November 06, 2016

The Need for a Multi-Faceted Atonement Doctrine

Dr. Craig,

Thank you for your work in philosophy and apologetics. I’ve learned much from you. I’m glad to know that you are currently studying the doctrine of the atonement!

It seems to me that no single theory has yet been articulated which is sufficient to address all aspects of the atonement. For example, the Penal Substitution Theory (PST) seems necessary but not sufficient for a complete atonement theory. PST explains (1) Christ’s death in the place of sinful humans, and (2) the satisfaction of the demand for justice. But PST doesn’t sufficiently address the life, work, and teaching of Christ, nor does it sufficiently address the importance of sanctification as a part of atonement. Moreover, since PST holds that Christ bore the punishment we deserve for our sin, the punishment we would have suffered had Christ not volunteered in our place, PST seems to suggest that the justly deserved punishment for sin is not mere death; rather, it is death by crucifixion. The Moral Influence Theory (MIT) addresses the life, work, and teaching of Christ and is relevant to sanctification, but seems insufficient regarding (1) and (2) above. And so on.

With that said, here is my question. Why did Jesus die by crucifixion?

Explanatory attempts such as PST and the Governmental Theory provide accounts for Jesus’ atoning death, but they don’t seem to provide an adequate reason for crucifixion as the means of death. Crucifixion (preceded by scourging, beating, mocking, etc.) is one of the most brutal forms of death. Jesus could have died in other ways, many of which are less brutal.

Theories such as MIT, Christus Victor, and Recapitulation seem to provide explanatory resources to answer this question. These theories might be combined with PST to provide a more complete atonement theory. (Passages such as Colossians 2:14-15 seem to address both the substitutionary and the crucicentric/victorious aspect of Christ’s death.)

In your studies, have you considered the reason for crucifixion as the form of Christ’s death?


United States

Anyone who studies biblical teaching on the atonement is struck by the multiplicity of metaphors and motifs employed by the biblical authors to characterize the atonement: sacrificial offering, the suffering Servant of the Lord, justification, ransom, redemption, representation, and so on. There is no reason that our theory of the atonement should not reflect this diversity; on the contrary, a theory which tries to reduce the doctrine to just one of these motifs will necessarily omit important features of a full-orbed doctrine of the atonement.

The doctrine of the atonement has thus been aptly compared to a multi-faceted jewel. Aspects of the doctrine such as penal substitution or moral influence should not be thought of as complete, stand-alone atonement theories but rather as facets of a richer, multi-faceted theory. It is therefore no indictment of a particular facet of the atonement that it does not explain certain biblical data as well as do other facets, for the biblical data are to be explained by the whole theory, not by one aspect of it taken in isolation.

That being said, a beautifully cut gem does typically has a central face (called “the table” by gemologists) which dominates, and so it is with the doctrine of the atonement. I’m persuaded that a multi-faceted atonement theory, if it is to be adequate, must include penal substitution as its table, for penal substitution is foundational to so many other aspects of the atonement, such as redemption from sin, satisfaction of divine justice, and the moral influence of Christ’s example. Still, the feature serving as the table is not intended to explain everything.

Great atonement theorists like Anselm and Hugo Grotius clearly understood this fact. Although satisfaction is the table of Anselm’s theory, his comprehensive atonement theory incorporates major elements of the ransom theory, including God’s victory over Satan (Cur Deus homo I.23; II.19), as well as elements of what came to be known as the moral influence theory, including giving us an example of courageous suffering of torture and death (Cur Deus homo II. 11,18b). Similarly, though for Grotius the table of his theory is penal substitution, an important facet of his theory is God’s determining “to employ the tortures and death of Christ to set forth a weighty example” for us of the heinousness of sin and of His great love for mankind (Defense of the Catholic Faith IV).

Given penal substitution, the moral influence exercised by Christ’s example of suffering and death makes perfect sense. But taken in isolation from penal substitution, the moral influence theory becomes bizarre. In his classic work The Atonement, philosopher-theologian R. W. Dale mused, “If my brother made his way into a burning house to save my child from the flames, and were himself to perish in his heroic venture, his fate would be a wonderful proof of his affection for me and mine; but if there were no child in the house, and if I were told that he entered it and perished with no other object than to show his love for me, the explanation would be absolutely unintelligible.”[1] Christ’s death for our sins is the source of a moral influence upon humanity which helps to draw people to faith in Christ and to persevere in faith through trials and even martyrdom.

The moral influence of Jesus' suffering and crucifixion upon mankind is truly inestimable. Repeatedly represented figuratively in literature and graphically in art, the death of Christ has, even more than his teaching, more than his character, made Jesus of Nazareth an arresting and captivating person for hundreds of millions, if not billions, of people and has inspired countless people to bear with courage and faith terrible pain and even death. As a facet of a comprehensive, multi-faceted atonement theory which includes penal substitution as its table, the moral influence theory thus makes a valuable contribution to understanding how the benefits won by Christ’s death come to be appropriated by mankind.


[1] R. W. Dale, The Atonement, 9th ed. (London: Hodder &Stoughton, 1884), p. liv. Cf. James Denney, The Death of Christ: Its Place and Interpretation in the New Testament (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1907), p. 177.