The Atonement

It’s not what we don’t know, it’s what we know that isn’t so

“It ain’t so much what we know that gets us into trouble. It’s what we know that just ain’t so.”

~Mark Twain

 Almost every Christian is familiar with the doctrine of the Atonement. Humanity was separated from God because of sin and Jesus made atonement for our sins by his death on the cross, reconciling us to God. The idea of atonement is at the heart of the gospel and as such it is repeated in every evangelistic message, and every attempt to witness the message of Jesus Christ to the lost.

It may come as a surprise then that there are actually quite a few different theories of the Atonement. All orthodox theories of the atonement essentially agree that atonement was necessary and that it was accomplished by Jesus’ passion and death on the cross. The question may occur to you, if they all agree about those key issues, why does it matter that there are different theories? Well there are two broad reasons why it matters. First, each of these theories has something to say about how we understand God’s nature, the nature of sin, and the nature of redemption. This alone makes them important.

Secondly, God thought it important enough to put all this information about the atonement in the bible, therefore we should regard it as important enough to study, and discover what He is trying to reveal to us.

Another question that may occur to you is, isn’t the atonement clearly defined in scripture? If so why are there all these different theories about it? The answer to the first question is that while the scripture says a lot about the atonement, it never explicitly defines how the atonement worked. In answer to both questions, we often fall into the trap of wanting things to be simple. We forget that in the bible God is telling us truths that go beyond the ‘normal’ scope of human experience and understanding. It is often necessary to present multiple pictures of one truth in order to convey its fullness.

There is a well-known anecdote about several blind men who try to analyze and describe an elephant. One feels the trunk, one feels the leg, one feels the side, one feels the ear, one feels a tusk, and one feels the tail. Each of the men comes away thinking something entirely different about the elephant. The man who felt the tusk thinks elephants are hard, smooth, and pointy, while the man who felt the trunk thinks elephants are like big soft snakes, and so on. We are often like these blind men and their elephant when it comes to reading scripture.

We must get the whole picture, which means taking all of the different pictures presented and trying to understand how they fit together. Our situation is further complicated by the fact that we all have preconceived ideas that we use to understand scripture. As a result it is very easy to begin to interpret scripture based on what we already believe (eisegesis), rather than conforming our belief to what the scripture itself is actually intended to say (exegesis).

That we all have preconceived ideas is unavoidable. In fact the Bible itself assumes a certain framework of pre-conceived ideas. This is generally referred to as its ‘context’. The time in which you live, the culture, and of course the denomination you belong to, all form part of your context. The trick is that we have to understand the bible in its own context, not in ours. This requires first and foremost that we be aware of our own context and how it influences us.


As I stated, there are quite a few different theories of how the atonement worked. In this article I’m going to focus on five theories that I think are the most important and that cover most of the categories.