A year ago, around Lent, a competition was announced on emergent village for people to rethink the meaning of the Cross of Jesus. Several new ideas emerged, together with some fresh reflection on the issue, and an interesting interview with Mark Baker and Tony Jones. I would like at this time of thinking about the Cross, to present a visualised framework, which might help us to come to terms with something much debated through the ages, the issue of Atonement.

Most accept the doctrines of their tradition without much deeper thought. Those who delve into the question  of Atonement begin to discover that its not a simple issue, on a theological level. And many people are surprised to discover that there have been and are in fact many theories of Atonement over the centuries.

A basic definition

Atonement is about the means of Salvation, the mechanism of “becoming saved”, if you will, and the way in which sin is overcome. It is a word introduced by William Tyndale who could not find an appropriate English equivalent to the Hebrew כִּפּר (kapar– cover over, related to Yom Kippur, The Day of Atonement). Essentially meaning the state of being “at one”, hence at-one-ment. According to Millard Erikson’s Christian Theology, it involves 4 elements

  • Sacrifice: blood must be shed.
  • Substitution: blood is shed on behalf of another.
  • Propitiation: wrongdoing (or sin) is punished.
  • Reconciliation, in that the separated parties are brought back together.

The theories in a nutshell

The following are the main historical theories in brief.

Ransom (R)
What God pays a ransom to Satan who holds mankind captive through sin. 
Who Origen (2nd Century), Gregory of Nyssa
Notes The earliest and so-called “classic” theory of the Christian era, most closely allied to the Old Testament sacrificial context. Texts: The Son of Man came … to give his life as a ransom for the many. [Mark 10:45]For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all men [1 Tim 2:5]


Christus Victor (CV)
What Jesus defeats Satan in the battle for the soul of mankind.
Who Gustaf Aulén (1931)
Notes A modern revisioning of the ransom theory with emphasis on Gods victory rather than on Satan, expressed in a military metaphor. Texts: And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross. [Col 2:15], He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. [1 Cor 15:57]


Satisfaction (S)
What Via Christ’s satisfying our debt, Gods honour is upheld/satisfied, and punishment avoided.
Who Anselm 11C
Notes From the age of chivalry, centred on maintaining honor.


Penal Substitution (PS)
What The necessary legal punishment for sin is carried out on Christ instead of man.
Who Aquinas 13C, Calvin 16C
Notes A development of the satisfaction theory, with the emphasis on punishment. Texts: The wages of sin is death [Romans 6:23], Bearing the curse in the place of man.[ Gal. 3:13]


Governmental (G)
What The Cross, in meeting the needs of justice, upholds the moral order in the universe.
Who Hugo Grotius 17C
Notes Developed in the context of modern legal systems of thought, and emphasizing God’s moral government, making punishment unnecessary.


Example  (EG)
What Rather than requiring substitutionary sacrifice, God in the Cross forgives absolutely, and this gives us a perfect example to follow.
Who Socinus 16C
Notes Text: To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. [1 Peter 2:21]


Moral Influence (MI)
What The cross has power to influence our behaviour and attitudes.
Who Abelard 11C, Rushdall (1915)
Notes Emphasizes the healing of the souls of men over Gods demand for satisfaction for offence.


Expiation (X)
What The cross transforms mankind to be more like God, rather than satisfying divine demands.
Who The dominant view of Eastern Orthodoxy, also called theosis.
Notes Athanasius said, “God became man so that man might become God.”

These are by no means the only theories of atonement. Others include the identificationary, sacramental, declaratory, guaranty , vicarious repentance , accident, and martyr theories.

A Framework, not a new theory.

Rather than being about the specifics of the various theories, this is a framework by which we can compare them in order to get a perspective that goes beyond our biases or traditions. It is assumed that an appropriate study would delve into the individual theories in far more depth.

To begin, let us identify 2 axes – a range of possible values – which represent the key factors in any discussion.

The first is the “focus” aspect. In this we ask “What is the focus of Atonement?” I suggest that on the one extreme we have  a focus on a higher power, an authority, who must be satisfied. This mostly refers to God, but as we will see, may refer to Satan as well. This extreme I shall label “Satisfy power”.

On the other extreme, we have a focus on transforming the world. This transformation includes the salvation of humans, their ongoing sanctification, and also might include all of creation.


The second aspect is the “mode”. This is the means in which Atonement is achieved. At the one extreme we have “Law”. This means that atonement can be achieved by obedience to precepts, mostly those written down as in the Law of Moses. At the other extreme, we have freedom. This freedom includes grace, and the freedom to do good, but also must include the freedom to do ill, as in war. After all, “all is fair in love and war” (John Lyly’s ‘Euphues’, 1578). All forms of freedom represent a loss of power of the law.

the mode of atonement



The cross as a grid

When we bring these two aspects together, we aptly get a cross which gives a 2 dimensional  grid:


This enables us to identify areas which fall in certain places, by viewing the grid as a “quadrilateral”, or a set of 4 squares. Also, we can give a name to each quadrant, representing a myth of atonement. These myths are the judge, the hero, the citizen, and the lover:


  • The judge ensures that the law is upheld, via punishment if necessary.
  • The hero is either valiant in battle or sacrificial in service.
  • The citizen upholds the order in society.
  • The lover transforms because of freely giving themselves for the beloved.

 Applying the theories

The framework now provides the backdrop against which we can examine existing theories of Atonement. To do so we ask the questions “What is this theory’s focus: does it revolve around satisfying a higher power, or around transforming us or our world?”, and “What is the mode whereby this is achieved, is it legalistic and inflexible, or does it involve a degree of choice and freedom?” Then we can place it onto the grid according to how it measures up in terms of these various aspects.

This is where the real debate begins. If we agree on the terms of the framework, then we need to try to place each theory on the grid. This placement is but one example.


Penal Substitution (P) and Ransom (R) are in the quadrant of the judge, as they operate via law rather than grace, and have as their focus the appeasement of God’s Wrath and Justice (P), or a payment to Satan (R).

Christus Victor (CV) also holds God as the focus, but changes the mode to one of the freely offered heroic defeat of Satan. Likewise the Satisfaction (S) theory sees this sacrificial act as satisfying Gods honour.

The Governmental theory (G) is like Penal Substitution, interested in the upholding of law, but its focus is on man and the order of society, and thus appears in the citizen quadrant.

Expiation (X), Example (EG) and Moral Influence (MI) likewise focus on transforming man and the world. These theories do not see the Atonement as an objective end in itself, but having a direct bearing on the behaviour of man.

Aiming for balance

If any clarity is emerging, it will be each atonement theory emphasizes certain aspects of God, at the expense of others. A balanced view will need to embrace at least some of each aspect of atonement: judge, hero, citizen, lover.

quad_targetIn this framework, it is suggested that our vision of atonement contains aspects from each quadrant, that there is present the judge, hero, citizen and lover.

This balanced perspective is what Scot McKnight in “A community called Atonement”, tries to achieve in his golf-bag metaphor, in which he says that each theory is like a club, which can be used in particular situations – driving, roughing, putting. To play a balanced game of golf they are all necessary. Another metaphor sees them as flowers in a vase – the more flowers, the more beautiful the whole arrangement. And Phyllis Tickle uses a similar swirling “rose”  motif in her visualisation of “The Great Emergence”.

But it must be noted, (and this is a matter of cultural and theological interpretation), there is one theory which has held sway over the last few centuries: Penal Substitution. As such, what we might do is add one more step in this process, and that is a counter bias, with the aim of regaining an “orthodoxy” in our thinking: quad_bias

That is, to place more emphasis on freedom and grace, instead of law, and to side more with the lover of our souls than the judge, or even the hero or citizen. While not abandoning the requirements of Gods law,  (and the various harsher aspects of atonement – sacrifice, substitution and propitiation), we need to view the goal of the cross as more about reconciliation, love and grace, than punishment.

To hold stubbornly onto a view of a God who needs to be appeased by emphasizing justice over mercy, we not only ignore the progressive revelation of God in Christ, but fall foul of the simple age old injunction, reiterated by Jesus himself, “But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.””