Atonement demystified

Mt Hector 

Based on John 15:9-17

You will all be familiar with the wildly successful Harry Potter series of children’s and young – and not so young – adult novels, and the associated film adaptations, which tell the story of Harry Potter, an eleven year old orphan, who lives with his unpleasant auntie and uncle, who finds out he is really a wizard and is invited to attend Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, an exclusive school that teaches its students the skills they will need to live in the wizarding world. Harry makes friends and learns to deal with the same issues that other adolescents have to deal with. He also prepares to face his destiny of being a key protagonist in the battle between good and evil.

While the Harry Potter books and films have been an unprecedented success, not everybody is enthusiastic about them. In particular, the American religious right and their supporters have claimed they promoted witchcraft and are therefore unsuitable for children. But in reality, author J.K. Rowling is a member of the Scottish Episcopal Church. Which is part of our Anglican Communion.

Nevertheless, some parents, especially in North America, forbid their children from reading Harry Potter books, or watching the films. Which is a great pity, because I consider they teach some really positive values. And research has shown that children who read and identify with Harry Potter display more positive attitudes towards people from disadvantaged groups in society.1

And I have often thought there were parallels between the character of Harry Potter and Jesus, as he is portrayed in the gospels. Harry has very humble beginnings. He has compassion for the marginalised. He embodies both the ordinary and the miraculous. His enemies, and the villains of the stories, are the privileged and the powerful. And not only that, Harry dies to save his friends, and then, to the great surprise of everyone, miraculously comes back to life.

In today’s reading from the Gospel according to St John, Jesus gives us the great commandment that we must love one another, as he has loved us, then tells us, “13No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends”.2 And, as we all know, Jesus laid down his life. But I say we need to ask ourselves, why did he die, and what does this mean for us?

Today I am going to give you a short introduction to the history of atonement theology in the Church. But before I proceed any further, let us consider the word atonement, a noun form of the verb atone, which literally means “at one”. So when used in a theological context it means becoming at one with God. All mainstream Christian theories of atonement begin with the premise that humankind was estranged from God, and that there was one way for them to be reconciled, and that was through the death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ. Through his death and resurrection, we are set free. The key differences between the various atonement theories are how this actually works.

There have been a number of atonement theories developed over the past two thousand years, and today I will briefly introduce you to the most important ones.

This was the first atonement theory to gain widespread support was the classic or ransom theory of atonement. While this was first articulated by Irenaeus of Lyon, it was primarily developed by Origen of Alexandra, both prominent early Christian theologians and scholars. Essentially, this theory proposes that Adam and Eve sold the souls of humankind to the devil as a result of the fall, and that God had to pay a ransom to the devil to redeem us. The ransom was paid through the death of Jesus, but the devil did not realise that Jesus could not die permanently and was tricked. So the theory goes anyway. We have now all but completely moved away from the concept of atonement via ransom, but its legacy lingers; next time you sing the hymn Praise my soul, the king of heaven, listen out for the words “Ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven.”3

Irenaeus also developed the recapitulation theory of atonement. Essentially, this proposes that Jesus is seen as a new Adam, who succeeded where the first Adam had failed, undoing his wrongdoing, and through his union with humankind, Jesus leads us to eternal life and moral perfection. This forms the main basis of the Eastern Orthodox Church’s understanding of atonement to this day.

In recent years, a modern reframing of the ransom theory has emerged. The Christus Victor, or ‘Christ the Victor’ theory of atonement was primarily the work by Gustaf Aulén, a Swedish Lutheran bishop and theologian. Essentially, Aulén argued that that the ransom theory is a misrepresentation of the view of the early Church, and he argued that instead of Jesus’ death being the payment of a ransom, Jesus achieved victory over the powers of darkness. Every healing and every deliverance he performed diminished a little bit more of the hold evil had on the world, until Jesus was ultimately victorious. As Aulén, put it, "The work of Christ is first and foremost a victory over the powers which hold mankind in bondage: sin, death, and the devil.”4 In the years following Aulén’s death in 1977, the Christus Victor theory has gained in popularity, largely because of its subversive nature; the death of Jesus exposes the cruelty and evil in the powers of the world, and he triumphs over them.

Now let’s go back a thousand years. In the Western Church, the ransom theory was the dominant theory of atonement until the 11th Century, when Anselm of Canterbury rejected it and proposed an alternative view and created what we know as the satisfaction theory of atonement, whose roots can be traced back to Second Temple Judaism. He proposed that the sins of humankind had created a debt to God, which needed to be repaid for God to be satisfied. The death of the Jesus satisfied God’s need for justice. This became the dominant view in the Western Church, and it is important to remember that the Western Church had not yet split into Catholic and Protestant denominations. 

Protestant reformers further developed and expanded the satisfaction theory. They proposed that Jesus directly bore the penalty of the sins of humankind, and added the proviso that people had to have faith to receive this salvation. In other words, Jesus died to pay for our sins, but to benefit we must undergo a personal conversion experience and receive him as our Lord and Saviour. Then we will be ‘saved’. This is the penal substitutionary atonement theory. Early forms of it were advocated by John Calvin and Martin Luther, but the version we know today was largely the work of Charles Hodge, a 19th Century American Presbyterian theologian.

If you were raised in a Calvinist tradition, like I was, you will be familiar with this particular atonement theory, as it is the default position in many Protestant denominations, especially those near the evangelical end of the spectrum. Its status is so firmly cemented in place that even questioning penal substitutionary atonement is akin to heresy. Even in Anglican circles, it may be challenged in theological discussions, but it is rarely questioned from the pulpit. And we still sing hymns with lyrics that include statements like, “I'll never know how much it cost to see my sin upon that cross.”5

Finally, I would like to introduce the moral influence theory of atonement, which was primarily developed by the medieval French philosopher and theologian Peter Abelard. He rejected both the belief that Jesus’ death paid a ransom to the devil and the Anselm’s view that it paid a debt to satisfy God’s honour. Instead, Abelard tried to change our perception of God from one of God being harsh and judgmental to one of God being loving. He said, "Jesus died as the demonstration of God's love," a demonstration which can change the hearts and minds of the sinners, turning back to God”.6 The moral influence theory places great emphasis on following the correct behaviour modelled in the gospels.

Abelard’s views did not go down with the Church authorities, and he was ultimately excommunicated. But his teachings did not go away; they directly influenced the later but closely related moral example theory.  And to this day the moral influence theory is followed by some more progressive Protestants, while more conservative Protestants almost universally embrace penal substitutionary atonement.

So what do I believe? My views on Christian atonement can essentially be stated as I believe humankind had become estranged from God, and there was only one way for us to be reconciled. And that was for God to become fully human, even though this meant experiencing the joy and sorrow, pleasure and pain and high hopes and broken dreams that are part of human life. Including death. And he was killed by the religious and political powers of the day for a being a threat to the established social order and their comfortable existence which depended on it. But Jesus triumphed over death with his resurrection, which brings hope for us all.

With regard to the various atonement theories I have presented today, I do not accept the ransom theory. I do not believe an almighty God could possibly be in a position of having to pay a ransom to a devil. Or anybody else for that matter. And I see merits in the recapitulation and Christus Victor theories, but time constraints prevented me from describing them in sufficient detail to elaborate further.

However I completely reject the satisfaction theory and its offshoot penal substitutionary atonement, and in saying so, I am fully aware of the current immense popularity of the latter. I do not believe in a punitive God, who requires a human sacrifice to enable our forgiveness, and this is proven throughout the gospels, where Jesus forgives people, when he has not yet died. Penal substitutionary atonement teaches retributive justice instead of the restorative justice that is so clearly modelled in the gospels. It is incompatible with the principle of grace, through which we receive forgiveness when we don’t deserve it. And I am one of a growing number of Christians who does not accept that atonement is achieved through violence.

Finally, there is also much I like about the moral influence theory, and its emphasis on the redeeming power of the love of God.

I know some of you will disagree with my views on the various atonement theories. And you are allowed to. Just as Christians have different views on matters like the nature of the Eucharist, so too are we allowed to hold different views on atonement.

What matters is that we are set free by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ. We don’t have to agree on how exactly that works.


Darryl Ward
9 May 2021


2 John 15:13
4 Aulén, Gustav (1969) [1931], 'Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of Atonement, translated by Herber, A. G., Macmillan, P 20
5 Smith, Michael W. ‘Here I am to worship.’ © Smittyfly Music, Word Music LLC
6 Beilby, James K.; Eddy, Paul R. (2009), The Nature of the Atonement: Four Views, InterVarsity Press. PP 18-19

All Bible references are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) unless stated otherwise.