Atonement: Christian Concepts

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According to its linguistic origins atonement (at-one-ment) means "the condition of or resulting from being at one." It is one of the few English words that have become theological terms. The word occurs many times in the Old Testament, and this usage has influenced the New Testament and subsequent tradition. Its appearance in the Authorized (King James) Version as the translation of katallagē in Romans 5:11 ("through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have now received the atonement") consolidated its theological use. The Revised Standard Version, however, and nearly all modern versions translate katallagē as "reconciliation," leaving the New Testament in English now without the word atonement. In contemporary theological usage atonement has come to mean the process by which reconciliation with God is accomplished through the death of Christ. Its earlier usage tended to have as well the wider meaning of the end sought through the atoning process, as in reconciliation, redemption (in older Roman Catholic writing), and salvation (in Protestant orthodoxy).

Old Testament Background

The Hebrew root for atonement is kpr, which probably means "to cover" or perhaps "to wipe away." The Greek equivalent is hilaskethai and its derivatives. The system of sacrifice that was practiced by the Israelites was regarded as an institution graciously provided by God and had atonement as its aim. Its rationale may be seen in Leviticus 17:11: "it is the blood that makes atonement, by reason of the life." On the solemn yearly Day of Atonement the high priest went into the holy of holies to the covering over the ark, the mercy seat (kaporet, hilastērion ), where God was believed to appear and announce forgiveness of sins to his people.

Some scholars would translate hilastērion in Romans 3:25 ("whom God set forth to be a hilastērion ") simply as "mercy seat." Their feeling is that Paul meant to assert that the cross of Christ is now the place where God shows his saving mercy. Most translators, however, render the word in this context as either "propitiation" or "expiation," depending on whether they want to suggest that God's wrath must first be satisfied before he will forgive human sinfulness or locate the block to restored relationships not primarily in God but in the alienation that is created by the sin itself and is acted upon directly by Christ's atoning action. Strongly divergent theories of atonement were constructed later on the basis of this debate.

The prophets constantly warned against any automatic assumption that sacrifice of itself would provide forgiveness; they preached that God desires mercy and repentance (Is. 1:1017). The ritual system of sacrifice was spiritualized in the Old Testament in the prophetic view of a new covenant to replace the original, Mosaic covenant (Jer. 31:31) and was personalized in the actions of the suffering servant of Yahveh (Is. 53) sent by God to become an asham ("guilt-offering") and to bear the sins of many in a redemptive act of self-oblation.

New Testament Foundation

The associations of atonement with animal sacrifice, the offering of incense, and payments of money disappeared in the New Testament except as vivid metaphors for elucidating the atoning life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and, especially, the "once for all" (Heb. 10:10) event of Calvary. When Christians say that the cross is the crucial point of the early preaching of the gospel, they do not so much make a pun as testify that the Atonement, whatever else it has done, has changed the language. It was probably inevitable that sacrificial language would be emphasized in describing the Atonement simply because the contemporary institution of sacrifice was well known to the early Christians (as it is not today) and because the actual penal process of crucifixion with its attendant shedding of blood suggested at once the religious ritual of sacrifice.

The Gospels and Jesus' Teaching

By parable and by direct discourse Jesus taught forgiveness of sins, relating God's forgiveness to forgivingness between people. Controversy swirled around Jesus' authoritative absolutions, a situation that perhaps more than any other raised for his Jewish hearers the question of his divine status or blasphemy. He regarded his death as likely not simply because many prophets had been martyred for the unpopularity of their message but because he saw it as controlled in some way by a divine must, as a decisive part of his mission to inaugurate the kingdom of God: "For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom (lutron ) for many" (Mk. 10:45). Later questions about the various agencies to whom the ransom would be paid were to determine variant forms of the Greek theories of atonement. The image of a ransom is commercial, indicating the price needed to buy a slave's freedom. Conjoined with the phrase "for many," which may invoke the sacrificial image of the servant in Isaiah who will deliver many from their sins, use of the word ransom points out the costliness of reconciliation.

A second saying attributed to Jesus in the Marcan tradition of the last supper also casts light on the pervasive problem of the divine must: "This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many" (Mk. 14:24). This language is reminiscent of the previous saying about ransom, here with an emphasis on a new covenant, such as was foreshadowed in Jeremiah, and recalling God's liberation of the Israelites from Egypt. Paul could say, "Christ our passover is sacrificed for us." To the Markan saying about the "blood of the covenant which is poured out for many" Matthew added, "for the forgiveness of sins" (Mt. 26:28), making explicit that the atoning action is because of sin.

John developed the image of "the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world" (Jn. 1:29, 1:36). There are other references to the lamb in the Book of Revelation, such as Revelation 13:8, "the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world" (Authorized Version). This disputed translation became a justification for subsequent interpretations of the Atonement that regarded the event at Calvary not as an isolated incident but as the sacramental expression of the eternal reality of God's suffering love for humanity. The Letter to the Hebrews expands the image of sacrifice, making it the basis for the most sustained theory of the Atonement to be found in the New Testament. The theological question for all theories of sacrifice is whether Christ's death was itself the decisive sacrifice to God or whether the wealth of sacrificial images employed in New Testament literature is simply a way of demonstrating that what was sought through the Old Testament system of sacrifice has, in fact, been completely and finally accomplished in the life and death of Christ.

Paul on the Atonement

Paul is the earliest written source for the dimensions of atonement in apostolic preaching: "For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures" (1 Cor. 15:3). He used the images of Christ the victor over sin, wrath, the demons, and death, and also used the illustration of the law court. For Paul the atoning death and resurrection went beyond the merely human dimensions of salvation to include the world of spirits and of nature itself in its groaning and travail (Rom. 8:1923).

Paul grasped the moral dilemma in all thought about the Atonement: How can a God of holiness and righteousness accept sinners without either destroying his holiness or sentimentalizing his love by an immoral indifference to evil? As a former Pharisee, Paul naturally used legal language to describe faith in Christ. He used the language of the law court provisionally, only to introduce the paradox of grace: God does not ultimately, in Christ, deal with humanity along the lines of retributive justice, which a human judge is obliged by oath to dispense. The revelation of God's righteousness "has been manifested apart from law" (Rom. 3:21). Expositions of the vicarious and representative work of Christ have been constructed from the penal implications of such Pauline texts as "For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Cor. 5:21). The problem with such expositions, however, is that they tend to subject God's gracious love to the necessities of a law court. The gospel according to Paul is that God actually does what no human judge should do: God in a revolutionary way actually accepts sinners. Jesus had taught a love of this quality and actualized it by associating with outcasts, sinners, the despised, and the victims of power and injustice in his society until its religious and political forces crucified him.

There is no single New Testament doctrine of the Atonementthere is simply a collection of images and metaphors with some preliminary analysis and reflection from which subsequent tradition built its systematic doctrines and theories. The New Testament asserts that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself in such a way that the act resembled a military victory, a king establishing his power, a judge and prisoner in a law court, a great ritual sacrifice before priest and altar, the payment of ransom for war prisoners or the payment of a redemption for a slave's freedom, the admission to responsible sonship within a family, and more. Tradition has tried to decide what parts of this picture should be taken literally and what parts metaphorically and has developed extended rationales, added new images according to the conditions of different eras and cultures, and established cross-relationships with other Christian doctrines of the Trinity, the Incarnation, the church, and the sacraments. Often it has tried to make one theory of the Atonement dominant over the others.

A Typology of Atonement Theories

Gustaf Aulén in his classic Christus Victor (1930) suggested three basic types of atonement theory: the classical type, the Latin type, and the subjective type. Combining these with additional categories from R. S. Franks's definitive History of the Doctrine of the Work of Christ (1918) yields the following typology:

  1. Classical type: Greek, patristic, Christus Victor, ransom, Eastern.
  2. Anselmian type: Latin, objective, transactional, Western.
  3. Reformation type: penal, objective, juridical, governmental, transactional.
  4. Moral-influence type: Abelardian, subjective, exemplary, modern.
  5. Other types are sacrificial, mystical, psychological, incarnational, and eucharistic in character.

This scheme is regarded as approximate and as bearing historic names that are sometimes not simply descriptive but are slanted by their supporters' claims or their detractors' criticisms. This article will select only a few of the most significant theories for analysis.

Classical theories of atonement

Aulén looked behind the dramatic mythology of the Greek fathers to find the theme of Christus Victor, a view that he claimed integrates ideas of the Incarnation, Atonement, and resurrection into a unified concept of salvation. Ragnar Leivestad in Christ the Conqueror: Ideas of Conflict and Victory in the New Testament (1954) supplemented Aulén by describing Christ's struggle with the demons and Satan in his work, teaching, and, especially, healing. Aulén rooted his description in Paul's writings, carried it through the Eastern and Western fathers before Anselm, and found it expressed again in Martin Luther's buoyant feeling of being on the winning side. One version of the theory had the devil unjustly in possession of humanity; another affirmed the justice of the devil's hold; still another claimed that although the devil had no rights, God graciously withheld from forcibly stripping him of his gains. Special strategies against the devil were the mousetrap (the humanity of Christ as bait to hide his divinity) and Augustine's fishhook play. In addition to the Christus Victor theme there are in patristic theology the views of Christ as the bearer of incorruption (expounded by Athanasius in the fourth century), the revealer of truth and model of humanity, the physician of humanity, and the sacrificial victim (expounded by Gregory of Nazianzus, also in the fourth century). The contrast between the church's official dogma of the Incarnation as developed through the Council of Chalcedon (451) and the unofficial status of atonement theories has often been pointed out, but the difference can be easily exaggerated since the criterion for Christological decision was usually how the proposed understanding of Christ's person would effect the salvation of humanity. There is growing agreement that the work of Christ and the person of Christ must be integrated: Christ does what he is and is what he does.

Anselmian theories of atonement

Cur deus homo (Why the God-man?), written by Anselm, archbishop of Canterbury, in about 1097, is the single most influential book on the Atonement. Anselm criticized all ransom-to-the-devil theories by turning them upside down and asserting that the ransom, which Anselm called "satisfaction," must be paid to God. Debate has gathered around the influence that feudalism and the ancient Teutonic customs of blood money had on Anselm, but the vital center of the Anselmian theory is a rationalization about satisfaction, which, together with contrition and confession, constitutes the three parts of the Latin sacrament of penance. Even the sacrificial images are reinterpreted in terms of satisfaction as their rationale. Since sin derogated from the honor of God and must be infinite in offense because it is against God, either punishment or the payment of an infinite satisfaction is required. Such a satisfaction finite humans should but cannot pay. The answer to this dilemma becomes the God-man, whom Anselm described as bound by simple duty to lead a life of obedience but who, having lived a life of sinlessness, is not justly subject to the claim of death. Therefore Christ's death alone possessed the superfluous merit that made it an adequate satisfaction for the sins of humankind. There have been many criticisms of Anselm: that his confidence in reason is too great to explain mystery; that he quantified sin mathematically rather than personalizing it; that he concentrated so much on Christ's death that Jesus' life of sacrificial love is emptied, along with the resurrection, of significance. The overarching objection is that rigid procedures according to legal justice demote God's love to a secondary place. Later medieval modification of Anselm (e.g., Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century) stressed acceptance by God rather than strict necessity as the ground for atonement. A penitential system of indulgences managed by the church grew up around the doctrines of Christ's superfluous merits.

Reformation theories of atonement

The Reformation opted for Anselm's unused alternative of punishment. John Calvin in the sixteenth century emphasized Christ's vicarious and substitutionary endurance of God's punishment on behalf of humankind or of the elect. The dominance of Anselmian analysis in Reformation orthodoxy and the Counter-Reformation can be demonstrated by showing that for the Roman Catholic the Atonement continued to be the basis for the ecclesiastical apparatus that mediated salvation while for the Protestant, looking at the Atonement through the doctrine of justification by faith, it became the reason for rejecting that whole apparatus as unnecessary.

Hugo Grotius (15831645) substituted for the juridical image of a judge dispensing retributive justice the political image of a governor concerned for the public good and able to pardon humanity safely because of the deterrent effect of Christ's death. This governmental or rectoral theory Jonathan Edwards introduced into Calvinist thought in America in the eighteenth century.

Moral-influence theories

Theories of moral influence describe the Atonement as something accomplished in the hearts and minds of those who respond to Jesus' message and example of love"love answers love's appeal" was the phrase used by Peter Abelard in the twelfth century to summarize this moral influence. The strength of this view lies in its primary emphasis upon the love of God rather than on God's wrath or justice. The intrinsic weakness of such theories lies in the widespread perception that such declarations by themselves have little power to free the sinner when they alone are seen as constituting the sum total of atonement rather than part of a total atoning activity initiated and carried through by Christ's action.

Horace Bushnell in Vicarious Sacrifice (1866), writing at the time of the American Civil War, took his illustrations of the Atonement from family relationships, friendship, and patriotism. Albrecht Ritschl in Justification and Reconciliation (originally published in 18701874 in German) expanded the responding agent from the individual only to a group. He stressed Jesus' reconciling love and faithfulness unto death as inspiring a community of ethical response in history. J. McLeod Campbell in Nature of the Atonement (1856) emphasized vicarious penitence. Robert C. Moberly in Atonement and Personality (1901) provided a broad view of the work of Christ as the perfect penitent by conceiving Christ's incarnating and atoning activity as continuing through the church and the sacraments in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Twentieth-century theories of atonement

The theology of Karl Barth redirected thought to the objectivity of the Atonement, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Dorothee Sölle developed the theme of Christ as representative. In a rehabilitation of the penal theory Leonard Hodgson in The Doctrine of the Atonement (New York, 1951) argued that in Jesus Christ the punisher and the punished are one. Anglicans and especially Roman Catholics under the influence of liturgical and biblical renewal, the return to patristic sources, and the impact of Vatican II have turned away from Jean Rivière's hitherto dominant claim (made early in the twentieth century) that Anselm's concept of satisfaction adequately expressed the meaning of sacrifice and toward the restoration of sacrificial language, both in liturgy and in theology.

Few doctrines of Christian faith have produced more theories than the doctrine of atonement, a fact that testifies to the witness of scripture, in which Christ's death is given decisive reconciling power and meaning, but no one theory or family of theories is presented as alone authoritative. The doctrine of atonement is the Christian answer to the human questions about ignorance, suffering, death, and sin, but always the alienation caused by sin is considered more basic than the three other evils. Christ "has broken down the dividing wall of hostility so making peace and [reconciling] us both to God in one body through the cross" (Eph. 2:1416). Atonement as an expression of the mystery of God remains the reality at the core; interpretations of the how and the why of the process multiply as images and metaphors expand into theory and become in turn ancillary or dominant only to dissolve in changing cultural configurations and reappear later in new shapes and relationships. In the current period the classical type of Christus Victor has been increasingly able to attract as satellites the Anselmian and the moral-influence theories. Perhaps the next development lies with a reformulation of the sacrificial theory, which, fortified by the use of liturgy and having come abreast of new understandings of sacrifice in the comparative history of religions, may for a time become a new primary center in its own right.


Anselm. Why God Became Man and The Virgin Conception and Original Sin. Translated with introduction and notes by Joseph M. Colleran. Albany, N.Y., 1969. An accessible and surprisingly readable edition of the most influential book on the Atonement.

Aulén, Gustaf. Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of the Atonement. Translated by A. G. Herbert. 1931; reprint, London, 1945. Already a classic in its own right, Aulén's work, which appeared originally in 1930 in Swedish, presents the classic view of the Atonement articulately and with the conviction that the Latin and subjective types are destined to become its satellites.

Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics IV: The Doctrine of Reconciliation. 3 vols. in 4. Translated by G. W. Bromiley. Edinburgh, 19561962. Within the larger Barthian corpus these writings on reconciliation and atonement constitute a summa of some 2,600 pages, with impressive interpretations of scripture and footnotes on the history of doctrine.

Dillistone, Frederick W. The Christian Understanding of Atonement. Philadelphia, 1968. A comprehensive book analyzing alienation as a problem in human life, with contemporary illustrations from literature, history, psychology, anthropology, and philosophy.

Franks, Robert S. The Work of Christ: A Historical Study of Christian Doctrine. New York, 1962. This is a later edition, in one volume, of Franks's earlier definitive work A History of the Doctrine of the Work of Christ, 2 vols. (London, 1918).

Leivestad, Ragnar. Christ the Conqueror: Ideas of Conflict and Victory in the New Testament. London, 1954. An impressive documentation of the New Testament origins of Aulén's earlier thesis about the classic theory of the Atonement.

Masure, Eugene. The Christian Sacrifice: The Sacrifice of Christ Our Head. London, 1944. A point of transition in Roman Catholic writing on the Atonement from the older Anselmian rationale for sacrifice to the new theology on sacrifice that is drawn from scriptural, patristic, and liturgical renewal prior to Vatican II.

Sölle, Dorothee. Christ the Representative. London, 1967. A sustained analysis of the kind of representative office that Christ performs, much influenced by Dietrich Bonhoeffer's thought and the Christological title "the man for us."

Taylor, Vincent. Jesus and His Sacrifice (1937). Reprint, London, 1951. A helpful study of the passion sayings in the Gospels in the light of the Old Testament and from the perspective of form-criticism. Together with Taylor's later works The Atonement in New Testament Teaching, 2d ed. (London, 1946), and Forgiveness and Reconciliation, 2d ed. (London, 1952), this book constitutes part of an important trilogy, with an emphasis on a sacrificial understanding of the Atonement.

Wolf, William J. No Cross, No Crown: A Study of the Atonement. New York, 1957. A historical survey of the chief theories of atonement and their problems, followed by chapters on deliverance from guilt, justification, sanctification, the atoning God, and the atoning life; an attempt to reformulate an understanding of the Atonement.

New Sources

Bartlett, Anthony W. Cross Purposes: The Violent History of Christian Atonement. Harrisburg, Pa., 2001.

Boff, Leonardo. Passion of the Christ, Passion of the World. Translated by Robert R. Barr. Maryknoll, N.Y., 1987.

Brock, Rita Nakashima. Journeys by Heart: A Christological Erotic Power. New York, 1988.

Dudley, Martin, and Geoffrey Rowell, eds. Confession and Absolution. London, 1990.

Gunton, Colin E., ed. The Theology of Reconciliation. London, 2003.

Weaver, J. Denny. The Nonviolent Atonement. Grand Rapids, Mich., 2001.

Wheeler, David L. "A Relational View of the Atonement." Theology and Religion, vol. 54. New York, 1989.

William J. Wolf (1987)

Revised Bibliography