False Theories on the Atonement

Taken from: The Moody Handbook of Theology

The death of Christ is highly significant in Christian doctrine but the understanding of His death has been reflected in widely divergent views. The following are the principal views regarding the death of Christ.

Ransom to Satan Theory

This theory was developed by Origen (a.d. 185-254), and it advocated that Satan held people captive as a victor in war. This theory, which was also held by Augustine, advocated that because Satan held people captive, a ransom had to be paid, not to God, but to Satan.

In response to this view it should be noted that God’s holiness, not Satan’s, was offended, and payment had to be made to God to avert His wrath. Furthermore, Satan did not have the power to free man, God alone had the power.

This theory is false because it makes Satan the benefactor of Christ’s death. This view has too high a view of Satan; the cross was a judgment of Satan, not a ransom to Satan.


Recapitulation Theory

The recapitulation theory, advanced by Irenaeus (a.d. 130-200?), taught that Christ went through all the phases of Adam’s life and experience, including the experience of sin. In this way, Christ was able to succeed wherein Adam failed.

The element of truth is that Christ is known as the Last Adam (1 Cor. 15:45), however, Christ had no personal encounter with sin whatsoever (1 John 3:5; John 8:46). The theory is incomplete in that it neglects the atonement; it is the death of Christ that saves, not His life.


Commercial Theory

The commercial theory was set forth by Anselm (a.d. 1033-1109), who taught that through sin, God was robbed of the honor that was due Him. This necessitated a resolution that could be achieved either through punishing sinners or through satisfaction. God chose to resolve the matter through satisfaction by the gift of His Son. Through His death Christ brought honor to God, and received a reward, which He passed on to sinners. The gift was forgiveness for the sinner and eternal life for those who live by the gospel.

Although this view changed the focus from payment to Satan to a proper emphasis on payment to God, there are nonetheless problems with this view. It emphasizes God’s mercy at the expense of other attributes of God, namely, justice or holiness. It also neglects the obedience of the life of Christ, and in addition, it ignores the vicarious suffering of Christ. Rather than emphasizing Christ died for the penalty of sin, this view embraces the Roman Catholic concept of penance, "so much satisfaction for so much violation."


Moral Influence Theory

Abelard (a.d. 1079-1142) first advocated this theory that has since been taught by modern liberals such as Horace Bushnell and others of a more "moderate" liberal stance. The moral influence view was originally a reaction to the commercial theory of Anselm. This view taught that the death of Christ was not necessary as an expiation for sin, rather, through the death of Christ, God demonstrated His love for humanity in such a way that sinners’ hearts would be softened and brought to repentance.

The weaknesses of the moral influence view are obvious. The basis for the death of Christ is His love rather than His holiness; this view also teaches that somehow the moving of people’s emotions will lead them to repentance. Scripture affirms that the death of Christ was substitutionary (Matt. 20:28), and thereby the sinner is justified before a holy God, not merely influenced by a demonstration of love.


Accident Theory

A more recent view, the accident theory, was advocated by Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965), who taught that Christ became enamored with His messiahship. This theory saw Him preaching the coming kingdom and being mistakenly crushed in the process. Schweitzer saw no value to others in the death of Christ.

The deficiency of Schweitzer’s view centers on the suggestion that Christ’s death was a mistake. Scripture does not present it in that way. On numerous occasions Jesus predicted His death (Matt. 16:21; 17:22; 20:1719; 26:1-5); Christ’s death was in the plan of God (Acts 2:23). Moreover, His death had infinite value as a substitutionary atonement (Isa. 53:4-6).


Example (Martyr) Theory

In reaction to the Reformers the example theory was first advocated by the Socinians in the sixteenth century and more recently by Unitarians. This view, which is a more liberal view than the moral influence view, suggests the death of Christ was unnecessary in atoning for sin; sin did not need to be punished. There was no relationship between the salvation of sinners and Christ’s death. Rather, Christ was an example of obedience and it was that example of obedience to the point of death that ought to inspire people to reform and live as Christ lived.

The weaknesses of this view are multiple. Christ is viewed only as a man in this theory; atonement is unnecessary yet Scripture emphasizes the need for atonement (Rom. 3:24). This view emphasizes Christ as an example for unbelievers, but 1 Peter 2:21 teaches that Christ’s example was for believers, not unbelievers.


Governmental Theory

Grotius (1583-1645) taught the governmental theory as a reaction to the example theory of Socinus. The governmental theory served as a compromise between the example theory and the view of the Reformers. Grotius taught that God forgives sinners without requiring an equivalent payment. Grotius reasoned that Christ upheld the principle of government in God’s law by making a token payment for sin through His death. God accepted the token payment of Christ, set aside the requirement of the law, and was able to forgive sinners because the principle of His government had been upheld.

Among the problems with this view are the following. God is subject to change—He threatens but does not carry out (and in fact changes) the sentence. According to this view God forgives sin without payment for sin. Scripture, however, teaches the necessity of propitiating God (Rom. 3:24; 1 John 2:2)—the wrath of God must be assuaged. Also, substitutionary atonement must be made for sin (2 Cor. 5:21; 1 Peter 2:24).

Theories of the Atonement


Original Exponent

Main Idea


Recent Exponents

Ransom to Satan
Origen (a.d. 184-254)
Ransom paid to Satan because people held captive by him.
God’s holiness offended through sin; cross was judgment on Satan, not ransom to Satan.
No known current advocates.
Irenaeus (a.d. 130-200)
Christ experienced all Adam did, including sin.
Contradicts Christ’s sinlessness. (1 John 3:5)
None known.
Commercial (Satisfaction)
Anselm (1033-1109)
Sin robbed God of honor; Christ’s death honored God enabling Him to forgive sinners.
Elevates God’s honor above other attributes; ignores vicarious atonement.
None known.
Moral Influence
Abelard  (1079-1142)
Christ’s death unnecessary to atone for sin; His death softens sinners hearts to cause them to repent.
Basis of Christ’s death is God’s love, not holiness. Atonement viewed as unnecessary.
Friedrich Schleiermacher, Albrecht Ritschl, Horace Bushnell
Socinus  (1539-1604)
Christ’s death unnecessary to atone for sin; His death was example of obedience to inspire reform.
Views Christ only as a man; atonement viewed as unnecessary.
Thomas Altizer, Unitarians
Grotius  (1583-1645)
Christ upheld government in God’s law; His death was token payment; enables God to set law aside and forgive people.
God is subject to change; His law is set aside; God forgives without payment for sin.
Daniel Whitby, Samuel Clarke,  J. McLeod Campbell, H. R. Mackintosh
A. Schweitzer  (1875-1965)
Christ became enamored with a Messiah complex and was mistakenly crushed under it in the process.
Views Christ’s death as a mistake; denies substitutionary atonement.
None known.

The Moody Handbook of Theology
Copyright 1989 by The Moody Bible Institute of Chicago. All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America.
Electronic Edition STEP Files Copyright 1997, Parsons Technology, Inc.