I've done research on various theories of what happened on the cross. The typical American evangelical approach has been presented as "The Four Spiritual Laws." It goes something like this:
* A gulf was formed between God and humans because of the sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.
* Through their sin, the universe permanently changed and became a place of death, destruction, sin and the alienation of humans from God.
* Yeshua's life, and particularly his death on the cross, allowed some humans to bridge the gulf and be reconciled with God.
* If we accept Yeshua's sacrifice, we're on the Gold Team.
Unfortunately, the epistles of Paul and other writings in the Christian Canon don't explain how the atonement actually works.
Most theologians from Origen (185-254 C.E.) until now have believed that the atonement is related in some way to the sacrificial and/or voluntary death of Jesus. In recent years, however, some theologians have rejected atonement theories based on Yeshua's death. They argue in favor of a non-violent explanation for the atonement. For them, atonement is based on Yeshua's life, not his death. All of these theories have been prooftexted from scripture, but they all conflict. There's little hope that a consensus will be reached in the foreseeable future on which theory is the "correct" one. Here's a laundry list of atonement theories:
1. The Ransom Theory: God bribed, then tricked Satan. This was the dominant belief during the first 1,000 years of Christian church history. Origen suggested that, as a result of the sin of Adam and Eve, Satan had acquired a formal dominion over -- and ownership of -- all of humanity and creation. So, in order to free people from the grip of Satan, God agreed to arrange the death of Yeshua, His son, as a ransom to be paid to the devil. This then, would formally compensate for Adam and Eve's sin and would release humanity from Satan's grip. But the devil didn't realize that Yeshua, being without sin, would escape his clutches. God pulled a "bait and switch" operation by resurrecting Yeshua, leaving Satan without any reward.
The Ransom Theory was based, in part, on Mark 10:45 and 1 Timothy 2:6, where Origin interpreted the word "ransom" literally: Mark -- "For even the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many."1 Timothy 2:5-6: "For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus; Who gave himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time."
2. The Satisfaction Theory:This theory is grounded in the concept of personal honor found in the European feudal culture. During the Middle Ages, a serf had to honor both God and the feudal lord who controlled his/her life and land. Human sin dishonors God. A price must be paid to satisfy God and restore his divine honor. The only penalty suitable to God was Christ's obedience when he willingly suffered death.
The satisfaction theory is related to the ancient Hebrew ritual sacrifice of animals at the altar of the Jerusalem Temple. By allowing himself to be ritually sacrificed, Yeshua's death replicated in many ways the ritual sacrifice of animals were slaughtered in the Temple.
The satisfaction theory is similar to the earlier ransom theory, in that a type of ransom was given. However, it was paid to God rather than to Satan. The satisfaction theory is generally attributed to Archbishop Anselem of Canterbury, (1033 to 1109 CE.It is contained in his book Cur Deus Homo ("Why God became man"), which was written circa 1098 CE. He writes:"...Without satisfaction, that is, without voluntary payment of the debt, God can neither pass by the sin unpunished, nor can the sinner attain that happiness, or happiness like that, which he had before he sinned.…The price paid to God for the sin of man [must] be something greater than all the universe besides God....Moreover, it is necessary that he who can give God anything of his own which is more valuable than all things in the possession of God, must be greater than all else but God himself....Therefore none but God can make this satisfaction."
The Satisfaction Theory is the only atonement theory most Christians have ever heard of, at least in the West. So when preachers talk about Jesus taking the sin of the world on his shoulders and paying the price for our sins, that's the theory they're referring to. It's interesting that this theory didn't actually exist for the first 1,000 years of Christian church history.
3. The Moral Theory: This theory suggests that Yeshua's (Jesus Christ's) life and death is primarily a moral example to humanity. It can inspire us to lift ourselves out of sin and grow towards union with God. Elements of the Moral Theory were initially suggested by various Apostolic Fathers during the second century CE.
Clement, referring to Yeshua's life, wrote: "Through Him God has called us from darkness to light from ignorance to knowledge of the glory of His name." He also wrote that Yeshua's sufferings should bring us to repentance. Barnabas (circa 1 to 60? CE) wrote that Yeshua came to abolish death and to demonstrate resurrection after death. The Moral Theory was first fully developed in the writings of Peter Abelard (1079 - 1142) in the 12th century Abelard wrote a book called "Expositio in Epistolam AD Romanos" ("Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans") in which he explained his theory of the atonement.
The moral theory teaches that atonement is not attained through a payment to Satan -- as in the Ransom Theory. It is also not attained by a payment made to restore God's honor -- as in the Satisfaction Theory. God's justice might demand such a compensation. But God does not ask for it. Rather, his limitless love overrules his need for justice. Yeshua's life and death becomes an inspiration and an example for Christians to follow.
The focus of the Atonement is not Satan or God as in these two previous theories. It is the individual Christian believer seeking wholeness. Yeshua's life and death are intended to inspire us. We are to be "willing to take up our crosses daily in the service of some good cause to mankind, and thus work out our own salvation."
4. The Acceptance Theory: Theologians John Duns Scotus and William of Ockham of the via moderna theological system promoted this theory of the atonement.
They argued that: God could have decided of his own free will to save humanity through the work, and perhaps the death, of an angel, of Adam, of any other human being, or even an animal. But he decided, for his own reasons, to achieve atonement through the death of Yeshua. "...All satisfaction comes from the arbitrary choice of God."
5. The Penal Theory: This is a variation of the Satisfaction Theory which had been proposed by Anselem, circa 1100 CE. The Penal Theory of the atonement (a.k.a. the Penal Subsitution Theory) was held by Martin Luther (1483 - 1546 CE), John Calvin (1509 - 1564 CE), and other leading theologians of the Reformation.
The theory states that God's mercy replaces his wrath after the infinite sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. This theory is commonly accepted today by fundamentalist other evangelical Protestant denominations, and some mainline faith groups.
The Penal Theory is a modification of Anselem's Satisfaction Theory. God is viewed as holy and perfect. He established an impossibly high standard of holiness and perfection for humanity. When we fail to live up to that standard, a sin debt to God is created. Such sin inevitably happens; all have fallen short. The Penal Theory expanded on Anselem's belief that Yeshua of Nazareth's (Jesus Christ's) passive obedience to God by living a sinless life, and by voluntarily dying on the cross made the atonement possible.
The basic fault of the traditional understandings of salvation within the Western development of Christianity is that they have no room for divine forgiveness. A forgiveness that has been bought by the bearing of a just punishment, or the giving of an adequate satisfaction, or the offering of a sufficient sacrifice, is not forgiveness at all – instead, it is merely an acknowledgment that the debt has been paid in full.
In the teachings of Jesus, however, there is genuine divine forgiveness for those who are penitent and conscious of their unworthiness. In the Lord’s Prayer we are taught to address God directly as our heavenly Father and to ask for forgiveness for our sins, expecting to receive this (the only condition being that we, in turn, forgive one another). There is no suggestion of the need for a mediator between ourselves and God or for an atoning death to enable God to forgive.
The narrow sense of atonement is that salvation requires God’s forgiveness and that this, in turn, requires an adequate sacrifice to satisfy the divine justice. In the broader – and preferable – sense, salvation means the transformation from self-centeredness to God-centeredness.