Salvation / Atonement Theory


I have always struggled for a good understanding of atonement theory (if that is even the right term). By this I mean the theological theory as to how Christ’s sacrifice works an atonement for our sins. What I would like to do is set out very briefly the theories I think are most prominent and get some comment on them. There is a pretty significant chance that I will mischaracterize them in some way, so feel free to correct my understanding.

Mostly, I would love to hear what you believe about atonement theory and why, and what does the Church teach or require us to believe.

  1. Ransom Theory - Christ’s sacrifice ransoms man from the devil by swapping his life for ours, which are rightly Satan’s because of sin.

  2. Christus Victor - modern reworking of ransom theory that recasts it as a rescue from the bondage of sin, rather than a ransom.

  3. Satisfaction Theory - Christ’s death was a substitution for our debt of honor to God.

  4. Penal Substitution - Christ’s death was substitution for the punishment we should have suffered.

  5. Government View - Christ was punished in our place but his punishment was not an individual substitute for each of ours rather was a public manifestation and propriation of God’s displeasure that substitutes for the sins of the Church as an entity.

  6. Moral Influence - Christ’s death was an example of obedience that effects those who learn of His example.

I’m sure there are more, and that I have over simplified or butchered some. Seems to me that the Catechism supports satisfaction theory. I’m not sure I am totally sold on any of them. What are your thoughts?


Speaking for myself, the atonement should be viewed from God’s eternal plan. If God intended to bring everyone to salvation, God could save all of mankind. But Rom. 9:14-18 tells us that God is free to choose–God’s mercy is not owed to all, or even to one person. Mercy is not mercy if God MUST be merciful:

What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all! For he says to Moses,

“I will have mercy on whom I have mercy,
and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.”

It does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh: “I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.

Since God freely chooses whom He will show mercy, it seems logical that Christ died only for those who The Father has given Him. John 6:37-40

All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away. For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all that he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day."

The suffering and death of Jesus paid the sin debt for all who will believe. That sacrifice, and it alone makes satisfaction for the sins of the elect. In addition, the perfect righteousness of Christ is imputed to all who believe in Jesus. Rom. 5:18-19

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. 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.

Rom. 3:21-26
But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.

My 2 cents worth.


I like the definition of Atonement printed in a local paper. In describing Yom Kippur, the rabbi defined atonement as being “at one with.” When there is atonement , we become “one with” God. This becoming one with God is not something that we can achieve on our own. The gap between God and man could only be bridged by Jesus Christ.


Theory aside, to forgive is different than to forget. If God wanted to, then he could have chosen to forget, but there is no justice to that, as the debt of sin has to be paid. The devil argues to God that a payment must be made for disobedience, otherwise God fails to be just. Therefore there needs to be payment for sin.

Could there have been another way other than Deicide? What I find amazing is that God himself did not ask of Abraham to sacrifice Isaac… but he chose to do so with Jesus.


Laudatur Iesus Christus.

At the risk of sounding glib, let me approach this question with an analogy:

I believe this makes sense of the Church’s teachings:

Imagine that you are a father and that you want to please your son with a gift. You consider your son’s habits and pleasures and you decide to order him a hang-glider, because hang-gliding is one of his favorite activities.

However, the warehouseman sends a mountain bike by mistake.

Your son has never expressed any interest in biking. It has never occurred to him. In fact, your hints and his inquisitive intelligence have led your son to anticipate a new hang-glider and he is exited.

When he opens the box, he is disappointed. As you see his face fall, your pleasure dissolves. The gift has failed. It is outside the range of what your son does and therefore outside the range of what pleases him. Failing to please your son, the gift fails to please you, since your only goal in arranging the gift was his delight.

What solutions are there to this problem? Besides “sending it back where it came from” or “throwing it out,” what can be done with the bike?

The only way to “save” the bike as a gift for your son is for him to *take up biking *as a new and pleasing activity.

By taking up biking, your son converts a failed gift into a success. In turn, by converting the bike into a pleasing gift for himself, by enjoying it, your son makes the bike pleasing to you, because your goal of pleasing him is fulfilled. By extending his scope to include enjoyment of the bike, your son transforms the failed gift and the situation becomes as though the intended gift had been properly delivered.

Only your son could do this. The fact that anyone else would enjoy the bike or accept it as a gift would not be sufficient. To be an effective gift for your son, your son must take up the bike and make it useful to himself.

I think this is the kernel of understanding Christ’s atonement for our sins.

In broad outline:

Man and all of creation were intended by the Father as a pleasing gift for the Son. The Son’s sole activity is self-donating love for the Father. Only by expressing His love for the Father could creation please the Son. In turn, only thus could creation please the Father.

Man, however, mistakenly took a course that resulted in suffering and death. This was the result of man’s free choice and therefore could not be undone without disregarding man’s freedom. Since freedom is integral to authentic love, man’s choice could not be undone or disregarded, without again defeating the Father’s intention, by undermining man’s ability to authentically love.

Joyful, obedient, glorious, and undying man was intended to please the Son, but suffering-and-mortal man was delivered and could not be returned. How could the failed “gift” be saved?

The Son extended His expressions of love for the Father to include the consequences of man’s sin; He *took up *suffering and death as part of His activity of love. By using these repugnant consequences of man’s sin as additional ways of expressing His love and self-donation to His Father, Christ converted suffering and death. Christ accepted suffering and death as useful to Himself and therefore made them acceptable to the Father, when offered as expressions of Christ’s love.

Thus suffering-and-mortal man, who could not be separated from the consequences of Adam’s choice, was again made acceptable to God.

There are many elements of the problem of the Fall which affect the details of Salvation. To be complete this account would have to be much longer. However, I think this notion of the ontological conversion of a failed gift into an acceptable gift is the key to understanding how the Passion and Death of Christ effected atonement and made Salvation possible for fallen men.

I hope this is helpful.

Pax Christi nobiscum.

John Hiner


The merits of Christ’s Passion and Death made the forgiveness of all sins possible, however it is important to recognize the distinction between Protestants and Catholics here.

Here is an example I came up with of how Catholics see the atonement and how Protestants see it:Lets say a group of kids crash the family car, the Father is upset about this and needs to spank the kids…but the mother steps in…

-Protestants would say the mother would have to receive the equivalent beating that the children deserved and thus the Father would be satisfied.

-Catholics on the other hand reject that notion because the Father could never act in such a way towards His wife. Rather, the wife stepped in and spent all day in a hot-sweaty kitchen to prepare the Father a nice multi-course home cooked meal. The Father was so pleased at this act that He in turn decided not to discipline the children, only requiring a simple apology.
It is important to note how each side sees the atonement. Catholics reject the “penal substitution” model of Protestants.


It sort of does, but not in the strictly Anselmian way which emphasizes just God’s honor. The Catechism emphasizes that it was Christ’s loving obedience to the Father unto death which made satisfaction for our sins.

This, in my humble opinion, is probably the cluster of the best understanding we have of Christ’s sacrifice. It understands that the value in Christ’s sacrifice was not destruction, but suffering lovingly undergone. In other words, it rejects theories which place the value of Christ’s sacrifice in destruction or physical torture (as the penal substitution theory often does), and places the value of Christ’s Cross exactly where it should be. This squares well both with biblical evidence that Christ “loved us to the end” and that “through one man’s obedience many were made righteous.”

Both numbers 5 and 6, in my opinion, either make little sense from the Catholic perspective, or risk assuming things which are dangerous to assume in the faith. That is, that Christ could rightfully take on our punishment, in an unequivocal sense. To say that Christ took on our punishment in an unequivocal way would be to say that God the Father inflicted punishment on the Son as a matter of strict retributive justice. In the first, it would be manifestly unjust to punish the wrong person for a crime (I’m thinking especially of Calvin’s scheme in his Institutes, Bk II, Ch. 16). In the second, it would introduce new relations into the Trinity, those of antagonism between the Father and the Son (which seem to be completely exclusive from the actual relationship of the Father and the Son, which is total love). The better assumption is that the “punishment” that Christ underwent was punishment in an analogous sense, which saves us from these problems.

#6 may be true in part, but it cannot be accepted as the whole. Christ as Exemplar is very much true, but example without grace will always be inadequate for fallen man.

As for #1-3, the Church hasn’t officially endorsed them as you put them there, nor has she officially rebuked them, as far as I know. There is much Christian freedom on the issue of soteriology. The Church, I think, emphasizes that any of our theories of understanding the atonement fall short of the actual reality, and that no one atonement theory fits the bill entirely. What I said in my opening about Christ’s death in loving obedience to the Father making satisfaction would seem to me to be the extent to which Catholics would have to follow the Church on this issue. (Nor have other theories, perhaps, been explicitly condemned [perhaps a purely exemplar theory has been condemned by CDF documents, I recall reading some comment about that, perhaps in the disciplinary document regarding Jon Sobrino], it is up to us not to accept any theory which ultimately contradicts other Church teaching, of course-- but I’m not aware of any formal magisterial censures of penal substitution [although I personally dislike it very much, and strongly argue that it contradicts other Christian doctrine]).



Years ago on another forum I copied a post by a person identified by the name of Adomnan that helped me to understand the atonement. I pass this along with the hope that it helps you as well.

It’s a lot easier to say what the Atonement isn’t (i.e., “penal substitutionary”), than what it is. The reason is that the Atonement is the central mystery of the Christian faith and, hence, multifaceted and elusive.

For me, the key to the Atonement is the concept of sacrifice. If we can understand how sacrifice atones for sin, then we can understand how Jesus’ sacrifice atones for sin.

Sacrifice, it seems to me, has two basic, and interrelated, purposes: to make a gift to God (which might also be a reparation for an offense) and to achieve union (covenant) with God. What is given is the victim’s life. That’s why the OT points out, in the context of sacrifice, that “the life is in the blood,” and it is the victim’s
blood that is primarily offered to God. Once given to God, the blood (life) becomes holy and can then sanctify whatever it comes in contact with.

Because of this power to sanctify, the holy blood and the body of the victim (the latter when eaten) become a means by which worshippers commune (become one) with God. The Mosaic Covenant was inaugurated by such a sacrifice: (Gen 24:8): “Moses then took the blood and sprinkled it over the people, saying, ‘This is the blood of the covenant which the Lord has made with you.’” And the Epistle to the Hebrews echoes this episode, showing that Christ’s sacrifice was also a covenant sacrifice: “That is why even the earlier covenant was inaugurated with blood, and why, after Moses had promulgated all the commandments of the Law to the people, he took the calves’ blood, the goats’ blood and some water, and with these he sprinkled the book itself and all the people, using scarlet wool and hyssop; saying as he did so: ‘This is the blood of the covenant that God has made with you.’” (Heb 9:18-20)

The Atonement is therefore effected by our sacrificial (and sacramental) union with the body and blood of Christ and, through them, our incorporation into the covenant that He inaugurated. This occurs through baptism, by which we are washed in Christ’s blood when we are washed in the water, and in the Eucharist, the thanksgiving communion sacrifice of the new and everlasting covenant.

“To justify,” in Romans 3 and 4, does not mean to “acquit as in a court of law.” It means “to bring into covenant with God (through baptism).”

Now, punishment does not ordinarily play any role whatsoever in sacrifice. The OT victims were not punished. In Christ’s case, however, He offered up his punishment (by unjust authorities), His suffering and death to His Father in obedient love. The essence of Christ’s sacrifice, however, was not this punishment,
suffering and/or death per se, but the offering up of His blood (i.e., His divine-human life) in eternity. In other words, Jesus Christ’s incarnation and entire life were what was offered to the Father. We, too, are offered to the Father and sanctified by being united to that divine-human life.

The Atonement is, at base, the Incarnation. Discussing the “atonement” is complicated by the fact that the word is used to translate two rather different concepts. On the one hand, it means “expiation,” as in “Day of Atonement,” and translates the Greek words related to “hilasterion” and the Hebrew “kipper” and derivatives. This is the sacrificial sense in which I used the word in the preceding post.

However, the word is also sometimes used to translate the Greek “katalage,” which means “reconciliation.” Pauline scholar Fr. Joseph Fitzmyer says about this meaning in his “Paul and his Theology”:

“This idea of reconciliation is the same as ‘atonement,’ when that word is understood rightly as at-one-ment. Unfortunately, atonement has often been misunderstood and confused with ‘expiation’ (e.g., by E. Kasemann, ‘Some Thoughts,’ 50) – and, worse still, with ‘propiation.’ Reconciliation/atonement has nothing to do per se with cult or sacrifice; it is an image derived from relationships within the social or political sphere.”

One must keep in mind that “atonement” is an English word that covers a number of Biblical concepts, and therefore doesn’t reproduce the Biblical distinctions with precision.

Nevertheless, even though, as Fr. Fitzmyer points out, reconciliation is not a sacrificial term, I think that sacrifice and reconciliation are closely related. Sacrifice enacts, manifests and perfects our reconciliation with God.



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