“The people stood watching and the rulers even sneered at Him. They said, ‘He saved others; let Him save Himself if He is God’s Messiah, the Chosen One. The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered Him wine vinegar and said, ‘If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself. There was a written notice above Him, which read: THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS. One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at Jesus. ‘Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’ But the other criminal rebuked him. ‘Don’t you fear God,’ he said, ‘since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong’” – Luke 12:35-41.
“Dogs surround me, a pack of villains encircles me; they pierce my hands and my feet. All my bones are on display; people stare and gloat over me. They divide my clothes among them and cast lots for my garment” – Psalm 22:16. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” – Mark 15:34; cf., Psalm 22:1.
Given such mental and physical anguish, people often wonder why the Prince of Peace, Jesus, had to die for our sins and for our salvation. This question is answered through theories of the atonement, which theologians have been developing for centuries. Christian theologians refer to the atonement as the reconciliation of God and humankind through Jesus Christ. The purpose of the following blog is to discuss the atonement theories of ransom, moral influence, and satisfaction/penal substitution and to offer an additional line of reasoning on the latter.
In the second century, Irenaeus of Lyons argued in favor of Ransom Theory (aka, Christus Victor and Classical Theory) as a way to explain Jesus’ crucifixion, stating that Jesus was paid as a ransom to Satan (Mattison, 2017). According to Mark 10:45 and Matthew 20:28, Jesus said, “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.”
However, many Christian scholars question whether Satan deserves to receive such a ransom. Indeed, references to Satan in the Bible refer to him as a liar and the father of lies (John 8:44), one who disguises himself as an angel of light (2 Corinthians 11:14), a deceiver (Revelation 12:9 and 20:3), evil (John 17:15; 2 Thessalonians 3:3), and one who holds people captive to do his will (2 Timothy 2:26).
Furthermore, the LORD has made it clear that He is against Satan:
“Therefore this is what the Sovereign LORD says: Because of your false words and lying visions, I am against you, declares the Sovereign LORD. My hand will be against the prophets who see false visions and utter lying divinations. They will not belong to the council of my people or be listed in the records of Israel, nor will they enter the land of Israel. Then you will know that I am the Sovereign LORD” – Ezekiel 13: 8-9.
“He will cause deceit to prosper, and he will consider himself superior. When they feel secure, he will destroy many and take his stand against the Prince of princes. Yet he will be destroyed, but not by human power” – Daniel 8:25.
From these verses, we understand that the LORD has sovereignty, so elevating Satan to His level by suggesting that the LORD must pay Satan ransom does not follow what the scriptures say of God or Satan.
Church fathers, including Augustine, taught Ransom Theory for centuries until other theories were developed, including Moral Influence Theory by Peter Abelard (1079-1142) and Satisfaction/Penal Substitution Theory by Anselm (1033-1109).
Moral Influence Theory
Peter Abelard (1079-1142) argued that Christ did not die to satisfy a ransom or for any principle of divine justice. Instead His purpose was to impress humanity with God’s love and to influence humanity toward moral improvement.
“To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example that you should follow in his steps” – 1 Peter 2:22.
While these assertions are correct, the theory doesn’t fully explain the atonement and the payment for sins. For this reason, many church fathers and leaders adhere to Satisfaction/Penal Substitution Theory instead.
Satisfaction/Penal Substitution Theory
Anselm, a Benedictine monk who was a great philosopher and theologian of his day, argued that Jesus’ life was paid as a debt not to the devil, but to God. Anselm considered sin to be a dishonor to God and since the world’s sinful humanity cannot make sufficient satisfaction to God, God became human to do it on humanity’s behalf. Protestant reformers replaced God’s honor with God’s justice and many churches still adhere to the doctrine today (Mattison, 2017).
Below are two of many scriptural references that support this theory:
“Surely He took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered Him punished by God, stricken by Him, and afflicted. But He was pierced for our transgressions; He was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was brought on Him, and by His wounds we are healed” – Isaiah 53: 4-5.
“He Himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; (Isaiah 53:9) by His wounds you have been healed. For you were like sheep going astray (Isaiah 53:4, 5, 6) but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls” – 1 Peter 2:24.
In Exodus 12:29, God instructed the Israelite slaves to sacrifice a Passover lamb without blemish in order to spare their sons from the fates met by their Egyptian masters. The sacrifice led to the freedom of the Israelites from the Egyptians. The Feast of the Passover is celebrated annually in commemoration of the event.
In the New Testament, John the Baptist recognized Jesus as the “Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world!” (John 1:29). Like the unblemished Passover lamb, Jesus is free from sin (Hebrews 4:15). He was crucified during the time in which the Passover was observed (Mark 14:12). As the sacrifice of the original lamb led to freedom from slavery, the sacrifice of Jesus, the Passover lamb, led to our freedom from the slavery of sin.
“For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed” – 1 Corinthians 5:7
Over the past century, philosophers, theologians, authors, and others have also offered support for Satisfaction/Penal Substitution Theory as a way to explain the atonement of Jesus. They include William Lane Craig, C.S. Lewis, A.W. Tozer, and Charles Spurgeon.
“Divine Command Morality demands only that God act consistently with His own moral nature. But, arguably, God the Son’s voluntarily bearing of the punishment for sin that we deserved is entirely consistent with God’s nature, for it demonstrates His great love for fallen human beings that He should bear the penalty for sins that they deserved” – William Lane Craig.
“The atonement in Jesus Christ’s blood is perfect; there isn’t anything that can be added to it. It is spotless, impeccable, flawless. It is as perfect as God is perfect. So Anselm’s question, ‘How dost Thou spare the wicked if Thou art just?’ is answered from the effect of Christ’s passion. The holy suffering on the cross and resurrection from the dead cancels our sins and abrogates our sentence.”
“Where and how did we get that sentence? We got it by the application of justice to a moral situation. No matter how nice and refined and lovely you think you are, you are a moral situation – you have been, you still are, you will be. And when God confronted you, God’s justice confronted a moral situation and found you unequal, found inequity, found iniquity.”
“Because He found iniquity there, God sentenced you to die. Everybody has been or is under the sentence of death. I wonder how people can be so jolly under the sentence of death. ‘The soul that sinneth, it shall die’ (Ezekiel, 18:20). When justice confronts a moral situation in a man, woman, young person, or anybody morally responsible, then either it justifies or condemns that person. That’s how we got the sentence” – A.W. Tozer
“There was never an ill word spoken, nor an ill thought conceived, nor an evil deed done, for which God will not have punishment from some one or another. He will either have satisfaction from you, or else from Christ. If you have no atonement to bring through Christ, you must forever lie paying the debt which you never can pay, in eternal misery; for as surely as God is God, He will sooner lose His Godhead than suffer one sin to go unpunished, or one particle of rebellion unrevenged.”
“Oh! then, beloved, think how great must have been the substitution of Christ, when it satisfied God for all the sins of His people. For man’s sin God demands eternal punishment; and God hath prepared a Hell into which He casts those who die impenitent. Oh! my brethren, can ye think what must have been the greatness of the atonement which was the substitution for all this agony which God would have cast upon us, if He had not poured it upon Christ” – Charles Spurgeon
“The work of Christ on the cross did not influence God to love us, did not increase that love by one degree, did not open any fount of grace or mercy in His heart. He had loved us from old eternity and needed nothing to stimulate that love. The cross is not responsible for God’s love; rather it was His love which conceived the cross as the one method by which we could be saved. God felt no different toward us after Christ had died for us, for in the mind of God Christ had already died before the foundation of the world. God never saw us except through atonement. The human race could not have existed one day in its fallen state had not Christ spread His mantle of atonement over it. And this He did in eternal purpose long ages before they led Him out to die on the hill above Jerusalem. All God’s dealings with man have been conditioned upon the cross.” – A.W. Tozer
“But supposing God became a man – suppose our human nature which can suffer and die was amalgamated with God’s nature in one person – then that person could help us. He could surrender His will, and suffer and die, because He was a man; and He could do it perfectly because He was God. You and I can go through this process only if God does it in us; but God can do it only if He becomes man. Our attempts at this dying will succeed only if we men share in God’s dying, just as our thinking can succeed only because it is a drop out of the ocean of His intelligence: but we cannot share God’s dying unless God dies; and He cannot die except by being a man. That is the sense in which He pays our debt, and suffers for us what He Himself need not suffer at all.” – C.S. Lewis
Jesus Served as Both a Substitute and an Integral Part of Humanity
Consider Jesus’ role as the vine and humanity as its branches. In other words, consider that Jesus is at one with us, so when He was crucified, we and our sins were crucified. He and we are one. He served as both a substitute for us and as an integral part of us as both God and man. The scripture supports these assertions, as noted below.
“I am the true vine, and My Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit He prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing” – John 15:1-5.
“Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace” – Colossians 3:15.
“He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And He is the head of the body, the church; He is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything He might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all His fullness dwell in Him, and through Him to reconcile to Himself all things, whether things on earth or things in Heaven, by making peace through His blood, shed on the cross” Colossians 1:17-20.
Jesus suffered greatly in His human form. Prior to and following His arrest and crucifixion, Jesus performed many miracles, demonstrating His divinity. Following His arrest and during the crucifixion, Jesus performed no miracles. During that period of time, He served as the body of mankind and endured pain and suffering at a very human level. He was “led like a lamb to the slaughter” in silence (Isaiah 53:7) and in a very human way, He endured excruciating pain.
Yet Questions Remain
The above theories offer explanations on the atonement of Jesus, yet questions and issues remain. Ransom Theory gives too much power to Satan, while Moral Influence and Satisfaction/Penal Substitution Theories make only inferences of him. Satan’s role shouldn’t be discounted, given the attention he gets throughout the Bible and the way he is essentially the poster child of evil, deceit, lies, lawlessness, and sin. Moral Influence Theory also does not address the way Jesus Christ paid the price for our sins, which is an essential element to understanding atonement. The benefit and truth behind Moral Influence Theory is the way it explains Jesus’ positive ethical influence and the way He came to serve as an example to us of the loving and equitable way we should treat humanity.
Satisfaction/Penal Substitution Theory, which states that LORD substituted Jesus in payment for our sins to the LORD, causes one to question why God needed to make a payment to God for the people He created. Atheists use the latter argument to refute Christianity altogether. They often follow up with a question on why God didn’t simply forgive humanity’s imperfections since He created humans with all said imperfections. Accordingly, Christians need an additional line of reasoning (and defense) to explain the atonement. For this reason, the next portion of this essay is devoted to offering this additional line of reasoning.
One way to answer to the question of why the atonement was necessary is to consider free will. The sins of humanity are the result of God’s gift of free will, which underscores God’s generosity and love in giving such a gift as He knew the implications. He knew that by giving the gift of free will, He would also need to make a tremendous sacrifice to give the gift of eternal life, as free will in a world of temptations and challenges often leads to sin, which leads to death.
“If a thing is free to be good it is also free to be bad. And free will is what has made evil possible. Why, then, did God give them free will? Because free will, though it makes evil possible, is the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having” – C.S. Lewis
Captives of Sin
To provide a second answer, we need to direct our attention for a moment away from the payment to the LORD for the crime (i.e., sin) to focus on the crime itself. Jesus atoned for the sins of humanity. Sin is what binds and holds humanity hostage to the father of all sins, Satan. Prior to Jesus’ resurrection, mankind was imprisoned in death for its sins.
“At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people” – Matthew 27: 51-53.
The moment Jesus died on the cross was the same moment in which holy people who had passed were freed from captivity, death, and Satan, and raised to eternal life. Jesus had fulfilled the scriptures, such as Isaiah 53, by overcoming the world and redeeming humanity from sins and death.
“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” – John 16:33
According to 1 John 3:8, “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work.” This verse makes it clear that the devil did not benefit from Jesus’ death and resurrection as Ransom Theory suggests. Furthermore, it seems unlikely that Satan expected the resurrection to occur, or he wouldn’t have worked through Judas Iscariot to betray Jesus (Luke 22:3; John 13:27).
In his children’s book, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis drew the same conclusion. The great lion in the book, Aslan, who represented Jesus, was killed by the White Witch, who represented Satan. She and her helpers had strapped the lifeless body of Aslan to a Stone Table, pleased that they had killed him .
“The rising of the sun had made everything look so different – all colors and shadows were changed – that for a moment they didn’t see the important thing. Then they did. The Stone Table was broken into two pieces by a great crack that ran down it from end to end; and there was no Aslan…they looked round. There, shining in the sunrise, larger than they had seen him before, shaking his mane (for it had apparently grown again) stood Aslan himself.”
“It means,” said Aslan, “that though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backward.”
C.S. Lewis’ “different incantation” is part of the Old Testament. Around 700 years before Jesus’ death and resurrection, the prophet Isaiah predicted both His suffering and the outcome: “Yet it was the LORD’s will to crush Him and cause Him to suffer, and though the LORD makes His life an offering for sin, He will see His offspring and prolong His days, and the will of the LORD will prosper in His hand. After He has suffered, He will see the light of life and be satisfied” – Isaiah 53:10-11.
“When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; He has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross” – Colossians 2:13-15.
One can only imagine the rage of Satan when he realized Jesus had triumphed and that he had been duped. His schemes in the first three hundred years of Christianity to persecute Christians by guiding Roman Emperors like Nero to torture them also backfired. The bravery of early Christians inspired many conversions and by the time Christianity was legalized in 313AD, it had between five and six million adherents (Wawro, 2008). By 350AD, 33 million Christians lived in the Roman Empire and Christianity had become a universal religion (Wawro, 2008).
C.S. Lewis notes that “joy is the serious business of heaven,” while the Bible infers that sin is the serious business of hell. While Jesus is the vine, which grows love and life, Satan is the cancer of sin, which leads to death. Through sin, Satan grows his cancer and poisons humanity. Yet he was overcome, likely unexpectedly, through Jesus’ death and resurrection. Jesus overcame the world, Satan, sin, lawlessness, and the cycle of sin, which had bound humanity to Satan.
“Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” – John 15:13.
In summary, Jesus died for us not to pay ransom to the devil but to free us from the ties which bind us to the devil: our sins. He served humanity as the perfect sacrifice without sin, the Passover Lamb, and the fulfillment of Isaiah 53. He also served as the perfect moral influence and the example by which we should all strive to live.
This following logic is offered as a supplement to Satisfaction/Penal Substitution Theory to help explain the atonement of Jesus:
- Sin, which is also considered lawlessness, violates the law established by God (1 John 3:4)
- The wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23)
- Satan represents sin and death (cf., Daniel 8:25; 1 Corinthians 26; Ephesians 2:1-2).
- We all sin (Romans 3:23)
- When we sin, we’re held captive to Satan (2 Timothy 2:26) and death (Romans 6:23)
- Sin cannot break the cycle of sin and lawlessness; only one without sin (Jesus) can break the cycle (1 John 3:4); and only one who established the law (the LORD) can shatter lawlessness (Isaiah 33:22) and legal indebtedness (Colossians 2:13-15)
- Jesus’ death on the cross freed sinners from sins (1 Peter 2:2; 1 John 3:5), captivity and death (1 John 1:7)
- Because of Jesus’ resurrection, we have eternal life (John 3:16; 1 Corinthians 15:22)
- Jesus’ resurrection was a triumph over the powers and authorities of darkness (Colossians 2:13-15).
Thank you for your time.
1 John 3:4: “Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness. But you know that He appeared so that He might take away our sins. And in Him is no sin.”
Romans 6:23: “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Daniel 8:25” “He will cause deceit to prosper, and he will consider himself superior. When they feel secure, he will destroy many and take his stand against the Prince of princes. Yet he will be destroyed, but not by human power.”
1 Corinthians 26: “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”
Ephesians 2:1-2: “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient.”
Romans 3:23: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
2 Timothy 2:26: “and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will.”
1 Corinthians 15:22: “For as in Adam, all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.”
John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that He sent His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
Isaiah 33:22: “For the LORD is our judge, the LORD is our lawgiver, the LORD is our king; it is He who will save us.
1 Peter 2:2: “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.”
1 John 3:5: “But you know that He appeared so that He might take away our sins.”
1 John 1:7: “But if we walk in the light, as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son, purifies us from all sin.”
Book and Website References
Craig, W.L. (2017). Philosophical Challenges in the Doctrine of the Atonement. Accessed February 6, 2017 at http://www.reasonablefaith.org/philosophical-challenges-in-the-doctrine-of-the-atonement#ixzz4Xx7AsJbR
Lewis, C.S. (1942; 1980; 2002). Mere Christianity. The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics. Harper One.
Lewis, C.S. (1950; 1978). The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. C.S. Lewis Pte. Ltd.
Mattison, M. (2017). The Meaning of the Atonement. Accessed February 6, 2017 at http://www.auburn.edu/~allenkc/openhse/atonement.html
Spurgeon, C. (1858) Particular Redemption. Music Hall, Royal Surrey Gardens. 1858. http://www.spurgeon.org/sermons/0181.htm.
Tozer, A.W. (2005; 2009) The Radical Cross. Living the Passion of Christ. Moody Bible Institute
Wawro, J. (2008). Historical Atlas: A Comprehensive History of the World. Millennium House.