Christianity and the Problem of Human ViolenceChristianity and the Problem of Human Violence: Part 115: Atonement Theologies, part 2: Satisfaction Atonement and Moral Influence Theories
from Guide to Kingdom Living

True Christian living requires us to live according to Kingdom standards which bring Heaven to earth.

Christianity and the Problem of Human Violence: Part 115: Atonement Theologies, part 2: Satisfaction Atonement and Moral Influence Theories

By Stephen R. Kaufman, M.D.

In 1098, Anselm of Canterburyís Cur Deus Homo offered a satisfaction atonement theory that maintained that humankindís sin had offended God, and Jesusí death was necessary to satisfy Godís honor. Human sin had upset the moral order, and Jesus death was necessary to restore order to the universe. The Protestant Reformers modified this theory with the notion that Jesusí death was necessary because divine law required that sin be punished. Humankindís sin, which relates back to Adam and Eveís ďOriginal SinĒ in the Garden of Eden, had created an imbalance of good and evil in the universe, and punishment was necessary to restore order. Jesus submitted to and bore the punishment that all humans, as sinners, should have received.

The moral influence theory posits that Jesusí death was a loving act of God aimed to show us that God loves humankind so much that God was willing to give up his most precious possession, his son, for humankind. This dramatic, loving act would get sinful humankindís attention and leads us towards a more righteous path.

On closer inspection these atonement theories are problematic. If one asks, ďWho killed Jesus,Ē the Christus Victor theory (essay [previous]) posits the devil. However, if God permitted this to happen, then one might reasonable question Godís goodness. The satisfaction and moral theories intentionally removed the devil from the equation, but difficulties remained. If one blamed the mob, the Roman authorities, or the high priests for Jesusí death, then one would come to the awkward conclusion that the evildoers were actually doing the will of God.

In fact, if humans killed Jesus, it would make little sense to see Jesusí death as atonement for humankindís sins, because this would mean that sinful humankind was saving itself by killing an innocent person. In other words, murder would somehow deliver humankind from sin. Therefore, it appears that, if humankindís salvation derived from killing Jesus (whether to satisfy Godís honor, to relieve humankind from the burden of Original Sin, or to show humankind how to live righteously), then God must be responsible. So, these theologies suggest that God either killed Jesus or desired Jesusí death. This seems to portray God in an unattractive light and seems to conflict with Godís previous declaration, ďThis is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleasedĒ (Matthew 3:17; see also Mark 1:11, Luke 3:22).

Godís responsibility for Jesusí death is particularly problematic for a moral influence atonement theory. In essence, this theory holds God orchestrated the death of one child (Jesus) in order to save the rest of Godís children (us sinners). Would we ever approve of a parent who had one innocent child killed in order to teach a lesson to the sinful siblings?

Getting back to Anselmís satisfaction theory, it is difficult, if not impossible, to separate Godís honor from God. Therefore, saying that Jesusí death satisfied Godís honor is tantamount to saying that God desired Jesusí death to satisfy Godís own honor.

Those new to this series may wonder how satisfaction atonement theory relates to the frequent blood sacrifices in the Hebrew Scriptures and Paulís statement ďthe wages of sin is deathĒ (Romans 6:23). I have been suggesting a view of God as loving and compassionate and not desiring sacrificial violence, and I refer readers to essays 19 and 20 regarding the Hebrew Scriptures and essay 108 regarding Romans 6:23.

Next week, we will further explore difficulties with satisfaction atonement theories. I will argue that these theories have predisposed Christians to perform acts of violence and injustice, though this was probably not the intent of most of those who have developed or have espoused satisfaction atonement theories.

Go on to: Part 116: Atonement Theologies, Part 3: Further Problems with Satisfaction Atonement
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