Did Early Christians Believe in Substitutionary Atonement?

Michael Kruger | April 3, 2015


Skeptics commonly criticize core Christian beliefs by claiming that they were not really held by the earliest Christians. Instead, we are told, these beliefs were invented post facto by the institutional church. 

The classic example of such an argument has to do with the divinity of Jesus. The earliest followers of Jesus didn’t really believe that Jesus was divine, this argument goes; it was only the later institutional church, under political pressure from Emperor Constantine, that insisted Jesus must have divine status. Thus, some argue, the belief that Jesus is God is not really, well, Christian.

Substitutionary Atonement

This same sort of argument has also been applied to other doctrines, particularly the substitutionary nature of the atonement. Critical scholars, led by the classic work of Gustaf Aulén, have long argued that the earliest Christians did not believe that Christ died as a substitute for sinners. Instead, they say, these Christians believed what is known as the “Christus victor” view of the atonement—the idea that Jesus’s death on the cross (and resurrection) conquered the Devil and other forces that held people in bondage. On this view, Christ did not die in place of rebellious sinners but instead rescued victims from a fallen world.

If Aulén is correct, then when did…


To read the rest of this article, visit http://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/did-early-christians-believe-in-substitutionary-atonement.