From Hell to Wholeness: A Brief History of Atonement

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When I was a seminary student, we learned about two very important ideas in translating foreign languages—gloss and semantic range. A gloss is an attempt to find the most literal definition for a word. A semantic range is the variety of meanings a word could have. For instance, if I say word. I can be talking about a sound or set of symbols that conveys a particular meaning. But if I show you a picture of Justin Timberlake saying, “word” during his days with N’Sync, the meaning takes on a particular time, place, and cultural understanding. Both are glosses for ‘word’ but depending on the context one or the other is a more accurate way of saying what is intended. 

The word that most fascinated me (and incidentally, led me to a major shift in my spiritual journey) was the Greek word sozo. Sozo, like most words, has a range of meanings:

  • To preserve or rescue from natural dangers (save from death, bring out safely, keep, preserve, thrive, prosper, get on well)[1]
  • To save or preserve from transcendent danger (eternal death, be ‘saved’)[2]
  • Healing[3]
  • Making whole[4]
  • To restore[5]
  • To recreate[6]

After finding the last four definitions in a copy of a resource called The Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains (or just Louw and Nida after the authors), I found myself on a journey of discovery to find out what the true meaning of salvation was in the bible. The definition that resonated most with me was salvation is restoring us to a right relationship with God which leads us to healing or being made whole. But what made it a right relationship and how does healing and wholeness look beyond theory? I wasn’t sure so I went looking through history. How did the church over the past two millennia define this idea of right relationship or as some have come to see it, salvation? 

With that in mind, I would like to look at some major theories of salvation and where they came from.[7]

The Ransom Theory — Jesus offered himself as a ransom for us. This theory was developed by several of the early church fathers. While it isn’t explicitly stated, many early church fathers believed it was to Satan.

The Recapitulation Theory — This theory sees Christ as the new Adam, who undoes the damage Adam did. The idea originates with Irenaeus during the second century. He sees Adam was disobedient concerning the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge; Christ was obedient even to death on the wood of a tree. Irenaeus makes a similar connection between Eve and Mary, contrasting the faithlessness of Eve with the faithfulness of Mary. Not only does Jesus reverse the wrongs done by Adam, but Irenaeus also sees the work of Christ as “recapitulating” or “summing up” human life.

The Satisfaction Theory — This theory comes to us from the medieval theologian Anselm of Canterbury. In his book, Cur Deus Homo (lit. Why the God Man). Using language derived from the justice system of his time, Anselm sees that God’s offended honor and dignity could only be satisfied by the sacrifice of one fully God and fully human, that is Jesus Christ. Anselm offered a biblical defense of the atonement not a ransom paid by God to the devil but rather a debt Jesus paid to God on behalf of sinners. Anselm’s work was the forerunner of the future Protestant concept justification by faith.

The Penal-Substitution Theory — This theory was an evolution of Anselm’s Satisfaction theory developed by 16th century Reformers. They saw Anselm’s theory as correct in introducing the satisfaction as a necessary part of Christ’s work but saw it as insufficient because the focus was God’s honor rather than his justice and holiness and was expressed in terms of a commercial transaction than a penal substitution. The Penal-Substitution Theory says that Christ died for humanity, in humanity’s place, taking their sins and bearing them for him. Bearing humankind’s sins takes the punishment for humanity and frees the believer from the legal demands of the law. This substitution of Jesus for us satisfies the righteousness of the law and the holiness of God. Among the modern evangelical, this is the most common expression of what salvation is.

The Moral-Example Theory / Moral-Influence Theory — This theory was developed by Peter Abelard in the 11th/12thcentury. Abelard believed Christ died to influence mankind toward moral improvement. The theory denies Christ died to satisfy any principle of divine justice but rather sees His death was designed to greatly impress humankind with a sense of God’s love. The result of seeing the actions of Jesus would be a softening of humanity’s hearts and leading them to change the direction of their lives. In this case, the Atonement is not directed towards God with to maintain God’s justice, but towards humanity with the purpose of persuading them to right living. This view was formed partially in reaction against Anselm’s Satisfaction theory and was held by the 16th century Socinians. Modern versions of it can be found later in F. D. E. Schleiermacher and Horace Bushnell.

The Governmental Theory — This view was articulated by Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) and is found in Arminianism, the works of Charles Finney, the New England Theology of Jonathan Edwards (the younger), and some expressions of Methodism. This theory says God made Christ an example of suffering to show wayward man that sin is offensive to him. God’s moral government of the world made it necessary for him to display his wrath against human brokenness in Christ. Christ died as a symbol of God’s discontent toward sin, and it was accepted by God as sufficient; but actually God does not exact strict justice. 

What I found in all this was two thousand years of theological disagreement (no surprise) all tied to ideas popularized by culture, time, and place. There is no dogma (official church teaching) on which theory of atonement is ‘right’. Various denominations offer their versions, but no official teaching such as a Nicene or Chalcedonian Creed exists for salvation. At various times in church history certain ideas were more popular and some theories that claim to be ‘the theory’ are relatively new. All, like all theology, are culturally situated and taken from a specific time, place, and location. 

With that, I would propose seeing salvation from the language of our own time and place. I would offer what I call the Wholeness Theory. There may be something like this out there already (most likely), but this is my own spin on it. We are born into a world damaged by the brokenness of all those who came before us. That brokenness becomes our brokenness as we begin to experience it firsthand in our realization of our own existence. Jesus, imbued with the Holy Spirit, came to teach us how the world and everyone in it is broken and how we might be led to overcome the brokenness within us and within the world. The Holy Spirit of God, which is in all of creation, speaks to each of us to reveal our brokenness, sometimes directly, sometimes by guiding others to help. When we realize our brokenness and our need to change. As we are led by and open to the Holy Spirit, we begin to heal from our brokenness and move toward a state of wholeness. As the story of Jesus demonstrated wholeness through the Holy Spirit with his life, ministry, death, and resurrection, we understand our own story as one of brokenness leading to healing leading to wholeness. 

This version takes some pieces from the Recapitulation, Moral Example, and Governmental theories (with some additions) and uses a modern vernacular to express the ideas. I have set aside the other theories listed simply because I think they miss the human/theological intent and get caught up in symbolic language and cultural milieu. I think the concept of hell (a literary invention foisted on a misunderstood biblical word) is so inextricably linked to the ransom, satisfaction, and penal substitution ideas that they have missed the greater point of reconciliation for the sake of controlling (and coffers). I think quite frequently, Christianity has a habit of using its own coded language to hide behind things they would rather not delve into too deeply and frankly, I think that’s a shame. We have a beautiful message to proclaim but so many will never hear it because they can’t get past the theological language barriers. 

This idea/theory may sound familiar to some and completely foreign to others. My intent is not to create something that has never been but to understand and give voice to something I believe has existed from the beginning. I’m sure wiser people than myself have thoughts and ideas on this and for all I know, this has been expressed somewhere else. If so, apologies to the original writer. If not (and I doubt that), feel free to join the conversation. 

[1] Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, ed. Frederick W. Danker, 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), p.982

[2] ibid

[3] Louw, J. P., and Eugene A. Nida. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains. New York, NY, USA: United Bible Societies, 1988, p. 242

[4] ibid

[5] ibid

[6] ibid

[7] These very short definitions for the various theories of atonement are taken from the website Theopedia, (, though they are readily found in most academic texts on Christian history.