Atonement Wars – Part 1

(October/November 2010 – Volume 16, Issue 5)

When Steve Chalk and Brian McLaren accused evangelicals who believed in the substitutionary death of Christ of embracing a form of Divine child abuse,[1] Christians everywhere did a double-take.  Having sung with gusto for years that great line penned by Charles Wesley, “Amazing love, how can it be that Thou my God shouldst die for me” Christians could not believe that they were being accused of promoting child abuse by men who claimed to be at least on the fringes of the evangelical community.   What McLaren and Chalk had done was bring to the surface for all to see the long-standing debate by theologians about the meaning of the cross.   Almost no one in Christian circles doubts the historicity of the crucifixion, but why Christ died has long been contested.  Of late, due to the rising popularity of everything from the Emergent Church to the Ancient-Future Faith movement to the New Perspective on Paul, the significance of Christ’s cross-work, often called the atonement, has regained traction.  In particular what has often been called “penal substitution,” that the Son, “suffer[ed] instead of us the death, punishment and curse due to fallen humanity as the penalty for sin” has come under intense attack.[2]  It is the purpose of this study to identify the various views held by Christians on the atonement, analyze briefly the three major theories, and then develop a biblical defense for penal substitution as the central meaning and purpose behind the cross.

Atonement Theories

There are several major models of the atonement that have been held by assorted Christian groups at various times and continue to hold sway in some circles today. I would mention early on that while I do not believe any of these explain the primary purpose of the cross, a position I reserve for penal substitution, some of the views have a measure of biblical support and when not pushed to the place of preeminence enhance our understanding of the atonement. 

The Example (or Moral Influence) Theory

There is no doubt that this is the most widely held view among old school liberals and emergents (new school liberals).  The idea is that the death of Christ serves as the perfect example of love and Christians therefore are to emulate Christ’s love. Harry Emerson Fosdick, one of the most recognized popularizers of this theory among liberals in the first half of the twentieth century, famously decried those who taught penal substitution as promoters of a “slaughter house religion.” 

Christus Victor Theory

Christus Victor, or Christ the Victor, “argues that humanity’s main problem is that we are trapped and oppressed by spiritual forces beyond our control.  Christ’s death, then, is seen as a ransom that frees us from captivity.  His death and resurrection defeats the evil spiritual forces.”[3] This view has become very popular among many today, especially those in the Ancient-Future Faith movement, and those who take the New Perspective on Paul seriously.  

Ransom Theory

This understanding is a subset of Christus Victor with the addition that “at the cross, God handed Jesus over to Satan in exchange for the souls of humans held captive to Satan.  Satan believed he could hold Jesus in death, but the resurrection proved him wrong as Jesus triumphed over Satan.”[4]

Powerful Weakness Theory

Well known emergent leader, Brian McLaren, articulates this interpretation which fits well with his worldview.  The lead character in his fictional trilogy:

Sees Jesus becoming vulnerable on the cross and accepting suffering from everyone, Jew and Roman, and not visiting suffering on everyone in some sort of revenge.  It puts on display God’s loving heart which wants forgiveness, not vengeance… God rejects the violence, dominance, and oppression which have so gripped the world from the time of Cain and Abel until today’s news headlines.  The call of the cross is for mankind not to make the Kingdom come about through coercion but “to welcome it through self sacrifice and vulnerability.”[5]

Healing Theory

Popular among certain branches of Pentecostalism and at the heart of the Prosperity Gospel (Word of Faith Movement) is the idea that not only did Christ’s death provide for our salvation from sin but  also physical healing is available in the atonement by request in this present life.  Ultimately it is true that because of Christ’s death the redeemed will be given glorified bodies free from all illness and suffering, however those clinging to the Healing Theory insist that such health and well-being are obtainable in this present life.

Satisfaction Theory

The satisfaction view is similar to penal substitution except that it understands Christ’s death as a compensation for the honor of a holy God wounded by sin.  The Son’s death satisfied that offense to God’s honor.  Penal substitution, on the other hand, sees the problem as God’s law in which “Sin is primarily a violation of God’s law, thus Christ’s death pays the penalty for sins that God’s holiness requires.”[6]

Penal Substitution  

Mark Dever explains that “our main problem is God’s righteous wrath against us for our sinfulness, which puts us in danger of eternal punishment… Christ’s perfect sacrifice for our sins is necessary to satisfy God’s righteousness.  Christ’s death bore a divine penalty that we deserved.  By taking our penalty upon Himself, God satisfied His own correct and good wrath against us.”[7]


Before we examine penal substitution in detail we need to give some careful attention to two of the above theories: moral influence and Christus Victor.  We need to do this because of the popularity of these two views and because they have both supplanted penal substitution in some theological spheres.

Moral Example

Let’s begin by gladly admitting that Christ’s death serves as the greatest example of self-sacrificing love the world has ever seen.  In addition the New Testament points to this selfless act and tells us to live in like manner (Phil 2:5-8).  Yet the question needs to be asked in what sense Christ’s death was a demonstration of love?  If Christ died randomly, without purpose, the cross is not an example of love at all.  If I were to step in front of a car for no reason I have not displayed love but foolishness.  By contrast if I were to step in front of a car to save a person’s life my death would be an example of self-sacrificing love.  Likewise, for Christ’s death to be an exhibition of love it would necessitate that He die accomplishing something of great value for others.  That something, Scripture tells us, is paying the penalty for our sins as we are told in John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that He sent his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.”  No one denies that Jesus’ crucifixion was a marvelous example of love, but it is so because Christ’s death had as its object and purpose securing our salvation.  The crucifixion was motivated by love but it was far more than a mere demonstration of how we are to love one another.

Ignoring this simple reasoning, and scriptural teaching, a large segment of Christendom has limited the cross-work to Christ merely setting for us an example of love which we are to follow.  Peter Abelard, who lived from 1079 to 1142 and was among the first to clearly articulate this view, taught that

The work of Christ chiefly consists of demonstrating to the world the amazing depth of God’s love for sinful humanity.  The atonement was directed primarily at humanity, not God.  There is nothing inherent in God that must be appeased before he is willing to forgive sinful humanity… Through the incarnation and death of Jesus Christ, the love of God shines like a beacon, beckoning humanity to come and fellowship.[8]

Abelard’s view was later condemned by the church and he was excommunicated, but his theory, in one form or another, has lived on.  Most prominently we find this interpretation revived and updated in the modern liberal movement originating in the 18th century.  The recognized fathers of so-called modernism were Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) and Albrecht Ritschl (1822-1889). These men, and their followers, sought to accommodate the teachings of Christianity to the worldview of those living in the time of the Enlightenment.  The idea of a sacrifice for sin seemed barbaric and unsophisticated to the civilized mind, but that Jesus would offer us the perfect example of love, one which we were to emulate, played well with many. 

It does not appear that Schleiermacher and Ritschl actually intended at first to circumvent the more conservative understandings of the Bible; they sought to update doctrine to make it more palatable to modern thinkers.  But once the foundations of biblical truth were undermined other doctrines began to fall through the cracks until not much was left of the Christian faith.  One of the fundamental doctrines to suffer was that of the cross.  Liberals could not easily deny that Jesus historically died on the cross (although some have done so today) but they could reframe the purpose of the cross.  Man’s great need was not redemption, not salvation from sin, not rescue from the wrath of God, but love.  We need to love one another or else we will destroy the world and everything in it.  But what does love look like?  Christ came to show us.  While the biblical-informed  Christian would see this theory as incomplete, a Hindu such as Mahatma Gandhi would have no problem with this kind of sacrifice.  He said, “His death on the cross was a great example to the world, but that there was anything like a mysterious or miraculous virtue in it, my heart could not accept.”[9]

One of the real problems with the moral example theory is that it does not take sin seriously and therefore sees no remedy, nor need for one, for guilt and judgment. Historian Tony Lane writes concerning a main proponent of this interpretation:

Schleiermacher’s concept of the work of Jesus Christ is too low, because of his inadequate view of human sinfulness – he has very little to say about guilt before God, for instance.  Jesus Christ came not to atone for sin but to be our teacher, to set us an example.  His work is essentially to arouse in us the consciousness of God… the work of Jesus Christ as perceived by Schleiermacher, makes his resurrection, ascension into heaven and second coming superfluous.[10]

It is no wonder that H. Richard Neibuhr famously described liberal theology as “a God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministration of a Christ without a cross.”[11]

Liberalism eventually permeated all the major denominations and ultimately defined most of them.  As a result liberal denominations today are on the decline as people have increasingly recognized that they have nothing more to offer than other benevolent organizations and social agencies.  But in the 21st century a new brand of liberalism has arisen that has caught the interest of many.  This is often called the Emergent movement with leaders such as Brian McLaren, Tony Jones and Doug Pagitt.  Essentially the Emergent movement is saying the same thing that old liberalism did except that they are repackaging their message for a postmodern generation rather than a philosophical modern one.  For example, where the Enlightenment proclaimed that truth could be found not in revelation but in the self, in reason and in the scientific method, postmodernity can offer little more than uncertainty.  Absolute, universal truth, the postmodern claims, is a myth.  Those within Christendom who have imbibed postmodern thinking might not totally dismiss the concept of truth but they have embraced uncertainty.  Truth may exist but there is no way that we can be certain what it is. And if we did there would be no means of communicating it to others.  When this mindset is transferred to the atonement we are delivered a diluted and contradictory message.  The great accomplishments of the atonement as found in Scripture are banished, for they offend the sensibilities of twenty-first century people.  Nevertheless while we can be certain that Christ did not die to satisfy the wrath of God or to defeat evil forces (so we are told), we can be certain that the cross gives us a powerful example of love.  How the emergents, who deny certainty, can be so certain of this is not clear.

There is enough truth in what the liberals and emergents were/are saying to be confusing to some.  Love is certainly the chief of the virtues; it is an attribute of God, and it was a motivation behind the incarnation and the cross (John 3:16).  But while Christ came motivated by His great love, He came to provide more than an example of love.  The real problem facing the human race is its alienation from a holy God who is righteously wrathful toward sinners.  There was no remedy to this condition found within man or the world around him.  The only solution rested in God.  But God could not simply love man to Himself and ignore his sins.  God had to provide a means of deliverance that was consistent with His own holy nature and which satisfied His wrath toward sin and sinners.  This necessitated the sacrificial death of Christ.  More on this in Part 2.

Christus Victor

Turning to the Christus Victor model, we find that it has become very popular today in some theological realms.  Robert Webber, father of the Ancient-Future Faith movement, attempts to establish that this was the primary interpretation of the atonement for the first millennium of church history[12] (I will refute this when we come to penal substitution). This view, in its present form, stems from a book by that name written by Gustaf Aulen in 1930.  Aulen sought to offer an opposing view to the traditional understanding that Christ died to satisfy God’s justice and to make us acceptable to Him.  But he wanted to move beyond the theory that Christ died to change our attitude toward God and provide us with an example of pure love. Aulen saw Christ’s death as a means by which the Lord battled with and conquered the evil forces of this world, principally Satan and his demons.[13] 

Christus Victor has much to commend it, most important of which is that it has biblical backing.  One of the most consistent teachings in the Scriptures is that the Lamb of God came to set us free from all the corrupting, polluting, destructive, and enslaving powers that reign over mankind (Col 1:13-14).  This includes sin, death and Satan.  Only the power of Christ through the cross can liberate us from such enemies and the Scriptures provide ample evidence that this is one of the reasons Christ died.

Biblical support for Christus Victor includes Colossians 2:15, “When He had disarmed the rulers and authorities; He made a public display of them, having triumphed over them through Him.”  But the means by which Christ triumphed over these spiritual powers was by dying in our place and taking our penalty upon Himself.  Verse 14 reads, “Having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.”  Therefore, without denying Christ’s victory over satanic forces at the cross, penal substitution remains central.  Were it not for Jesus taking our sins upon Himself and paying our penalty no victory would have been realized. Heb 2:14-15 is also an important biblical support for this theory, “Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives.”  And 1 John 3:8 is also helpful, “…The Son of God appeared for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil.”  Without question, in the atonement Christ won a great victory over the forces of evil.

Unfortunately some take this interpretation too far.  Robert Webber is one of those.  His explanation of Christus Victor is:

  • At the cross the power of Satan was dethroned. Christ’s death exposed Satan’s lies so that people can be set free from his illusions.
  • At the consummation Satan’s influence over the powers will be destroyed.
  • Between the resurrection and the consummation Satan’s powers have been limited.
  • Creation ultimately will be reconciled to God.
  • As for now, the kingdom of God, God’s rule over all things, is manifested.[14]

As presently understood by men such as Webber, Satan still has power over this world but it is greatly limited.  Therefore, according to this theory, the kingdom of God is here now which leads to some very practical applications.  Webber writes,

Faith in Jesus Christ, who is the ultimate ruler over all of life, can break the twisting of political, economic, social, and moral structures into secular salvation.  Because those structures that promise secular salvation are disarmed, they can no longer exercise ultimate power in our lives.  The powers have been dethroned by the power of the cross (emphasis mine).[15]

Why Christus Victor has gained popularity among emerging adherents and others who see the gospel as including a social element is obvious.  If the cross is designed to presently correct social, political and economic structures then the mission of the church is to right the injustices in our world.  We need not wait for the King to come to bring His kingdom because it is here.  Our job is to administer His kingdom now in preparation for the final stage of the kingdom coming to earth.  This understanding of the atonement radically transforms the overall purpose of God’s people from that of the Great Commission to the Cultural Mandate of fixing the planet.  As Brian McLaren states,

Jesus came to launch an insurgency to overthrow that occupying regime [a reference to aggression and injustice throughout the planet].  Its goal is to resist the occupation, liberate the planet, and retain and restore humanity to its original vocation and potential. This renewed humanity can return to its role as caretakers of creation and one another so the planet and all it contains can be restored to the healthy and fruitful harmony that God desires.[16]


A mistake is often made when theologians attempt to force us to choose between the three main interpretations of the atonement.  In fact, all three have biblical support and help explain the multifaceted beauty of Christ’s great cross-work. John R. W. Stott expresses this truth well when he writes,

In fact all three of the major explanations of the death of Christ contain biblical truth and can to some extent be harmonized, especially if we observe that the chief difference between them is that in each God’s work in Christ is directed toward a different person.  In the “objective” view God satisfies himself, in the “subjective” he inspires us, and in the “classic” he overcomes the devil.  Thus Jesus Christ is successively the Savior, the Teacher and the Victor, because we ourselves are guilty, apathetic and in bondage.[17]

While this is true, nevertheless the penal substitution of Christ is central, both in Scripture and in relationship to our salvation.  In part two of this study on the cross I will attempt to support this statement and give a thorough explanation of penal substitution as found in Scripture.


[1] See Brian McLaren, The Story We Find Ourselves In (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2003), pp. 102ff; and Steve Chalk and Alan Mann, The  Lost Message of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), p. 182.

[2] Steve Jeffery, Michael Ovey, Andrew Sach, Pierced for Our Transgressions (Wheaton: Crossway Books: 2007), p.21.

[3] Mark Dever,

[4] Michael J. Vlach, “Penal Substitution in Church History,” The Master’s Seminary Journal Vol. 20#2, p.201.

[5] Trevor P. Craigen, “Emergent Soteriology: the Dark Side,” The Master’s Seminary Journal, Vol. 17 #2 p.185.  Also see Brian McLaren, The Story We Find Ourselves In (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2003), pp.105-106.

[6] Vlach p. 203.

[7] Dever.

[8] James Beilby and Paul Eddy gen. ed, The Nature of the Atonement: Four Views (Downers Grove, Il: InterVarsity Press, 2006), p. 19.

[9] As quote by Mark Driscoll, Death by Love, p. 20.

[10] Tony Lane, A Concise History of Christian Thought (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), p. 240.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Robert Webber, Ancient-Future Faith (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2004), pp. 43-44.

[13] See Tony Lane, pp. 279-281.

[14] Webber, pp. 50-55.

[15] Ibid., p. 51.

[16] Brian McLaren, Everything Must Change (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2007), p. 129.

[17] John R. W Stott, The Cross of Christ (Downers Grove: IVP books, 2006), p. 226.


More Articles

Famine for the Word

Volume 30, Issue 4, May 2024 by Gary E. Gilley, Pastor/Teacher Southern View Chapel From general observation to suffocating surveys, theological drift and biblical illiteracy

Copyright 2024 © All rights Reserved. a ministry of Southern View Chapel