models of atonement

A list of “Models of the Atonement.”
We know that whatever Jesus did on the Cross was a gift that makes us right with God. But how? Well, here’s a list of theological explanations for this. I’m not explaining what they all are – just listing them to show how many ways there are. It’s like describing different facets of a gem. But not all descriptions, are equally helpful. So you have to do some thinking to try to make sense of it.

(Google, wiki has summaries of these models.)

Good questions to ask:

  • What are Bible references for each valid model?
  • How do these models integrate?… (in fact, one model often uses elements of others, in their fuller explanation.)
  • What are some good illustrations of the atonement, that can help us understand it.

Here’s the list:

  • Substitution / Satisfaction models
    • Blood sacrifice
      • Covenantal      It’s the agreement
      • Sacrificial        Takes our place, perfect sacrifice for us 
    • Legal/Penal:
      • Freedom       Sets people free, paying a ransom for us
      • Legal               Takes the punishment for us (1:1, once for all)
      • Economical     Pays the price for us
    • Disease/Healing:
      • Cleansed         Makes people clean, by becoming sin for us
      • Death/Life       Gives life by breaking power of death for us
      • Sin’s own destructive consequences, and he bears the cumulative effects of sin, (not God’s wrath) for us
  • Personal/Relational models
    • Relational        Son/Daughter, adoption
    • Family             Inheritance
    • Governmental 
      • Cosmic King  we defied the King, can be made right with the King, by the King 
      • Public demonstration against sin, alternate sacrifice making peace between us and God (vicariously applied as people trust)
  • Spiritual/Ontological models
    • Mediator of The New Covenant (forgiveness, Spirit in us), 
      • gift, not a trade
    • Christus Victor:  breaks power of death
      • breaks power of sin over us (enabling us to follow the Spirit)
      • Triumphal       Gives victory
      • Death/Life       Gives life
    • Transforming us (expiation)
      • restore the image of God in humanity
      • Transaction     Character of God operative in people
  • Moral Influence models
    • Jesus models for us better way to live, to expose evil, & to overcome it with good
    • Liberation models – that Jesus railed against oppressors, and took the side of the oppressed.

I remember freaking out at first, as I tried to make sense of the Cross at theological depth. It took over my headspace, and I was hard to live with. Eventually I made peace with the fact that I can understand facets of how “God made me right with himself by means of Christ’s death on the Cross,” (Col 1:22), but I’ll not know the fullness of it until glory. That makes sense, because something happened there that is other dimensional, and as such beyond our limited experience to fully grasp.

But I can know enough to trust what he’s DONE to make me right with God, not what I try to DO.

A friend of mine says, “What we do know is that whatever Jesus did, it’s a gift for us to accept.” And that’s a good thing.


PS. My own view? The Sponge: A restorative substitution.

– Jesus absorbs the badness of us all – Isaiah 53:4-6, 1Peter 2:24
not just exposing the sin of the Pharisees or Romans, but somehow absorbing the sin of all of us (Romans 3:25 – explicitly includes all the sins of everyone past) – Yes, he took the side of the oppressed, suffering in the fullest sense.
– to redeem us, leaves us clean, to give us 2nd chance, so we can be ontologically right with God (we real-ize this by receiving the offer by practical trust.)
– to show us how much the bad stuff matters to him, and therefore how much he loves us.
– to overcome sin and death, as evidenced in his resurrection.
What if he didn’t do the cross & resurrection?
1) Sin itself would consume us all. More so in this life, due to despair.
2) The white-hot purity of God’s holiness is so profound (Isaiah 6, “Woe is me!”) that in the next life, full-dimensional exposure to God while still sin-infused, would surely be our undoing. (We know the feelings of shame and guilt – mere glimpses of what we would feel then.)
3) Possibly God might still forgive us, but how would we know?
What about wrath & damnation?
1) I think it’s a biblical image or metaphor of God’s full-dimensional purity and holiness. Our sin’s bad cos it hurts people. Yes this is scary for us sin-infused mortals! Besides, God is the King of all, so we need to show some respect. Plus, whoever God judges He knows the whole truth about.
2) But don’t think of God’s judgement in isolation from God providing a way free from that Judgement. That would be only half the story. The other half is the Sponge.
What about Hell?
1) So-judged humans choose an outer darkness with gnashing of teeth (profound regret.) Another image for it is ‘everlasting fire,’ and this may be that the fire is eternal, not the torment. Profoundly painful regret nonetheless. Eternal torment is almost always mentioned for the devil and demonic spirits. Except for one important passage: Mat 25! (D’oh!)
2) Perhaps darkness and fire are metaphors for the experience of being in God’s presence with our chosen infused sinfulness. It’s not a punishment, but the obvious consequence of freely and knowingly refusing God’s presence.
3) Whatever, it’s an option we are freely restored from – by means of The Sponge of Christ’s cross.
Can’t God just forgive us all?
Sure, because of Jesus, if we ask for it.
But if we refuse it, I don’t think he’d force it on us.
Obviously your choice matters to God!

2 thoughts on “models of atonement

  1. Hi Geoff,

    Can across your site on Atonement as I’m trying to come to terms with all the various doctrines for an MA in Theology and Public Life.

    So far I’d reached Gustav 1. Aulen’s Christus Victor, 2. Anselm of Canterbury Satisfaction (which seems to the same as your Substitution), 3. Abelard’s Moral Influence 4. Grotius’s Governmental.

    Now I understand there’s Penal substitution, disease/healing, spiritual /ontological and personal relational.

    The finally (??!!) there is what I told is the Feminist Liberation view that God is not violent ( as in Christus Victor etc) but suffers with us.

    Not easy as you say. Especially as one of my main concerns is people with mental health issues.Have you any comment on the Liberation model?


    Ron Sweeney,
    Lay Preaching Commissioner,
    United Reformed Church,
    Yorkshire Synod,

    • Hi Ron – what a lovely question. Pastoral & wise.
      Yes, indeed, I’d forgotten about liberation theology (of which feminist liberation is a subset), and it does have important additions to make. It’s about solidarity with the oppressed and suffering. Where is God when we’re suffering? – there, on the cross, suffering what we suffer. Tony Campolo popularized this well using Victor Frankl I think, and before him the war poet Studdart Kennedy.
      If our griefs and sorrows were laid on him, then there is nothing we’ve suffered that he hasn’t also suffered. He feels it. And he’s on our side with it. Oppressors oppress Jesus.
      For me, this can be seen as a significant aspect of my substitution model.

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