Four Bad Answers To One Big Question

The Church has a bunch of creeds. Nicene. Apostles. Athanasian. They’re great for telling you what we believe about Jesus and his divinity, but none of them really explain what actually happened when he died.

Christians throughout the years have answered this question differently, some more successfully than others. Here’s four of those theories:

Ransom Theory- Satan threw on a snakeskin, fooled Adam and took the human race hostage. The ransom he demanded was the death of God’s Son. Therefore, according to Origen (d.254) God paid off the devil to purchase our freedom.

Satisfaction Theory- God is the Lord of a kingdom, and we are his disobedient subjects. Our disobedience has ‘wounded’ his honour, and he demands compensation. Since plebs like us can’t afford this, Anselm (d. 1109) suggested that Jesus died to accrue merit for humanity and paid back our debt to the King.

Example Theory- humanity is basically good; we just needed a kick in the right direction. Since there’s no sin to overcome or anger to remove, Jesus’ death was just an example for us to follow. According to Abelard (d. 1142), humans are overwhelmed by God’s love and persuaded to repent and follow him.

Governmental Theory- God’s a shifty judge who wants to let sinners go unpunished, but he also needs to remind them not to do it again. Therefore, Jesus died as an example of what will happen to sinners who don’t repent. According to Grotius (d. 1645), his death upholds the moral governance of the universe and deters further sin.

So who’s right?

Well each of them have elements of the truth, but they also have serious flaws. God didn’t ‘pay off’ the devil, it’s not just God’s honour that needs satisfying, humanity needs more than a good example, and God’s not a shifty judge.

So why did Jesus die?

Penal Substitutionary Atonement– Demarest and Feinberg put it well in their book The Cross and Salvation, “According to this view sin, which is primarily a violation of God’s law, not his honor, results in the just penalty of death. But in love Jesus Christ our substitute, in his life perfectly fulfilled the law and in death bore the just penalty for our sins.” In other words, Jesus lived the life we should have lived, and died the death that we should have died. By faith in him, we escape God’s anger and receive eternal life.

Question: do you know any good illustrations or stories to help explain the death of Jesus? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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4 thoughts on “Four Bad Answers To One Big Question

  1. Tim! Good post. It often seems to me as if many of the views of the atonement hint at some true facet of what was going on at the cross, but miss the full picture. What a grand thing it was after all! How we we describe its fullness!

    I was just wondering whether or not you reckon that penal substitutionary atonement could be true, *alongside* something *like* ransom/satisfaction/example/governmental/etc. theories? They don’t *seem* mutually incompatible on face value.

  2. Brendan, love your work dude. Entirely agree! I often describe the atonement like a Rubik’s Cube. What colour is it? Well it depends on which side you are looking at. To fully appreciate the cube in its entirety we need to look at every side. In the same way, the cross is is multifaceted. Others describe it like a diamond.

    It’s hard for any one view to exclusively communicate the richness of all that was accomplished at the cross. As you say, aside from a few fruity bits like God paying buying off the devil, each of the views above have great strengths. Each communicate one part of the atonement, but not all. So it can be helpful to put each of them alongside the others.

    What’s slightly more controversial, however, is whether you can preach the atonement without one of the above views… particularly PSA. Or to put it another way, what is at the heart of the atonement? Are they all just as important as the next one or does one seem to be more prominent than others?

    That’s where i think PSA is so important. If you leave out the Example Theory, you’ve still got the atonement… just not a full grasp of its richness. The same could be said of the governmental theory. But what about PSA? If you lose PSA have you merely lost one element… or have you lost the very core of the atonement? Personally… i think you’ve probably lost the core.

    I know that’s more than you asked for, but thought you might appreciate some discussion. Thoughts?

    • Tim, cheers for that. No brief response I can give here will give the cross of our Lord any justice. In my briefest opinion, though, I think emphasising one particularly theory of the atonement above all others has a bit of danger in that it might eclipse the glory of the entire work; much like gazing at one spot on a beautiful portrait and missing (quite literally) the whole picture.

      That Christ died in our place and bore in his own body on the tree the punishment we deserve for our sins is for sure. But what is also for sure is Christ’s victory over sin, Satan and death by the cross (Col. 2:15), and our participation in the victory by faith (Rom. 3:25). Christ serves as an example of the sinfulness of sin for sure, and he merits by his work the ransom from something for us (although I am inclined along with you, dear brother, to think that God is not obliged to Satan in this matter, but to his own holiness).

      In short, it is perhaps as I said before. Christ is many things, high and far above all. I think we must emphasise all things in the right way in order to capture the richness of the atonement. One of my favourite biblical books to read is Leviticus. In light of the point in Hebrews 10 that the sacrificial system there foreshadowed the work of the Christ, I see a perfect freewill substitute offered up for my forgiveness and cleansing that I may be brought into fellowship with God and his people once more.

      In light of this, perhaps the centre of the atonement is not a theory, but a being, namely God, who is love. “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” (1 Jn. 4:10). The heart of the atonement, then, is God’s love for all mankind. “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.” (1 Jn. 2:2.)