Atonement Theories: A Brief Primer

Atonement Theories: A Brief Primer

This week I just want to give a quick introduction to atonement theories. Yes, plural.

I can pretty confidently say, in all my years of church attendance and Christian primary education, I had never heard that there was more than one theory of atonement, or even that what I was taught was just a theory.

So, there is a decent likelihood that this is news to you as well.


First, what even is an 'atonement'?

While not exactly being the theological or dictionary definition, there is a neat, poetic mnemonic that I prefer.

Atonement = At-one-ment. The process by which we become one with God.

Merriam-Webster defines atonement as:

1 : reparation for an offense or injury : satisfaction
2 : the reconciliation of God and humankind through the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ
3 Christian Science : the exemplifying of human oneness with God
4 obsolete : reconciliation

Easton's Bible Dictionary uses the 'at-one-ment' definition, while Vine's Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words calls this definition 'fanciful' and prefers definition-by-synonym with 'reconcile' and 'propitiation'.

Personally, I'm sticking with at-one-ment, but for a more comprehensive definition, I will go with:

An Atonement Theory is an attempt to understand the cosmic mechanism by which we return to unity with God.


Now that we have a decent enough definition, what are the different theories?

While I may do a deeper dive at some point, today I just want to give a general mention to and about the various theories as a whole. I will also have links to other sites that have given great descriptions of the individual theories.

There are seven main theories that come up in cursory internet searches.

  1. The Moral Influence Theory
  2. The Ransom Theory
  3. Christus Victor
  4. The Satisfaction Theory
  5. The Penal Substitutionary Theory
  6. The Governmental Theory
  7. The Scapegoat Theory
    Source: Stephen D. Morrison

While those are the main theories, has a list of nine and names some of the above differently.

Lastly, this Wikipedia article on Salvation in Christianity covers a lot of the deeper theological ideas, if you're interested.

Where Do I Stand?

I am going to save my comments on specific theories for another time.

In general however, I agree with C. S. Lewis's sentiment that the particulars of any theory aren't all that important.

(This article covers Lewis's position quite well.)

While I have my preferences, I hold the position that the exact nature of the cosmic mechanisms by which we come back to unity with God are unknowable. I think that there is some measure of Truth in each theory.

Ultimately, the theories are simply metaphors. Whatever metaphor helps you to understand God's Love best is the one to give your attention to most. Don't think too much about the theories that either don't make sense, or don't point to God's Love. Simply trust in the Love of the Father.

You are Love.