The Rejection of Pascal's Wager
Get the Book!

The Doctrine of the Atonement

The doctrine of the atonement, although it has never been fully formulated in any ecumenical council, is one of the basic tenets of Christian theology. Stated simply, the doctrine of the atonement teaches that Jesus' death on the cross somehow atones for the sins of humankind.

The origins of this teaching did not come from Jesus very probably lies with Paul. According to Paul, Adam's transgression in the garden of Eden somehow condemns man to death (Romans 5:14) and Jesus death would lift this curse from man. This doctrine was also present in the gospels. For example, Mark makes Jesus say that his life was to be given as a "ransom for many" (Mark 10:45). The gospel of John makes the Baptist call Jesus "the lamb of God" whose sacrifice will "take away the sins of the world" (John 1:29). [1] Yet this formulation, like all Christian dogmas, was not presented in any clear-cut and unambiguous fashion in the New Testament.

For the first thousand years of Christianity, it was the "classical" doctrine of atonement that was accepted as the correct interpretation of the New Testament passages. This doctrine was introduced around the year 200 by the church father, Origen (c185-c253). He taught that after The Fall (of Adam), Satan acquired the exclusive rights to man's souls and Jesus was paid as a ransom by God to acquire back man's souls. As Origen himself puts it:

It was the devil who had held us bondage: for to him was had been given over to our sins. Wherefore he demanded the blood of Christ as the price of our redemption. [2]

Further elaboration by the early church fathers such as St. Athanasius (c296-373), St. Ambrose (c339-397) and St. Augustine (354-430) finally brought the classical doctrine of the atonement into its final form.

In this form, the doctrine teaches that Satan gain control of the souls of all men and women because they have sinned. God then struck a bargain with Satan; the soul of Jesus for the souls of all humankind. Satan agreed, not knowing that Jesus was the Son of God. When the soul of Jesus was handed over to Satan, he could not hold on to it because it was divine. So Satan ended up empty handed. The classical doctrine shows God as a trickster who played a "sting" on Satan. [3]

Obviously a doctrine that showed the all-good God as a trickster, even if the victim was the abhorred Satan, could not have been too comfortable for Christians. And so in the eleventh century two new interpretations of the atonement were put forward. The first was by St. Anselm (1033-1109), the same person who introduced the Ontological Argument. In his book Cur Dues Homo (Latin for "Why did God become man?"), he propounded his new idea on the atonement. Man, said Anselm, owed complete obedience to God; in this sense all the good that man can do is already owed to God. Then, beginning with Adam, man transgressed God's laws and thus dishonored him. Now, asked the eleventh century divine, if man already owed all the good they can do to God from the very beginning, how are they then, to "satisfy" God for their transgression? He reasoned that God could not simply forgive man their sins, for then his honor and prestige would be suspect; so the debt must be repaid. The only way it can be repaid is through the atonement of a sinless man, a perfect being, who does not owe God anything from the beginning. Thus, said Anselm, God sent his Son, incarnate as a human being, to offer himself as the sacrifice of what is owed to him. Only then can the sins of men be forgiven and the honor and prestige of God be kept intact. [4] Thus, in a nutshell, is Anselm's interpretation of the doctrine of the atonement.

The second interpretation was presented by Peter Abelard (1079-1142) another medieval theologian. Abelard taught, in contrast to Anselm, that God wanted to forgive men for their transgressions. But forgiveness can only be given to someone who wants to be forgiven and man, in their depravity, did not want to be forgiven. So God sent his Son to die on the cross to show his love for man and to shame his subjects into repentance. For this effort, Abelard's teachings were condemned as heretical. [5] Christianity today adopts a doctrine of atonement that is essentially Anselm's. In a nutshell, Jesus suffered and died to atone for the sins of humankind, which originated with Adam. As the theologian William Hordern puts it:

Man has committed crimes for which he must be punished, but Jesus "took the rap" in man's place. [6]

It is the doctrine of the atonement that most Christians first teach would be proselytes. It is important therefore, that we examine this doctrine to see if it is a coherent one.

According to the atonement, humankind's fall from grace started with the "original sin" of Adam and Eve, the first human beings. Apart from the fact that we have conclusive proof (in the theory of evolution) that Adam and Eve are mythical creatures, the story of The Fall, as it is told in Genesis chapter two and three is, given the assumptions of the systematic theologians, inherently absurd and self-contradictory. This is strongly put forth by the eminent nineteenth century skeptic Charles Watt (1836-1906):

About six thousand years ago, an all wise and all powerful and beneficent God made man and woman, and placed them in a position surrounded by temptations it was impossible for them to withstand. For instance, he planted within them desires which, as God, he must have known would produce their downfall. He next caused a tree to bear fruit that was adapted to harmonize with the very desires which he had previously imparted to his children. God, all good, then created a serpent of the worst possible kind, in order that it might be successful in tempting Eve to partake the fruit. God commanded Adam and Eve not to eat of this fruit, under the penalty of death, knowing at the same time that they would eat of it, and that they would not die. The serpent is allowed to succeed in his plan of temptation, and then God curses the ground for yielding the tree which he himself has caused to grow; further the Almighty Being dooms both man and woman to lives of pain and sorrow, and assure them that their posterity shall feel the terrible effects of their having done what it was impossible, under the circumstances, for them to avoid. [7]

In other words, looking at the whole picture, taking everything into consideration, if there was anyone responsible for the sin of Adam and Eve, it was God. For he created the environment (the tree, the serpent) which he knew (being omnipotent) would cause the first human beings to transgress him.

There is a further problem with the doctrine of the atonement. If Jesus death was primarily a satisfaction for Adam and Eve's transgression, why did God, according to Biblical chronology, waited for four thousand years before sending his Son down to his sacrificial death? If it is true that no one can be saved except through believing in Jesus and the atoning scheme of God, then what happens to all the human beings who never had a chance to receive news of Jesus' atoning death because they lived before his time? To say that they will suffer damnation will simply make the four thousand year wait inexplicably cruel. To say that they were saved by anticipation, makes Jesus death unnecessary; since if some could be saved without it others could doubtless be as well.

And even after Jesus' atoning death, surely only a small portion of the human race initially heard of it. It took many generations before Christianity reached the many parts of the Roman Empire, let alone the world. The question is: what happened to those countless people who never had a chance to receive the "good news" of Jesus' death?

If the theologians answer that their ignorance of God's atoning scheme prevents their damnation, then won't it be cruel and futile to spread the good news to them? For once they are no longer in ignorance, they can no longer escape damnation is they reject the teaching. [a] Won't it be less cruel not to spread the "good news" and let them all escape damnation? For some Christians who reject this doctrine, I refer him to a saying of Jesus given in the gospel of Mark:

Mark 16:16
"He who believes and is baptized will be saved; he who does not believe will be condemned."

The conclusion is simple, the atonement makes no sense. If Jesus' death, and the acceptance of his death by believers, are necessary for salvation then it was unjust of the just God to allow 4000 years to pass, allowing countless people to be damned, before sending his Son down to earth. The fact that he was sent to only one small corner of the earth (he ignored the Eastern worlds such as the Chinese and the Indians), instead of sending the message simultaneously caused many people who could not have received the good news due to geographical separation to endure eternal damnation. Should any of these people be somehow saved, then Jesus' death becomes superfluous. [8]

Christian theologians also like to assert that the doctrine of the atonement manifest the divine spirit of forgiveness. However, the orthodox doctrine tells us that Jesus' death paid a debt owed by man to God. Now how is it that a debt that is already paid needs to be forgiven? [b] The problem boils down to this: if Jesus' death paid the debt then the account is settled, no forgiveness is needed but if we still need forgiveness, the whole scheme of the atonement is meaningless. [9]

Another problem with the doctrine of the atonement is in its moral content. Is it really just to make an innocent man suffer for the wrong doing of others? Would we not think of a judge who knowingly sentenced an innocent man for the crime of another? This judge would be universally condemned, and will definitely be removed from his post. But this is exactly what the doctrine gives God as doing. He "sentenced" Jesus to suffer for the transgression that originated from Adam and Eve. If we would condemn the hypothetical judge as immoral, what would we call such a God? [10]

Another illogical idea of the doctrine is that God angry with the transgressions of men and women, punishes himself, since Jesus is God, before he can forgive them. [11]

The doctrine of atonement is a nonsensical belief developed by a succession of overpious and none-too-bright fathers of the church.

Back to the top


a.This, in fact, was exactly the intention of some of the medieval Christian missionaries; i.e. to ensure the damnation of their enemies. One such example is the story of five Franciscan friars who was sent by St. Francis of Assisi (1182-1226) to preach the good news in Spain and northern Africa. They broke into the Muslim mosques in the midst of the Friday prayers and shouted abuse against Muhammad and Islam. They were arrested and subsequently executed, to the joy of St. Francis; for now his order has its own martyrs. In 1227, seven Franciscan, using the same method of preaching the good news, were arrested by the Muslim authorities. In their letters home, they revealed that their intention has been to ensure that the Muslims had heard the good news and rejected it, thus ensuring the damnation of the "infidels". [12]
b.When someone forgives you your debts, he is forfeiting his right to any payment from you. A debt that is already paid cannot be forgiven.


1.Livingstone, Dictionary of the Christian Church: p39
Stein, An Anthology of Atheism and Rationalism: p213
2.Quoted in Stein, An Anthology of Atheism and Rationalism: p213-214
3.Hordern, Guide to Protestant Theology: p25-26
4.Craveri, The Life of Jesus: p414
Hordern, Guide to Protestant Theology: p26-27
Livingstone, Dictionary of the Christian Church: p39, 138
5.Hordern, Guide to Protestant Theology: p27-28
Livingstone, Dictionary of the Christian Church: p2
6.Hordern, Guide to Protestant Theology: p27-28
7.Stein, An Anthology of Atheism and Rationalism: p214-215
8.Stein, An Anthology of Atheism and Rationalism: p216-217
9.Ibid: p215-216
10.Ibid: p218
11.Craveri, The Life of Jesus: p414
12.Armstrong, Holy War: p409-410

Back to the top

[Home] [The Central Thesis] [Christianity] [The Bible] [Jesus] [Paul] [God] [History] [Pascal's Wager] [Bibliography] [Links]
© Paul N. Tobin 2000

For comments and queries, e-mail Paul Tobin
Hosted by