On atonement theories and the nature of God

I was in an interesting conversation over at Insanitybytes22’s blog with her post, “A Wrinkle in Time….” The subject was about the atonement. You might be surprised to hear this if you’ve only heard one version of the atonement but, historically speaking, this subject is one the most controversial topics in Christianity.

Before I continue, let me explain something about what I believe. While I’m an evangelical myself, I find various aspects of the Christian faith are better explained by different parts of the body of Christ. I don’t think any one denomination has all the truth, but together we have strengths to add to the whole (if we’re open to it and not politically divisive).

For instance, I believe the Catholics (Aquinas) have the best argument for the existence of God. I think the Protestants have the best view on the priesthood of the believer, grace and faith, and the Charismatics from all these groups have the best explanation for our identity as sons and daughters, our authority in Christ, and spiritual gifts.

But I believe the best explanation of the atonement comes from the Eastern Orthodox Church. They are at least the closest to the early church fathers and make God look like Jesus.

You see, it makes a big difference how you depict God’s nature and character in your atonement theories.

What InsanityBytes was reacting to was a sentiment by another blogger about the nature of God where he said, “the word propitiation refers to the fist of the Father, striking the Son….” I find this comment equally revolting. It’s also one that skeptics and atheists would use as cannon fodder to put God’s moral character into question. And I would heartily agree with them…if the sentiment were true. But I believe this is a gross misrepresentation of God and the atonement. It’s actually the wrong paradigm the way I see it.

There are many atonement theories within the Christian faith. While all theories agree that Christ died for our sins and was raised  on the third day, what was actually happening on the cross does not have full agreement.

So, before I continue, it’s important we understand that disagreement between these theories doesn’t put someone outside the faith and, hopefully, should not divide us as brothers and sisters in Christ.

Here’s where there’s virtually no disagreement:

By far, the most popular atonement theory in the West is what’s called Penal Substitution Atonement (PSA). This is sometimes called the “forensic theory” because it sees sin as a violation, breaking of God’s moral law. So, Jesus must pay a “Judge” for our infractions of the rules, so to speak. This theory did not even exist before the Reformation. If you’ve read my blog for long you know I don’t see PSA in a favorable light for several reasons. I suggest you read those posts here for a fuller explanation.

But this doesn’t mean that I don’t agree with parts of PSA. I absolutely agree that Jesus suffered for our sins to reconcile us back to God. But I don’t believe that God had to exact payment in order to forgive us. That makes God beholding to some higher law than Himself! No, God could simply forgive us, like forgiving a friend who owes you money. In fact, didn’t Jesus say He is like this? (Matt.18:23-27). Forgiveness means you just let the offense go. But He did need to fix the damage…in other words, save us.

I believe God’s justice is restorative, not retributive. He didn’t come to get His pound of flesh; He came to rescue us and set us free! (See “The Cross: God’s restorative justice on display.”)

Here’s a clip with N.T. Wright answering questions about PSA and some of the common misconceptions and misrepresentations that surround it. I agree with Wright’s view that the Cross reveals the sovereign love of God, not the anger of God:

Sadly, many evangelicals malign Wright because he disagrees with their dogma. But, again, it isn’t necessary to do this. Just disagree. What are we afraid of? 🙂

The reason I think the Eastern Orthodox have the best atonement theory is because their theory doesn’t pit the Father against the Son and divide the Trinity. Frankly, it’s simply beautiful.

For instance, they don’t see the atonement in a jurisprudence paradigm at all, nor do they believe Jesus was an appeasement to an angry God. They see it as a total victory over sin and death!

Because of the fall, our ability to hear the voice of God and remain in union with Him was damaged. We were poisoned by the serpent in the Garden; we became enemies of God in our own mind (Col.1:21). We had gotten ourselves under the power of the evil one. So Jesus went into the realm of death and hell to set us free from the grave forever and bring us back into union with God. It’s not about retribution, it’s about redemption.

Beloved, the atonement was a rescue mission!

So we see in Orthodox resurrection iconography, not Jesus coming out of the Garden Tomb like with most European art, but Him standing on the gates of hell, pulling Adam and Eve up with Him (representing all humanity). What’s interesting is that Jesus is holding Adam’s wrist which is particularly associated with weddings in ancient Greek art.

It’s about our rescue, our redemption. It’s about love because God is love, and He so loved the world. And Jesus has won His bride!  God has done it as He promised.  Hallelujah!

19 I will betroth you to me forever;
    I will betroth you in righteousness and justice,
    in love and compassion.
20 I will betroth you in faithfulness,
    and you will acknowledge the Lord.(Hosea 2:19-20 NIV)


About Mel Wild

God's favorite (and so are you), a son and a father, happily married to the same beautiful woman for 41 years. We have three incredible adult children. My passion is pursuing the Father's heart in Christ and giving it away to others. My favorite pastime is being iconoclastic and trailblazing the depths of God's grace. I'm also senior pastor of Cornerstone Church in Wisconsin.
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22 Responses to On atonement theories and the nature of God

  1. Lily Pierce says:

    Thanks for this post, Mel. I sometimes don’t give much thought to the nitty gritty details of what I believe, but I am realizing that my views are more “liberal” because I have never thought of God hammering down the fist of justice on Jesus; I believe that God is just, which is why I don’t struggle with belief in hell, but I always thought of Jesus’s crucifixion as an act of love. I enjoyed the video, too.

    • Mel Wild says:

      Thanks for your comments, Lily. Like you, I hadn’t really thought about this deeply before. But a few years back I started thinking about what I was actually saying about God when I taught about the atonement. It just didn’t seem to be consistent with His character. I realized that it required a fair bit of cognitive dissonance to defend. That led me to do extensive research and study on how we came to believe what we believe. I found that this was not only a relatively new theory, it is very different than the way the early church thought about it for over a millennium. Since then, I’ve written a lot of posts here on what I’ve found.

      In defense of PSA, I will say that the comment this blogger made was an extreme example and many who embrace this atonement theory would not agree with him. But I still see it as a wrong paradigm or framing of what actually happened. As I said in the post, I will go with whatever sounds like the nature and character of Jesus.

  2. hawk2017 says:

    Excellent. 🙂

  3. This was excellent, Mel. I really appreciate all your thoughts and research.

    • Mel Wild says:

      Thanks, IB. Your post brought up something particularly irritating to me. Making God into some sadistic monster. Sounds like that guy had father issues.

  4. Willy Torresin says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you! Just wonderful! Loved this post!

  5. Cindy Powell says:

    Thanks for this Mel. I’m catching up on a few posts after being off WP for awhile and I’m glad I saw this one. I’ve sometimes had difficulty articulating what I do and do not believe about the atonement and this presents a complicated topic very simply. 😊 I also appreciate the grace toward those with different views. I pray as a whole we will get much better at that! Many blessings to you.

  6. Yeah, I read IB’s post too and shared the following:

    After reading some of the comments, it is clear that several do not understand Isaiah 53. When the Bible speaks of the Father being pleased to wound the Son, it was not because He was happy to see the suffering. It was because He was joyful over the outcome or the end result of that suffering. He was wounded for us…He was bruised for us…the chastisement for our peace was put upon Him… our sicknesses were placed upon Him.

    11 As a result of the anguish of His soul,
    He will see it and be satisfied;
    By His knowledge the Righteous One,
    My Servant, will justify the many,
    As He will bear their iniquities.

    Hebrews 12:2 says that “for the joy that was set before Him, endured the cross…” The joy was the reestablishment of a relationship. We can never truly comprehend such a love.

    The problem is that so many complicate the Bible.

  7. I loved the openness and the grace (which Cindy Powell also mentioned) with which you presented the subject.

    I have had difficulties in accepting the statements of dogma that many take for granted -even that Jesus died to save us from our sins …and have posted my thoughts in a post titled Why the Cross?. I should reiterate that I am a firm believer and lover of Christ – my idol and my Lord. It is just that I had difficulties with some explanations that did not seem to gel in presenting God’s love as well as His Omnipotence.

    Just a couple of days ago, I read something on Substitutionary Atonement from Richard Rohr which really clarified many of my questions. We seem to be on the same page and I I reblogged his full reflection. –

    I acknowledge however that no one person can have all the answers; it is also presumptuous to believe that we can even begin to know the mind of God. As 1 Cor 13.12 reminds us .. ” For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as I have been fully known.”
    Till then … rescue mission is a beautiful way of putting it. We have been thrown a life belt. Lets cling to it …and HIM 💗


  8. Citizen Tom says:

    Reblogged this on Citizen Tom and commented:

    Here is an interesting post. I sort of understand the complaint that Mel and Insanitybytes22 have with the theory of Penal Substitutionary Atonement, but I doubt there is a better “theory.” All we have are theories. That’s why this is one of those arguments that leaves me scratching my head. If any of us knows exactly what happened when Jesus died on that cross, none of us knows how to explain it well.

    That said, I appreciate the fact Mel explained his own view. It helps to understand Insanitybytes22’s gripe.

    For what it is worth what do I think? What the Bible is clear about is that God hates sin. When Adam and Eve disobeyed God, they sinned, and they bequeathed to us the consequences of that sin.

    What did God do? He promised a Redeemer. As it happens, the Jews had almost no idea how this Redeemer, this Messiah, would fulfill His mission.

    What do we know after the fact? Jesus, who is One with the Father, suffered and died for us. Was it to pay the price for our sins, or because God allowed the most vile of demons (one of His creations) to steal two naive souls from Paradise? In the first case we can make God appear hateful. In the second we can make Him seem like a clumsy all-powerful klutz.

    So what is the answer? Who crucified Jesus? Acts 2 records that the Apostle Peter told the Jews that they had killed Him. The Gospels make it clear that Gentiles put Jesus on that cross too.

    Fulfilling the wishes of the Father Jesus laid down His life for us. He allowed sinful people engaged in the most heinous sin to cruelly murder Him. His sacrifice somehow makes those who repent and believe in Jesus acceptable to God. Why? We don’t know. We also don’t know why the sin of Adam and Eve condemned all their progeny, including us, to death. Is it not the wisdom of God, not the wisdom of man, that brings salvation (see 1 Corinthians 1:18-31). Which of us can understand the Mind of God?

    Should we try to understand this mystery? Yes. Should we emphasize the fact that Jesus Christ’s death on the cross was an act of love? Yes, but how do we emphasize the love God has for us over His wrath against sin? We do so by remembering that while we were still sinners He died for us, that it was our sin, not the Father’s wrath, that made His death on that cross necessary for our redemption.

    • Mel Wild says:

      Thanks for the re-blog, Tom. 🙂

      You bring up a good point that God hates sin. He hates what it does to us. God’s wrath is like a good Father seeing his child being victimized or abused and shouts, “NO!!!” He will do anything he can to free us. So, yes, it all comes down to love.

      As far as fixing us, Paul says where the problem was here…

      21 And you, who once were alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now He has reconciled.” (Col.1:21)

  9. A man who can respect many traditions of Christianity. You have my respect, sir. As, I was telling Tom who led me here, of course, as a Catholic, I don’t agree with Penal Substitution. I probably fall under what called Ransom theory–Augustine, which is a bit vague, it more or less acknowledges the facts that are not disagreed upon. However, under Ransom Theory, one can accept Christus Victor, which I’ve been drawn to and of course the more Catholic understanding of substitutionary atonement under the sufficiency of Anselm. The nice thing about Ransom theory, it seems to allow an accept of many parts of these other atonement theories.

    • Mel Wild says:

      Thanks for your comments, Philip. I also prefer ransom and Christus Victor to Penal Substitution. These (variations) were accepted by ALL the church (East and West) for over 1000 years. Although, I will say that Penal Substitution brings in some elements not considered with in the ransom theories. But the ransom theory is still the right paradigm, in my view. It’s more like a rescue mission than legal jurisprudence.

      • The one aspect of Penal Substitution theory that I find intriguing is it inherent connection back to Genesis and the Incarnation itself. For more or less, this understanding is found also with a Church Father Athanasius in his work On the Incarnation.

        I’m going to paraphrase here, but God said that if Adam and Eve shall eat from their tree they should surely die. They ate and brought forth death. However, Man alone could never repay full restitution because God being God could not go back on His word. Therefore, in many ways, it was needed for God to become man to “pay” the judgment.

        I don’t quite know if “ransom theory” still can play into this understanding. However, what I do like about it is its central focus on the role of the Incarnation: The Divine taking upon flesh.

  10. tsalmon says:


    I too was lead here by my good brother, Tom. Perhaps, however, it was actually the Holy Spirit guiding me through Holy Week. But for now, I’ll just thank Tom.

    These theories have always been a bit frustrating to me as well. Perhaps we cannot help ourselves as the rational animal that we are, but I wonder sometimes if we reason too much in order to fix and formulate the infinitely profound, a beautiful mystery that can only be felt by the grace of God to an open, grateful and contrite heart. I feel in my spirit the sublime truth, the exquisite love and the awesome glory that is the incarnation, the passion and resurrection of Jesus. Do we really need to fully comprehend this with our minds? Is any “theory” really “provable”? Without God’s grace, without our hearts, is that even possible? I don’t claim to know.

    Your explanation here is one of the best I’ve read that appeals to what I’ve been graced by God to reason very imperfectly, but to grasp most fully only in my heart.

    Just a question. Perhaps it is in one of your links, but have you looked into the theory of Abelard on this subject. He was a contemporary of Saint Anselm and was ultimately sanctioned by the Middle Ages Church, however, from what I’ve read, I tend to think that Abelard’s heresy may have been more political than theological. The way that you explain atonement here seems similar to me what Abelard wrote, but I may be wrong in that.

    • Mel Wild says:

      Thanks for taking the time to comment, tsalmon. You have a good point about keeping it simple. We should trust God, even in what we don’t understand (and not divide over things we cannot prove and are non-essential). What led my study was what Penal Substitution (PSA) seemed to say about the nature of character of God that didn’t set right with me, as I mentioned here. Because of this, I’ve posted a lot on PSA and on the atonement in general. You can check out those links if you like.

      With Abelard, you’re talking about the Moral Influence theory of atonement. It’s the love of God that changes man’s mind about God, which would agree with Paul’s statement in 2 Cor.5:14. I do agree with that point, and I do think the Cross exposed something about us (See my post, “Christianity: The Founding Murder in Reverse.”) You’re right, Abelard, was a contemporary of Anselm and was sanctioned later in his life for His publication on the Trinity which they thought sounded too much like Sabellius(Modalism). Probably was political. Regardless of that, he does make some very good points about the atonement. God so loved the world that He gave of Himself in Jesus Christ should always be at the center of our ideas about the cross.

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