Exploring the meaning of Jesus’s death

Christians haven’t always agreed on how to describe the atonement process


Advertise with us

On Good Friday, Christians will remember the death of Jesus on the cross. What that death represents has changed over the centuries. Did Jesus die as a sacrifice in the place of sinful humans? Did he die to claim victory over evil? Did he die to appease a righteous and angry God? Or as a moral example?

Read this article for free:


Already have an account? Log in here »

To continue reading, please subscribe:

Monthly Digital Subscription

$4.75 per week*

  • Enjoy unlimited reading on winnipegfreepress.com
  • Read the E-Edition, our digital replica newspaper
  • Access News Break, our award-winning app
  • Play interactive puzzles

*Billed as $19.00 plus GST every four weeks. Cancel anytime.

On Good Friday, Christians will remember the death of Jesus on the cross. What that death represents has changed over the centuries. Did Jesus die as a sacrifice in the place of sinful humans? Did he die to claim victory over evil? Did he die to appease a righteous and angry God? Or as a moral example?

The answer is both yes to all those questions about what the atoning work of Christ represents — and also no. There is no one single view that has held sway.

But first, what is atonement? Christians agree it is the process by which humankind is reconciled with God through the death of Jesus on the cross. But what they haven’t always agreed on is how to describe the atonement process — what images or metaphors to use.

One of the earliest theories of atonement was the ransom theory, developed during the time of the early church. It held that since human beings were under the rule of Satan, God had to pay for their freedom by surrendering his son in their place — paying for their freedom through the death of Jesus.

The Christus Victor theory, also from the earliest years of the church, posited that Jesus overcame the evil powers of the world and emerged victorious over them. This theory emphasized the cosmic nature of Jesus’s victory, seeing it as a triumph over the powers of evil that had held humanity in bondage.

The moral influence theory, developed in the Middle Ages, held that God killed his son as an example of selfless love to teach humans to be like him.

Then there is the satisfaction theory, also developed in the Middle Ages, which held that sinful humankind had a debt to repay for sin — a debt paid through the death of Jesus.

The penal substitution theory, which is popular for many today, dates back to the 16th century. It emphasized the need to appease God’s great anger at the sinful disobedience of humanity. But instead of taking out his wrath on humanity — rather than penalizing them with death — God offered his own son as a substitute.

More recently, French literary critic René Girard has offered the scapegoat theory. Unlike the other theories, which find God sacrificing his son, the scapegoat theory suggests that Jesus was killed by humanity in order to relieve the pressure of all the world’s problems. But Jesus turned the tables by rising from the dead, exposing our temptation to blame others for everything that goes wrong.

Closer to home, some African Americans in the U.S. have compared the crucifixion of Christ to the lynchings that took the lives of many members of that community. As theologian James Cone, author of The Cross and the Lynching Tree, put it, the clearest image of the crucified Christ for African Americans “was the figure of an innocent Black victim, dangling from a lynching tree,” victimized by a cruel, unjust and uncaring world.

Since I’m not a biblical scholar, I asked Robert J. Dean, who teaches theology and ethics at Providence Theological Seminary, for his thoughts on the different views of atonement.

Dean noted while church councils over time have debated the divinity and humanity of Christ, no ecumenical council has ever offered a definitive prescription for how Christians are to speak about the atonement. Nor is there any “scholarly consensus surrounding how to classify and count the various models and theories,” he said.

While the penal substitutionary model is held by many Christians today, especially evangelicals, Dean favours drawing lessons from all the various models.

Just as a golfer employs different clubs to play a round, Dean said, someone who attempts to play an entire round with just a driver or a putter would be at a supreme disadvantage to someone carrying the full complement of clubs. For him, this is why the different theories of atonement all have a place in understanding the death of Christ on the cross.

As for the various theories of atonement themselves, they are just that — theories, he said. They are “ultimately meant to serve as lenses and primers for engaging with the story of Jesus Christ. They are not meant to be replacements for that story,” he said.

When all is said and done, he added, “no one is saved by holding to any particular theory of the atonement, rather we are saved by Jesus Christ who simply is our atonement. At its most basic level, the ecumenically received understanding of the atonement is just this: ‘He has done it! Jesus Christ is our reconciliation!’ What better news could there be than that?”

Read Dean’s full response about theories of atonement at onfaithcanada.blogspot.com.


The Free Press is committed to covering faith in Manitoba. If you appreciate that coverage, help us do more! Your contribution of $10, $25 or more will allow us to deepen our reporting about faith in the province. Thanks! BECOME A FAITH JOURNALISM SUPPORTER Click here to learn more about the project.

John Longhurst

John Longhurst
Faith reporter

John Longhurst has been writing for Winnipeg's faith pages since 2003. He also writes for Religion News Service in the U.S., and blogs about the media, marketing and communications at Making the News.

Report Error Submit a Tip

The Free Press acknowledges the financial support it receives from members of the city’s faith community, which makes our coverage of religion possible.


Advertise With Us