Unsound Theories of Atonement

This entry is part 4 of 13 in the series Pastoral Soteriology

(A continuation of the series, A Pastoral Soteriology.)

Understanding that sin carries the penalty of death, separation and God’s extended wrath toward the sinner brings one to the natural yearning to understand the nature of the provision God has made for the restoration of man from this condition.  Obviously, this series is concerned with such illumination; God has made atonement available.  The details concerning God’s provision of atonement is both something so simple that a child can grasp it, yet so complicated than a man can spend his entire life attempting to systematize it fully.  The child can understand that “Jesus died for my sins,” yet the theologian may spend years trying to fully understand how exactly the provision of Christ was applied to the account of the sinner.

From this pursuit have been born numerous “theories” of atonement which attempt to answer these looming questions:  “What exactly what happened when Christ died on the cross for the sins of man?”  “What was the nature of his death?”  “How was his work applied to the account of the sinner?”  While the lack of answers to such questions do not hinder even the young child from receiving his gift of salvation by grace through faith, they are indeed questions which yearn for understanding from the mind of the redeemed and for which scripture devotes substantial insights toward their clarification.

This section will focus on a number of theories which have been postulated and put to theological testing through the millennia since the atoning work of Christ has been applied.

The Recapitulation Theory

One of the earliest theories was the Recapitulation Theory, proposed by Irenaeus (125-202 AD).  The primary scriptural basis for Irenaeus’ theory is exemplified in Romans 5.

Romans 5:18-21 (NIV)
18 Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men. 19 For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous. 20 The law was added so that the trespass might increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, 21 so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The essence of the Recapitulation Theory is that Jesus reclaimed (recapitulated) the perfect original human condition through his incarnation and successful living out of the human life without sin.  Properly recognizing that Adam’s sin brought death to all men, that sin was infused into all men after him and that all are separated from God because of it, he goes quite off course shortly thereafter. 

Arguably, Irenaeus places the true “work” of the atonement in Jesus’ incarnation rather than in his crucifixion and resurrection, which is inescapably contrary to the message of the gospel found throughout the New Testament.  He notes that Jesus, being God incarnate, had brought his divine attributes to man by the mere action of having become human, as if God had infused righteousness back into humanity through the advent of the incarnation.  Jesus lived as a man through every state of life; yet without sin- therefore achieving a full and righteous life which the first Adam had failed to do.  In this view, Jesus, as the second Adam, “lived humanity” properly where Adam had failed, and thus restored man to God’s good graces.

This, however, is not at all what Romans 5 indicates.  Romans 5 indeed refers to Christ as the one man who made right that which the original man had corrupted, but in no way relegates the nature of that work to his mere incarnation or his righteous life; though both were certainly pertinent and necessary.

The problems with this theory are numerous.  Most noteworthy, this theory misses the true purpose of the incarnation; Christ’s death.   

Isaiah 53:5 (NIV)
5 But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.

It was this substitutionary death which paid the demanded price for sin.  Yet, to Irenaeus, Jesus was more of a “do-over” for humanity, which does not meet the requirements God himself placed upon sin; that the guilty should perish, or have an acceptable blood sacrifice vicariously applied to his account.

There is a measure of merit to some observations of his theory, however.  It is true that Jesus brought life to man out of his own work.  It is true that he defeated the curse of original sin, that he lived a perfectly sinless life which is applied to the account of man and that his incarnation was of chief consequence.  However the application of his redemptive work is misappropriated.

Lastly, it should also be noted that the Recapitulation Theory seems to place man as man’s own enemy, rather than God.  It is as if man had messed himself up, but could be properly “adjusted” and then be right with God.  This theory understands that Jesus “corrected” mankind, yet makes no provision for God’s wrath for the sins which man had committed beforehand.  Even if Jesus had “infused” himself into man in the manner which Iranaeus notes, man’s former sin would have been left unpunished by the God who articulately proclaimed that sin would yield death – and his wrath- to all who partake in it.

As a model for understanding the nature of the atonement, the Recapitulation Theory is severely misguided and is deficient even in the few observations which are correctly articulated.

The Ransom Theory

The Ransom Theory was proposed by Origen (185-254 AD) and was the first widely held atonement theory.  While it is quite contrary to the Recapitulation Theory, it, too holds an exceptionally skewed view of the atonement, bordering on dualism in the opinion of the author.

The bases for the Ransom Theory are several passages which refer to Jesus’ sacrifice as a ransom, while certainly not fleshing out the specifics of such in the ways which Origen understood them.  Primarily, Mark 10 and 1 Corinthians 6 reveal the essence of the scriptural platform from which this theory has its foundation.

Mark 10:45 (NIV)
45 For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

1 Corinthians 6:19-20 (NIV)
19 Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; 20 you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body.

A ransom, by definition, is the price paid for the release of a captive.  In a ransom scenario there are three necessary participants:  one who makes the demand, one who is held captive, and one who pays the demands for release.  According to Origen, these three are represented by Satan, man and God respectively.

This theory essentially claims that Adam and Eve had sold themselves to Satan by their sin at the fall of man.  As such, the crowning glory of God’s creation had now changed hands, and Satan subdued man.  Ostensibly, he “owned” man and God would have to bargain with Satan to reclaim man for himself.  Satan then presumably set the price for man’s release as that of the shed blood of Christ incarnate.  Jesus’ death, then, paid the fee to Satan, who promptly released man back into God’s hands.  Yet, Jesus’ resurrection made Satan a double loser, as death was unable to hold Christ under Satan’s control.

There are simply not enough words to proclaim how erroneous this theory was and is. 

The primary issue is that of the purported Satanic “ownership” of man.  While it is true that mankind is noted in scripture to be under Satanic dominion in his sins, this does not equate to an ownership of man which must somehow be bartered for by God himself.  Rather, this dominion has to do with the lack of God’s protection of man from Satan’s power.  Satan, as an angelic being, is superior in power to any man for whom God does not protect. To that end, men are noted to “belong” to Satan in scripture and to be in his service; due to their lack of ability to resist him.  The book of Acts notes,

Acts 26:17-18 (NIV)
17 I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles. I am sending you to them 18 to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’

The “power of Satan” which man is under does indeed relegate him to Satan’s service, but this is more akin to a weakling that succumbs to a bully than to a product which is owned by a legal right of sale.  Indeed,

Psalms 24:1 (NIV)
1 The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it;

Yet, the scripture does equate Christ’s atoning work as that of a ransom which has been paid.  The question must still be answered, “who, then, is he that makes demand of the price to be paid?”  The answer is, “God himself.”  God demanded the atonement, and God provided the atonement.  He had formerly pronounced his judgment upon sin,

Genesis 2:17 (NIV)
17 but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.”

Romans 2:8(NIV)
8 But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger.

It is God himself who had determined the valid price for man’s sin.  That fee is death.  It is God’s own wrath which has separated man from himself.  The payment which Christ afforded – was death- and was paid to God as the One who demanded the ransom noted in Mark and 1 Corinthians.

Furthermore, the captivity from which man was ransomed was not Satanic control, but God’s penalty for sin.  It was sin which held man away from fellowship with God- not some wily scheme of Satan.  As Hebrews notes the very same ransom,

Hebrews 9:15 (NIV)
15 For this reason Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance–now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant.

The true nature of the ransom portrayed in scripture is that God paid his own price vicariously through Christ that man may be free from sin, which God’s righteousness and justice demanded the penalty of death for. 

Romans 8:3 (NIV)
3 For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering….

Origen’s ransom theory completely changed the nature of the atonement from something which satisfied the righteous requirements of God to something which paid off Satan – a fellow recipient of God’s wrath- for the restoration of mankind to God.  This attributes power and ownership to Satan which he simply does not have.  Indeed, Satan will himself endure God’s eternal judgment and be subjected to the very penalty of those who follow his example, as Jesus noted.

Matthew 25:41 (NIV)
41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.

Sin is universal, as is its punishment.  All who have sinned – including Satan himself- are condemned to an eternal destructive death as God has sentenced. 

It was God who was the recipient of the ransom Jesus paid.  It was God incarnate, in Christ, who paid the ransom.  The prison from which man was sprung was that of the condition and consequence of sin.  God is payer and payee, while man is the recipient of God’s grace.  Satan has absolutely no part of the transaction.

Sadly, there are many today who continue to develop and teach the false premise of the Ransom Theory. 

It is a remake of the Ransom Theory which is the basis of the Word of Faith movement’s counterfeit gospel, claiming that Jesus was born a mere man, that he was born again spiritually, and that he served man’s sentence in Hell.  It is this theory which has led to a somewhat dualistic understanding of Satan; that he is somehow an equal and opposite god, who is to be appeased in his own right.  Proponents of this theory today continue to malign the true gospel of scripture by completely disregarding the application of God’s wrath upon Christ for sin.

There is no merit to the Ransom Theory of atonement as a valid representation of the truths of the gospel.  Many have argued that Origen never intended its understanding to lead to a dualistic view of Satan.  Yet, such conclusions are drawn from simply following Origen’s position to its logical conclusion.  The theory is simply unsound.

Series Navigation<< The Wrath of GodMore False Atonement Doctrine: The Moral-Example Theory >>

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