When I was a child, I was taught penal substitution when I was told about how I was saved and what I was saved from. When I first learned about other theories of atonement, the question that crossed my mind was which one is right? The temptation was to approach them in a way that showed how all but one of them was flawed.
When I look back at my childhood, I realize that even while people only talked with “salvation terms” about one of the theories, the others were pretty well accepted. When I graduated high school, one of my youth leaders gave me a copy of Sheldon’s In His Steps, which is the source of the phrase: “What would Jesus do.” WWJD is a very brief way of describing the moral influence theory. I also remember being encouraged to see the film version of “The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe”, because of the parallels between the lion Aslan and Jesus. In this story, the white witch holds Edmond, the traitor, and Aslan gives himself as a sacrifice to save Edmond from the white witch. What follows is a resurrection where the witch’s power is ultimately destroyed. The parallel that I saw was Ransom theory followed by Christus Victor.
The funny thing is that whenever the people who introduced me to these other theories talked about salvation, they talked in terms of penal substitution. My early theological education was one based on separating right answers from wrong answers — only one theory could be correct. Clearly, multiple theories rang true for them, but there was a strong desire to use salvation so narrowly that it only fit one theory. This caused me some confusion when I started studying more formally.
When I studied more formally, I started to read the Church fathers, and learned the Recapulation theory, which truly appealed to me. I had some conversations with some Orthodox Christian friends who were from a theological school that built this up into what they know as Theosis. It did not take me too long to realize that I appreciated Theosis, because it had many parallels with my strong Holiness background. My big challenge was that people divided “Salvation” from “Sactification.” Over time, and because of my Orthodox friends, I’ve started to accept that salvation is progressive: by God’s grace, I am being saved.
As I sat through another Holy Week, I started to think about how Jesus lived, died, and rose again for our salvation. One thing all these theories have in common is that they are tied to the work of Jesus Christ — whatever shape one’s personal salvation might take, it is Christ’s work. My experience is that salvation comes in many ways. I am a Christmas, Easter, Pentecost Christian.
Christmas and the life of Christ is extremely important to the Eastern Orthodox understanding of Theosis, and the Recapulation theory it developed from. Irenaeus writes that Jesus did not despise nor evade any period nor part of humanity, but lived it, modeled it, and sanctified it. In this, we see a combination of Moral Influence, and recapitulation. Jesus not only shows us how to live, but even by Jesus, being both God and Human, living as an infant, Jesus sanctifies infancy. By living a human life, Jesus changes what it means to live as a human life, being human is no longer incompatible with being holy.
The life and teachings of Christ are also the main focus of the Moral Influence theory. In this theory, we see that Jesus saves us, and by extension human societies by teaching us better ways to think and live. Not that long ago, this theory was shown through WWJD bracelets, but it has been demonstrated throughout Christianity by repeating those words that Jesus said and taught. The very idea that a government can be somewhat Christian is dependent upon the idea that that government has been changed by Christ’s moral influence — and, while Christian Rome is an imperfect example, one cannot deny that the nature of the Empire changed because of Christian influence.
Penal Substitution, Ransom, and Satisfaction are all Good Friday theories. In these theories, Jesus’ death is what saves us from our sins. Whether we need ransomed from Satan, or saved from the penalty of sin, the Crucifixion of Jesus saves us from the trouble we brought upon ourselves.
Christus Victor on the other hand is an Easter theory. In Christus Victor, Jesus is raised up after suffering death. Rome cannot keep Christ down, nor can anything that Satan throws at Jesus. We who live in an unjust world, waiting to die find salvation in that Christ is more powerful than the powers of any world. Christ defeats both an evil society and death itself for us.
I don’t think that there can be a unifying theory. Us humans are very good at destroying our lives and relationships. We are very good at getting ourselves in bigger messes than we can fix. Not everything an individual needs saved from is even the individual’s fault. We are messy and complex, our needs for salvation are complex. Jesus addresses more than one need, so when we look at theories of atonement, we see simple models that miss things that we need. We will understand best if we try to see how these models complement one another. If I propose a unifying theory, it might sound nice, but it will leave many questions unanswered.
Currently, my best ‘unifying theory’ looks forward to the Feast of the ascension. I believe that Christ has not abandoned us, but invites us to walk with Him. The exact ways that we are saved (or sanctified) are less important than that Christ saves us. I believe, ultimately, if we walk with Jesus, we might follow Jesus to the cross, but Jesus will take care of us. I believe that Christ leads us to the place prepared for us.