Christian Salvation—Part One: Problems with Atonement Theology

Ted Grimsrud—September 13, 2015

[I am in the midst of a series of presentations to a Sunday School class at Park View Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, Virginia, on rethinking our understanding of salvation. I was asked to make a total of four presentations, drawing on my 2013 book, Instead of Atonement: The Bible’s Salvation Story and Our Hope for Wholeness (Cascade Books) and various other writings I have produced on this theme. This written version of my first presentation actually sets the context for the book more than summarizes the book. It is a discussion of how our traditional atonement theology is problematic and why it might be useful to think of an alternative. I have found this a useful challenge to summarize the main ideas of this project.]

These are some questions to get you thinking about this topic of Christian salvation: What were you taught (explicitly and implicitly) about (the means of) salvation when you were growing up? How (if at all) have you revised your thinking on that theme? What role (if any) has the idea of Jesus’s death as a necessary sacrifice played in your beliefs about salvation? How would you characterize the view of God reflected in your salvation theology? What connection would you make between one’s view of salvation and how life is lived out as a follower of Jesus?


The word “atonement” was coined in English, perhaps very early in the 16th century, as a way to talk about Christian salvation. It was actually created by simply joining together the phrase at-one-ment. It was meant to be used as a way of talking about how human beings are to be reconciled with God. So, “atonement” does not directly translate any Hebrew, Greek, or Latin word; it is something new. It has been called perhaps the only theological term with an English origin.

We should note, then, that the very word “atonement” was created around 400 years after the influential medieval theologian and church leader Anselm of Canterbury wrote his classic text that defined Christian salvation theology—the most influential work for both Catholics and Protestants. Anselm’s position articulated in Cur Deus Homo? (Why Did God Become Human?) established what came to be called the “satisfaction” model as the essential understanding of atonement that shaped western Christianity (it is essential to realize that Anselm’s work came about a century after the formal separation between Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodoxy as the two main branches of Christianity—and the view of salvation developed in eastern Christianity was quite different than the western theology; so what follows is a critique only of the western, Anselmian theology).

So when the word “atonement” was coined, the Anselmic satisfaction approach was in mind. So, even though in recent years theologians have argued for a variety of atonement “models,” some based on streams of Christian thought that long predate Anselm, to talk about “atonement” may most accurately be seen as referring to the satisfaction view—most likely that was the view in mind when the word “atonement” was invented. What I will discuss here as “problems with atonement theology” will be focused on the satisfaction view and some of its variants.

The satisfaction view of atonement has dominated western Christianity for close to a millennium now. Catholicism, Lutheranism, Calvinism (which adds a more intense element with the notion of punishment, “penal substitution”), and through Calvinism most of Protestant fundamentalism and evangelicalism all have generally held to some form of the satisfaction view of atonement as the heart of their salvation theology.

Key Ideas

For the satisfaction view, the separation between humanity and God is due to human failings that God is required by the moral nature of the universe to hold against us. This may be thought of in various ways. We violate the commandments of God that in some sense reflect a moral balance that is thereby disrupted. Or due to our sin nature and our sinful actions we are impure in God’s eyes. Or we dishonor God by not offering God the complete obedience that God, as the Great Sovereign to whom we owe our being, deserves (or requires).

However it may be characterized, the basic dynamic results in a dilemma where we have severed our relationship with God by our sins and God cannot simply forgive us or act directly to bring healing. God’s holiness (or God’s justice or God’s honor) must be satisfied before the relationship can be restored. The debt we owe God must be paid or the equilibrium or balance of the moral universe must be restored—or God must destroy or condemn us.

So, the place where the action must take place, the place where the transaction must happen, the place where the means to create salvation must be effected, is on God’s side. God is the one who needs must be satisfied. If there is to be salvation, something must happen for or to God. God must be satisfied. Our debt to God must be fulfilled.

Now, obviously in this view, human beings—sinful, weak, and disobedient as we are—cannot possibly pay this debt. Since we are the problem, since we create the alienation, obviously we would be incapable to doing what is needed to satisfy God. This is not unfair or unjust because we are the ones that caused the problem. But we live in the midst of a seemingly unsolvable dilemma—we mess things up, we can’t fix them, and God can not unilaterally act to bring salvation without overturning the universe’s very moral foundations.

What happens, though, is that God does find a way to overcome the dilemma. In Anselm’s terms, God becomes human. God is incarnated in the person Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus lives without sin (that is, he does not break any commandments and remains pure and obedient). He is thus a human who does offer God the honor God deserves and requires. And then Jesus dies as a perfect, blemishless sacrifice to God. With such a death, Jesus does satisfy what God needs—paying the debt, offering the perfect obedience, balancing the scales of justice. Jesus’s sinless life and sacrificial death provides the good that overcomes the terrible bad of human rebellion against God.

In the penal substitution variation of this atonement tradition, Jesus takes upon himself God’s profound anger as our substitute, accepting the punishment for sin that we deserve—even though he actually was without sin. As this substitute, he satisfies the needs of God’s retributive justice to respond to wrongdoing with punishment.

In whatever form, in all of these ways the key aspect of what would make salvation possible is resolved. Something needs to happen on God’s side of the divine/human divide. God needs to be satisfied—and is through Jesus’s perfection and death. That is, the only act that can satisfy what God needs is a violent, sacrificial death by an innocent victim.


Thinking about this approach to salvation from the perspective of peace theology, I want briefly to identify a number of problems.

• It portrays God as harsh, violent, inflexible, judgmental, non-compassionate, weak (God can’t simply forgive and must be subject to moral rules of the universe), and unfair (God creates the way we are and then judges and condemns us for being the way we are). In this view, God is not loving and merciful all the way down.

• It posits violence as necessary for redemption to happen, an expression of what Walter Wink called “the myth of redemptive violence.”

• It provides an influential model for how human beings might respond to wrongdoing—with punitive violence, retributive justice based on an understanding of the moral nature of the universe that has debt and retribution as core elements (a model that finds expression is justifications for war, capital punishment, violent child discipline practices, et al).

• It minimizes the significance of Jesus’s life. What matters is his sinlessness (understood mainly in terms of not breaking laws) and perfection, not his modeling how to love our neighbors and challenge unjust authority. It is the way that Jesus is different from other humans that is central for salvation—he dies so that we don’t have to.

• It ignores Jesus’s own teaching and actions related to salvation. Jesus himself forgave sinners directly without the need for a sacrifice to provide satisfaction. Jesus responded to human impurity by compassionately entering the lives of the “impure” and offering healing—not by destroying them as the penal substitution model would require of a “holy” God.

• It doesn’t take seriously the emphases of the prophets in their critique of sacrifice. They opposed the use of sacrifice to buttress centralized power structures such as the temple and priestly elite. They proclaimed that God desires mercy not sacrifice.

• It ignores Jesus emphasis on overturning a debt-oriented approach to human life. “Forgive us debts as we forgive the debts of others.” The satisfaction approach, in all its variations, presupposes the on-going validity of a debt-oriented moral universe rather than recognizing Jesus’s rejection of that approach.

• It, in a sense, lets the forces that killed Jesus off the hook. As we will see in a later post, Jesus was killed as a result of the Powers rebelling against God and the story means to help free us from giving those Powers (such as the state, religious institutions, and cultural biases) our loyalty. The satisfaction atonement theology minimizes the actual social dynamics by making the story of Jesus’s death mainly about the cosmic transaction between God and Jesus.

•In a general sense, in conclusion, the satisfaction atonement theology does not empower faithful living after the pattern of Jesus’s way of life.

A Better Approach?

In light of these problems, what might be a better way to think theologically about salvation? There are various efforts to propose different atonement theories (e.g., “Christus Victor” and “moral influence” are two of the most prominent). However, because of how closely key elements of the satisfaction are linked with the term “atonement,” I think it might be better to think of salvation theology apart from the motif of atonement (hence the title of my book, Instead of Atonement).

The three posts to follow will summarize my effort at grounding my salvation theology in the biblical story—and to explain how this different approach may actually empower peacemaking and restorative justice (in my book, I use criminal justice as an example of how the satisfaction view has contributed to serious problems in our culture and suggest how a restorative justice approach might be linked with this alternative salvation theology). More of my writings on these themes may be found here.

[Here are parts two, three, and four]

10 thoughts on “Christian Salvation—Part One: Problems with Atonement Theology

  1. Great post – very clear on the origins and problems of Atonement. Thanks.

    I’ll bookmark it to refer people to. But it would be a touch clearer if a couple of typos could be fixed please :)…
    1. Key Ideas, para 4 – “God can unilaterally act” (or cannot?) & 2. A Better Approach, para 1, line 5, “satisfaction are view”. Thanks.

  2. Thanks Ted
    Your description of “atonement” as derived from an English word is intriguing. I am puzzled, though, why you move immediately to discuss “satisfaction” re: this term. What do you make of the “day of atonement,” etc. in Lev. (however you want to translate Yom Kippur — the ‘day of covering over’?…)? Is this coming in a later post? I appreciate your critique of Anselm and concern with his theological legacy, but the idea of kippur (atonement? something else?) obviously preceded the Anselmian reading you reject…

    I look forward to your upcoming posts, particularly because with “salvation” you are in luck, since this is a very ancient concept used throughout the Bible (OT and NT). I especially look forward to seeing how you tackle the whole issue of “salvation” being related to (ie: used to describe/announce!) military “victory,” both in Hebrew and Greek (and so, linguistically important for both OT and NT). Is “salvation” something ‘individuals’ achieve? Does this mean ‘going to heaven,’ as is often assumed, or something else? How is “salvation” linked to “peace,” since the former has such military use/connotations? Finally, how do we adjudicate it if the significance/meaning of the term has shifted over time (ie: how do we avoid functionally being in a similar spot as with ‘atonement’ discussion, where later developments ‘trump’ the original biblical insight(s))?

    Thanks for this, and I look forward to the rest,

    1. Thanks, Derek, for the thoughtful (as usual) comment. I appreciate your careful reading and willingness to take the time to respond.

      I suspect you won’t be totally happy with my follow up posts, as I won’t be directly addressing the issues you raise. But I can respond to your thoughts now and will be happy to again if you have more to say.

      My point with the word “atonement” is not about whatever is meant by the Hebrew words Yom Kippur—though the meaning of that term is of course pretty important. Rather, I was simply observing (and I meant this to be a tentative thought) that it seems that the satisfaction view precedes the coining of that word in English and that it seems likely that when the word was coined the satisfaction view strongly shaped what was meant by it. I would guess the satisfaction view probably shaped how Yom Kippur would have been thought about by the English Bible translators. The use of the English word “atonement” likely from the start had satisfaction connotations that shaped how it was used—including in OT interpretation. And I am not much interested in the various “models of atonement” but more interested in finding other language to talk about the Bible’s salvation theology because I suspect “atonement” and “satisfaction” are too closely linked together to get accurately at salvation while using the term atonement.

      This would also make me suspect that we might be better off to find other language than “atonement” to use in relation to Yom Kippur in dealing with OT materials.

      As you may remember from my book (which I am mostly just summarizing in these Sunday school presentations), my argument is focused on the big picture of the key events of Abraham’s call, exodus, giving of Torah, and “restoration” after exile—with the idea that these saving acts of God are not predicated on sacrifice/debt payment/satisfaction.

      I expect I would want to consider the use of salvation language in relation to military victory in relation to this bigger dynamic. Indeed, in the story in the OT there is military victory, but the militariness of the victory is secondary to the confession that the victory is due to God’s mercy, not earned by human payment to God. Then in the NT, after there is no military in the picture, the martial language is clearly symbolic. In Revelation, the victory is won by self-giving love, not violence—in some sense providing our interpretive lens for perceiving the meaning of all the victories of God in the Bible.

      That is, I am more concerned with the big story’s picture of how God brings deliverance and healing for God’s people and ultimately the entire world than the word history of “salvation.”

  3. Another problem with penal substitution is that it makes us the vehicle of our own salvation: If God required Jesus to die in order for us to be forgiven, then does that mean that we HAD to murder Jesus in order to be forgiven? And if that is so, then does that mean that our killing him allows God to forgive us for killing him? This is dizzying, but it is the logical conclusion of the argument. Blind proponents of penal satisfaction theory would rather us not think so hard…

  4. The more I reflect upon these issues related to various atonement theories, the more it seems to me that the penal theory must be retained whether or not we find it congenial. Why? I’ve come to believe that Jesus’ central, driving, motivation was his conviction that cataclysmic, apocalyptic “day of the Lord” was imminent, which “day” would involve both judgment/punishment upon sin/sinners and vindication of the righteous. At some point in his ministry, possibly upon hearing of John the Baptist’s death, he began to realize that the Baptist’s fate would be his own. At that point it seems to me likely that he saw himself taking upon himself the end-times judgment of God upon the cross to make atonement for the sins of Israel and the world. In short, we cannot reject penal substitutionary theory anymore than we can reject the historical Jesus or the Jesus narrated in the Gospels. I share Ted’s concerns about punishment imagery. But I just think we need to be honest about what the text is and says and then make the judgment call, being honest about the fact that WE don’t like such imagery and find it offensive. Jesus himself seems to have no problem with violent images of God. Indeed, his images of God are some of the most violent images in the entire canon. // Furthermore, I think the “non-violent” hermeneutic evident in Ted’s theology as well as in J. Denny Weaver’s is not exegesis at all. It’s an interpretive grid or filter which prevents us from taking seriously the presence of violence in the text. It prevents readers from being honest and careful readers of the Gospels and much of the New Testament. Weaver is more honest about this, admitting that he’s engaging in creative theologizing. I appreciate that candor and honesty. But Ted tends to loose sight of that aporia, i.e., the interpretive space between what the Biblical text is “in and of itself” and what it can be “for us.” Instead, he tends to talk about what “is Biblical” in ways that conceal the interpretive moves being made by him.

    1. While I share the last reply’s concern with too simply sidelining violence or atonement language in the NT (and OT), I agree with Ted that it is also too much to insist that God HAD to do this — ie: I appreciate the critique of “satisfaction” theory as somehow cosmologically necessary… I find Yoder Neufeld’s description of atonement in the NT as one way of understanding what God was “WILLING to do” in the death of Jesus to be an important distinction from what God “had to do” to fulfill some abstract requirement (“satisfaction”).

      Ted, thanks for your clarification re: my last comment — this is helpful to get a better sense of what you are (and are not) trying to do… I think your second-to-last paragraph there is a direction worth pursuing — I don’t remember that from your book, but maybe I missed it.

      Best, Derek

      1. Thanks Derek. One way I’ve come to think about the language of God’s punishment and/or wrath in relationship to human sin is to see God’s punishment and wrath not as something God adds to being human, but being human as “being toward death” is the punishment and wrath of God. Thus “perishability,” the possibility of losing one’s existence is God’s punishment. At least that is my interpretation of original sin. Original sin is not a habit or inclination or any other psychological/existential phenomenon we experience but the basis of human experience of the world itself. We cannot be in the world without experiencing it as a loss and we cannot perceive the other without an intuition of the impossibility of overcoming estrangement. Being in the world as such is loss, is estrangement, is our being. All “sins,” both personal or structural, active or passive are simply signs or indications of this underlying state of being. // What does this have to do with atonement? Well, unlike almost all western interpretations of the atonement since Luther and Calvin (including some problematic precedents set by a variety of Latin westerners) we must never separate the incarnation from the atonement. The incarnation is itself atoning, or the commencement in time of God’s self-suffering with us and on our behalf. The “in our place” and “on our behalf” is only because Christ was not someone who had to be human. His being human was not like anyone else’s being human. Rather he became human, which implies that there was a time when he was not human. But the fact that, though not compelled to become human, he did, means that his existence in the world is a free one. He alone is free to live and die. // Yoder understood the freedom of Christ’s sacrifice in a deep way. But he did not fully explore how that freedom was not a human possibility as such and so he missed out on an opportunity to bring together “the politics of Jesus” with the “pro-meity” of Jesus’ entire existence on up to an including his death. But what Yoder did show was the practical and immediate relevance of Jesus life. He did not explain how Jesus’ life as a simple man was itself divine. // As an explanatory aside, I should add that I’m here trying articulate the “mythological” elements of Jesus (his prexistence, divine nature) in terms of Heidegger’s phenomenological analysis of dasein/Paul Tillich’s work on anxiety and estrangment…with the help of Athanasius and Cyril of Alexandria. // What I find somewhat irksome with Ted is his “biblicism.” To me just reading the Gospels will not disclose to us what it did to it’s original audience because we live in a completely different universe/horizon of meaning than they did. To us “God” doing something seems mythological. But it is precisely in the symbol of God’s action in the stories of Scripture that redeemed existence is disclosed. // Bonhoeffer called for a non-religious interpretation of the Bible, and beginning to think he was right.

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