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Why did Jesus have to suffer and die? Penal-substitutionary theory of Atonement offers common answer in today’s Protestantism
But Christians historically have held other views, and many still do so today
If you’re like most people growing up in evangelical Protestant or Latter-day Saint churches, chances are you were taught something like what has become known as the penal-substitutionary theory of the Atonement — even if you may have never heard of that term.
And for many with those theological backgrounds, the penal-substitutionary view is part of Christianity 101; as far as you know, it’s what the Bible teaches, and it’s what Jesus’ earliest followers believed: By God’s very nature, someone had to be punished for the sins of humankind, and Jesus voluntarily agreed to let himself be punished through the loss of his life so that all could be saved from eternal damnation (or have the opportunity to be saved). God demands justice, and that that justice for all could be attained only by the death of a perfect substitute.
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Surprisingly to some, the penal-substitutionary view, as least we understand it today, dates only as far back as the Protestant Reformation. Although its advocates use Biblical language to support the view, it would be more accurate today to say that many modern believers interpret the Bible through a penal-substitutionary lens rather than derive the perspective directly from the scripture.
Christians who find the interpretation troubling — perhaps because it presupposes a vengeful God — may be interested to know that the penal-substitutionary view isn’t the only one in historical Christianity. Nor is it even the one held by all those of a traditional or conservative theological bent.
It isn’t the purpose of this article to demonstrate the wrongness of the penal-substitutionary view nor to show any other view as superior. Instead, the intent is show that those who take seriously the teachings of the New Testament have other views they can examine in their religious studies. Background information on all of these theories can readily be found through basic Internet searches.
There’s no question that language compatible the penal-substitutionary view can be found in the New Testament. For example, Jesus said in Mark 10:45 that the Son of Man came “to give his life as a ransom for many,” which advocates see as indicating the payment of a punishment for sin. But other historic atonement theories, such as the ransom theory (duh) and the Christus victor theory also find support from this verse.
Here’s a quick look at some of the leading alternative atonement theories, listed in roughly chronological order of their development; be aware that variations exist of all these theories, and the viewpoints are sometimes classified in different ways:
The ransom theory received prominence with the writings of early Christian writer Origen in the third century and was a leading perspective until about the 12th century. The understanding is that through the Fall, Adam and Eve, viewed as historical figures, in effect sold humanity to the Devil. In its most common version, the Devil was unaware that Jesus would not permanently die, and he was fooled into accepting Jesus’ life as the ransom for freeing humanity.
The satisfaction theory was promoted by St. Anselm in the 11th and early 12th century, partly as a response to the ransom theory. Anselm didn’t see God as owing the Devil anything, but saw Jesus’ death as a ransom to balance out or reconcile a debt of sorts to God the Father for humankind’s sin. The satisfaction theory remains a key component of Catholic soteriology (the study of the nature of salvation).
Christus victor theory
Although the term Christus victor referring to the Atonement is fairly new — Lutheran theologian Gustaf Aulén used it as the title of a 1931 book — it has been described as a reinterpretation of the ransom and satisfaction theory. Aulén theorized that the Christus victor theory was held by many church Fathers until the 12th century. Essentially, the view is that Jesus’ death freed humankind from the bondage of death, Satan and sin, not so much as a business transaction as in the ransom and satisfaction theories, but by conquering the powers of evil as the means to human liberation.
Moral influence theory
The moral influence theory focuses not so much on the death of Jesus but on his teachings and the way he lived his life. It finds its strongest Biblical support in 1 Peter 2:21, where the author writes that “Christ also suffered for us, leaving you an example, that you should follow his steps.” This view was developed in part by French scholar Pierre Abélard as a response to the satisfaction theory. Variations of the moral influence theory today are often advocated by liberal Protestant theologians.
This commentary related to the Biblical accounts of the Crucifixion is a part of our Bible for Modern-day Saints series, published to roughly coincide with the schedule of the Come, Follow Me curriculum of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Views expressed are solely those of the author. Biblical quotations are adapted from the World English Bible, which is in the public domain.
Some modern Latter-day Saint writers outside the church hierarchy, such as Fiona and Terryl Givens, have suggested that common Latter-day Saint understandings of the Atonement have come from Protestantism at least as much as from Latter-day Saint scriptures.