Critical assessment of the Satisfaction-Theory as a contemporary philosophical understanding of the Christian doctrine of the Atonement.


The atonement is central to Christian theology. Recently, there has been a noticeable surge in intellectual output, with a mass of philosophers articulating various theories of the atonement. [1] Much of their contribution has been exclusively concerned with what might be called “Abelard’s constraint”, viz. to develop a model that is intelligible, non-arbitrary, consistent and morally acceptable. While this is desirable, the theory must also be aligned and constrained by the depiction of the atonement and salvation in Scripture, in order to be qualified as a true Christian understanding. This test will also form the basis upon which this essay will seek to critically assess contemporary philosophical theories of the Doctrine of the Atonement.

If one is true to the known history, and is faithful towards one’s own heart, it would not be possible to dismiss the profound and resonating words of Luther who cried out in urgency: “How can I get rid of my sin, and so get right with him who is of purer eyes than to behold iniquity?” [2] This question is extraordinarily broad and as old as humanity. The literary world bears witness to this need for reconciliation and mending of tragic dissonance in the human condition. Oedipus and King Lear dwelt under its shade, and it also became the essence of the writings of Aeschylus, Dante and Goethe. Similarly, it has been a prominent theme in theological consensus from the earliest days of Christian thought and the Bible. If this theme were taken out of Scripture, there would be little left but worthless fragments.

We find that there is an apparent assumption of a grim and inevitable reality of sin within most of existing religions, which all speaks the same language of atonement in seeking judgment and mercy. Relationship with God is the very longing of man’s being, but this is impossible without reconciliation to God. Here the word ‘Atonement’ —literally meaning the state of being “at one”— translates the Greek katallagê, which also means “reconciliation”. [3] Atonement means, therefore, the creation of the conditions whereby God and man come together.

However, the crux of the problem is this: Who is to create those conditions? Is it something Man can achieve by himself? Ethically speaking, Man ought to. But can he? The Christian doctrine gives a clear and straight-forward response that he cannot. Christian doctrine takes its stand at the cross and from there looks out on man’s unending and futile attempt to fulfill the conditions of reconciliation. [4] The Christian claim is that, apart from Christ’s sacrifice beyond obligation (Rom 3:25-hilasterion), man would have remained estranged on account of human sin.

One must differentiate, however, between the doctrine and theories of the Atonement. Where the doctrine simply states that the sacrifice of Christ effects reconciliation between God and humanity, theories of the Atonement try to explain how it has such an effect. [5] Various theories have been presented based on the conceptualization of sin broadly in three ways: Ontologically (Sin being a feature or element of human nature), Deontically (Sin being the failure to fulfill our moral obligations to God), and Relationally (Sin resulting in a broken and alienated relationship). Though these theories are substantively different, they are not mutually exclusive. Out of the three, the dominant approach in contemporary philosophical theology tends to be deontological. It includes penal, satisfaction, merit and sacrificial models, which postulate the atonement in the light of the issue of moral debt.

In what follows, I shall discuss the Satisfaction Theory and its two versions (I have firstly discussed the Anselm’s theory in order to examine how the contemporary theories are drawn out of it and still hold its relevance in the current debates on the atonement.): St. Anselm’s debt-cancellation theory, and Richard Swinburne’s penitential substitution theory, each distinguished on the basis of their claims about the sort of help the redemptive work of Christ has provided. I shall also engage with possible objections to this theory and attempt to put forward arguments in countering the same.

According to the Satisfaction Theory, first proposed by Anselm of Canterbury (1033 to 1109 CE), there is an unbridgeable gulf of sin between God and humanity. [6] It has derailed us from the state of eternal blessedness and has made us debtors to God. Being our maker and sustainer, God deserves our submission and obedience, whereas, being sinners, we deserve to be punished for affronting God by not giving Him what is due. Anselm points out that:

For as one who imperils another’s safety does not enough by merely restoring his safety, without making some compensation for the anguish incurred; so he who violates another’s honor does not enough by merely rendering honor again, but must, according to the extent of the injury done, make restoration in some way satisfactory to the person whom he has dishonored. [7]

By failing to give God what we owe Him, we dishonor Him and commit grave offence. Anselm argues that, if God allows us to get away with our wrong-doings, then, He would thus tolerate what is most intolerable, and leave both the sinners and the sinless on the same scale. In Anselm’s view, not only is it just for God to punish us, but also it is equally unfitting for Him not to punish us. It is impossible for us to give God the perfect life that we owe Him. Consequently, we find ourselves stuck in a debtors’ prison for the remainder of our existence. Anselm contends that it would take a “God-man”, who possesses both the ability (as Divine) and obligation (as a human being), to pay the required satisfaction. [8]

The emphasis of Anselm’s theory falls completely upon the righteousness of God. He points out that God redeems humanity in a manner that is totally consistent with His divine character. [9] Christ being sinless is seen in a different position before God. Though Jesus is the only one qualified to give God what is owed by humanity, He does not deserve any punishment. And yet, He submits himself unto death in obedience to God. In doing this, He gave God more than He owed, and so, on Anselm’s view, Christ puts God in the position of owing Him something. Just as it would be immoral for God not to punish us, it would also be immoral for God not to reward Jesus. In this connection, Anselm questions, —Is there a reward fitting for the God incarnate? None, of course. But he further argues that the reward can be transferred under a given condition, and this is exactly what Jesus does for humanity.

Based on the above discussion, Anselm’s version of the Satisfaction Theory seems a little problematic. The principal concern pertains to the grounds for it being necessary that God receive either full satisfaction for human sins, or else deliver full punishment in order to justly forgive. [10] If we assume that sin is similar to not paying a debt, then it seems God is entitled to collect those debts. But it also appears consistent with divine justice for God to give up his right to punish and freely forgive. Anselm does not explain why this merciful option is unavailable to God, and why the incarnation itself is not sufficiently supererogatory to merit the debt-cancelling reward. Some have argued that this entails that God does not forgive sin at all. [11]

Richard Swinburne deals with this challenge by introducing a slight modification. For if it is not necessary that God receive full satisfaction, but only good that He receive some satisfaction, then some sense could be given to the idea that God mercifully accepts the crucifixion as a sufficient payment for the debt of sin. Swinburne provides just such an account of the atonement by including a substitutionary element, and in so doing goes some way towards enriching the Satisfaction Theory. [12]

Drawing instance from a human context, Swinburne points out that, the atonement involves four components (or steps [13]): repentance, apology, reparation and penance. [14] He appeals to common moral intuitions in the case of intentional and unintentional wrongdoings, and contends that the wrongdoers owe their victims a certain kind of response. In case of unintentional offence, the wrongdoers owe the offended at least an apology and if possible reparation. When apologizing, we openly distance ourselves from the act by genuinely disowning our wrongdoings to others; in reparation, we seek to remove the consequences of the harm as much as is logically possible. [15]

However, in case the wrongdoing is deliberate, and we had a malicious intent, then we owe the offended even more than apology and reparation. We need to firstly repent, that is, privately acknowledge the wrongness of our act and resolve not to repeat it. Secondly, we must perform penance, which is, going beyond reparation, demonstrating our sincerity, by giving costly gifts. [16]

According to Swinburne, the same four components are involved in our reconciliation with God. We can apologize and repent for our wrongdoings, but we cannot offer enough reparation and penance for the wrong done against God. Our very best efforts would not bring us back to a life of perfect obedience, which we ultimately owe God. There is nothing we can give to compensate God for His loss, and there is no added gift we can give to do penance.

God needed to react to human sin. There is more than one way in which He could do this; but one way in which He could react is by providing atonement for that sin. [17] Hence, God sent Christ to earth so that He might willingly sacrifice His own sinless life to offer substantive restitution and penance for the sin of the world. [18] What is required of us is that we must recognize our helplessness, and apologize and repent on our own for our wrongdoings. In so doing, we can offer the sacrifice of Christ up to God on our own behalf as reparation and penance.

Nevertheless, it seems that Swinburne captures a relevant aspect of the atonement process, viz. that, we owe to God righteous lives, and that Christ’s active obedience serves as a satisfaction for our debt. But such an atonement scheme fails to make sense of Christ’s passive obedience, revealed intrinsically through His voluntary death. [19] Moreover, the substitution theory faces the challenge of justifying how it could be possible to allow a substitute to bear someone else’s punishment. As Lewis notes, we do allow for substitution in certain cases, but the idea of allowing a substitute to bear someone else’s death sentence seems to be morally revolting. [20] On this score, Swinburne’s theory of penitential substitution seems somewhat assertive; but one problem with his view is that it is hard, really, to see what it would mean to offer up another person’s life and death as one’s own reparation and penance.

In defense of the substitution model, Porter argues that, our moral intuitions generally incline us to view the punishment of a substitute as a bad thing, and that some case need to be made for its permissibility. [21] Even though the good reasons (such as reform of the wrongdoer, deterrence, etc.) for punishing human sinners are not undercut, the reasons for allowing Christ to bear the punishment on behalf of the sinners outweigh them. Porter claims that the good that come from God’s punishment of sin, such as reparation, objective correction to distorted human values, and moral reform justify the punishment being meted out.

He argues that as long as the offender, offended, and substitute are willing participants, the good of punishing can be secured through the punishment of the substitute. I agree with Porter as he lays down three reasons to demonstrate why these ends are more fittingly served through the suffering of Christ. First, by allowing a severe form of punishment on Christ, God shows that He is serious about our relationship with Him and the process of reconciliation; second, if we were to bear the punishment directly, it might further serve to distance us from God. Finally, exacting the more severe punishment on God himself serves the expressive function of displaying the perversion and gravity of sin.


This essay attempted to explore the central aspect of the Christian doctrine of the atonement, demonstrating both the richness and the variety of Christian thinking on the subject. It laid down two versions of the Satisfaction Theory, and attempted to analyze the arguments raised for and against it. To conclude, I wish to say that while there is an array of diverse views, what is indispensable for Christian faith is the fact of the atonement. The Doctrine of the Atonement demonstrates the moral glory of God and the central fact of His way with man.

[1] In the contemporary theology, the term ‘soteriology’ (from the Greek soteria, ‘Salvation’) is increasingly used in its place. (Alister McGrath Christian Theology: An Introduction Oxford: Blackwell, 1994p.341).

[2] J. S. Whale Christian Doctrine (London: Collins, 1958), p.71.

[3] “Atonement,”, at:

[4] J. S. Whale (1958), p.72.

[5] Michael C. Rea (ed). Oxford Readers in Philosophical Theology, Vol.1 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), p.14.

[6] ‘to sin is nothing else than not to render to God his due’ Anselm in Cur Deus Homo? at, accessed on 21/05/2011.

[7] Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109): Medieval Sourcebook Cur Deus Homo? (i.e., Why God Became Man) at, accessed on 22/05/2011.

[8] Anselm uses this line of reasoning to explain why God had to become incarnate. On Anselm’s theory of the atonement, please see, David Brown, “Anselm on Atonement” in Brian Davies and Brian Leftow (eds.), The Cambridge Companion to Anselm (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), pp.279-302.

[9] Cast in the form of a dialogue with his friend Boso, the theme of humanity’s redemption is progressively sustained in Anselm’s Cur Deus homo? (“Why God became Man”- circa 1098 CE.) Ref. Alister McGrath (1994), p.350.

[10] Steven L. Porter “Rethinking the Logic of Penal Substitution” at, accessed on 22/05/2011.

[11] Eleonore Stump “Atonement According to Aquinas” in Philosophy and the Christian Faith, T.V. Morris (ed.), (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988), pp.61-65.

[12] Richard Swinburne, Responsibility and Atonement (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989). For further treatment see Philip L. Quinn, “Swinburne on Guilt, Atonement, and Christian Redemption,” in Alan G. Padgett, ed., Reason and the Christian Religion (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994), pp.277-300.

[13] Richard Swinburne (1989), p.149

[14] Richard Swinburne Was Jesus God (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), p.54.

[15] Richard Swinburne (1989), p.80-84

[16] Richard Swinburne (1989), p.80-84

[17] Richard Swinburne (2008), p.53.

[18] Richard Swinburne, (1989) agrees that we have a propensity towards sin, but he (erroneously) denies that “the proneness was caused by the sin of the first sinner,” p.143

[19] Steven L. Porter “Swinburnian Atonement and the Doctrine of Penal Substitution” in Rea, Michael C. (ed). Oxford Readings in Philosophical Theology: Volume 1. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009, p.320.

[20] David Lewis “Do We Believe in Penal Substitution?” in Rea, Michael C. (ed). Oxford Readings in Philosophical Theology: Volume 1. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), pp.310-311.

[21] Steven Porter, 2001, “Substitution Reconsidered,” in Philosophy of Religion: A Contemporary Reader, W.L. Craig (ed.), (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2002).