Why Did Jesus Have To Die
Time to talk about Atonement Theory
By Ron Corson
In a Time magazine article entitled Why Did Jesus Die? [April 12, 2004] The author quotes a conversation on the subject by a men’s group, the leader of the group concludes: “It physically had to happen, I’m not sure I would have said that before I saw the movie [Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ]. But now it’s much clearer to me. I can’t say why he had to suffer the way he did. But Christ had to die.” In theological terms we are have entered the area known as soteriology, which is the theology which deals with salvation as effected by Jesus Christ. In Bible terms we are dealing with Atonement which means the reconciliation between God and man. As the Time article noted The Atonement is the centerpiece of Christianity. Which theory a person holds defines their Christian views as well as their particular view of God.
There have been several Atonement Theories throughout church history all with their own catchy Theological names. They range from the simple to complex. Beginning with the Apostolic Fathers we see the simplest theory which is known as the Moral Influence Theory. Christ imparted to us: new Knowledge, Fresh life, Immortality. Clement states: Through Him God has called us from darkness to light from ignorance to knowledge of the glory of His name. Clement further says that Christ endured it all on account of us and that His sufferings should bring us to repentance. Hemas adds that Christ reveals to us the true God. Barnabas notes that He came to abolish death and to demonstrate resurrection from the dead. Peter Abelard who is most notable for his promotion of this theory one thousand years later said, “Love answers love’s appeal”. The Moral Influence theory is directed at mankind, to draw them back to God through the knowledge revealed by Christ, God is love He offers forgiveness and reconciliation and life.
A little later the Theory of Recapitulation was put forward by Irenaeus. This theory states that just as Adam contained in himself all his descendants so Christ recapitulated in Himself all the dispersed peoples dating back to Adam, the whole race of mankind, along with Adam himself. His conclusion is that humanity which was seminally present in Adam has been given the opportunity of making a new start in Christ, the second Adam, through incorporation in his mystical body. The original Adam by disobedience introduced the principle of sin and death, but Christ by His obedience has reintroduced the principle of life and immortality. Because He is identified with the human race at every phase of it existence, He restores fellowship with God to all. To Irenaeus it is obedience that God requires, and in order to exhibit such obedience, Christ had to live His life through all its stages, including death.
Later a more fanciful theory gained several centuries of acceptance. The Ransom theory with elements taken from Origin interprets the death of Christ as a Ransom paid by God to Satan in order to secure the redemption of humanity, which has been brought under his dominion by sin. Different writers had various options on this theory. Some admitted the possession of his captives, and the death of Jesus is interpreted as a ransom due to the devil on grounds of justice. Others denied the devil has a right to sinners, but saw God as too gracious to take what was His by force. Still others felt that man’s deliverance was secured by deception on God’s part. Satan being deceived by the humble appearance of the Redeemer supposing that he had to do with a mere man. Finding too late that the Deity whose presence he had not perceived escaped his clutches through the Resurrection. Some of the adherents to this view include Augustine, Gregory the Great, Gregory of Nyssa. While this theory has been forgotten by most Christians, remnants are still seen in many Christian Churches today. An example of this is seen in this statement by the late professor Arnold V. Wallenkampf :“Satan had challenged Jesus' resurrection of Moses on Mount Nebo (see Jude 9); and legally Satan had a point. Moses had been a sinner, and as such he belonged to Satan.”
Around 1100 C.E. a more complex theory of the Atonement gained precedence. The Satisfaction theory was first produced in a clear coherent manner by Anselm, in his treatise, Cur Deus Homo, ( Why a Godman?) Anselm finds no reason in justice why God was under any obligation to Satan. Christ’s Atonement concerns God not the devil. Man by his sin has violated the honor of God and defiled His handiwork. It is not consistent with the Divine self-respect that He should permit His purpose to be thwarted. Yet this purpose requires the fulfillment by man of the perfect law of God. For this transgression, repentance is no remedy, since penitence, however sincere, cannot atone for the guilt of past sin. Nor can any finite substitute, whether man or angel make reparation. Sin being against the infinite God, is infinitely guilty, and can be atoned for only by an infinite satisfaction. Thus either man must be punished and God’s purpose fail or man must make an infinite satisfaction, which is impossible. The only escape is that someone be found who can unite in his own person the attributes both of humanity and of infinity. This is brought about by the incarnation of Christ. In Christ we have one who is very man, and can therefore make satisfaction to God on behalf of humanity, but who is at the same time very God, and whose person therefore gives infinite worth to the satisfaction which He makes. Christ death voluntarily given when it is not due since He was without sin, is the infinite satisfaction which secures the salvation of man.
From this, the majority of Christian Churches both Roman Catholic and Protestants have moved to the Theory put forth in the 1500’s known as the Substitution Theory (Penal Theory). With the exception of the Eastern Orthodox Church which really does not focus on any particular Atonement theory instead focusing upon Jesus’ triumph over death and way made to join Him.
The Substitutionary view held many of Anselm’s presuppositions regarding Christ’s Atonement. However it was modified in one very substantial way. The central position of the Atonement was interpreted not as satisfaction, but as punishment, and hence given a substitutionary significance. The infinite guilt of man’s sin which has so utterly alienated mankind from the Kingdom of Heaven that none but a person reaching to God can be the medium of restoring peace. Such an efficient mediator is found in Christ alone. Through whose atoning death the price of man’s forgiveness is paid and a way of salvation made open. John Calvin considers the Atonement not as a meritorious satisfaction accepted as a substitute for punishment, but as the vicarious endurance by Christ of that punishment itself. Calvin denies that God was ever hostile to Christ or angry with Him, yet in His Divine providence He suffered His Son to go through the experience of those against whom God is thus hostile. In His own consciousness, Christ bore the weight of the Divine anger, was smitten and afflicted, and experienced all the signs of an angry and avenging God.
The Penal Theory was severally criticized by the Socinians, who attacked the entire concept of substitutionary punishment. They held that punishment and forgiveness are inconsistent ideas. If a man is punished he cannot be forgiven, and vice versa. Under the theory of distributive justice, punishment, being a matter of the relation between individual guilt and its consequences, is strictly untransferable. The Socinians held to the Moral Influence Theory as mentioned by the Apostolic Fathers and the Apologists of the second century church.
In response to the Socinians Hugo Grotius wrote a work entitled The Satisfaction of Christ. Grotius was writing in defense of the Penal/Substitution Theory, however he, perhaps unknowingly modified the theory. In this view God does not deal with men as a judge but as a governor, who unlike a judge may temper justice with mercy, but the motives which lead him so to be temperate are never arbitrary. Thus Christ’s death is a substitute for punishment, a suffering inflicted by God and voluntarily accepted by Christ, which works upon men by moral influence in order to conserve the ends of righteousness. Such suffering on Christ’s part is necessary, since forgiveness on the basis of repentance alone might be misinterpreted by men and lead to grave carelessness. Among Arminians it has practically supplanted the older Penal Theory.
Early Christian Doctrines J.N.D. Kelly Harper & Row, Pub. New York 1960 pp. 163-183, 375-395
Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics Vol. 5 pp. 640-650
The New Schaff-Herzog Religious Encyclopedia pp. 349-356