What is Atonement

What is Atonement

What is atonement? The Atonement is critical it is the central doctrine of Christianity, surrounded by the basic faith seeking understanding to its complex realm. That does not mean that other doctrines may be less important or neglected rather each of the doctrines has greater contribution to the Christianity.

An English term originally coined in 1526 by William Tyndale to Translate the Latin term reconciliation, which has since come to have the developed meaning of the work of Christ or the benefits of Christ gained for believers by his death and resurrection.

The meaning of Atonement

In its simplest versions of Atonement signifies; to bring together in reconciliation, to make amends, or to mend. The spiritual activity deliberately undertaken, to correct the repercussion of evil and work of Jesus Christ ending at Calvary; the redeeming effects upon human of Christ is obedience and discipline.

His suffering (sacrifice) and crucifixion (death). From ‘at and one’, ‘to make as one’, ‘to unite’, to make into one (at-one-ment), to remove obstacles preventing a union, or acceptance. The word atonement repeatedly used as a synonyms for emancipation, atone –ment refers to the end- effect of the process of redemption being at one with God from whom we were previously alienated and so sharing in the divine life.

The language of atonement also points to the means for removing guilt and reconciling sinners with God.We have seen that if God be regarded as impersonal Brahman there is no room for sin and guilt. This is equally true about reconciliation, propitiation, expiation or any other words used to explain Atonement.

Satisfaction Theory

The ‘ransom’ or ‘bargain’ theory held prominent place for nearly a millennium, until it was definitely superseded by Anselm’s theory of satisfaction. The learned Italian monk in the Normandy monastery, who eventually became the archbishop of Canterbury, lived in the time of an incipient scholasticism.

The early scholasticism was very optimistic about the capacity of human reason to grasp Christian truth, and Anselm was convinced that there could be no discrepancy between reason and revelation.

He was confident that every Christian doctrine could be completely demonstrated by human logic. He undertook to demonstrate the doctrine of the incarnation as logically binding on human reason.

His book cur dues homo, why did god become man? Is an attempt to prove the rational necessity of the incarnation? But his main argument is, through starting from of a dialogue between himself and an opponent, Boso.

The doubts of Boso he meets with his own theory. In his Cur Deus Homo 1098 Anslem of Canterbury explicitly rejected the idea that Satan had rights and that Jesus Death was a ransom paid to the devil. He developed the satisfaction theory which motif includes several variations and emphasis.

The satisfaction theory is predominantly God`s words: its effect is upon God. His offended honour is restored. But it is even here that the mist serious objection arises. The theory constitutes a clearage between God and Christ.

The later offers the former a satisfaction which He accepts. And it is as man that Christ makes His offer to God. It is not made clear that God was in Christ reconciling the world unto Him. The atonement does not stand out as God’s own work from the beginning to the end.

But even more serious is another detect. What is the conception of God that is at the root of this theory? The picture Anselm has pointed of God is that of a feudal Lord extremely particular about his honour. God’s glory is rightly stressed.

But there is nothing about the love of God. Of course, Anselm does not deny God’s love; but it has no organic place in his argument. Of theory which has no need of that which is the very centre of the Gospel it must be said, not only it is defective, but that it is a failure inasmuch as it has missed that which is of the essence of the matter.

Thereby the whole thing has been misrepresented. In view of the enormous influence it has exercised on Christian thought it is difficult to calculate the damage its one sidedness has caused to the Gospel. The values of this theory have been bought at too high a cost. For Anselm, the sin of humankind had offended the honour and dignity of God and brought disharmony and injustice into the universe and a debt payment was necessary in order to restore God’s honour or to restore order and justice in the universe and this could only be satisfied by the sacrifice of, Jesus Christ.

This theory presupposes the idea that Jesus as a man bore the penalty of human sin, and offered satisfaction for it in our stead. This idea is closely associated with Anselm of Canterbury (A.D. 1033-1109). Anselm held that man has dishonour and committed sin against God. Therefore, man is to offer satisfaction for his sin, or else he must be punished.

In Anselm’s view, satisfaction to God can consists of only something which a man does not readily owe Go, that is a work of supererogation. Since ordinary human already owes his creator everything he has, he cannot offer satisfaction to God. Only Jesus Christ who was born without sin can offer God such a work of supererogation. Thus, in Anselm’s view humanity in the person of Jesus Christ has offered God his satisfaction.

Anselm’s theory of satisfaction

Anselm’s theory of satisfaction has been significant and influential, and yet it is also subjected to criticism. On the other hand Anselm takes human sin seriously and stresses on the costliness of the atoning work of Christ.

However, Anselm overlooked the character of Jesus’ death as something that happened to him, and misunderstood it as something that Jesus had actively done. James Atkinson feels that Anselm lays too much emphasis on the part played by Christ’s human hood.

He says that if the theory is not interpreted in the light of the dramatic theory, the whole idea of the atonement as an act of God proceeding from God’s love may be obscured.

Ransom Theory (What is Atonement)

In mark 10:45 Jesus says that he has come to be a servant rather than to be served- and to give life as a ransom for many.

The Greek for ‘ransom’islutron. This word occurs in the new testament only in mat.20:28, but other words from the same root are used, e.g. I Tim. 2:6, ‘who gave himself a ransom for all’ (antilutron); tit. 2:14, ‘who gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity’; the English word ‘redeem’, from the latinredimere, ‘to buy back’(e.g. an object from pawn) is rightly used here. The word ‘redeemer’ ‘literally means the one who buys us back by paying the ransom-price.

The idea of redeeming or buying back by paying a ransom was familiar in Jewish and Roman society in the time of Jesus; and it has again become painfully familiar in recent days through the practices of hijacking and kidnapping, coupled with the demand for a ransom to secure the freedom of the victim.

According to Jewish law, the first born in every family belonged to god –hence first born animals were sacrificed- and so had to be ‘bought back’ by the parents, on payment of a ransom of five shekels (num. 18:16). Again if a Jew fell into slavery- because of debt or poverty-he could be ‘redeemed ‘by a kinsman, ‘goel’, who paid the ransom price to his owner. (Lev. 25:47ff.)

Greeks and Romans arrangement

Similarly, among the Greeks and Romans there was an arrangement for the ‘emancipation’ of slaves, whereby a relative or friend of the slave agreed to pay the ransom necessary for the release.  In this case, the owner and slave went together to the temple of some God; the friend paid the money in to the temple treasury, and the owner then received the money ‘from the god’; henceforth the slave was free as far as his former owner was concerned, but was reckoned to be the slave of god through whom he had been released. This is what Paul implies when he writes, ‘you are not your own: for you have been bought with a price’ (1 cor. 6:19-20); i.e. ‘you were once the slaves of Satan, but now you belong to Christ, and so are truly free.

New Testament (What is Atonement)

What then does the New Testament mean it uses terms like ‘ransom’ and ‘redemption?’ it means that we were once the servants and slaves of evil, of Satan; but now Christ, by his suffering and death, has paid the price to set us free. From now on, therefore, we are his servants, and Satan has no domination over us. And the ransom-price was not gold or silver, but ‘the precious blood of Christ.

The theological theory

Strangely enough, in the period immediately following the apostolic age, comparatively little stress was laid on the death of Christ. This was the period which felt the influence of Gnosticism (a kind of jnanavada) and leaders of Christian thought like the apostolic fathers and the apologists tended to describe the Christian way as the way of true gnosis, or knowledge, as against the false ways of the Gnostics.

The work of Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen could be described in this way. However, eventually- in the time of Origen (c.185-254) and Gregory of Nyssa (d.394)-men did begin to ask the question of what Jesus achieved by his death; and so a theory arose. Origen, for example accepting the fact that we are bought with a price’, asks the question, ‘to whom was the price paid? and gives the answer that it was to Satan. the price that Satan demanded our release was the blood of Christ, ‘a ransom for many.

When Christ rose at the resurrection, however, the devil was cheated of his prey. This idea of a bargain with Satan, who is then eventually cheated, is found in other writers also, including St.Augustine. Obviously, this is a case where a biblical picture is being pressed too far, for the ideas of a bargain with Satan and his being cheated are unworthy of the God we know

. Jesus’use of the ransom picture illustrates two main points- the great power of sin and of Satan, and the terrible cost of salvation

The says of C.F.Alexanderis that there was no other good enough to pay the price of sin.

Penalty Substitution Theory

Since all have sinned and fall of the glory of God they are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus… this was to show God’s righteousness because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies him who has faith in Jesus. Rom 3:23-26.

Therefore Since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Rom.5:1In these verses, the words in italics all come from a common Greek origin- the word dike or justice.


God is justice (dikaios); all his actions are characterized by justice or righteousness (dikaiosune); and he justifies or makes righteous (dikaioun) those who commit themselves in trust to Christ. The picture which is in Paul’s mind here is one which was very familiar to Roman citizens- that of a law-court.

The sinner stands before God’s judgment-seat. The evidence is read out, and it is abundantly clear that the prisoner is guilty- that I am guilty. The sins that I have committed are more than sufficient to merit punishment. But now something unexpected happens.

Because I have put my trust in Christ, because I have accepted him as my Lord, he himself stands beside me, stands in my place. And because I am by faith united with him, God looks at him rather than me.

Sin has been committed, and that sin must be punished, but Christ in my place takes that punishment upon himself, and I am set free from the guilt of sin. I do not become innocent because I cannot undo the sin; but I do become free from guilt, because Christ bears my guilt. Luther described this by saying that I am at the same time righteous and a sinner.

Christ died for sins

Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to god. I pet.3:18. These passages make it clear that the New Testament does speak of ‘substitution’.

We have sinned against God and deserve punishment; when the case is tried, we are guilty; but God himself, the judge, in the person of his Son, stands in our place, takes our punishment upon himself, and so we are justified-declared free from guilt, and allowed to go free.

Sacrifice Theory

Christ is the Lamp of God (john.1:29) who takes away the sin of the world; he is our pass over, who has been sacrificed (1 cor.5:7). He is the hilasterion,the propitiation, the mercy-seat where God acts to forgive sin.

The epistle to the Hebrews exposition of Christ’s work in the context of the Jewish sacrificial system is a highly effective interpretation directed to the pre-understanding of the Jewish recipients of the letter.

The Theological Theory

In the Old Testament sacrificial system, it was man who offered to god the prescribed sacrifices, in order to get rid of his sins. We must have seen how the interpretation of sacrifice given in Hebrews shows that Christ’s sacrifice is presented by Christ himself, who is both priest and victims.

In the church however, there gradually grew up the idea, associated with the Lord’s supper, that man must still offer to God a worthily sacrifice; yet there is only one sufficient sacrifice the death of Christ.

Protestant and catholic theologians have, nevertheless, come very close to each other in their understanding of the element of sacrifice in the Eucharist.

Pope Paul VI

According to pope Paul VI’s encyclical Mysteriumfidei(1965) the sacrificial character of the mass consists in the fact in it Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross is actualised or re-presented in such a way that the church is included in and enters into Christ’s act of obedience to the father.

This is comparable to the church of north India’s teaching that in the Eucharist there is a shewing forth and pleading before the father. Christ’s sacrifice once for all offered, and its affirmation that the church is a royal priesthood; whose members all have the rights and duties of a priesthood of believers, offering to God in and with the son the sacrifice of themselves and all their powers, and showing forth in life and word the glory of the redeeming power of God in Jesus Christ.

Indian Christian theologians

Indian Christian theologians on the whole have not greatly attracted to the idea of sacrifice, but there have been one or two exceptions. K.M Banerjea (1813-1885), influenced by the AryaSamajist theory that the religion of the Vedas was the true religion of India, and that all others forms of Hinduism were corruptions, found certain features of the Vedic religion which he believed to be fulfilled in Christianity features which seemed to point to an original cosmic Covenant made between god and man.

v.Chakkarai (1880-1958) also interprets Christ’s death as sacrifice. For him the dominant idea here is that of the release of power. At the last supper, Christ sees his death as a sacrifice, the Saktiof which was to become available to his disciples through participation in the sacrificial meal of the bread and wine, bringing to them forgiveness and power.

Moral Influence Theory (What is Atonement)

The third great theory of the Atonement is Peter Abelard`s moral Influence Theory (1079-1142) It signifies the incarnation itself- God gift of himself in the total life of Jesus, in his teaching as well as in obedience to death-that God`s incredible love for his creatures is manifested.

It incredible as it seems, God loves us by sending his son into the world. When we fully recognize this love of God for us, our stony hearts are changed and we find a new freedom and a new ability to fulfill the best that is in us.(1 John 4:10) but the Epistle of John continues (1John 4:11) and states if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.

Abelard also echoes John`s understanding of the effects on human beings of their awareness of God`s love. In God`s determination not to be separated from humanity, which is manifested in the Incarnation, in the incarnation, in his forgiveness of sins, and in Jesus` willingness to endure the Crucifixion. We come to realize the high value that God gives to humanity.

Because we are so prized, we are able to accept ourselves as God does, and we turn from excessive concern over our sin and guilt. Freed from self-preoccupation, we become free to love others. Abelard (in his commentary on roman expounded a new theory.

Christ Love (What is Atonement)

Christ, in all his loving acts, but above all in his suffering and death is the manifestation of God’s love. Seeing this love we are overcome by it, and inspired to love God is return. Christ’s love shown on the cross, draws our minds away from the will to sin, and inclines them to love his more and more.

His love frees us from the slavery of sin, fills us with love for him in return, and gives us the true freedom of the son of God. In modern times the moral influence theory has been used and developed by a number of western theologians.

Christ’s loving compassion for sinners lifts them from their sin and takes into fellowship with God-somewhat in the same way as a fine Christian friend can influence us and change our lives for the better. It is this psychological or subjective influence worked on the minds of the sinner by the death of Christ that gives this view its name of moral Influence theory.

The moral influence theory has its strong points. It rightly puts God’s love at the centre of the picture in contrast to Anselm’s view which makes God more like a medieval feudal chief. Here we see adequate weight being given to the message of great texts on the love of God, like john 3:16.

Again, father and son work together as one, and there is no question of the son appeasing an angry father. Thirdly- and this is important- the subjective side is adequately dealt with; the action does not take place merely outside me; my own heart responds to the love of Christ, and I am changed, in repentance and love.

For the moral Influence theory, sinful humankind that is, us is the greater of Jesus `death. The Death is aimed at us as a way for God to get our attention. Thus, for Abelard Jesus died as the demonstration of God’s love.

And the change that results from that loving death is not in God but in the subjective influence consciousness of the sinners who repent and cease their rebellion against God and turn towards God. In this psychological or subjective influence worked on the mind of the sinner by the death of Christ that gives this view its name of moral influence theory.

Conclusion (What is Atonement)

In my personal evolution and close examination of these theories of Atonement, I would like to promote and boldly admits that the Moral Influence Theory that has made a great impact on human world as per my context.

The death of Christ teaches the whole human world about significance of being human; and what all can a human personality does in order to serve, love, and protect one another.

The Influential aspect of the theory is very much demonstrated in Christian societies in the present context of Dalitness and nakedness of marginalized sections, that how the influence of Christ forcing Christians or followers of Christ to be like him in order to serve the Others.

It is indeed clear that God`s great love for us which we have experienced in Jesus Christ is amazing. I hope we understan What is Atonement mean.