Ethiopian picture of the Crucifixion

Jesus died to take away our sins. What does that mean? If you are not used to it, it sounds odd. If you are, you may well have been introduced to a cruel and punitive God.

This is the first of four posts on the Atonement. The series is based on talks and discussions at St Brides Liverpool, and aims to give people the means to make their own judgements without tears. The Christian tradition has produced three main theories. This post introduces them. The next three focus on each in turn.

Jesus started a movement. But he didn’t just die. He died the most dishonourable death imaginable. Crucifixion, apart from being the most painful death anybody had yet devised, was reserved for the most despised, hated people. Most of the people crucified were rebel slaves.

By comparison John the Baptist had a pleasant death. His head was just chopped off. And his movement died with him.

But the Jesus movement survived. Why? Because his followers reinterpreted his crucifixion as a significant event in itself. In order to do this they used ideas that were around in their society at the time.


One was ransom. In those days if you got into deep debt, the ultimate solution was to sell your children into slavery. Later if you got enough money you could buy them back. That was ransom.

Mark’s gospel says:

‘The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many’ (Mark 10:45).

Similarly Paul’s epistles describe people being ‘slaves to sin’ and ‘sold to sin’, but then bought with a price, the blood of Christ (Romans 6:17,18; 7:14; 1 Corinthians 6:20; 7:23).

As the centuries went by these texts got classified as holy scripture. People read that they had been bought by Christ. Who from? They don’t say.


Another idea was substitute. In those days every society offered sacrifices to their gods. One of the reasons for sacrificing an animal was substitution. If someone committed a crime, and the community thought ‘Oh dear, the gods will be angry, they will punish us all’, they might make a public act of killing the criminal in order to pacify the god. But maybe the gods would be satisfied with an animal sacrifice instead of a human one, so animals would sometimes be sacrificed as a substitute. (Hint: sacrifices were usually the only times people ate meat.) So Paul says Jesus

was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification (Romans 4:25).
God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God (Romans 5:8-9).


Another idea was example. 200 years before the death of Jesus the Jews had rebelled against the emperor of the day. During the rebellion a lot of Jews were given exemplary punishments, death by torture. For the Jews, these people were heroes, martyrs dying for the cause.

The Second Book of Maccabees describes some of the tortures. There is a story of a mother and her seven sons all being tortured because they refused to eat pork. We get the last dying statement of all of them. All look forward to being rewarded after death. The mother says to her sons:

I do not know how you came into being in my womb. It was not I who gave you life and breath, nor I who set in order the elements within each of you. Therefore the Creator of the world, who shaped the beginning of humankind and devised the origin of all things, will in his mercy give life and breath back to you again, since you now forget yourselves for the sake of his laws (2 Maccabees 7:22-23).

So here we have the tradition of heroes who endured great suffering and sacrificed their lives for the salvation of their community, believing that God would eventually reward them. The followers of Jesus could describe his death in similar ways. According to the Epistle to the Hebrews:

It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings (Hebrews 2:10).

The First Epistle of Peter:

Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps… He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed (1 Peter 2:21-24).

In other words the early Christians used a variety of different images to present the death of Jesus as a significant act. Some of these writings got classified as holy scripture. Later Christianity became the official faith of the Roman Empire, and then imperial officials had to tell everyone exactly what to believe. So they tried to turn these images into an exact definition of what Jesus achieved.

The result was three different theories. Or at least, the different theories are usually classified this way. The ransom theory is that by dying Jesus somehow won a victory over the devil. The substitution theory is that Jesus gave his life to God as a substitute so that humanity does not have to endure the punishment we deserve for our sins. The example theory is that Jesus sacrificed his life for the sake of God’s kingdom, and thereby set an example for us to follow.

These three theories contradict each other, but the early Christians appealed to all three, apparently without noticing the contradictions. The patristics scholar Frances Young writes (‘Insight or Incoherence? The Greek Fathers on God and Evil’, Journal of Ecclesiastical History Vol 24, April 1973, p. 124):

Traditional patterns of thought were adopted without a real appreciation of the contradictions involved. God is love; God is angry. God is ultimately responsible for everything; the devil is responsible for evil. God sent his Son to overcome evil; God was placated by his Son’s sacrifice.

But she points out that the pagans of the time had the same problem, and anyway, she adds, ‘An entirely convincing solution continues to elude us’.