Evangelical Questions: Views on Atonement
by Jennifer Roach, MDiv, LMHC
Welcome back to Come Follow Me with FAIR: Faithful Answers to New Testament Questions. My name is Jennifer Roach and today we’re going to talk about Atonement Theories. As you know we’re going through the Come Follow Me readings and addressing common questions that Evangelicals ask about our faith as we go along. Our purpose here is not to fuel debate but to help you understand where your Evangelical friends and family are coming from so that you can have better conversations with them, and perhaps even be able to offer them a bit of our faith in a way they can understand.
And this video might be slightly different than some of our other ones where I’m doing a bit more compare and contrast, in this video what I really want to do is help you, Latter-day Saint, to understand what your Evangelical friends are taught about the Atonement.
I will remind you about the FAIR conference August 2-4 in Provo, Utah. You can buy tickets and come in person, or you can stream online for free. Go to FAIRlatterdaysaints.org to sign up for streaming. One of the presentations you will not want to miss is Jenny Reeder talking about the Eliza R. Snow project. I am a huge fan of Jenny’s. She is a PhD historian in the Church History Department. I was at a history conference last weekend where she spoke a few times and she was fantastic. She is a historian’s historian. I am very much looking forward to what she has to say about one of my favorite figures in church history, Eliza Roxy Snow.
We are still in the Gospels and have arrived at the portion dealing with the specifics of the crucifixion. It’s impossible to point to a single verse that summarizes the atonement – and as you will see, that is part of how we arrive at this episode. We’ll start with some history.
100 A.D. At this point it’s been about 60ish years since Jesus’ death and resurrection and he has not returned. Most of the early believers thought he would return in their lifetimes, and he didn’t. There had even been a bit of a sense of, “We don’t need to worry about all the details, or how to pass this stuff down the generations, Jesus is going to come back and it will all be fine.” But that was not Jesus’ plan, so they’re sort of scrambling to figure out how to form a coherent theology out of what is left. Jesus’ apostles are dead by now. Sometimes Latter-day Saints are curious about WHY the truths of Christ were not properly passed down – and this is one of the biggest reasons, in my opinion – they all thought Jesus was coming right back. So now they’re having to think about how to make sense of the story of Jesus in a different way than they were previously doing.
That, “how to make sense of the story of Jesus,” is where the idea of atonement theory comes in. Atonement is about the meaning of Jesus’ death/resurrection as well as the effect it has for humans. Evangelicals – or every more widely Protestants and Catholics – are not saying that they have a theory about Jesus’ atonement as in, “I don’t have proof, just a theory.” They’re using that phrase to describe the various ways of explaining what is happening in the death and resurrection of Jesus. The first guy who is writing very much about this is Justin Martyr, but a lot of what he wrote has been lost so we pick up most of what we know about his theory from the next guy in line, Irenaeus. He was born in Turkey but is later sent to France as a Bishop. His tomb existed in France until about the 1500’s when it was destroyed by the Huguenots (French Protestants.) Anyway, Irenaeus popularizes Justin Martyr’s eary attempt at understanding the Atonement in what is now called the recapitulation view of the atonement. In this view, Christ is seen as the new Adam who succeeds where Adam failed. Christ undoes the wrong that Adam did and, because of his union with humanity, leads humankind on to eternal life (including moral perfection).
Latter-day Saint friends you will notice two things here….1) This view hinges on the idea that what Adam did in the Garden threw humanity off course. William Barclay says about this theory, “Through man’s disobedience the process of the evolution of the human race went wrong, and the course of its wrongness could neither be halted nor reversed by any human means. But in Jesus Christ the whole course of human evolution was perfectly carried out and realised in obedience to the purpose of God.” So you can see here, there is no sense of a “fortunate fall.” There is a sense that God understood a Savior would need to be provided, but that’s as far as they can go. The other thing you will notice here is 2) the phrase, “moral perfection.” During this time there was still a belief that becoming like God actually meant becoming like God. For Irenaeus, the ultimate goal of Christ’s work of solidarity with humankind is to make humankind divine. He says that Jesus, ‘became what we are, that He might bring us to be even what He is Himself’. [Irenaeus, Against Heresies Preface to Book 5] This idea is taken up by many other Church Fathers, such as Ss. Athanasius, Gregory, Augustine, and Maximus the Confessor. This Eastern Orthodox theological development out of the recapitulation view of the atonement is called theosis (“deification”), and they still hold that as a belief. But all other Christian groups (Protestants and Catholics and others) have lost that plain and precious truth. It’s us and the Eastern Orthodox here. So, that’s what the recapitulation theory is – “As man is God once was, as God is man may be.” But that theory mostly gets lost and the next one to take it’s place is called the Ransom theory.
Ransom theory replaces the recapitulation theory around the year 400. Robin Collins explains it this way, “Essentially, this theory claimed that Adam and Eve sold humanity over to the Devil at the time of the Fall; hence, it required that God pay the Devil a ransom to free us from the Devil’s clutches. God, however, tricked the Devil into accepting Christ’s death as a ransom, for the Devil did not realize that Christ could not be held in the bonds of death. Once the Devil accepted Christ’s death as a ransom, this theory concluded, justice was satisfied and God was able to free us from Satan’s grip.”
Latter-day Saint friends, you will recognize less and less of what you know to be true in these theories as we go along. But this theory does make a very charming children’s story. If you remember in the Narnia books…why does Aslan have to die? Because the Queen reminds him of the “deep magic” and that magic is, in fact, the atonement theory being worked out in Narnia – which is that Aslan’s death must be a ransom to satisfy that deep magic. This theory is the prevailing theory all the way up until the early middle ages – which is not surprising that CS Lewis chose to use it in his books, he was a scholar of the middle ages. Lewis later says that he prefers this theory because it allows us to think of ourselves as participating in Christ’s death and not something that happens without us being involved. But around 1100 another theory starts to gain popularity, the Satisfaction Theory.
This theory uses the metaphor of the relationship between a Feudal Lord and his people. The people live on land belonging to the Lord and are expected to produce some of their crops in exchange for living there. If the people do something wrong that harms the land, they must pay for the damages. In this theory Christ is punished instead of us. So in Ransom theory, Christ is suffering to overcome death itself. But in Satisfaction Theory he is suffering that honor or possession has been taken away, and must be paid back. The debt must be satisfied. The peasants must pay back the Feudal Lord for the damage they did to his property. But they are peasants and can’t afford to pay for the damage they caused, so Christ pays the debt for them and the Feudal Lord is satisfied.
There is also a rival theory during this time called the Moral Influence Theory of Atonement which says that God was trying to influence humanity by showing a great act of love in sending Jesus. That theory doesnt last long. It morphs into what is called the Moral Exemplar Theory which means that Jesus provided a good example for us in obeying his Father even to death and that we should do likewise.
Neither of those last very long and 500 years later they have morphed into what is now called Penal Substitutionary Atonement.
Penal Substitutionary Atonement removes the Feudal Lord metaphor and replaces it with a courtroom metaphor. “Penal” like “penal code” means that a law has been broken. They’re no longer thinking of “property damage” as much as they are “rule-keeping.” A law has been broken and the criminal must be punished. The judge in this scenario is Heavenly Father and he is angry at his rules being broken, so someone must be punished. Christ steps in and takes the punishment for us because we could not bear it on our own. Still today this is the Atonement theory most Christians hold. But there are others.
By the 18th Century there is a popular theory called the Government Theory of Atonement which basically says that God wants needs to maintain Divine Justice and he does through through a government system. We’re in the 1700’s and obviously there is a lot of thinking about what government is during this time and so this theory picks up that metaphor to say, “The atonement is really about God running a good government.”
We also get the Christus Victor theory which is a modernization of the Ransom Theory. In this theory, Jesus is battling powers and comes out the winner. There are also a whole variety of newer theories…There is a Feminist Atonement Theory, an Accident theory, many more.
One of the reasons I wanted to go through all of these and spell them out to you is so that you can see how the further away from the time of Christ we get, the more that has been lost, the more the theories change and sometimes even get weird. Saying that plain and precious truths were lost is no joke. Some of these theories see themselves as offering salvation to anyone – some see it as limited atonement that is only for some.
One thing you might notice in most of these theories is that God is mad or offended and has to be appeased. And I will compare that to what we believe. In our view, we existed with God before we were born. He sends us to Earth to learn and grow but knows that will come with making some terrible mistakes, including some deliberate decisions to disobey him. Those things would pile up and we would never be able to return to God. So he sets out a plan from the beginning that Jesus Christ will offer forgiveness and a lifetime of opportunity to repent and get back on track so that we can return to the presence of God. Our ability to repent and come back to God is only possible because of Jesus’ role as Savior. We live a life practicing repentance so that we may return to him. “As man is God once was, as God is man may be.”
Thank you for joining me for all of this. I hope it gives you insight not only into what other people are thinking about the atonement, but so that you can better understand our own beliefs about the atonement. Join me next time – we have one more week in the Gospels and then we move to Acts and that will be fun. See you then.
More Come, Follow Me resources here.
Jennifer Roach earned a Master of Divinity from The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology, and a Master of Counseling from Argosy University. Before her conversion to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints she was an ordained minister in the Anglican church. Her own experience of sexual abuse from a pastor during her teen years led her to care deeply about issues of abuse in faith communities.