Views on the Atonement

[Articles in the Multiple Views series are intended to present various views held by Christians, in an objective and unbiased manner]

“Whereas the orthodox view concerning Jesus Christ as one person in two natures was established in the early creeds of Christendom, there was at no time the elaboration of an official view of the Atonement. The most that was said in this regard was that Christ “for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven.”” [1]

Below we will examine different views of the atonement which have cropped up through the ages. Specific ones considered include

i) Ransom to Satan
ii) Satisfaction to God
iii) Moral Influence on Man
iv)  Governmental Theory

Overview & Proponents
A) Ransom to Satan 1) Overview: The atonement is “a victory over Satan procured through the ransom of Christ.” [1], or

“… the ransom Christ paid to redeem us was paid to Satan, in whose kingdom all people were by virtue of sin.” [2]

2) Those who held to this view

“Among those who, in varying ways, set forward this view were Origen (c. 185-254), Gregory of Nyssa (331-96), Augustine (in part) (345-430), and Pope Gregory the Great (540-604).” [1]

Peter Lombard (c. 1100-1164)

B) Satisfaction to God  1) Overview: God became man in Jesus Christ to render proper satisfaction to the impugned honor of God.

2) Those who held to this view

Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109): “Every one who sins ought to pay back the honor of which he has robbed God; and this is the satisfaction which every sinner owes to God” [3]

C) Moral Influence on man  1) Overview: The suffering and death of Christ is the ultimate demonstration of God’s love and mercy which intends to evoke from us the response of love [4], or

It hold that “God did not require the payment of penalty for sin, but that Christ’s death was simply a way in which God showed how much he loved human beings by identifying with their sufferings, even to the point of death. Christ’s death therefore becomes a great teaching example that shows God’s love to us and draws from us a grateful response, so that in loving him we are forgiven. ” [2]

2) Those who held to this view

Peter Abelard (1079-1142): “God in Christ has united our human nature to himself and, by suffering in that same nature, has demonstrated to us that perfection of love … So we, through his grace, are joined to him as closely as to our neighbor by an indissoluble bond of affection.” [5]

D) Governmental Theory  1) Overview: Christ’s death was a demonstration of the fact that God’s laws had been broken, and as the moral lawgiver and governor of the universe, some kind of penalty would be required whenever His laws were broken [6], or

God is viewed as the “Lawgiver who both enacts and sustains law in the universe … The Law states unequivocally: “The soul that sins shall die.” Strict justice requires the eternal death of sinners.” [21]

2) Those who held to this view

Hugo Grotius (1583-1645)


A) Ransom to Satan “Since Jesus had said he came to “give his life as a ransom for many,” there must have been someone to whom the ransom was paid. The answer, these churchmen held, was Satan, since he held humanity captive until Christ came.

From this perspective the death of Christ was a kind of deal worked out between God and the devil, namely that He would turn over His Son to Satan in exchange for the release of all the souls held captive by him.

Hence when Christ died on the cross and descended into hell, Satan thought he had his price at last. However (and here Satan the ancient deceiver was himself deceived), try as hard as he might, he could not hold Christ fast. Christ’s humanity he sought to destroy, but His divinity Satan could not overcome.” [1]

B) Satisfaction to God “This dishonor of God cannot simply be overlooked or forgiven; it calls for either punishment or satisfaction on the part of the sinner.

However, if punishment is not to occur and satisfaction instead is to be made and sin put away, that satisfaction cannot be accomplished by man because his sin against the infinite God is infinite in character. Accordingly only one who is God can provide this vast satisfaction.

But since man owes it, it must also come from within humanity. This is why God became man in Jesus Christ to make an offering sufficient to satisfy God’s honor.” [7]

C) Moral Influence on man Abelard:  “We are impartially justified by this manifestation of God’s grace.” [5]

“Our redemption through Christ’s suffering is that deeper affection in us which not only frees us from slavery to sin, but also wins for us the true liberty of sons of God, so that we do all things out of love rather than fear …” [8]

Abelard: “… the obstacle [between God and man] rests entirely in man. All that is needed is for man truly to behold the love and benevolence of God and allow his hardened heart to be transformed thereby.” [4]

“In the Incarnation and the Cross we see a demonstration of God’s overwhelming love. This vision moves us to gratitude and love and therefore incites repentance, faith, and a desire to change our behaviour.” [19]

D) Governmental Theory “… God inflicted pain on Christ for the sins of the world in order to uphold his justice and holiness. Christ’s suffering was equivalent to any sinner’s deserved punishment so that God could forgive while at the same time being wholly just and holy.” [9]

Christ’s death was “a public example of the depth of sin and the lengths to which God would go to uphold the moral order of the universe.” [22]

“The effects of His death do not bear on us directly, only secondarily, in that Christ did not die in our place but only in our behalf. The primary focus was not saving sinners but upholding the Law. In the Cross, God showed He can abominate lawlessness and at the same time maintain the Law and forgive the lawless.” [21]


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