Over the past week, there has been a lot of focus on the internet about Rob Bell’s new book coming out on March 15 called Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. Controversy has surrounded the premise of his book before anyone has even had a chance to read it. From what I understand, Bell is being accused by some of universalism because he believes that at the end of the day, the love of God as enacted through the person of Jesus Christ will ultimately defeat sin. While I have yet to read Rob Bell’s book and form my own judgment based upon actually reading it (though I will likely read it as soon as it comes out), what I want to suggest that what is at the heart of this controversy is differing understandings of Christ’s atoning work. What exactly does Christ accomplish through his life and death and resurrection? Atonement is a word that actually means at-one-ment. It indicates a harmony, a reconciliation. How does Christ actually bring humanity back into right relationship with God?
I want to share briefly with you four major ways that the Church has conceptualized Christ’s atoning work over the centuries, so this post will be a basic primer in atonement theory. This will enable a more informed conversation raised by the questions surrounding Rob Bell’s book, which are extremely important questions for Christians to ask: What is the nature of heaven and hell? How does Christ reconcile us to God? What is salvation? So now the four major theories of atonement:
Christus Victor: The Christus Victor theory of atonement, which was classically known as the ransom theory, was the dominant understanding of Christ’s saving work for the first thousand years of the Church. In this understanding, the atonement is viewed as divine conflict and victory over the hostile powers that hold humanity in subjection. Christ came, entered into human existence, into the sinful world, to liberate us and ultimately defeat the bonds of sin and death. Christ himself was the ransom paid to free the world being held hostage by sin. This theory of atonement is not so much about a transaction made between Christ and God on behalf of humanity, but more about Christ triumphing over evil.
Satisfaction Theory: This understanding of atonement was first put forth by St. Anselm in the 11th century. In his view, human sin resulted in offending God’s honor. God’s offended honor and dignity could only be satisfied by the sacrifice of the God-man, Jesus Christ. Anselm believed that humans could not render to God what was due to him. The satisfaction due to God was greater than what all created beings are capable of doing. Therefore, God had to make satisfaction for himself. Yet if this satisfaction was going to be for humans, it had to be made by a human. Therefore only a being that was both God and man could satisfy God and give him the honor that is due him. Christ, in this way, fulfilled both requirements of making satisfaction between humanity and God. The satisfaction theory became prevalent and eventually the substitutionary theory of atonement grew out of it.
Moral Influence: The moral influence theory says that Christ died to influence humankind toward moral improvement. This theory denies that Christ died to satisfy any principle of divine justice, but teaches instead that his death was designed to greatly impress humankind with a sense of God’s love, resulting in softening their hearts and leading them to repentance. Thus, the atonement is not directed towards God with the purpose of maintaining justice, but towards people with the purpose of persuading them to right action. This theory was first formulated by Abelard in the 11th century.
Substitutionary Atonement: This view was formulated by the 16th century Reformers as an extension of Anselm’s satisfaction theory. The Reformers, however, saw his satisfaction theory as insufficient because it was referenced to God’s honor rather than his justice and holiness and was offered more in terms of a commercial transaction than a penal substitution. The substitutionary atonement theory says simply that Christ died for humanity, taking their place, taking their sins and bearing them for them. The bearing of humanity’s sins takes the punishment for them and sets the believer free from the penal demands of the law: The righteousness of the law and the holiness of God are satisfied by this substitution. This is dominant understanding of the atonement in most Protestant and evangelical circles today.
This is just a very basic overview of the four major theories of atonement that have been held by Western Christianity over the centuries, but I hope it can serve as a foundation for further questions about the nature of Christ’s saving work.
Which of these atonement theories has been your dominant way of understanding Christ’s work? Has your understanding changed over your lifetime?