Primer on Atonement Theories

For my Sunday School class, I have created the below graphic to help them understand what atonement means and the varieties of understandings of what it took for humanity to be reconciled to God. Here’s the lesson:


The word atonement comes from sixteenth-century English and literally means at-one-ment. Atonement is the process of reconciliation between God and human beings (either on a communal or individual basis) with the goal of righting a wrong or injury, i.e. sin.

Christians contend that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is intimately related to this process. But not all agree on when this act of atonement happened.

So in your mind, what part of Jesus’ life was most important in redeeming humanity?

  1. God becoming human in the Incarnation (Christ’s birth)
  2. Jesus teaching us and performing miracles (Life and Teaching)
  3. Jesus dying on the cross (Crucifixion)
  4. Jesus rising from the dead (Resurrection)

Based on your answer, you are able to see where you might want to study more on the Atonement chart. Note that the theologians mentioned are jumping-off points for discussion, not the end-all authorities on these theories

If you believe that the locus of atonement is that God became human, then you might study:

  • Christus Victor. Popularized by Irenaeus, Jesus’ life is a victorious struggle against evil. While many would place this at the Resurrection, Irenaeus would place the locus at the Incarnation and God existing before time as part of the Trinity.
  • Incarnational Atonement. Popularized by Fredrick Schleiermacher, something about the way Jesus is invites us into ideal humanity, made possible simply because of the Incarnation. God becoming flesh atones humanity in that instant, and all that matters is that God became human. This is also one of the stated ponderings in the Hacking Christianity article “Christmas, Not Lent, Should be about Atonement.”

If you believe that the locus of atonement is Jesus’ life and teachings, then you might study:

  • Moral Exemplar. Popularized by Abelard, Jesus’ life and death is a powerful enough example of love and obedience to influence sinners to repent of their sins and improve their lives.
  • Solidarity. Popularized by Tony Jones and Jurgen Moltmann, Jesus’ life stands as testimony that he always stood with the marginalized, the poor, the prostitutes and the tax collectors. His death was the result of his life. We are called to identify with Christ’s suffering and to stand with those whose experience of being forsaken parallels Christ on the cross.
  • Healing Servant. Popularized by some interpretations of John Wesley (though his own atonement is much harder to pin down), this perspective sees sin as disease and grace as healing, referencing Christ as the Great Physician…here’s a paper on the topic (PDF).

If you believe that the locus of atonement is Jesus’ death on the cross in the crucifixion, then you might study:

  • Penalty Satisfaction/Substitution. Popularized by Augustine/Anselm, the death of Jesus on the cross  is the paying of a debt (or satisfying a debt) caused by humanity’s sinful nature offending God’s honor. Also framed as Jesus taking the place (substituting) for humanity on the Cross. 
  • Last Scapegoat. Popularized by Rene Girard, tribal human societies needed a release valve to let off the pressure of increasing rivalry and violence, so a scapegoat victim is sacrificed, thus relieving the pressure of violence. Jesus’ death as a “visible victim/scapegoat” shows the injustice and inherent immorality of the scapegoating system on display (h/t Chris Baca in comments).

If you believe that the locus of atonement is Jesus’ resurrection and triumph over death, then you might study:

  • Ransom Captive. Popularized by Origen, Jesus’ death is the ransom paid to the devil (or evil powers) to free humans from the bondage of sin. Its locus is the Resurrection as that’s when the Devil was tricked and he didn’t have any control over Christ at all. RC has gained some traction in the post-modern world when you substitute “Satan” with “the powers” as popularized by Walter Wink and Gustav Aulen.

In the end, no one atonement theory may be sufficient to understand the acts of God through Jesus Christ to reconcile the world to God’s self. But in the studying of different theories and areas of focus, one confronts exactly what one believes about Jesus’ birth, life, death, and resurrection and perhaps by illuminating what is most important a stronger constructive theology can be made.

References: A Better Atonement: Beyond the Depraved Doctrine of Original Sin


Thoughts? Comments? I know I missed some like Governmental and Recapitulation, but that’s okay! It’s a primer!

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  1. says

    I definitely appreciated both the graphic and the explanation of the different atonement theories.

    However, I would argue that the Last Scapegoat theory popularized by Girard is a little more nuanced than simply Jesus being the scapegoat for sinful humanity, and then no more violence takes place afterwards. I’m currently working through Saved from Sacrifice by S. Mark Heim on my blog, and it seems like it would be more accurate to say that, in Girard’s atonement, Jesus doesn’t actually operate as a sacrifice, but his death as a “visible victim/scapegoat” shows the injustice and inherent immorality of the scapegoating system on display.

  2. says

    Hey Jeremy, cool graphic. I’m not sure that I agree with you completely on where Moltmann is placed, though. I’d argue that for Moltmann a theology of solidarity very much revolves around the cross. It’s there, according to him, that Jesus experiences both the ultimate in human experience, alienation from God, and is also the point where God the Suffering Father and Christ the Suffering Son are the closest to each other. Much of his theology of solidarity comes from this place, I think.

    Though that’s all hard to fit in a primer I suppose!

    • says

      That’s a good commentary, David. I think you are probably right. My view was that the Cross was the culmination of his life…his life showed his solidarity on a human level whereas the Cross shows his solidarity on a cosmic level. So which of his Chalcedon-esque parts is most important?

  3. says

    I bet this leads to interesting conversation — or maybe that is just with nerds.

    It would be interesting to pair some hymns/worship songs with each of these so people can connect what they sing with the theories.

    Two small quibbles: Origen has an ‘e’ in it (at least everywhere I’ve read it). John Wesley used healing metaphors, but I would not say the focus of his atonement theology was on the life and teaching of Jesus. Same concern as the person above commenting on Moltman.

    • John Lewis says

      In my youth I was quite impressed with Aulén’s book though not mature enough to frame his position in this way. The Christmas hymn that moves me most deeply is “A Stable Lamp is Lighted” to the tune of “Andujar.” It isn’t Christmas without it; unfortunately, I choke up whenever we sing it. “The Holly and the Ivy” works pretty well by book-ending the incarnate life of Jesus, and its traditional tune makes it a little easier to take. The deeper I go into the Pauline writings, the more convinced I am that ritual and song were the matrix out of which theology slowly (and painfully) precipitated. You’ve inspired me to take on a study of hymno(theo)logy!

    • Landa Simmons says

      John, During Lent I have taught a series on atonement theory through the great hymns of the church. “O Come, o come Emmanuel, and ‘ransom’ captive Israel” is seen in a new perspective. Great chart, Jeremy!

  4. says

    I wonder sometimes if we don’t do a disservice to the atonement brought by Jesus when we compartmentalize various aspects of his life, death, and resurrection and tell people to choose one. How could we learn to talk about atonement as a whole and each of these categories as different aspects of the one atonement?

    • says

      Each atonement theory involves the whole of Jesus’ life but as I’ve shown in the article and the comments, they each give value to different segments over the others.

      At my BOM interview I was asked “what happened on the cross to atone humanity?” So UMC folk already give higher value to the cross–to the blood–than they do the rest. So this is a pushback to that reality.

      • says

        Yeah, I’m just not convinced something like the atonement is meant to be a theological buffet of favorites for us to choose from. I hear what you’re saying but I still see this as a simplistic response to an overly- simplistic problem

          • says

            Atonement is so personal though…what you believe matters most in Jesus’ birth, life, death and resurrection is a central question for any constructive theology. We are called to do constructive theology not intellectual assent to the majority or someone else. Every constructive theology that we’ve ever read from Luther on down made this same choice.

  5. Josh Blanchard says

    How about “recapitulation”, the Second Adam ? Christ is seen as the new Adam who succeeds where Adam failed. Christ undoes the wrong that Adam did and because of his union with humanity leads humankind on to eternal life. Personally I like a combination of Christus Victor and Healing Servant. Nice article Jeremy!

  6. Gerrie Rue says

    All were necessary and ordained by God. Atonement was a process, and so was Salvation from childhood to adulthood in my case.

  7. says

    If you’re interested in Atonement Theory, I’d suggest reading S. Mark Heim’s “Saved from Sacrifice.” It’s a wonderful interplay of Christus Victor with the works of Rene Girard

  8. Steve Clunn says

    Great primer, Jeremy! Although I wonder if there isn’t an emergent 5th way of looking at Atonement… a process view of the Atonement? That is that all four of these aspects of Jesus reconciling humanity to God are not the fulfillment of atonement, but are the beginning of the process of God’s act of atonement. What if we are still in the process of atonement that Jesus made possible? What if the fulfillment of that process can be seen in terms of sanctification, or the living Christ being born a new in the hearts of humanity? Not by some totality of conversion to Christianity, but by humanity coming to realize the depth and breadth of God’s incarnate love and grace (presence) in their lives and the need to strive to live with that focus as their focus in life? I know this sounds a lot like realized eschatology, but what if it was viewed in terms of human incarnational atonement? Just asking!

  9. says

    Really Good work, and it could die the death of a thousand nuances, when it’s points are already well made.
    One affirmation and two problems…
    IT is good to start where people are starting from as you say but good theology adds strings to their bow, so these different pictures all together make for a vital life at-one with God.
    One problem is when a person who prefers one section pours scorn on another.
    A second problem is when in evangelism one thinks that one section is “it”, when Jesus and the apostles don’t do that. All these images have had and still have their value,each addresses a difffreent version of “The Problem”, but likewise they are all analogies for divine love and life happening in full, try to fit that in a box. Start anywhere and dont finish there!

  10. says

    The substitutionary theory of the atonement works for some people, but those people need to know that it doesn’t work for an increasing number of us in the 21st century and they need to know that there has never been a Church Council that has met and ruled that that theory of the atonement is “the right one.” Progressive Christianity leans toward the Moral or Exemplary theory of the atonement.

    Believing X, Y, and Z about Jesus’ death and blood; i.e., that he died to save us from our sins so that won’t go to hell — isn’t deep faith, it’s fire insurance. Instead, of saying that Jesus died for us, I invite conservative Christians to allow us to proclaim that Jesus lived for us and showed us how to really live. – Roger Wolsey, author, Kissing Fish: christianity for people who don’t like christianity


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