The "Paying-a-debt Theory"

It never ceases to amaze me that, even though our society “talks religion” on a regular basis, the one place we, as a society, neglect to go for real answers is the only place that has the answers—the Bible. On the cover of the April 12, 2004 edition of Time magazine, an artist’s depiction of Jesus grabs the readers attention and directs the reader to the question written in a large font across the right side of the cover: “Why Did Jesus Have to Die?” The lengthy six-page spread discussing the question is filled with quotes from theologians, ministers, and preachers, with an occasional Bible verse gratuitously inserted to give the article a hint of “religious authenticity.”

The six different authors of the article focused on two primary “theories” as to why Jesus died on the cross. One theory they attributed to Anselm, the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1098. This theory they called the “paying-a-debt theory,” in which Christ’s death on the cross paid a debt for sinners that those sinners had no way to pay. This idea they termed “substitutionary atonement.” The idea pitted against the “paying-a-debt theory” was the theory of exemplary atonement. According to the idea of exemplary atonement, Jesus came to show humans an example to follow, and His death was not necessarily accomplished to pay some kind of debt.

“Experts” for both theories were interviewed. John Dominic Crossan, in his discussion of the theory of substitutionary atonement, called this idea “the most unfortunately successful idea in the history of Christian thought.” His reasoning for that was: “If I can persuade you that there’s a punishing God and that you deserve to be punished but I have some sort of way out for you, then that’s a very attractive theology” (as quoted in Chu, et al., 2004, 163[15]:60). Albert Mohler, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention Southern Seminary, spoke against the idea that Jesus’ sacrifice was purely for example, with no payment of debt attached.

The most disturbing aspect of the article was the fact that the Bible—the only resource that could actually answer the question at hand—was given scant attention. In the six pages of writing, one short verse from Isaiah was quoted, one verse from the Psalms, a brief six-line discussion about Paul’s letter to the Romans, a single paragraph quoting a verse from Hebrews, one from Mark, one verse from 1 Peter, and one verse from Colossians. The verses quoted from Hebrews (9:12) and Mark (10:45) explained that Christ was ransomed for many, and that with His own blood He attained their eternal redemption.

Not only were the Bible verses in the article few and far between, they were put on par with the quotes from the “experts” and given little, if any, authoritative value. They were presented, not as the Word of God, but simply as another voice to be heard in the discussion. Furthermore, Anselm was credited with “developing” the “theory” of atonement—an idea that the biblical writers had “developed” through inspiration almost a thousand years before Anselm.

The real question of the article should have been: “According to the Bible, why did Jesus die on the cross?” A complete catalog of every verse pertaining to this question is not feasible in this brief article. But a few of the more direct statements make it clear that the Bible clearly depicts Jesus’ death on the cross as an atoning sacrifice for sinners who could not pay their own debt. Hebrews 9:22 explains that “without the shedding of blood there is no remission” of sins. Later in the chapter, the Hebrews writer remarked that “Christ was offered once to bear the sins of many” (9:28). The prophet Isaiah wrote: “Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement for out peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we are healed…. Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise Him; He has put Him to grief. When you make His soul an offering for sin” (53:4-6,10).

John wrote that Jesus is “the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world” (1 John 2:2). The word propitiation means a satisfactory sacrifice or a sacrifice of appeasement. In a discussion with the elders from the church at Ephesus, the apostle Paul exhorted the leaders “to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood” (Acts 20:28). The verse in Hebrews referred to in the article sums up the idea of atonement quite well: “Not with the blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood He entered the Most Holy Place, once for all, having obtained eternal redemption” (9:12).

It is true that several verses in the Bible explain that Jesus’ death was also accomplished to provide an example of how to behave when persecuted (1 Peter 2:21-25). It is not true, however, that this example detracts in anyway from the fact that Jesus was the satisfactory sacrifice Who paid the debt of sins and was offered as an atoning sacrifice for the sins of the world. Anselm did not develop the “theory” of atonement in 1098. The fact of atonement was in God’s mind even before time began (1 Peter 1:18-20), and eventually was accomplished through the death and resurrection of Christ. The article in Time magazine shows a fundamental problem with religion in America. Our society has stopped going to the Bible for definitive answers, and looks to the “experts” to answer questions that can only be answered correctly via the Bible. Until we, as a people, decide to go back to the Word of God for our answers, we will continue to meander aimlessly in philosophical and religious mire. We must adopt the attitude recorded by the psalmist in regard to God’s Word: “Oh, how I love Your law! It is my meditation all the day. You, through Your commandments, make me wiser than my enemies; for they are ever with me. I have more understanding than all my teachers, for Your testimonies are my meditation. I understand more than the ancients, because I keep Your precepts” (119:97-100).


Chu, Jeff, et al. (2004), “Why Did Jesus Die?”, Time, 163[15]:54-61, April 12.


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