All atonement theories are ways of explaining the centrality of Jesus’ death in the New Testament. All of the theories explain why Jesus died and how that equates the freedom from sin for those who believe. The best of the theories would: a. Be a “fit” for almost all of the Biblical passages that speak about Jesus’ death and the forgiveness of sins; b. Be a “fit” for the cultures of the New Testament church and c. Be a “fit” for the overall teaching—theological and moral—of all the New Testament writers.
1. Ransom or Christus Victor Theory
Idea: Jesus’ death was a payment to Satan to obtain the nations. Satan had rulership of all the nations because they were under his judgment for rejecting God. God set Satan up to kill Jesus, thus providing the payment of death for judgment, releasing the nations from Satan’s ownership.
Passages used for support: Matthew 5:25-26; Mark 10:45; Colossians 2:12-15; Hebrews 2:14-17
Critiques: Concern that God would allow the torture of an innocent person to be a fair exchange for the death of many guilty; The fact that the New Testament nowhere calls Jesus death a payment to Satan.
2. Satisfaction or Substitution Theory
Idea: Jesus’ death was a payment to God in exchange for the punishment of sinners to satisfy God’s justice.
Passages used for support: Jesus died “for our sins”, with “for” having the implied meaning “in place of” (Isaiah 53; I Corinthians 15:3; Galatians 1:4; I Peter 2:24); Jesus is the “propitiation for our sins” (I John 2:2, 4:10); Jesus’ death fulfilled God’s righteousness (Romans 3:23-26).
Critiques: Concern that God would allow the torture of an innocent person to be a fair exchange for the death of many guilty; The Bible all throughout claims that repentance is sufficient for forgiveness. Both “propitiation” and “died in place of our sins” are more specific translations than are necessary. They could just mean “means of forgiveness” and “died as a result of our sins”.
3. Moral Theory
Idea: Jesus died as an example to us of perfect love.
Passages used for support: I Peter 2:21; Philippians 2
Critique: The example of Jesus’ death is that of humility and suffering for righteousness, not love. Does not deal with how Jesus is the means of forgiveness of sins.
4. Acceptance Theory
Idea: God’s forgiveness is based only on the sovereign decision of God. Jesus died to show us that God has already forgiven us, if we would but accept it.
Passages used for support: Luke 15
Critique: Scripture again and again has repentance and devotion/faith be the basis of God’s forgiveness. (Even in Luke 15)
5. Anawim or Reversal Theory
a. Humanity has surrendered themselves to be ruled by powers instead of God himself, and God rules through the powers who rule through governments, corporations, institutions and families.
When Adam ate of the tree, he surrendered himself to the power of death, to be ruled by it instead of God (Genesis 2-3). All nations are given over to powers in heaven (Deuteronomy 28). Israel gave themselves over to other gods, and so to be enslaved by their nations (Judges). Gentiles surrendered themselves over to other gods, to worship them, and so to be enslaved (Romans 1). The Jews surrendered themselves over to the Law, but because they could not consistently obey it, they were enslaved by it (Romans 3).
b. These powers rule the world through the rule of judgment—that every sin deserves a just punishment.
The law of the powers is that the end of sin is death (Romans 3:23). Anyone who disobeys the law is cursed (Leviticus 26; Deuteronomy 27-28; Galatians 3:10); Before anyone dies, they are enslaved to sin (Romans 6).
c. Jesus died to prove the injustice of these powers because they are just as willing to punish the innocent as well as the guilty.
Jesus died to prove the elders and priests to be unjust, disobedient rulers of God’s people (Matthew 21); Jesus died to defeat the powers who ruled over us due to our sin (Colossians 2); Jesus’ death takes away the power of the devil over the enslaved (Hebrews 2:14-15); Martyrs’ deaths defeats Satan (Revelation 12:9-11).
d. Given the proof of the injustice of these powers, God sets aside the powers as rulers over people and vindicates Jesus through raising him from the dead and establishes Jesus as ruler of the world at the right hand of God.
God punishes oppressors, whether human or spiritual powers—Psalm 82. The lamb who was slain is worthy of all power (Revelation 5); The one who innocently died God established to rule (Isaiah 52:12-53:14); Jesus humiliated himself as lower than anyone, and so was raised over all (Phil. 2); Jesus established forgiveness of sins and so rules next to God (Hebrews 1:3-4); God raises one on the third day to indicate vindication (Hosea 6:2).
e. Those who accept Jesus as their king are allowed to live under the rule of Jesus, in the utopia of God with God’s spirit.
Believe in Jesus the Lord Messiah (Acts 15; John 17:3; 20:31; Acts 2:36; 16:31; Romans 3:22; 5:1; 10:9; Galatians 2:16)
Baptism is commitment to Jesus as Messiah for the forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:38; 10:48; Romans 6:3-7)
God calls us into a fellowship through Messiah Jesus (I Corinthians 1:9)
Believe in the gospel and be ready for God’s kingdom (Mark 1:15)
f. The law of Jesus gives grace to everyone who repents, no matter how many times they repent.
God forgives those who confess and repent—Psalm 32, 51; Ezekiel 18; Luke 15; Luke 17:3-4; Matthew 18:15-30; Luke 13:1-5; Acts 2:38; I John 1:9.
g. Those who live God’s life and suffer for it under the powers are set up by God to take the ruling place of the powers.
“Those who humble themselves will be raised and those who exalt themselves will be humbled” Matthew 18:4; 23:12; Luke 14:11; 18:14; Jesus death used as example of humility—I Peter 2:21ff; Philippians 2. God raises up the humble and lowers the mighty—I Samuel 2; Psalm 37; Luke 1. The one who suffers unjustly for God will be raised from the dead and experiences God’s utopia—Psalm 22; 37; Matthew 5:3-12; Luke 6:20-23; Philippians 2; Romans 5:3-5, 8:17.
The “Crux” of the matter: We need to commit ourselves to Jesus as our King and Lord through baptism and live according to His law. Those of us who humble ourselves and suffer for Jesus will rule with Him when He returns.