Is the Cross a Satisfaction? Part 4: Theology

Posted: August 25, 2015 by J in Bible, Theology

Good-Friday-Cross-JesusWe uncovered some pretty serious objections to Satisfaction Theory from the point of view of salvation history. Now let’s think about how it runs in terms of theology more generally. What contribution does ST make to our understanding of God and of ourselves?

ST captures the Scripture emphases that sin is costly and that God’s wrath is serious. It helps us to see that the Cross was necessary. We needed what Jesus did. Without it there would be no salvation. ST foregrounds these realities. This is good. But there are theological drawbacks too:

1. ST casts God’s justice in a negative light.

“God says you…need to be rescued from his judgement”. This quote from a NSW Anglican School Scripture teaching resource was recently used by atheists in a campaign to shut down Scripture. At least they quoted us accurately. For this statement typifies evangelical evangelism, where I come from. It comes straight out of Satisfaction Theory. God’s judgement, according to ST, is the obstacle to our salvation. God’s justice is the problem. Our only hope is to escape it. Sure, we are to blame for our predicament: we sinned and so we deserve it. But now, no matter what we do now, the judgement is irreversible and implacable. Unless someone can rescue us from it, we are lost.

This of course is to cast God’s judgement in a very negative light. It is the raging monster that has been let out of its cage, and won’t go back in. It is the machine that has been started and now no one knows how to switch it off. Pandora’s box which, once opened, cannot be closed again.

The trouble is, in Scripture God’s judgement (the same idea as his justice) is a good thing. It is the solution, not the problem. Justice is what God’s oppressed people long for:

The LORD works vindication

and justice for all who are oppressed.       Psalm 103:6

His justice is what his people love about Yahweh: they boast of it with joy:

Let Mount Zion be glad,

let the towns of Judah rejoice

because of your judgments.  Psalm 48:11

When Messiah comes he will establish God’s justice:

Here is my servant, whom I uphold,

my chosen, in whom my soul delights;

I have put my spirit upon him;

he will bring forth justice to the nations. 

…he will faithfully bring forth justice

He will not grow faint or be crushed

until he has established justice in the earth;

and the coastlands wait for his teaching.      Isaiah 42

This justice/judgement is very much like salvation, the way the prophets see it:

your judgements are like the great deep;

you save humans and animals alike, O LORD.    Psalm 36:6

But Satisfaction Theory, of course, cannot accept this view of things. God’s judgement/justice must be cast in the role of ‘problem’, otherwise no satisfaction is needed, and ST doesn’t work at all.

ST, then hedges us in to a view of God’s justice which is a far cry from what we find in Scripture. Instead of teaching us to embrace God’s justice, ST warns us to escape it. It perverts this central soteriological idea and in doing so distorts the whole shape of salvation.

2. ST tends to make God’s will subordinate to a higher power.  God is placed under a necessity, either by the demands of honour or by the demands of justice or wrath. He cannot do what he would like (be reconciled to us) until he has fulfilled the requirements of this standard. We say “Not even God can deny the demands of justice.” Anselm said “Not even God can deny the demands of honour.” Why not? Because it would not be fitting. One can imagine God throwing up his hands and saying, ‘What can I do? I can’t go against justice. I’ll have to punish you, I have no choice.’

In this view the standard is absolutised, so that it becomes more absolute than God himself. It is a rigid governing authority which cannot be resisted, not even by God.

Now it doesn’t matter whether you locate the standard inside or outside of God himself: either way we are setting up an immovable obstacle in the path of God’s will, which he must negotiate before he can proceed with his purposes.

The problem with this story is that the God it describes is not free in his own actions. He cannot carry out his will freely. He must submit to the demands of the higher power. That power, whether we call it justice or wrath or honour – that power is then the real god, the highest authority lying behind God’s authority. And it subjects Him to necessity.

This may not sound so bad to you. But any theologian will tell you that necessity is not compatible with the Christian view of God. For in Scripture, God’s freedom is absolutely essential to his identity: “I am who I am!” By now we have arrived at a serious distortion of the faith. But this perversion of an unfree God is buried inside the satisfaction concept.

3. ST doesn’t leave much room for the resurrection

Satisfaction Theory is in effect an explanation of what happened in Jesus’ crucifixion. It’s about punishment, suffering, the exacting of a penalty. But it is not at all clear what ST has to say about Jesus’ resurrection. For once Jesus has died, satisfaction is complete. There is no more to be done.

Jesus’ resurrection then becomes a kind of add-on, a bonus if you like, but not integral or essential to the story. Resurrection doesn’t really have anything to do with satisfaction of justice, does it? In fact Jesus doesn’t need to be alive any more for the theory to function. Once satisfaction has been rendered by a sacrifice, it doesn’t matter what happens to the victim. We don’t need a continuing living Saviour: it’s all been done already. ST pretty much leaves Jesus on the cross.

So ST gives us a fat doctrine of the cross and a very slender doctrine of the resurrection or of Jesus’ resurrection life now.

To put it another way, there’s not much of a role for the Spirit in Satisfaction Theory. The atonement becomes basically a transaction between Father and Son – not a trinitarian event. For what part does the Spirit play in Jesus’ death? Not much. The Spirit comes in in the resurrection – but we’ve seen that ST doesn’t have much to say about that. So the Spirit gets pretty-much left out of the atonement.

I think if I were going to buy into a theory of the atonement, I’d want it to be one that included the resurrection, and the Trinity – wouldn’t you?



The Satisfaction Theory of the atonement does a certain amount of work for us, but it comes at a considerable cost, theologically speaking. For my money, its decentring of the resurrection and its distorting effect on God’s freedom and justice in salvation, disqualify it as a truly Christian doctrine. The price is too high to pay, if we can possibly avoid it.

And I’m pretty sure we can avoid it. I reckon there are other ways of talking about the atonement that do the same good job as ST without the drawbacks.

  1. riveting stuff, thanks for your work! I found Scot McKnight’s ‘A Community Called Atonement’ helpful regarding ST.

  2. J says:

    Thanks Dave. McKnight is the goods. He questions everything. Like.

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