Understanding Atonement: A New and Orthodox Theory
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Understanding Atonement: A New and Orthodox Theory. Robin Collins, Professor of Philosophy Messiah College. Acknowledgements. I would like to thank Rebecca Adams, my spouse, for much helpful insights and input as I have worked to develop and present the Incarnational theory.

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Understanding atonement a new and orthodox theory

Understanding Atonement: A New and Orthodox Theory

Robin Collins,

Professor of Philosophy

Messiah College



I would like to thank Rebecca Adams, my spouse, for much helpful insights and input as I have worked to develop and present the Incarnational theory.

Doctrine versus theories of atonement

Doctrine Versus Theories of Atonement

Doctrine of Atonement: Simply states that “through Christ’s Life, Death and Resurrection we are saved from sin and reconciled to God.”

**The doctrine of Atonement states in a simple way what all Christians can agree upon with regard to what Christ accomplished by his life, death, and resurrection.

Theory of atonement

Theory of Atonement

Theory of Atonement: Explains how Christ’s life, death and resurrection save us from sin and reconcile us to God and why it made sense for God to use this method.

Our Salvation


What is a theory atonement continued

What is a Theory Atonement? Continued

Have you ever asked yourself Why Christ Had to Die? Has this ever struck you as puzzling? Why couldn’t God just forgive us of our sins? A theory attempts to answer these questions

Doctrine versus theory continued

Doctrine Versus Theory Continued

  • Important: No theory of the atonement has been officially sanctioned by any Creed or Council. Neither does Scripture state any theory. Thus, there have been a variety of theories in Church history.

Why do we need a theory

Why Do We Need a Theory?

  • Helps us understand the very core of the Christian proclamation that Christ suffered and died for our sins. Thus it sheds light on almost everything else about our faith.

  • Helps us talk to non-Christians. (The Doctrine of Atonement is very puzzling to many outsiders.)‏

Scriptural statements and symbols regarding atonement and salvation

Scriptural statements and symbols regarding Atonement and Salvation

  • Jesus is our sacrifice of Atonement (Sacrificial lamb)‏

  • Jesus is our scapegoat

  • Jesus' life is a ransom for many

  • Jesus took our punishment (or chastisement)‏

  • Jesus bore our sins.

  • Jesus turned away God wrath against sin

  • Jesus defeated the powers of darkness and death

  • Jesus’ blood washes us from sin (expiation

  • Jesus revealed God’s love for the world

  • Jesus gave us a perfect moral example to follow

Scriptural statements regarding atonement and salvation

Scriptural Statements Regarding Atonement and Salvation

  • Jesus gave us new life in God

  • Jesus released usfrom bondage to sin.

  • Jesus made us righteous

  • Jesus justified us

  • Jesus’ death brought forgiveness of sins

  • Through Jesus we are Crucified to the World

  • Eucharist and Baptismal Symbols

Understanding atonement a new and orthodox theory

Ideally, a theory will incorporate or account for as many of the above scriptural statements regarding atonement and salvation as possible, especially those considered central.

Ransom or bargain theory

Ransom or Bargain Theory

  • God Makes A Bargainwith the Devil: “Hand over your claim to humans, and I will give you my only Son in exchange.”

  • Devil is Tricked since he did not realize that Christ could not be held in the bonds of death.

Anselm s critique

Anselm’s Critique

  • Devil is an outlaw, and hence has no claim to anything.

  • Why would God ever set up the world so that the Devil could gain legal rights over Adam and Eve? This doesn’t make sense!

Important note

Important Note

The Ransom or Bargain theory is often confused with the so-called Christus Victor “Theory.” Christus Victor stresses that Christ’s death defeated (i.e., gained victory over) the forces of evil. Typically, however, advocates of Christus Victor do not explain how Christ’s death accomplished this, and thus it is not a theory in our sense but closer to a view of what Christ's death accomplished that emphasizes the often neglected statements regarding his defeating the forces of darkness.

Satisfaction and penal theories basic ideas

Satisfaction and Penal Theories: Basic Ideas

  • Satisfaction Theory: “Christ paid the debt of obedience that we owe God because of our sins”

    **First developed by St. Anselm in the 11th century

  • Penal Theory: Christ took on the punishment that justice demands because of our sins.

    **First developed by the protestant reformers

Satisfaction and penal theories basic claims elaborated


Our sins accumulated a debt of obligation (satisfaction theory) or punishment (penal theory) so large that we could not pay it.

2. The moral order (or “God’s honour”) demands that the debt be paid or the sin be punished.

3. Christ paid the debt for us or accepted the punishment, thereby satisfying the demands of Divine Justice.

4.Therefore, God no longer needs to punish us but can shower his mercy and blessings on us.

Understanding atonement a new and orthodox theory

Put picture here that randy found.

Historical perspective

Historical Perspective.

  • Some variation of these theories was dominant among Christians since the time of Anselm in the 11th Century, though the idea goes back to the early centuries.

  • Today, many conservative Christians, both Catholic and Protestant hold this theory.

  • Embodied in Christian hymns, songs, and liturgy: “He paid a debt he did not owe, I owed a debt I could not Pay” (Grogan) and “He is the true Paschal Lamb, who at the feast of Passover paid for us the debt of Adam’s sin” (Recent Episcopal Liturgy for Easter Vigil)‏

St. Anselm. Woodcarving

John Calvin



Satisfaction Theory: Since God the Son is united with God the Father, doesn’t this simply amount to God’s paying God’s self? Or who pays the debt we owe God the Son for our sin against him?

God Pays God:

God transfers money from one of his accounts to another

Logical critique continued

Logical Critique --Continued

Penal Theory: How can justice be satisfied by one person accepting the punishment that another deserves, especially given that God the Son is the One sinned against? Doesn't this amount to God punishing God’s own self for our sins? Does this make any sense?

Or ask Yourself: If someone stabs you, does your further flogging yourself pay for the crime they committed against you?

Understanding atonement a new and orthodox theory

Logical Critique --Continued

By further hurting themselves, are these men paying for the sins of those who wronged them?

Other critiques

Other Critiques:

  • Scriptural: Nowhere does scripture state that Christ paid a debt for us on the Cross or that justice or the moral order requires that sin be punished. At best these theories rely on questionable interpretations of scripture.

  • Historically Contingent: Based on feudal legal system where a “debt of honor” could be paid by another. (At least for satisfaction theory.)‏

  • Ethically/theologically Inadequate: e.g., turns Atonement into an “economic” or “legal” transaction.

Other critiques continued

Other Critiques-- Continued

  • Overly Western: Depends on overly Western notions regarding moral order and its demands for punishment – Does this make sense to traditional Chinese? No. One must first convince them them of the idea that their sins are so grave that they deserve a very large, if not infinite, amount of punishment (in hell). That is, one must convince them of the bad news before one can get the the good news!!

    ??Does this sound like the gospel to a starving child in India, that because of her (or Adam and Eve’s) sins she actually deserves much more suffering than she is experiencing in this life?

Moral exemplar influence theory

Moral Exemplar/Influence Theory

Historical Origin: First Proposed byPhilosopher and Theologian Peter Abelard in the 12th Century. Was later popular in liberal theology.

Basic Claims: Christ saves us by providing a perfect moral example of love,obedience, and humility to follow and by revealing the loving character of God.

Peter Abelard

Major problem

Major Problem

  • As a complete theory of the Atonement it minimizes the uniqueness and significance of Christ for salvation.

  • For example, St. Francis, Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa, Buddhists, and many others provide inspiring, though not perfect, moral examples to follow, and thus seem to perform the same sort of salvific function as Jesus. Indeed, the fact that Jesus was perfect makes him harder to relate to, and thus less effective as an example.



  • To be fair, there are many variations of the above theories that attempt to circumvent the above problems.

  • However, except for variations of the moral exemplar/influence theory, the Western theories of atonement and salvation have tended to be based on legal metaphors –e.g., salvation as consisting of being declared “not guilty” by the Great Judge, or Satan having legal rights to human beings. . .

A look at eastern orthodoxy

A Look at Eastern Orthodoxy

  • In the the Eastern Orthodox branch of Christianity, salvation has been conceived differently: in terms of participation in the life of God and being “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4.)

  • In their language, salvation in the fullest consists of deification: being fully caught up in the Trinitarian life of God, with God in us and we in God (John 17:21-22).

Basic idea behind eastern orthodox theory of atonement

Basic Idea behind Eastern Orthodox “theory” of Atonement

God had to share in what we are in order for us to share in what God is.

History of idea

History of Idea

  • Idea suggested by early Greek Fathers of the Church

  • Further developed through the centuries by Eastern Orthodox Theologians.

  • Has been implicit in some of the mystics in the West (i.e., Julian of Norwich). Never systematically developed, however.

Eastern Orthodox Church

Understanding atonement a new and orthodox theory

This idea was never systematically developed in a way that was satisfactory for western philosophical and theological categories



Robin Collins has attempted to systematically develop this idea into a theory in two articles. (They are posted on the web at www.robincollins.org)‏ He calls this theory the Incarnational Theory

Robin Philosophizing

About Atonement

Understanding atonement a new and orthodox theory

Incarnational Theory Version #1Basic Claims:

Step 1: Salvation = Unity with God = sharing in the life of God. (Jesus' analogy of vine and branches; Paul's analogy of the body of Christ)‏

Understanding atonement a new and orthodox theory

Basic Claims: Step 2:Apart from the Incarnation and Passion, God's Life would be too alien from ours for this sharing to occur. Analogy: An apple tree branch cannot be grafted into a horse; the horse is too alien for it.



Basic claims step 3

Basic Claims--Step 3:

Through the Incarnation and Passion, God entered as deeply as possible into our human life-situation of death, suffering, and vulnerability and thereby overcame the alienation between God's self and us.

Peter Paul Rubens.

Christ on the Cross.1620

Basic claims step 4

Basic Claims Step 4:

A fully human/fully divine Life was created in Jesus through his life, death, and resurrection.

Basic claims step 5

Basic Claims – Step 5

By partaking of this life through being grafted into the true Vine, we are saved from sin and reconciled to God. This allowed for us to share in the life of God, thus saving us from sin and bringing us into unity with God.

Specific theory basic claims step 1

SpecificTheory: Basic Claims --Step 1

Through the Incarnation and Passion, Christ made active (or “alive”) within the Godhead virtues (such as courage, faith, and love) of a kind that we need, can actively partake of, and exercise in our present human life-situation of vulnerability, alienation, uncertainty, and the like.

Sophia and her three daughters, Faith, Hope, and Love. (From a Russian Icon)‏

Basic claims step 2

Basic Claims --Step 2

Apart from the Incarnation and Passion, in general virtues of the kind we need could not exist in “active or living form” in God for they are too closely tied with our life-situation of vulnerability, uncertainty, and Alienation.*

*These virtues could, however, exist in dispositional form in God

To elaborate

To Elaborate

  • God “in all his glory” would know what it was like

  • to experience fear, doubt, and uncertainty, and alienation from God.

  • However, God could not actually experience fear,

  • vulnerability to death and suffering, unjust persecution, and the like without something like the Incarnation and Passion.

God in His Glory: From Versailles Chapel of Louis XIV

Understanding atonement a new and orthodox theory

But one cannot exercise the kind of virtues we need without experiencing

fear and vulnerability…

Example courage

Example: Courage

  • Courage = a commitment to one’s values in the face of danger, fear, and personal injury.

  • To exercise courage, one must believe that she is vulnerable to being harmed (or at least have the experience of such vulnerability)‏



  • Apart from something like the Incarnation and Passion, God could not exercise courage, especially of the kind humans need. Thus, it could not exist as an active part of the life of God.

  • The same thing goes for the kind of faith and love we need– e.g., trust in the face of doubt and love that risks itself in face of personal injury, alienation, fear, and the like.

Basic claims step 31

Basic Claims--Step 3

  • Especially during his Passion and death, Jesus fully experienced human vulnerability, fear, injustice, unjust victimization, and even alienation from God as evidenced by his cry “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me” (Mark 15:34)‏

  • Jesus nonetheless acted in complete faith and love towards God and others, thus making these new fully human/fully divine virtues part of the active life of God.

Step 3 continued

Step #3 -- Continued

These new virtues can be thought of as part of the new resurrected, fully divine/fully human life that is in Christ.

Final step

Final Step

  • By partaking of this new resurrected life we are saved from sin and reconciled to God.

Understanding atonement a new and orthodox theory

That is, we are saved from sin and reconciled to God by partaking of the new fully human/fully divine life in Christ.

Blood transfusion analogy

Blood Transfusion Analogy

“Truly, Truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life…for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who drink my blood and eat my flesh abide in me and I in them” (John 6:54-55)‏

Blood transfusion analogy1

Blood Transfusion Analogy:

By entering fully into the human life situation of alienation, suffering, vulnerability, and uncertainty, and yet acting in complete trust and love, Jesus created a new “antibody” for sin. By partaking of this new antibody, the disease of sin is progressively wiped out in our lives.

** Note: In a blood transfusion, the blood types must be compatible. Likewise, for us to share in God’s life of righteousness.

Blood transfusion analogy2

Blood Transfusion Analogy

Fully Divine/Fully

Human Courage

Faith and Trust

In the Face of Fear

Doubt, and Uncertainty

LOVE in the face of fear,

suffering, alienation,

and unjust victimization

The New Life in Christ and the New Anti-Bodies for Sin: The fully divine/fully human virtues in Christ, such as Courage, Faith and Love.

Understanding atonement a new and orthodox theory

How This Theory Understands the Eucharist (or Communion)

  • Christ's blood represents his life completely given over to God in love, trust, and self-sharing in his Passion and Death. As Leviticus 17:11 says, “The life is in the blood”

  • We are saved from sin by partaking of this life given over in perfect love and trust, as enacted by drinking of the cup.

Last Supper. Leonardo da Vinci

How does this theory understand the old testament ritual of the sacrificial lamb a type of christ

How does this theory understand the Old Testament ritual of the sacrificial lamb, a type of Christ?

The ritual explained

The Ritual Explained

  • This ritual involved the worshiper laying hands on the head of an animal (for example, a lamb or a bull), and then slaying the animal. The priest then took the blood and poured it on the altar as a sacrifice to God.

  • Many Old Testament commentators claim that laying on of hands is best interpreted as an act of identification with the one on whom hands are laid

The christian analogy

The Christian Analogy

1. The lamb is analogous to Christ, the offering of its blood is analogous to Christ's offering his life over to God and others in love, hope, and trust.

2. Thus the laying on of hands can be seen as analogous to our identification with, and thus sharing in, that love, hope and trust expressed by Christ on the Cross--a sharing that results in our redemption.

Understanding atonement a new and orthodox theory


Sacrifice is understood along the lines of Romans 12:1: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”

How this theory understands baptism

How This Theory Understands Baptism

“All who were baptized into Christ have been baptized into his death . . . . and if we have become united with him in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection” (Romans 6:3-5)‏

Only by partaking of his death can we experience his resurrection life.

As i state elsewhere

As I State Elsewhere:

“being united with Christ during his death involves sharing in Christ’s experience of true human vulnerability and brokenness during his death, and hence becoming “crucified” to the world-system of status and psychic and spiritual bondage. Yet, at the same time, to partake of Christ’s death is to also to share in the perfect love, hope, and trust that Christ exercised during his life and passion, a love, hope, and trust that in turn overcomes our alienation towards ourselves, others, and God, thereby resulting in resurrection life.”

Eating the bread

Eating the Bread

“While they were eating, he took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, "Take; this is my body." Mark 14:22

Among other things, the broken bread could be thought of as representing Jesus' entering into human brokenness and vulnerability. Partaking of the bread, therefore, could be thought of as representing our fully experiencing our own vulnerability through Christ and thus “dying” to our false illusion of invulnerability that we construct to protect ourselves. This in turn allows us to partake of the resurrection life. (Is this why eating the bread comes before taking the cup?)‏

Parent child analogy

Parent/Child Analogy

Children pick up their desires, how they view the world, and their orientation from the world unconsciously from their parents. The parents virtues or vices “rub off” or are transferred to the child.

The new, fully human/fully divine virtues are progressively transferred from Christ to us, thus saving us from sin.

Makes sense of many other scriptures

Makes Sense of Many Other Scriptures:

  • We are a “new creation” in Christ (1 Cor. 5:17)‏

  • Jesus was tempted in every way as we are (Hebrews 4:15)‏

  • St. Paul tells us to “put on Christ” or the “new Man” (Ephesians 4:24; see also Col. 3:9-11)‏

  • Makes sense of our being crucified with Christ and Crucified to the world (Gal. 2:19, 6:14).

Implications for scriptural exegesis

Implications for Scriptural Exegesis

Galatians 2:16: “We know that a person is justified not by the works of the law, but through the faith of Jesus Christ”

Galatians 2:22: “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I that live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God.”**

Philippians 3:8-9: “For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through the faith of Christ”

**Typically translations use “faith in the Son of God” instead of the “faith of the Son of God.” However, A. A. Just claims that because of Richard Hays book on the topic, the tide is starting to turn towards the “of” translation in these and several other passages.

What difference does it make

What Difference Does it Make?

  • The “faith in” tends to make one think that faith is something one must generate, with the righteousness of God being granted by God to us based on our having faith

  • The “faith of” Christ view makes it clear that faith is not something generated by ourselves.

    **Perhaps, however, both translations contain complementary elements of the truth

Practical implications

Practical Implications

  • Encourages us to acknowledge our own vulnerability and weakness by “uniting ourselves to him in his death” (Provides a safe place, in Christ, for us to do that.)‏

  • Encourages us to recognize the solidarity that Christ had with our pain and suffering during his death.

  • Yet, it stress our ability to partake, through Christ, in virtues such as courage, faith, and love that are empowering forces in human life.

Implications for interreligious and intercultural dialogue

Implications for interreligious and intercultural dialogue

1. Almost all cultures have recognized that there is something wrong with human desire that cannot be fixed by self-effort.

2. Many of these cultures – e.g., Chinese, Buddhist, and Hindu – have recognized that humans need a new source of desire.

3. Jesus offers this new source of desire that is completely geared towards our actual life-situation of vulnerability, alienation, and sin. We can be fully ourselves – and face our own vulnerabiltiy, etc. -- and yet partake of this new source.

Therefore, this understanding of the gospel directly addresses a need they already recognize.

For those who are oppressed

For Those Who Are Oppressed

It says Jesus suffers with them “outside the gate” (Hebrews 13:12), yet at the same time gives them the love, courage, and faith they need.

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