ancient Jewish practices at the temple and events leading to his arrest.  The producers of the documentary strive for an incredible detail of historical accuracy.  They try to show the people were dressed at the time, exactly how the temple looked, the sacrifices that were offered.

Priest throwing “burnt offering” into fire. Notice the blood soaked wall in the foreground. Priests used to throw blood on the wall as part of the ritual.

While I know that ancient Jews offered animal sacrifices to atone for sin, actually viewing the sacrifices brought a bit of realism (and a bit of revulsion) to me.  The animal sacrifices were quite bloody, and seemed quite foreign to modern Christians.  It made me wonder about concepts of the atonement, and whether God really would require blood sacrifice.

I first wondered about the Jewish concept of Atonement.  I don’t claim to be an atonement expert, so I decided to check Wikipedia for a definition.  Simply put,

Atonement in Judaism is the process of causing a transgression to be forgiven or pardoned.

In Rabbinic Judaism, atonement is achieved through some combination of

  • repentance
  • Temple service (e.g. bringing a sacrifice, now not possible)
  • confession
  • restitution
  • the occurrence of Yom Kippur (the day itself, as distinct from the Temple service performed on it)
  • tribulations (unpleasant life experiences)
  • the carrying out of a sentence of corporal or capital punishment imposed by an ordained court (not now in existence)
  • the experience of dying.

Which of these are required varies according to several factors.

I can get behind the idea of repentance, and making amends for sin.  But did God really require the spilling of blood to atone for sin?  As we know, Jews in Jesus’ day often sacrificed animals as part of the repentance process, but I find such concepts foreign and strange.  I mean really, why does killing an animal satisfy God for a sin?  We talk about a the concept of a scapegoat, which comes from ancient Israel.  During the Day of Atonement, sins were symbolically transferred to a goat.  The goat is then sent into the desert and the community is symbolically cleansed from sin.

Such a concept of God seems very primitive to me.  In fact, many of the biblical practices of sacrifice seem quite primitive. I understand the purpose of sacrifice–as a way to show God that you will give your best, but these ancient practices seem really primitive.

Ancient peoples often sacrificed their children to their gods, as a way to appease them.

William Dever, Professor of Near Eastern Archaeology, University of Arizona, Child sacrifice was fairly common throughout the ancient near east. And in fact at Carthage in North Africa, a Jewish cemetery has been found with small urns containing the burned bones of infants and the inscriptions accompanying these burials make it clear that parents had sacrificed a child to one or another of the gods to bring them good fortune.

Dr. Mark Brettler, Associate Professor of Near Eastern Studies at Brandies University, As horrific as this might be to us, we can really see this as a very significant religious notion, where a person is coming and is saying to God, God you have given me that which is most valuable, namely a child. I am going to return it to you.


Would God require a human sacrifice, such as Christ?  The Bible claims that God told Abraham to kill his son Isaac (or Ishmael, if you’re Muslim.)  I’ve previously expressed my concern with the story of Abraham and Isaac.  I just don’t believe that God asked for Isaac’s life, and I am much more comfortable with some alternate versions of the story that I quoted in the link:

  • Rabbi Yosef Ibn Caspi (Spain, early 14th century) wrote that Abraham’s “imagination” led him astray, making him believe that he had been commanded to sacrifice his son. Ibn Caspi writes How could God command such a revolting thing?
  • According to Rabbi J. H. Hertz (Chief Rabbi of the British Empire), child sacrifice was actually rife among the Semitic peoples, and suggests that in that age, it was astounding that Abraham’s God should have interposed to prevent the sacrifice, not that He should have asked for it. Hertz interprets the Akedah as demonstrating to the Jews that human sacrifice is abhorrent. Unlike the cruel heathen deities, it was the spiritual surrender alone that God required.

As I turned to Wikipedia, there are some different view of the atonement in Christianity.   I’m trying to give brief definitions here, which is probably a bad idea, but I don’t want to go on and on.  Check out Wikipedia if you want more info on these theories.  Here are the main theories:

  1. Moral Influence
  2. Ransom
  3. Satisfaction
  4. Penal Substitution
  5. Governmental

Let’s review each of these theories briefly.

Moral Influence

In this view the core of Christianity is positive moral change, and the purpose of everything Jesus did was to lead humans toward that moral change. He is understood to have accomplished this variously through his teachings, example, founding of the Church, and the inspiring power of his martyrdom and resurrection. This view was universally taught by the Church Fathers in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD.[7][8][9]

the Eastern Orthodox view, which the proponents of that view maintain was also held in the early Church, states that Christ died not to fulfill God’s requirements or to meet His needs or demands, but to cleanse humanity, restore the Image of God in humankind, and defeat the power of death over humans from within.[1]


…the “ransom” or “Christus Victor” theory. “Christus victor” and “ransom” are slightly different from each other: in the ransom metaphor Jesus liberates mankind from slavery to Satan and thus death by giving his own life as a ransom. Victory over Satan consists of swapping the life of the perfect (Jesus), for the lives of the imperfect (mankind). The “Christus Victor” theory sees Jesus not used as a ransom but rather defeating Satan in a spiritual battle and thus freeing enslaved mankind by defeating the captor.

Essentially, this theory claimed that Adam and Eve sold humanity over to the Devil at the time of the Fall; hence, justice required that grace pay the Devil a ransom to free us from the Devil’s clutches. God, however, tricked the Devil into accepting Christ’s death as a ransom, for the Devil did not realize that Christ could not be held in the bonds of death. Once the Devil accepted Christ’s death as a ransom, this theory concluded, justice was satisfied and God was able to free us from Satan’s grip.[2]


In this picture mankind owes a debt not to Satan, but to sovereign God himself. A sovereign may well be able to forgive an insult or an injury in his private capacity, but because he is a sovereign he cannot if the state has been dishonoured. Anselm argued that the insult given to God is so great that only a perfect sacrifice could satisfy and Jesus, being both God and man, was this perfect sacrifice.

Penal Substitution

The next explanation, which was a development by the Reformers[12][13][14][15] of Anselm’s satisfaction theory,[16] is the commonly held Protestant “penal substitution theory,” which, instead of considering sin as an affront to God’s honour, sees sin as the breaking of God’s moral law. Placing a particular emphasis on Romans 6:23 (the wages of sin is death), penal substitution sees sinful man as being subject to God’s wrath with the essence of Jesus’ saving work being his substitution in the sinner’s place, bearing the curse in the place of man (Galatians 3:13).[17] A variation that also falls within this metaphor is Hugo Grotius “governmental theory“, which sees Jesus receiving a punishment as a public example of the lengths to which God will go to uphold the moral order.


The governmental theory teaches that Christ suffered for humanity so that God could forgive humans apart from punishment while still maintaining divine justice….

The satisfaction and punishment theories argue that Jesus received the full and actual punishment due to men and women while the Christus Victor view emphasizes the liberation of humanity from the bondage of sin, death, and the Devil.

By contrast, governmental theory holds that Christ’s suffering was a real and meaningful substitute for the punishment humans deserve, but it did not consist of Christ receiving the exact punishment due to sinful people. Instead, God publicly demonstrated his displeasure with sin through the suffering of his own sinless and obedient Son as a propitiation. Christ’s suffering and death served as a substitute for the punishment humans might have received. On this basis, God is able to extend forgiveness while maintaining divine order, having demonstrated the seriousness of sin and thus allowing his wrath to “pass over.” This view is very similar to the satisfaction view and the penal substitution view, in that all three views see Christ as satisfying God’s requirement for the punishment of sin. However, the government view disagrees with the other two in that it does not affirm that Christ endured the precise punishment that sin deserves or its equivalent; instead, Christ’s suffering is seen as being simply an alternative to that punishment. In contrast, penal substitution holds that Christ endured the exact punishment, or the exact “worth” of punishment, that sin deserved; the satisfaction theory states that Christ paid back at least as much honor to God as sin took from Him). It is important to note, however, that these three views all acknowledge that God cannot freely forgive sins without any sort of punishment or satisfaction being exacted.

How do the LDS fit within these concepts of atonement?  Wikipedia says the LDS

doctrine of the atonement [is] complementary to the substitutionary atonement concept.

It goes on to explain that LDS believe the Atonement began in the Garden of Gethsemane, and that “Christ’s infinite atonement was required to satisfy the demands of justice based on eternal law, rendering Him Mediator, Redeemer, and Advocate with the Father.”

Do you think Wikipedia is correct concerning LDS beliefs?


2 comments on “Atonement Theories

  1. I need to think about this a lot more, but one of my favorite ideas lately re: the Atonement was by Thomas Merton:

    “The Christ we find in ourselves is not identified with what we vainly seek to admire and idolize in ourselves—on the contrary, he has identified himself with what we resent in ourselves, for he has taken upon himself or wretchedness and our misery, our poverty and our sins… God meets the human condition where it stands most in need, in its poverty and brokenness, and as we make our pilgrim way… we will certainly meet what we resent most in ourselves.”

    Is that in line with the “moral influence” theory? I don’t see the atonement in legalistic sense of meeting demands or Christ “taking one for the team” so to speak, but rather as Christ basically going through the ultimate act of empathy, which, however, IS “required” or “demanded” by God because it is necessary. Moving this to a personal level, I don’t think people can change very well without someone else to be “for and with” them in their dark places or pain or fear, etc. Christ, through the Atonement, provided that, I think. The “demands of justice” to me are just another way of saying, “we all need someone to meet us where we are at – without it we cannot grow (damned).

  2. Shenpa, good to see you! I think my biggest problem with “law of justice/mercy” is that it is a ‘legalistic sense of meeting demands or Christ “taking one for the team” so to speak’. It just doesn’t ring as godly to me. I think that’s why “moral influence” appeals most to me.

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