It is incredible that the church maintains a belief that is as clearly unbiblical as the satisfaction theory of the atonement. Having described the classical ‘Christus Victor’ idea held by the church for the first 1000 years in my last post, I thought it fitting to outline why the satisfactory models of the atonement are a significantly warped view of the atonement. This warping is to such an extent that I would suggest satisfactory theories are misleading, unbiblical, untrue, and illogical, as will here endeavour to outline.
A typical version of the satisfaction theory is given in the popular ‘penal substitution’ model, summarised by C.S. Evans as:
Human beings have sinned against God and thereby incurred a debt that demands everlasting punishment. God is both just and merciful. In his mercy he wishes to forgive human beings and not punish them, but his justice does not allow this. God resolves this problem by becoming a human being himself, and suffering the pain and death of crucifixion, as a substitute for the punishment we humans deserve. Since God is infinitely good, his death is an adequate payment for the infinite debt sinful humans owe. Since the debt has now been paid, a just God can offer forgiveness. When we humans respond in faith to Jesus, then God accepts the sufferings of Jesus as a payment for our sin.
Now, let us get past the theology and put this in plain language to reveal the true nature of this theory:
You have broken the law because it is impossible to keep it, and so you must have broken it. And because you cannot keep this impossible-to-keep law you will be punished forever because "the penalty for sin is death" and those are just the rules. God must have blood because ‘the Law’ requires it; there must be a penalty paid. The only payment that would have been enough is sacrificing someone who was the "perfect law-keeper", someone who could live a perfect life without sin. So God decided to kill his own Son on the cross to appease his legal need for blood. Now that Jesus has been sacrificed God is no longer mad at us for not doing what we can't do anyway, so we can now come and live with him forever - as long as we are grateful to him for his "mercy" to us.
Adapted from Derek Flood
And let me give you another illustration of the satisfactory model:
There was a man who had two sons. The younger said to his father, "Father, give me my share of the estate." So the father divided his property between them. Not long after that, the younger son went off to a distant country, squandered all he had in wild living, and ended up feeding pigs in order to survive. Eventually he returned to his father, saying, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me one of your hired servants." But his father responded: "I cannot simply forgive you for what you have done, not even so much as to make you one of my hired men. You have insulted my honor by your wild living. Simply to forgive you would be to trivialize sin; it would be against the moral order of the entire universe. For “nothing is less tolerable in the order of things than for a son to take away the honor due to his father and not make recompense for what he takes away.” Such is the severity of my justice that reconciliation will not be made unless the penalty is utterly paid. My wrath--my avenging justice--must be placated.'"
"But father, please..." the son began to plead.
"No," the father said, "either you must be punished or you must pay back, through hard labor for as long as you shall live, the honor you stole from me."
Then the elder brother spoke up. "Father, I will pay the debt that he owes and endure your just punishment for him. Let me work extra in the field on his behalf and thereby placate your wrath." And it came to pass that the elder brother took on the garb of a servant and labored hard year after year, often long into the night, on behalf of his younger brother. And finally, when the elder brother died of exhaustion, the father's wrath was placated against his younger son and they lived happily for the remainder of their days.
You’ll recognise this as a perverted story of the Prodigal Son and the Loving Father, and rightly so, for the satisfactory model perverts the character of God and His dealings with us.
So, allow me to discuss why I reject the satisfactory model…
It is historically unsound
1. It is not what the church believed for the first 1000 years.
Arguably, this is a rather convincing reason in itself. The theory of ‘satisfaction’ was based on ideas from the Latin legal system, which had little – if anything – in common with the views of the early Fathers
2. It was criticised almost immediately when it was suggested
Abelard, among others, condemned the theory when it was first suggested. There have been a long string of Christians who have rejected the doctrine throughout its history. While the alternative theories suggested were typically also flawed because they were not the classical view of the early church either, the point was the recognised the fallacy of the satisfaction view.
3. Given their writings, it is inconceivable that the early church Fathers believed it – or indeed would have. Thus it is not likely the apostles believed it, and if they did not believe it, it is unlikely Jesus Himself taught it.
The early Fathers did not consider the atonement being a legal matter, but a victory. God is not viewed as making a legal transaction or being ‘appeased’, but rather He is the one doing the atonement – choosing to descend in Christ to reveal His love to us, that sin and death might be overcome. Where the satisfaction theories use terms shared by the Fathers, the meaning behind the words is significantly different.
4. The idea of a physical sacrifice appeasing God is a pagan concept
There is considerable literature on the use of human sacrifice in pagan rituals, from ancient times even until modern times. Rather than appeasing God or indeed influencing His treatment of people in any way, Biblical sacrifices were to bring people to repentance. Because of this repentance, and in keeping with His nature, God forgives their sin and accepts them as they return in their hearts to Him.
Certainly, God is not concerned with the physical nature of sacrifices (Isa ,13,16-17, Hosea 6:6, Mat ), and it defies logic that the mere shedding of blood would appease any form of righteous anger. Rather, God looks at the heart, and it is not the physical fruit, meat, or blood that He values, but the ‘broken and contrite heart’ (Psa 51:16-17). Furthermore, there are numerous Scriptural instances of God not accepting sacrifices because of the heart it was offered it – again exemplifying that He values the heart, not the physical.
Because of its shockingly physical nature, sacrifice had a profound emotional and spiritual impact on the one making it. In the words of Jewish Rabbi Nachum Braverman;
"You rest your hands on its head and you confess the mistake you made. Then you slaughter the cow. It's butchered in front of you. The blood is poured on the altar. The fat is put on the altar to burn. How do you feel? (Don't say disgusted.) I'll tell you how you feel. You feel overwhelmed with emotion, jarred by the confrontation you've just had with death, and grateful to be alive. You've had a catharsis. The cow on the altar was a vicarious offering of yourself"
Furthermore, as will be later explained (#14), the concept of God's attitude toward sin being 'appeased' is contradictory with the nature of God's love and sin itself.
It contradicts the nature of God’s grace
5. The necessity for ‘satisfaction’ is unbiblical
There is no teaching that a satisfaction is necessary in the Bible. Certainly, the work of Christ is described as an ‘atoning sacrifice’ in a general sense. However, to the early church this phrase did not carry a connotation of satisfaction, but of liberation through death. This word for ‘atonement’ is literally an ‘exchange’. In the Greco-Roman culture of the time, this phrase was used of someone who would forego their own life so that their family, city or people would be saved. Thus, the emphasis is on saving and liberation – not in satisfaction.
There is no Biblical justification as to why God Himself would require payment for sins. Indeed, God often forgoes punishment in several instances – and instead is merciful to whom He pleases. Any discipline God may give is purely for the benefit of people – not to ‘satisfy His need for justice’. What is more, satisfaction theory tends to be used to support a disturbingly legalistic view of the ‘justice’ of God. God is not portrayed as loving, but as an unreasonable tyrant.
6. It portrays a God who does not forgive, but merely administers legal ‘justice’
Satisfaction models rely on God needing to ‘uphold moral justice’, and implies it is ‘unjust’ to forgive and therefore not possible for God. Thus, under a satisfaction model, our sins are not actually forgiven at all – for God merely balances them with ‘appropriate’ and ‘just’ punishment. To suggest that this ‘balancing the accounts’ is the essence of grace and kindness would be to undermine the nature of grace and kindness in the Bible, and in the light of common sense.
Thus if sin is ‘satisfied’ – it is not truly forgive at all. Yet, this idea completely contradicts Scripture! To give some of the many possible examples:
- We are not to count man's wrongs against us and God does not count our wrongs against Him (1 Corinthians 13:5)
- Scriptures declare that God "does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities" (Psa. 103:10, NIV)
- The thief next to Jesus at
- God’s grace to
Clearly, then, the satisfaction model is entirely at odds with the true grace of God. Yet, as Paul so clearly writes, God has commanded His love toward us (Rom 5:8), and we are not under law, but grace (Rom ).
7. Satisfaction theory attempts to preserve God’s legal sense of ‘justice’ and ‘honour’ – and yet in Christ He showed forgiveness is not about ‘justice’, but about grace, and honour is not about keeping the law, but about love.
Christ Himself taught of how ‘unjust’ God’s mercy is in the parable of the hired labourers (Mat 20:1-16). Likewise, God’s honour is considered to be upheld by a satisfaction-based atonement, and in Jesus, God was humiliated, unjustly treated, and mocked.
It is logically unsound
8. It’s senseless
Imagine that you went to visit a friend who owned a park and it cost 5 dollars to gain admittance. The friend tells you that you don't have to pay that, he the owner of the park will pay for you. So he takes 5 dollars out of his pocket and then puts it in his other pocket.
This is largely what the ‘satisfaction’ model leads to – God satisfying Himself. It is meaningless, for the point of the whole atonement is God laying aside our sin and ‘drawing near’ (that’s the Hebrew phrase for ‘sacrifice’, incidentally) to us.
More than meaningless, it is senseless, for it implies that God essentially punishes Himself instead of giving us punishment we ‘deserve’ for our sin. This is equivalent to suggesting the following story:
“The President (representing God) is walking down a street and suddenly is brutally mugged by several attackers (representing sin against Him). Fortunately, the police (representing God’s ‘justice’) apprehend the criminals. The police give the mugged President two options, either they imprison the offenders, or they will let them go if they are allowed to mug the President a second time. In His kindness to the offenders, the President agrees to be mugged a second time so that the offenders would not be punished.
Clearly, this is incredibly senseless, for many reasons. Primarily, the President (God) has authority over the police (His ‘justice’) and if He wanted to pardon the offenders, He could have simply granted them pardon. There is no need for Him to endure punishment for the offenders to be pardoned. There is no need for God to ‘beat himself up about it’!
9. Problems with Christ’s ‘punishment’
The early satisfaction view did not have the element of ‘punishment of our sins’, which developed largely in the 17th and 18th centuries. Rather, the sacrifice of Christ was seen as a perfect sacrifice because of Christ’s divinity and perfect nature – not because He endured ‘punishment equivalent to what we deserved’.
There are obvious difficulties with suggesting Christ’s punishment was in any way ‘equivalent’ to the punishment we deserve. If anything, any punishment inflicted on the Divine at all would carry far more weight than the punishment the world deserved – for it would be punishing the innocent. This in itself is completely unjust – and contradicts the attempts of the satisfactory model to have God maintaining ‘divine justice’.
Furthermore, the concept of a God who ‘must punish sin’ is arguably not in line with how God reveals Himself in the history of Scripture. Certainly, sometimes He disciples, but He plainly advocates forgiveness rather than ‘justice’ in the satisfactory sense of the word. One must also ask, “Why would God find satisfaction in the punishment of the innocent while the guilty are acquitted?”
However, even if one holds that Christ took our punishment in a literal and quantitative sense there are still difficulties. To seek to equate a certain quantitative punishment for sin is dubious, but then to suggest that Christ contained and endured the sum total of all such quantitative punishments earned by the human race is bordering on preposterous.
Rather, it makes more sense – if one chooses to hold a satisfactory idea – to think along Anselm’s original ideas of the imputation of merit. In this concept, Christ’s suffering was so meritorious, that there was surplus ‘merit’ (innocence, etc) that could be given to us. But this is unreasonable for the reason discussed in the following point…
10. Guilt or Innocence cannot be transferred
It is logically impossible to defend that guilt or innocence to be transferred from one person to another, maintaining the true meaning of guilt and innocence. Paying someone’s civil debt is one thing, but being imprisoned for someone else’s crime is quite another – it is travesty of justice. Sin should be considered in a criminal sense, not in the sense of merely financial debt.
Furthermore, the fact that someone else may do or be something particular does not change the fact that you did something. Nothing can change that, history cannot erase it, and God cannot pretend you did not do it. The guilt is firmly and unshakably connected to the guilty person. It is inconceivable that God would deceive Himself to consider a guilty person innocent.
In the sacrificial system, God clearly states that after making a sacrifice, ‘it will be forgiven’ of the person. The guilt remains firmly on the person sinning, but God states that He will ‘lay that guilt aside’. There is no suggestion that the guilt is transferred from the person to the sacrifice.
Scripture supports a common-sense view of justice, “Have nothing to do with a false charge and do not put an innocent or honest person to death, for I will not acquit the guilty” (Exodus 23:7). "Every man shall be put to death for his own sin.
(Deut 24:16). How could God Himself do something we, even as sinners, would see as blatantly unjust?
11. It is contradicted by Scripture
It would take far too much time to discuss all the verses. But, suffice to say, the satisfactory view does not account for all the passages – and indeed it is contradicted by several. Furthermore, the underlying truths presented in the Bible are at odds with the concepts of satisfaction.
12. It portrays God as sadistic
Satisfaction theory portrays God as being ‘satisfied by the spilling of blood and punishment’, as if it appeases his anger. It gives the impression that God is sadistic, and is pleased by inflicting suffering. Not only this, but it directly contrasts with a clearly stated characteristic of God, “God is Love”. Furthermore, God demonstrates this love in the person of Christ greater than ever before.
13. Satisfactory atonement is primarily achieved by the sacrifice of a ‘man’, and not purely from the heart of the Father
The satisfactory view intrinsically holds that atonement is what is done by a perfect man, the man of Jesus, governs how God treats people. The idea of Jesus being divine has secondary importance to the fact that he was a man – for the sacrifice of a man was required.
However, early church believed that God the Father choose of His own doing to be gracious to people – and He Himself was in the divine Christ to reveal His grace. His grace conquers sin and death because instead of people getting what they deserve, as the devil would want, God chooses to be gracious to us. Thus, the Father needs nothing to facilitate this grace, for in very nature it is unwarranted, and therefore the concept of requiring the work of Jesus to ‘warrant’ that grace contradicts its true nature.
The early Christians viewed God as the one drawing near to sinful people from His own initiative and of His own will, out of His grace. The concept that anything ‘man’ or even the man of Christ does could ‘bring people to God’ – or rather, bring God to people - is completely at odds with the early ideas. Rather, God ‘lowered Himself’ to people – and it is not because of anything apart from His grace that He does so. The idea that God’s grace must be ‘earned/obtained/justified’ by the work of Christ, the perfect man and therefore ‘sacrifice’, is in opposition with the Biblical concept held by the early church.
14. It misses the true gravity of sin and God's gracious love
While trying to give full weight to sin, the satisfaction theory fails to deal with its true gravity. This lack is because the satisfaction theory views the essence of the atonement as a change in God’s attitude toward sin, rather than our liberation from it. So, instead of being our problem, sin is made out to be God’s problem. Satisfaction theory makes God’s attitude to sin central, instead of sin being our problem that we are freed from.
As a consequence of the satisfaction view, sin is something that can be ‘paid for’ – like a financial debt. Essentially, God can be ‘bought’, to deem our sin as ‘OK’ because the ‘price has been paid’. Satisfaction theory therefore suggests no change in the direct influence of sin upon us, and simply holds up ‘eternal life’ as being the prime objective of atonement.
By contrast, in the classical view, we are damaged and harmed by personal and intra-personal sin, because sin is inherently destructive and enslaving. Sin is our problem, not God’s, and He does not hate it in and of itself, but He hates it because it damages us. Thus, the mere notion of God ‘changing His attitude to our sin’ is preposterous to the classical view, because His hate of sin flows naturally from His love for us. By being victorious over sin, God has freed us from it. Furthermore, God reveals in Christ that He will accept us, broken and damaged from sin, in spite of our faults and sinfulness. In the classical view, God lays aside (the literal meaning of ‘forgive’) our imperfect condition and accepts us anyway if our hearts are devoted to Him. God’s attitude toward sin does not change, it is not ‘appeased’, but rather His grace to us is revealed. Thus, in the classical idea, both the gravity of sin and God’s love and grace are given far more weight.
15. Satisfaction holds that God must maintain ‘justice’ – and cannot truly be gracious. Thus, He is ‘ruled’ by the need for cosmic justice.
Such a statement, which places God under the authority of some higher legal ‘justice’ is clearly at odds with the very nature of God. In the same way as that of the story of the President above, it is well within God’s power to truly forgive. If He wants to forgive, He needn’t find any way to make it judicially ‘just’ – He can simply forgive.
In fact, Biblical, Godly ‘justice’ does not have a judicial sense, but a relational one. Biblical justice embodies the state or the restoration of a right relationship, and has little to do with legal or judicial ideas.
16. The perfect and innocent Christ did not deserved ‘punishing’ – and therefore God would in fact be doing evil to punish Him in any sense of the word
In seeking to ensure legal ‘justice’ is done, the satisfaction model blatantly breaks justice in the worst way. It is one thing for sinful people to wrongly punish an innocent person, but quite another for a righteous God to punish a perfect and innocent Christ! Clearly, it is wrong to punish an innocent person, so why should we make exception with Christ?
17. By insisting that there must be payment for sin, the satisfaction theory implies that God demands ‘a tooth for a tooth, and an eye for an eye’
The satisfaction theory depicts God as demanding an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth (Exod.21:24). Exact repayment for the damaged one appears to be dearest to God. Yet Jesus completely contradicts such a view, telling us to be gracious and forgiving (see Matt. -48). Surely God does not deal with us according to a different standard than the one He teaches Himself!
In 1 Corinthians 13:5 Paul declares that love "keeps no record of wrongs" yet the satisfaction model has God carefully keep the score and require exact compensation. The theory of atonement based on law and explained by law too closely resembles a commercial transaction in which the scales of debt and repayment must exactly balance. It tends to transform God's love into coldly-calculating cosmic accounting.
18. It separates the Father and the Son
In contrast to the ideas of the early church Fathers, the satisfactory model presents God as somehow separate to the Son. They did not picture Jesus as doing anything to change the Father’s mind or relation with people – rather Jesus was of the same mind as the Father – being His logos and image. The Father and Son were therefore unified in purpose and thoughts throughout the whole Incarnation – and indeed it was God in His entirety that not only initiated, but also made the atonement. Needless to say, the concept of the Son changing the Father’s mind is senseless – for to the church Fathers, this would have been equivalent to saying God persuaded Himself to change His own mind.
19. It’s scope is limited to the death of Christ, and the Incarnation and resurrection of Christ have little place
The satisfaction model gives no place to the life and resurrection of Christ. These are, as it were, incidental to the major atoning work. While it is true the early church saw great significance on Christ’s death – the death of the Messiah – they always placed great emphasis on His resurrection. Furthermore, they also viewed His life, example, and teachings as greatly valuable.
What is more, is the Incarnation of God in the man of Christ is seen primarily as a means to make the perfect ‘atoning sacrifice’. The argument tends that no man is perfect, and therefore God had to become ‘in carne’ so that there would be a perfect man to make the perfect sacrifice. The significance of the incarnation therefore is predominantly centred on Christ’s death for our ‘atonement’, but even then is almost incidental to the actual atoning work.
In the Christus Victor idea, however, the Incarnation is inseparable to the atonement. Indeed, the Fathers viewed as central that it was God Himself who in Christ was reconciling the world to Himself. Thus, Christ’s Incarnation, life, death, and resurrection are all an intrinsic part of God’s victory to liberate us from sin, death, and the devil – which constitutes the church Fathers’ primary understanding of the atonement.
It lessens the power of the Good News
20. It makes the ‘Good News’ the ‘not-so-Good-News’:
Robin Collins laid out this argument:
Consider starving children in
Does this message sound like it brings life? Hardly! It brings condemnation and the idea that we should consider ourselves fortunate for escaping the punishment we actually still deserve. What’s more, is instead of portraying a loving God who is gracious and merciful – a God who inspires love by loving – it portrays an unfair, sadistic, mentally deranged cosmic lunatic. I know which one I would rather love.
21. It undermines the real sense of the goodness of God by making God simply following the law
In the satisfactory model, the ‘goodness’ of God is no longer clear. Far from being a gracious God who pardons of His own free-will, He is simply an objective, impartial law-keeper, with little emotion toward people and certainly no room for compassion. This Judge merely gives us what has been ‘earned’ for us – as if God now owes a debt to us by granting eternal life.
Scripture teaches that love is not illustrated by giving someone what is earned, but in giving someone what is not earned. What is ‘good’ about maintaining a system of accounts, and doing away with the real sense of grace?
Adherents to the satisfaction model would point to God’s ‘grace’ at sending the Son to ‘earn’ our acceptance by God. But I would again point to the story of the President, who needn’t do anything except pardon – for it is his authority to do so. Suggesting God must ‘pull cosmic strings’ to grant us forgiveness is to dull His love for us, and makes God’s grace seem less good, and more like we just slip in through the gate opened to us by Christ. Satisfaction theory makes it seem God has not really forgiven us, but has just stretched the rules of the cosmos and lowered His standards to let sinners into heaven.
22. Instead of the atonement being victorious Good News, it takes on a negative connotation
So, satisfactory theory suggests that instead of being punished by God, we are ‘let off the hook’. Emphasis is always placed on the infinite punishment that we deserve, and the entirety of Christ’s work is portrayed as removing that punishment. Far from being an intrinsic part of the atonement, the hope of eternal life is simply an added bonus because we aren’t punished.
Thus, the satisfactory view has a very negative aspect to it – far form the victorious element of Christ’s work that clearly dominated the minds of the early church. Far from our salvation coming from Good News, it is through a Narrow Escape from a sentence we actually aren’t rightly freed from.
23. It reduces the atonement to a formula – a rationalised theory – and in doing so it destroys the power of the Gospel and does not prompt people to follow God
There is arguably far more power in the raw, passionate story of Christ’s Victory (Christus Victor) than in the dry, legal transaction of the satisfactory model. The confusing satisfactory model quite rightly leaves non-believers with more questions than answers, and does not posses the same power on the heart as the classical idea. In many cases, the nonsensically legal satisfactory model merely gives more reasons for the non-Christian to reject the faith. Therefore, it is questionable that it is a healthy concept to portray to non-Christians, especially in light of the more sensible, powerful, and biblical idea of Christus Victor.
24. It is a finished event in the past, and thus omits the place of the Holy Spirit and the on-going atonement of people to God
The satisfactory theory completely omits the part of the Holy Spirit and indeed the church in the on-going atonement of people to God. According to the satisfactory view, the atonement is finished and complete – and we have no further part in ‘the atonement’. The church Fathers, in contrast, would have viewed Christ as beginning the victory over sin and death and the devil that we are commissioned to continue. Thus, Christ empowers us to quite literally continue to do His work on earth. This important element is missing from the satisfactory model.
In contrast to the satisfaction theory, Christus Victor unites all aspects of the Incarnation, Christ’s work, death, resurrection, and the roles of the Holy Spirit and the church. Furthermore, the victorious power of the Christus Victor idea is lacking in the negative satisfactory theory. In light of all these problems with satisfaction-based atonement, it is difficult to understand why one would not believe the Christus Victor idea that is historical, logical, in harmony with Scripture and the nature of God, and gives the Gospel a far greater meaning, significance, and value.
Edited 13/10/04 - re-wrote #14 according to the paradigm shift in the nature of sin and God's attitude to it revealed in Andrew's comment.