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For much of this year, I’ve been teaching about the cross, what it means, what it achieved, and how it has impacted our everyday lives hundreds of years since the event. The cross is central to the Christian faith. Without the death and resurrection of Jesus, our faith is futile.
Much of the New Testament was written to explain the reasons for the cross, and, as my recent teaching series has explored, there is not just one intention in the cross. The problem arises when we attempt to simplify the cross of Jesus and illuminate one truth above another. Overly simplistic statements emerge that claim, “THIS is why Jesus died.”
Because of this propensity, several theories about the cross have arisen. Many contain nuggets of truth; some are left wanting, while others are just plain wrong. So, let’s explore these atonement theories.
Penal Substitution Theory
The first sermon in the Cross-Examined series was titled “Did God Kill Jesus?” The message addressed this atonement theory which teaches God’s justice demanded the death of Jesus for him to forgive people of their sins. It was popularised during the Reformation and went something like this:
God loves you but is also angry with you because of your sin. Because God is just, he cannot simply forgive you. God’s justice must be satisfied. And so, because he loves you, he punished his Son instead of you. Jesus’ death on the cross appeased God’s wrath. You no longer need to bear God’s wrath if you believe this. If you reject this, you must take the punishment of God’s anger both now and forever. In summary, God killed Jesus for your benefit.
This theory makes God somehow less than God. God loves you and wants to save you, but he can’t until his justice is satisfied. See the problem? It makes justice greater than God. Justice is in charge here, and God becomes its servant.
Irenaeus proposed the Recapitulation theory in the second century. To recapitulate means “to go over the same ground again, to repeat or reiterate.” The theory suggests that Jesus went over the same ground as Adam, only he did it in perfect obedience. The Recapitulation Theory has ground in scripture, especially in Paul’s letters (Cf. 1 Cor. 15:22, 45; Romans 5:13-19).
The problem arises when this concept is pressed too far by saying that Jesus identified in every way with the first Adam, including experiencing sin. The Scriptures are emphatic that Jesus never sinned (1 Peter 2:22), even when experiencing temptation (Hebrews 4:15).
During the middle ages, Anselm (an Italian Benedictine monk and Archbishop of Canterbury from 1093 to 1109) suggested the Satisfaction Theory of atonement. The theory is based on the feudal system of Anselm’s time. “In feudal society, an offender was required to make recompense, or satisfaction, to the one offended according to that person’s status. Thus, a crime against a king would require more satisfaction than a crime against a baron or a serf.” A crime (sin) against the eternal God requires the ultimate satisfaction of eternal death. But Jesus satisfied that requirement on the cross.
The satisfaction theory, a central tenet of Roman Catholic theology, virtually ignores Jesus’ actual substitution for sinners: his death on their behalf.
Moral Influence Theory
Another medieval theory was introduced by French philosopher and theologian Peter Abelard as a reaction against Anselm’s satisfaction theory. Abelard rejected the notion of God as offended, harsh, and judgmental and focused instead on God’s love. According to Abelard, “Jesus died as the demonstration of God’s love,” a demonstration that can change the hearts and minds of sinners, turning back to God.
I agree with Abelard that the most crucial reason Jesus died was to demonstrate God’s extravagant love. But I don’t think that’s the only reason for the cross.
The Example Theory was propagated by Faustus Socinus, an Italian theologian, during the 16th-century Reformation. This theory (also dubbed the Moral or Martyr Theory) suggests that the cross was an example of obedience that should move people to regret their sins and live like Christ. The theory is popular amongst universalists who must perform theological gymnastics to explain away so much of the New Testament to embrace this idea.
Dutch lawyer and philosopher Hugo Grotius made this view famous in the 16th century in reaction to Socinus’s example theory. Grotius taught “that Christ upheld the principle of Government in God’s law by making a token payment for sin through His death.”
The Governmental Theory holds that Christ’s suffering was a real and meaningful substitute for the punishment humans deserve. Still, it did not consist of Christ receiving the exact punishment due to sinful people. The cross allows God to forgive sin. And this is problematic because any theory of atonement that makes God subservient to something else – his wrath or justice – should be rejected. God is no longer sovereign if he can’t forgive people without the cross. His wrath or justice becomes supreme.
Ransom to Satan Theory
First proposed by Origen in the early third century, this opinion holds that people are held captive by Satan, like prisoners of war (cf. 1 John 5:19). Origen taught that at the cross, a ransom was paid, not to God, but to Satan, based on verses like Matthew 20:28, “just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Cf. 1 Tim 2:6; Heb. 9:15). But there is no hint in scripture that the ransom was paid to Satan. God would be indebted to Satan if this were the case. We were bound to sin, and Jesus paid the price to free us. Paul put it this way, “having cancelled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross.” (Col. 2:14).
There’s one more notion of Christ’s atonement that I’d like to spend some time on, the Limited Atonement Theory. I’ll make that the topic of next week’s blog.
None of the atonement theories adequately explain the many reasons for the cross. For a fuller explanation of Jesus’ death, I invite you to watch the Cross-Examined series.