Theories of Atonement: Did Christ die to pacify God’s wrath?

This is an article in the series on the atonement.

What problem did His death solve? Was it God’s anger, or the demands of Justice or was it sin that gave Satan ownership of this world?


SUMMARY

If Jesus did not die, we could not be saved. On this, we agree, but there are different Theories of Atonement that attempt to explain HOW His death atoned for the sins of God’s people. 

One horrible distortion of the gospel is that God was angry and that Christ died to pacify His anger. According to the Bible, Christ was the Means of reconciliation but it was God that took the initiative to save us.

A softer variation of this theory is that sin distorts Justice, that Justice demands that someone must suffer and that Jesus died to restore the equilibrium of Justice. However, how can it be just to torture an innocent Person for the sins of other people? 

Another variation on the theme is that Jesus lived a sinless life and that His righteousness is imputed to sinners. This is better than the previous versions because it takes the focus away from God’s wrath. However, this theory is based on a literal interpretation of and emphasis on the word “justified,” which is only one of several Metaphors for Salvation.

People sometimes say that God was reconciled to His creatures as if God was changed by Christ’s death. However, Paul always wrote that people are reconciled to God; never the other way round.  In other words, Christ’s death did not change the Father. 

A very different explanation is that sin gave Satan ownership of this world. He held humanity captive. However, became part of humanity and His death triumphed over the evil spiritual forces. 

The moral influence theories of atonement suggest that believers are moved to repent and reunite with God when they see God’s love expressed through Jesus’ life and death.  This is certainly true but does not explain why Jesus had to die.


THEORIES OF ATONEMENT

It is generally accepted that, if Jesus did not die, we could not be saved:

God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. (Rom 5:6-8, NRSV)

The difficulty is to explain HOW His death atoned for the sins of God’s people. There are many different explanations for this:

PAID THE REQUIRED PRICE

Some say that Christ, by His death, paid the required price, but to whom was the price paid?  It was not paid to God, for we were held prisoner by Satan.  Neither was it paid to Satan, for what could God owe to Satan?

GOD WAS ANGRY

Others propose that God was angry and that Christ died to pacify God’s anger. However:

(1) MAN IS HOSTILE.

Firstly, it is not God that was hostile to man; we were hostile to Him:

You were formerly alienated and hostile in mind, engaged in evil deeds” (Col 1:21). (This implies that “evil deeds” are acts of aggression against God.)

We previously “were enemies” (Rom 5:10).

Belonging to the race of Adam, we are born alienated from God. People are angry with Him. They try to exclude Him from their lives in all possible ways. A common method is to insult God by using His name in vain and even to use His name as a swear word.

(2) GOD TOOK THE INITIATIVE.

Secondly, the Father is not angry with His enemies. rather, it was God that took the initiative to save man (Col 1:22); not the other way round.  For example:

God so loved the world that He gave His only Son (John 3:16). See also Romans 5:6-8, quoted above.

Colossians 1:20-22 uses the word “through” four times, explaining what God did through Christ.  “The Father … made peace through the blood of His cross” (Col. 1:19-20). The Father “has now reconciled you in His (Christ’s) fleshly body through death” (v22). Christ was the Means of reconciliation, but it was the Father who redeemed us.

It is the Father who has qualified us to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints (Col. 1:12), who delivered us from the power of darkness, and who transferred us into the kingdom of the Son (Col. 1:13).

To say that sin made God angry and that He was eager to punish us, but that Christ took our punishment and pacified God is a blatant contradiction of the Bible, for God so loved the world that He sent His only begotten Son.

RECONCILED TO HIS CREATURES.

People sometimes say that God was reconciled to His creatures as if God was changed by Christ’s death on the cross, but the word translated reconcile is used a number of times in Paul’s writings, and it always says that people are reconciled to God; never the other way round.

To reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross” (Col 1:20)

Reconcile them both (Gentiles and Israel) in one body to God through the cross” (Eph 2:16)

While we were enemies we were reconciled to God” (Rom 5:10)

God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ” (2 Cor 5:18)

We beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (2 Cor 5:20)

In other words, Christ’s death did not change the Father’s attitude towards people; it is man that changed. 

JUSTICE DEMANDS THAT SOMEONE MUST SUFFER.

As a child, growing up in reformed circles, I often heard that sin perverts justice, insults God’s honor, and that God’s righteousness or justice demands that someone had to suffer. Therefore, Jesus suffered what we deserve so that we receive what He deserves: Jesus died to restore the equilibrium of Justice in the universe. 

This formulation is a bit softer than saying that God was angry, but it still is a horrible perversion of the grand Bible message. It presents God as subject to Justice. And how can it be just to torture an innocent Person for the sins of another? 

The most important message of the Bible is that God so loved the world so much that He gave His only begotten Son to redeem us. That is the foundation of every other doctrine. To corrupt the doctrine of God’s love is to corrupt the entire Bible, for it permits man to justify and continue his own mad anger and cruelty.

The Bible reveals the infinite God as wise, loving, and just. The concepts in the Bible are infinitely high above the thoughts of man, and continually elevate man’s mind.  To say that the suffering of an innocent person would satisfy God’s justice seems utterly inconsistent with His character.

CHRIST’S RIGHTEOUSNESS IMPUTED TO SINNERS

Another variation on this theme is that Jesus lived a sinless life and that His righteousness is imputed to sinners. This is better than the previous versions because it takes the focus away from God’s anger or justice and focuses on the wonderful message that Jesus remained without sin even when subjected to the greatest possible temptation and torture. 

However, this theory presents salvation as a mechanical process, similar to the Jewish system where they thought that they are justified by the ceremonies and rituals of the Mosaic Law. See the article Justified! for a further discussion of this view:

That article asserts that “justified” is only one of several Metaphors of Salvation, and we should not, therefore, interpret the word ‘justify’ literally and emphasize it over the other metaphors when trying to explain how a person is put right with God.

TRIUMPH OVER EVIL SPIRITUAL FORCES

A very different explanation is that sin gave Satan ownership of this world. Humanity was his captive. However, Christ’s death was a triumph over evil spiritual forces which “disarmed” Satan and his followers (Col 2:15), rendered them “powerless” (Heb 2:14), and threw them “down to the earth” (Rev 12:9).  In this explanation, that which prevented man’s salvation was not with God – His anger or His justice – but sin.

This was the view held by the church until Anselm confused the matter in the 11th century. It is also the explanation which I prefer. In the following articles I explain how it is that Satan has any right if God is almighty, and how Christ destroyed Satan’s rights:

(a) Christ’s death proved that God judges rightly.
(b) Why Jesus had to die

MORAL INFLUENCE

A still further alternative explanation is that believers are moved to repent and reunite with God when they see God’s love expressed through Jesus’ life and death.  This is called the ‘moral influence theory’.  This is certainly true but does not explain why Jesus had to die.

CONCLUSION

Granted, this is a rather superficial discussion of the Theories of Atonement.  I hope to study this subject in more detail in the future.  Other useful resources that the reader may consult include the following:

Joshua Thurow surveys the various ways Christians have thought about Jesus’s unique atonement through his death.

Noah Worcester does not find any reason to accept the “penal substitution” theories of atonement, on which God’s holiness requires him to punish someone in order to forgive, so that Jesus takes the punishment due us, cooling off God’s wrath, enabling him to forgive. But he does find evidence that according to the New Testament, Jesus’ sacrifice was a demonstration of God’s love for us.

Atonement does not mean to pacify God’s anger. God is not angry.

This is an article in the series on the atonement.


SUMMARY

In the last few centuries, Atonement has come to mean making amends to propitiate wrath. To many, Atonement is what Christ did to reconcile the Father to us and soften His wrath. 

But that was not the meaning of the word when it was put in the first English Bible. At that time, many centuries ago, “atonement” did not describe a process but meant to be in a state of unity: to be AT ONE.

The Greek word in the Bible that is sometimes translated as “atonement” also does not mean what atonement means today.  That Greek word means ‘reconciliation’.  The basic meaning is to establish friendship.

It was the forensic doctrine of salvation, which presents God as angry and the death of Christ as a sacrifice to pacify God, that slowly changed the meaning of “atonement” over the centuries.

Christ did not die as a sacrifice to pacify God.  The blood of the Cross did not change how the Father feels about us sinners.  God, because He loves us, sent His only Son to be “the Lamb of God.”


INTRODUCTION

Making amendsCommonly, in the last few centuries, Atonement has come to mean making amends, paying a penalty to meet legal demands, to propitiate wrath, or to adjust one’s legal standing. To many, Atonement is what Christ did to reconcile the Father unto us and assuage His offended wrath. But that is not the original meaning of the term, and it is not the meaning of the word in the Bible.

ORIGINAL MEANING

Dictionaries agree that the word Atonement is a made-up word, namely ‘at-one‐ment’. That’s how the word started. It was based on a verb, ‘to one’. Two people are fighting, and you are sent out to ‘one’ them. Not ‘win’ them; to ‘one’ them.  And when you have succeeded in ‘one-ing’ people, then, hopefully, they would remain in a state of oneness. It is THE STATE of being ‘at one’ that is atonement, NOT THE PROCESS of ‘one-ing’ people. Atonement, therefore, means to be in harmony or unity.  That is what Atonement meant when the Bible was first translated into English.

KATALLASSO

The only place you’ll find the word “atonement,” in the King James Version, is in Romans 5:10. But, in the Greek, it is the very common word ‘katallasso’. In this word, there’s no hint of making amends.  It means ‘reconciliation’. Holman’s Bible dictionary defines this word as follows:

Reconciliation … specifically the reconciliation between God and humanity effected by the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ.  … The basic Greek word is usually translated as “to reconcile”.  The basic meaning is to establish friendship.

Therefore Romans 5:10, in the NASB, reads:

For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son.

WHY THE MEANING CHANGED

There’s only one dictionary that really gives the history of the word, and that’s a multi-volume Oxford English Dictionary. It shows how, for a long time, it was used in its original sense of being at one, reconciling people to harmony; friendship is often mentioned, unity, and so on. Now, later on somehow, it was changed to mean ‘making amends, paying penalty’, and that’s the way it’s commonly used now.

It was the forensic doctrine of salvation that changed the meaning of “atonement” over the centuries.  This doctrine teaches that somebody must pay for sins committed.  It presents God as angry and the death of Christ as a sacrifice to pacify God.  It was because the reformers had this understanding of the purpose of Christ’s death that the meaning of “atonement” has slowly changed over the centuries to “reparation for an offence or injury” (Merriam-Webster).

HOW WE SHOULD UNDERSTAND ATONEMENT

Christ did not die as a sacrifice to pacify God.  It is not God that had to change.  The blood of the Cross did not change how the Father feels about us sinners.  The opposite is rather true, namely that the blood of Christ was the means by which the Father reconciled His creatures to Himself (Col 1:20).  We must change.  It is not God that is angry; it is His creatures that “were enemies” (Rom 5:10) and “hostile in mind” (Col 1:21).  In the Bible, God is never reconciled to us; it is always us that are reconciled to God, through Christ (Col 1:20).  God, because He loves us, sent His only Son to be “the Lamb of God” (John 1:29) to bring His people back to Him (John 3:16).

See the articles Christ’s death reconciled us to God and Why Jesus had to die for a further discussion.