How do we understand the atonement?

The statements that follow are the opinions of the well known atheist Richard Dawkins. Be aware, you could find them insulting and offensive. If you, like me, identify as a follower of Christ, let’s remember that we were also His enemy at one point in our life. And this man, however much we may disagree with him, is made in the image of God.

The Claim: The atonement reflects negatively on God.

The doctrine of atonement…is so deeply nasty that it deserves to be savagely ridiculed. God is supposed to be all-powerful…Yet we are asked to believe that the only way he could think of to persuade himself - himself - to forgive humans for their sins…was to have his son…tortured and crucified in the name of humanity.

Richard Dawkins, “Outgrowing God”, p.88-89, Kindle Ed.,


1: satisfaction or reparation for a wrong or injury; amends.

2: [In] theology the doctrine concerning the reconciliation of God and humankind, especially as accomplished through the life, suffering, and death of Christ.

3: Atonement is really three words: At-one-ment, meaning to set at one, one with God; to reconcile, to conciliate, to expiate.

Boyd K. Packer, “Atonement, Agency, Accountability,” Ensign, May 1988, p. 69

Atonement first appears in English in the 1510s, when it meant “the condition of being at one (with others).” About ten years later, the word shows up with a meaning that included “being at one with God

The replacement of the term “satisfaction” (q.v.), to designate, according to its nature, the work of Christ in saving sinners, by “atonement,” the term more usual at present, is somewhat unfortunate. “Satisfaction” is at once the more comprehensive, the more expressive, the less ambiguous, and the more exact term. The word “atonement” occurs but once in the English New Testament (Rom. v. 11, A. V., but not R. V.) and on this occasion it bears its archaic sense of “reconciliation,” and as such translates the Greek term katallagē. In the English Old Testament, however, it is found quite often as the stated rendering of the Hebrew terms kipper, kippurim, in the sense of “propitiation,” “expiation.” It is in this latter sense that it has become current, and has been applied to the work of Christ, which it accordingly describes as, in its essential nature, an expiatory offering, propitiating an offended Deity and reconciling Him with man.

Reprinted from “The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge,” edited by Samuel Macauley Jackson, D.D., LL.D., i. pp. 349-356 (copyright by Funk and Wagnalls Company, New York, 1908)

The doctrine of atonement - or satisfaction - is central to the Bible and the Christian faith. Without it, Christianity does not and cannot exist any more than a man could live if you cut out his heart.

There can certainly be issues that arise when thinking about the autonomy, love, kindness and justice of God with regards to the substitutionary death of Christ for the impunity of sinners. Let us examine one core issue as it relates to all of the above attributes.

All of us have heard about or read horrific stories of child abuse. There is never any justification for any single incident regardless of the details. Children being children and adults being monsters.

Is the suffering and death of Christ on the cross the worst act of child abuse ever perpetrated by a father against his child? No. It is not. How so?

  • A young child is not equal in strength or stature to his father
  • A young child is not an adult
  • A young child has no say so in the matter.

Jesus was Fully God

The Godhead decided in eternity past that the Incarnate Son was going to go to the cross for the sins of the world. Revelation 13:8 tells us that “The Lamb [was] slain from the foundation of the world.” The council of the Trinity acting in unity and agreement with one another. The heart and love of God on full display before mankind was even born.

Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.”

John 8.58

But of the Son He [God the Father] says, “Your throne, O God, is forever and ever, the scepter of uprightness is the scepter of Your Kingdom."

Hebrews 1.8

“…while we wait for the blessed hope and appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.”

Titus 2.13

Some have argued that this verse is referring to two persons: God the Father and His Son Jesus Christ, but such is not the case. The word “and” in the phrase “God and Savior” is the Greek word “kai" and it means “also, even, indeed”. It is saying that Jesus is both God and Savior. One and the same.

Jesus was Fully Man

The Son of Man knew His purpose was to “do the will of Him who sent me” (John 4.34, 6.38). And He fully agreed and obeyed. “Nevertheless, not My will, but Thy will be done” (Luke 22.42).

Jesus speaks of “My time has not yet come” in John 7.6, but then in John 13.1, He says that “his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father.” The exact timing of the cross in the adult life of Jesus was perfectly and completely under the jurisdiction of the Godhead.

And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him in a manger.

Luke 2.7

For unto us a child will be born for us, a son will be given to us, and the government will be upon His shoulders. He will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Isaiah 9.6

In the following article, Don Stewart, writing for Blue Letter Bible, list a multitude of verses pertaining to the humanity of Jesus Christ.

Jesus made a choice

The Incarnate Lamb of God was the willing sacrifice for God to pay for the sins of mankind.

I offered my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard; I did not hide my face from mocking and spitting. Because the Sovereign LORD helps me, I will not be disgraced. Therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know I will not be put to shame.

Isaiah 50.7

Flint is a very hard type of sedimentary rock. When struck against steel, a flint edge produces sparks to start a fire. Setting your face like flint implies that you’re expecting some opposition, to stand strong in the face of adversity. To set your face like flint means to regard these difficulties as worthwhile when you consider what they will lead you to.

He Set His Face Like Flint, Michael Gyarmathy

This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. (Matthew 26.28) No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my father.

John 10.18

Four Parts of the Atonement

This is an extremely important area in theology…They are all facets of one thing. None of these aspects of the atonement should be viewed exclusively apart from the others. They all work together. Systematic Theology ll, by Dr. Bruce Ware, Lecture 7: Aspects of Atonement - Part 2

  1. Sacrifice - it is the offering of God for God and by God to pay the penalty of the sin of man. “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1.29). The sacrifice requires blood be shed (Hebrews 9.22) because life is in the blood (Leviticus 17.11).

  2. Propitiation - “is the satisfaction or appeasement of God’s wrath against our sin by virtue of Christ’s payment in full for our sin.” (Dr. Bruce Ware)

  3. Substitute - “God must ‘satisfy himself’ responding to the realities of human rebellion in a way that is perfectly consonant with his character. The only way for God’s holy love to be satisfied is for his holiness to be directed in judgement upon his appointed substitute, in order that his love may be directed toward us in forgiveness. The substitute bears the penalty that we sinners may receive the pardon…divine self-satisfaction through divine self-substitution…The Biblical gospel of atonement is of God satisfying himself by substituting himself for us.” (John Stott, The Cross of Christ, pp. 157-159)

  4. Reconciliation - is the Greek word katallage and it “literally means an exchange and then a profit from exchange…[used] to describe the change from a state of enmity between persons to one of friendship…In the New Testament katallage refers to God’s reconciliation of the world to Himself through the work of Jesus Christ on the cross.” ( Reconciliation-Katallage)

We normally think of salvation as dealing with our problem [of] sin. It is true that salvation does deal with our problem of sin and guilt and death but salvation also more fundamentally has to deal with God’s problem. God’s problem is how do I forgive, justify, and accept sinners?

Dr. Bruce Ware

Monergism vs. Synergism: Two Opposing Viewpoints on Salvation


"Monergism is from the Greek mono meaning ‘one’ and erg defined as ‘work’” ( It is the belief that the Holy Spirit is the sole agent responsible for a person’s liberation from the “old man of sin” (Romans 6.6) through a new birth. This view holds that God alone affects salvation with no human influence or intervention whatsoever. Calvinist and Reformed Theologians would fall in this category.

The five points of Calvinism are: (TULIP)

  • Total depravity - permeation of sin to the core or center of our being and existence. “We are not sinners because we sin. We sin because we are sinners” (R.C. Sproul). It is not just something we do but who we are. ( “What is total depravity and is it biblical?”)

  • Unconditional (Sovereign) Election - God Himself electing to save the sinner. “If God allows [some] sinners to perish [and gives grace to other sinners] is He treating [some] unjustly? Of course not. One group receives grace the other receives justice. No one receives injustice.” (R.C. Sproul, Ligonier Ministries, TULIP and Reformed Theology: Unconditional Election) Verses to support this theological position are John 6.37, 10.26-27, 15.16, Romans 9.11, Ephesians 1.4-5.

  • Limited Atonement (Definite Redemption) - in reformed theology it is the idea that God’s eternal plan and design for redemption towards certain sinners has been exercised in a way that is congruent and in accordance with His perfect will. It is not meant to infer or imply that Christ Himself is unable or limited in his work or ability, but that He has redeemed those He has elected.

  • Irresistible (Effectual) Grace - “The Holy Spirit resurrects us from spiritual death, so that we come to Christ because we want to come to Christ…because God has already done a work of grace in our souls.” (R,.C. Sproul, Ligonier Ministries, TULIP and Reformed Theology: Irresistible Grace)

  • Perseverance of the Saints (Preservation of the Saints) - It is the power of Christ alone within the life of the believer that preserves them for His purposes and enables them to overcome. “The belief that God’s elect who believe in Jesus Christ are held secure by God’s power, despite temptation and sin.” (Matt Slick, What is the perseverance of the saints? )

At the bottom of the following website, links to the remaining 3 points of Calvinism are given.


“Synergism is from the Greek words syn or ‘together’ and erg meaning ‘to work’” ( It is the belief that men are coregents with God, or ’work together’ with him in affecting their salvation. Human effort cooperating with divine grace. Arminianists see compatibility between the sovereignty of God and the free will of man.

The five points of Arminianism are:

  • Partial Depravity - sin is not prevalent to the extent that it renders a person unable to place their faith in Christ. Due to prevenient grace (see below) and free will, we are still able to seek God. ( What is Arminianism, and is it Biblical?)

  • Conditional Election - Christ in His foreknowledge knows who will believe Him and who will reject Him. “Their election to salvation is ‘conditional’ upon their own decision to accept Jesus…Those who hold to this [theological belief] point to 1 Peter 1.1-2 and Romans 8.29-30 as key Scriptures.” ( Conditional election - What is it?)

  • Universal Atonement - Jesus died for every single person and not just the elect. Non-Reformed Theologians point to John 3.16 and 1 John 2.2 as support for this point of view.

  • Resistable (Prevenient) Grace - the exercise of a man’s free will allows him the choice to reject the grace of God. It is grace given to the sinner by God that precedes the act of saving faith. “[T]he efficacy of the enabling grace of God is determined not by God but by man.” ( What is prevenient grace?)

  • Conditional Salvation - once saved, a person has the ability to fall from the grace of God or lose their salvation. This doctrine tends to stress a reliance upon the effort put forth by the believer to remain within the grace of God. Those who adhere to this belief cite Matthew 24.11-13, I Corinthians 15.1-2, Galatians 6.7-9 and Philippians 2.12 to bolster this argument.

Seven Theories of the Atonement

Each of the following theories have been placed in one of three categories depending upon the way in which it espouses the nature of God, the sin of man, and the purposes and intent of the atonement.

The first (1) category stresses that the focus of the cross was to prove the love of God to sinners. The second (2) category sees the liberation of sinners from the hands of the evil one as its primary accomplishment, and the third (3) category views the death of Christ a necessary offering for the propitiation of man’s sin.

The Ransom Theory (Early Church Fathers)

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.

Paul P. Enns, The Moody Handbook of Theology, p. 312

The ransom theory of atonement does not line up with scripture. (2)

First of all, it makes Satan a benefactor in the atoning work. Second, it gives Satan too high a role in redemption. Ransom Theory of Atonement

The Recapitulation (‘to go over again’ or recreation) Theory - Irenaeus, 125-202 AD, advanced this theory based on Paul’s reference in Romans 5 to the first and second Adam.

[This view] sees the atonement of Christ as reversing the course of mankind from disobedience to obedience. It believes that Christ’s life recapitulated all the stages of human life and in doing so reversed the course of disobedience initiated by Adam.

Theopedia: Recapitulation Theory of Atonement

Jesus became what we are so that we could become what he is.

Athanasius, The Incarnation of the Word, Module 108:Athanasius

Opponents of this theory stress that recapitulation alone is not enough to atone for the sins of man as the penalty still had to be settled and that sacrifice required the approbation of God. (2)

The Satisfaction or Commercial Theory (Anselm AD 1033-1109) This medieval theologian from Canterbury believed that the sin of man robbed God of His honor and only the death of his son would restore it back. The problem with this theory is that it focuses on the honor of God, but not the necessity of His justice, it makes the cross of Christ a vicarious or secondary action, and “it bases redemption exclusively on the death of Christ, conceived as a material contribution to the honor of God, and excludes the active obedience of Christ as a contributing factor to his atoning work.” (Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, Kindle Locations 7787-7790, Kindle Edition) This theory is not to be confused with Penal Substitution Theory (see below). (1)

The Moral Example or Subjective Moral Influence Theory (Peter Abelard 1079-1142) This theory focuses on the motive of God for giving His Son. According to Aberlard the intention and motivation of God the Father in allowing His Son to suffer on the cross was to move the heart of man in such a way that mankind would respond in love and repentance which would then become the foundation for the forgiveness of sins. The problem with this theory is that it conjures up images of an impotent, hand-wringing God who is trying His best to sway or influence the wicked, sinful, and stony heart of man. It fails to truthfully address the justifiable anger of God toward the utter depravity of man. (1)

The Governmental Theory (Hugo Grotius 1583-1645)

In the Moral Government view of the atonement, God is not an offended party regarding individual sins, nor is a debt owed to him due to individual sins, nor is there and equating of sin with death; and there is no correlation between debt and sin. Instead, God is a moral governor who oversees proper moral truth and action; and he reconciles people to himself without paying their legal debt on the cross. The cross, then, is an example of the horror of sin and a demonstration of its effect upon mankind as well as an exhibition of God’s displeasure with sin.

CARM: Moral Government View of Atonement, Matt Slick

Similar to Example Theory, it seeks to move the heart of man through the horror and brutality of the cross. This theory is a clear distortion of scriptures’ depiction of God’s wrath, justice, love, and redemptive work on the cross. (1)

The Christus Victor or Dramatic Theory - Gustav Aulen’s (1879-1977) book by the same name is Latin for “Christ is the Conqueror” and on page 20 of his 1931 book Aulen states

The work of Christ is first and foremost a victory over the powers which hold mankind in bondage: sin, death and the devil.

This theory harkens back to the Ransom Theory with God liberating and redeeming mankind from the works of the devil, but unlike the Ransom theory this is perceived as more of a rescue mission for the purpose of liberation than an act of negotiation to retrieve sinners from the hands of the evil one. No attempt is made within this theory to address the righteousness and justice of God. (2)

The Penal Substitution Theory - (developed by 16th century reformers as an extension of Anselm’s Satisfaction Theory)

…God remits our sins and accepts our persons into favour not because of any amends we have attempted, but because the penalty which was our due was diverted on to Christ. The notion which the phrase ‘penal substitution’ expresses is that Jesus Christ our Lord, moved by a love that was determined to do everything necessary to save us, endured and exhausted the destructive divine judgment for which we were otherwise inescapably destined, and so won us forgiveness, adoption and glory. To affirm penal substitution is to say that believers are in debt to Christ specifically for this, and that this is the mainspring of all their joy, peace and praise both now and for eternity.

Verses to support this position are found in Hebrews 9.14 and Revelation 5.9. (3)

Several other theories on the atonement exist. These appear to be the most prevalent.

The cross was no mere “accident,” as though it made no difference what form His death took. Fundamental reasons rendered it expedient and necessary that the Surety should die a death that was accursed of God; hence, the frequent reference in the New Testament to the “cross” and the “tree” ( cf . Joh 12:32-33). At Calvary, God’s terrible curse on sin was publicly displayed, of which the cross was not the cause but the symbol ( cf . Joh 3:14). Under the Mosaic Law (to which the Apostle refers in Galatians 3:13), hanging on a tree was a death reserved for great criminals. Hence, the force of the word tree in 1 Peter 2:24. Christ hanging upon the tree was the public testimony to God’s curse on Him. “The cause of the curse was not the hanging on the tree, but the sin with which He was charged. That mode of punishment exhibited that He was the object of God’s holy displeasure, not indeed because He was suspended on the tree, but because He was the sin-bearer. The punishment of the offenses for which that ignominious [marked by shame or disgrace] penalty was allotted was then inflicted.Divine wisdom appointed that He Who bore the sin of the world should be exposed as a curse, for the divine displeasure was there most awfully displayed.

George Smeaton, 1814-1889, “The Doctrine of Atonement as Taught by the Apostles”, Carlisle, Penn : The Banner of Truth Trust, 1991, 14

As to why this means and method of death was selected by God out of all others possible—poisoning, stoning, beheading, etc.—Genesis 3 supplies the answer: “As the fatal sin which diffused the curse over the human race was connected with the forbidden ‘tree,’ God wisely ordered that the last Adam should expiate sin by being suspended on a tree; and He appointed in the Law (Deu 21:22-23) such a symbol of the curse as reminded all men of the origin of the divine curse on the world. He would not have the curse removed in any other way.

George Smeaton, 1814-1889, “The Doctrine of Atonement as Taught by the Apostles”, Carlisle, Penn : The Banner of Truth Trust, 1991, 15

Is the act of atonement really the core issue at hand or is it instead the answer of indictment that follows the question as to why it was necessary to begin with?

In addressing the claim of Dawkins that the “doctrine of atonement…is…deeply nasty”, I beg to differ. The only “deeply nasty” component to the whole thing is me and my innate sinfulness, stubborn rebellion and congenital wickedness. The plight of us all. The very reason why Christ suffered to appease the justifiable wrath of God.

On that cross, not only do we see the exchange of our decadence for His righteousness, but only in Christ could the outpouring of God’s wrath upon Him result in overflowing love upon sinners like you and like me.

It is the reason that we, as believers, can walk in the freedom of forgiveness each and every day. The reason there is hope for our future and in the midst of sorrow. The reason for our rejoicing and glory. The reason His invitation still stands today-

“Come now, let us settle the matter,” says the LORD. “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.”

Isaiah 1.18

“I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades. Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent. Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.”

Revelation 1.18, 3.19-20

“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 them up at the last day.”

John 6.40

Jesus said…"I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me will live, even though they die; and those who live and believe in me will never die.

Do you believe this?"

John 11.25-26