Atonement theory and the Naughty Step

One of the parents in the congregation recently was saying how hard it is to answer good questions from children about why Jesus came and had resorted to trying to explain it in terms of the Naughty Step.

I thought it might be helpful to lay out some of the main theories of the Atonement thus:

  • Ransom theory – our parents were so naughty that they deserve the naughty step and have passed their naughtiness onto us. Justice requires that someone has to go to the naughty step to pay for this and God tricked the devil into seeing Jesus on the naughty step as sufficient payment for this.
  • Christus victor theory – Jesus has gloriously broken down the powers and dominions of naughtiness and only has to glance at the naughty-step for his holiness to turn it in to dust. Nothing can withstand his might and power.
  • Moral influence theory – Jesus came to teach us how to be so good that we would never be sent to the naughty step.
  • Penal substitution theory – God simply won’t forgive anyone until He is satisfied that the naughty step punishment has been fulfilled in full. Fortunately, Jesus comes along and takes on that naughtiness for himself, freely offering to pay the debt of naughtiness to God the Father. We need urgently to recognise this offer and accept it.
  • Incarnation theory – the amazing thing is that Jesus comes and sits on the naughty step with us, sharing our frailty and sharing our sorrows.

There are other possibilities, but those should keep you going for a bit.

Now, all these things have been believed by Christians. However, it doesn’t make much sense to claim that you believe them all at once. Notwithstanding that, I’d say that they all move me at one time or another, even though I tend towards one of them as my dominant way of understanding why Jesus came. We encounter all of these theories in our hymns, if not elsewhere.

That’s the way atonement theory works for me.


  1. The only ones that work for me are 2 and 5. Penal substitution theory predicates an understanding of God that I can’t go with, that indeed I find repellent.

  2. Richard Morgan-Proctor says

    I love this! It makes sense and makes it easier to explain to the little-uns (and those of us that struggle).

  3. Rosemary Hannah says

    I think there is also the same-all-the-way-through theory. Because there is so much naughtiness, God spends much of his time on the naughty step with the glue, trying to mend the mug we have broken when we were naughty. So when Jesus comes, he sits on the naught step, with the glue, until people get so furious with this persistent glue-use that they insist he stays on the naughty step ALL THE TIME. It works well along side the Incarnational theory, too.

    (It is possibly I hate moral influence worse, because if it were so, I foresee a lifetime on the naughty step.)

  4. Melissa Holloway says

    This helps me because I wonder about atonement –

    And I remember my earnest very early parenting days when I thought The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was the absolute ticket.

  5. I like the way of setting them in terms of naughty step. Was even beginning to like the looks of the Moral Influence theory, as stated, until I spotted it looks like a whopping heresy (faith v works). That leaves Incarnation, with is probably not a bad way of looking at it.

    Then again, they’re all models and I grew out of model-building about 20 years ago.

  6. Steven says

    Where can we find out more about No. 5?

  7. In any liberal-catholic Anglican congregation, Steven.

    It is what we do.

  8. I don’t know that I agree that you can’t believe them all. Or maybe I don’t quite get your point, certainly agreeing that there are times when some speak to us more than others.
    I remember struggling with this a lot before ordination and being wowed by Alan Richardson (?) in the dictionary of theology stating all this rather as you have , but also making the point that Hebrews moves with a rather different metaphor from either the legalistic, moral, or military.
    “We have complete freedom to go into the most holy place by means of the death of Jesus …he opened for us a new way, through the curtain, through his own body”
    He also notes Luther’s idea that the cosmic battle of good and evil is taking place on the cross….this seems to me quite important…the strife is o’er. . I dont know how often i have to remind people…we dont need to do what God ha already done..I guess these are also important undergirding and complementary ideas

  9. I remember having the concept of atonement explained to me in high-school RE. No theory other than penal substitution was even mentioned. This was at an otherwise pretty good non-denominational state school in the North of England.

    Personally I like both Christus Victor and the Incarnation, and see no reason why they shouldn’t be compatible. Moral Influence wanders a bit too far into theological liberalism for my taste; you end up in ‘Jesus was a great teacher’ territory, and then CS Lewis gets upset.

  10. Sam Korn says

    It’s worth noting that the classic formulation of Moral Influence is not “Jesus was a super teacher”, as the modern understanding of it runs. That is indeed heresy – Pelagian, Arian, Adoptionist, pretty much any of them. As Abelard understood it, however, it’s much more objective. Jesus’ work on the Cross is transformative. That is to say, looking at Jesus on the Cross, in perfect obedience and humility and love, transforms our broken humanity and our broken morality.

    The problem with the “naughty step” metaphor is that it is inherently about punishment. Not all models of the Atonement or understandings of the Cross are essentially penal.

  11. Rosemary Hannah says

    I well remember Prof. Jim Whyte’s formulation of the theory as being that on the cross ‘Evil could do no more than this, and good could do no more, and good has won.

  12. Since I do not believe in preaching at evensong, and yet must, I simply read this out to them tonight (with due credit) an then invited them to play a little game. In a fortnight’s time, I’m awarding prizes for the most amusing list of naughty-atonement hymns. They seemed to like the idea.

  13. jnwall says

    The sad part about all these conceptualizations is the way all accept as a given an either/or description of the character of human life. I do not find that taking our naughtiness as a basic condition (which implies that we are either naughty or not) is a helpful account of the way we experience our lives. At the heart of such a model is the idea that we used to be good, but we became naughty. But clearly there was no point in human history at which people were significantly better than they are now.

  14. William Bippus says

    As an American, I’m not familiar with the term “naughty step,” but assume that it has the same purpose as being “sent to your room,” or being given an enforced “time out.” I’m reminded of a friend who attended an evangelical “Bible Church,” who would frequently ask me if I believed that I had been saved by the blood of Christ. I would reply that, yes, I did, but not in the way she meant.

  15. Zebadee says


    I love your action and will be interested in the response in two weeks time.

  16. “Incarnation theory – the amazing thing is that Jesus comes and sits on the naughty step with us, sharing our frailty and sharing our sorrows.”

    Despite the fact that he hasn’t been naughty, and that our frailty is the cause of our being on the naughty step and our sorrows are the judgement by God (including Jesus) which is the naughty step?

    And just run it past me again – how does this ‘make one’ our relationship with the Father-Son-Holy-Spirit-God?

    Lost me a bit there, I’m afraid.

    • And yet the funny thing is, John, for lots of people that just instinctively makes sense.

      And even odder, is that the incarnation made it into the Nicene Creed whilst substitutionary atonement, for example, didn’t.

    • If Jesus is sitting beside you, how is your relationship with God not whole?

      This formulation answers many standard theological points – the idea of God making the first move, it being God’s work not ours, acceptance in faith, the removal of guilt – without the tired jargon.

      And we like being amazed 🙂

      • John Richardson says

        Tim, for how long do we stay on God’s naughty step, when are we let off it and why? (3 questions, I know, but I’d be interested in the answers you might give.)

        • Well, we’re at risk of straining the bounds of the metaphor, but consider: it’s a naughty-step because you make it so in sitting guiltily upon it; others may consider it one amongst many ordinary steps.

          • John Richardson says

            So it’s really a ‘guilt trip’ step that I don’t need to be on at all. What made me go there in the first place? Why did I feel guilty? Hmm.

  17. I agree that realising that Jesus is with me on the naughty step is much more at-one(ing) than the punishment metaphors. It makes me one with the Trinity because unlike Peter, Judas and indeed myself…Jesus continues to be God with us even when we dessert, fail, sin.
    Eric Mascall, the very conservative theologian makes the point in his book ‘CorpusChristi’ that sacrifice is not, in the first place, about shedding blood or punishment, ….but about “making holy”. Atonement is about making us holy, as God wants us, we can’t do it, haven’t done it….but Jesus has

  18. Deacon in Misguided Trousers says

    Here’s a radical understanding of the atonement: Christ’s crucifixion was the natural consequence of attempting to lead an outward-looking life of generosity and self-giving, and opposing the imperial-religious complex of first century Palestine. The cross wasn’t an instrument in some cosmic meta-narrative of salvation, it was an instrument of political execution. And I’m afraid that hurling accusations of heresy around just won’t wash in the modern world: it comes across as controlling and childish, refusing to allow people to think for themselves and suggesting the church somehow has the right to decide which avenues of theological exploration are permitted.

  19. Of course, NO particular theory of atonement is stated in the Creeds (though “for us and for our salvation” implies atonement taking place). If there were, this conversation would be unnecessary. But if I were talking to an inquisitive child, I can imagine the following questions coming up about the incarnational theory (pop your answers in the space provided):

    CHILD: Mummy, who makes us go and sit on the naughty step when God thinks we’ve been bad?

    CHILD: And how long do we have to stay on the naughty step?

    CHILD: Why does Jesus sit on the naughty step — has he been naughty?
    MUMMY: Yes. (Loud ‘Heresy’ buzzer.)

    CHILD: When is Jesus allowed to get off the naughty step?

    CHILD: So does Jesus stay on the naughty step? Is he still there? Is he ever going to be allowed off it?

    CHILD: When we die, will we still have to sit on the naughty step?
    CHILD: Jesus died, didn’t he, mummy? Why does he still have to sit on the naughty step? Was it because he came to life again?

    CHILD: Am I on God’s naughty step now?
    CHILD: Is that because I haven’t really been naughty?
    CHILD: But if I’ve really been naughty, shouldn’t I be on the naughty step?
    MUMMY: Look, why don’t you ask Daddy?

    DADDY: Look, it’s like this. Yes, you’ve been naughty, and God sends you to the naughty step, because that’s what happens to naughty people. And if you just got up after a little while and went to play, you’d only be naughty again and get sent back, wouldn’t you? But Jesus is special – he made all the boys and girls in the world, and when they are naughty, he says to himself and to His Daddy, look if we don’t do something, they’ll be on the naughty step FOREVER, so why don’t I go and sit on the naughty step for all of them? After all, I made them AND I MADE TIME, so it will be like forever, even though I don’t have to stay forever.

    So next time you’re naughty, tell Jesus you’re sorry, thank him and his Father that they came up with this idea, and then go off and play like they would want you to.

    CHILD: Wow, Dad, that’s amazing! Isn’t God great?

    (Or something like that … 😉 )

    • CHILD: But Daddy, why do I have to say sorry to Jesus for it to work? Do you mean Jesus won’t sit here in my place if I won’t, even though he could? That’s not a very nice kind of Jesus.

      • Kelvin, supposing a parent puts its child on the naughty step. Would a ‘sorry’ not be appropriate? It is part of a right relationship – or what the Bible calls dikaiosune. Yes?

        • I think sorry is a great thing.

          But it doesn’t make substitutionary atonement make any sense to me.

          • It’s part of faith which, from our side, is that by which we are saved. It would apply to any to any theory of the atonement. That it is part of the relationship does not undermine PSA.

          • Yes, I know all about the theory. I just don’t believe it to be adequate.

            (Which is not the same as not believing it to be true).

            Lots of Christians don’t. Some don’t understand it either – however, having been a a good evangelical for all those years I understand it pretty well. Indeed I used to teach it to others and go around thinking that it was essential.

            And now I don’t.

          • Kelvin, given your reply, why did you ask? I actually took time to write that.

      • Badly phrased rhetorical question.

        • Tell you what, Kelvin, you answer the other questions I posed and I won’t be so grouchy about answering yours, but I’d suggest (to you, not the child, obviously), “Because in Jesus we are children of Abraham, who believed God when the gospel was preached to him, and it was reckoned to him as a right relationship with God”. (Perhaps it might be suitable for the teenage child.)

      • David Brock says

        Kelvin – You suggested: “CHILD: But Daddy, why do I have to say sorry to Jesus for it to work? Do you mean Jesus won’t sit here in my place if I won’t, even though he could? That’s not a very nice kind of Jesus.”

        This is like the friend of mine used to ask if he was going to meet Pol Pot and Hitler in heaven. To which the answer is not unless they repented.

        • To which another answer is that in our short-sighted inconsistency we don’t begin to grok the full extent of God’s forgiveness; we don’t know whether there’s an afterlife or not, and heaven is not just a feature of any putative afterlife but a state around us here & now to be enjoyed when we can identify it, so given that Hitler and Pol Pot are not here and now, it’s a bit of a moot point.

          • David Brock says

            Thanks Tim: the Bible doesn’t actually say much about “heaven” but there is a lot about being with Jesus and coming to the Father. I think my friend’s Hitler/Pol Pot question is about whether those who do wrong in God’s sight but are unrepentant will be with Him, and whether God forgives the repentant Hitler/Pol Pot.

    • Spot on, John. In every way.

      • *yawns*

        • I’m intrigued by your protestations of boredom that someone is impressed by a comment that seeks to engage you seriously on a topic you brought up in the OP!

          If you don’t want people to discuss these things with you, then why write about them in a public forum? Unless, of course, there’s actually really no interest in dialogue.

          • David, I brought up some different theories of atonement. What I didn’t do is begin an argument about which theory is biggest, best or right. Indeed, I said fairly clearly at the beginning that thinking about the atonement that way wasn’t for me.

            And in answer to John Richardson’s earlier question about why I might single out substitutionary atonement, it is because no-one ever advocates any of the other views in the same way with the same need to convert people.

            And it gets boring fast.

          • One gets weary of people thinking that if they explain it just one more time and in just the right way I will suddenly understand it and believe it.

            Trust me. I understand it.

          • so then 2 thoughts:

            1 John wasn’t explaining anything to you – he was asking you how your own model works.

            2 Why yourself write a post explaining atonement theory is the whole thing is so wearisome?

          • Looking at different theories of atonement is exciting, not boring.

            People trying to explain why one of them is right or trying to explain why one and only one them works (and it is only ever one of them) – not so exciting.

  20. Thanks John, that’s really helpful – the only answer that makes sense of the Bible I read, the life I lead, the news I watch, the Jesus I know, the hope I have, the funeral of a Christian lady I’ve just been to…

    • Are you interested in the fact that other Christians don’t find it makes any sense of the Bible we read, the news we watch, the Jesus we know, the hope we have and the funerals of Christian ladies we know? Moreover, that other Christians find different ways of making sense of these things?

  21. This is the greatest explanation ever of various atonement theories. For some reason, understanding it in the context of the naughty step has allowed my brain to actually get what in the world these various theories are actually trying to say.

  22. The preface to Ian McEwan’s fine novel “Atonement” is an interesting one:

    ‘Dear Miss Morland, consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained. What have you been judging from? Remember the country and the age in which we live. Remember that we are English, that we are Christians. Consult your own understanding, your own sense of the probable, your own observation of what is passing around you. Does our education prepare us for such atrocities? Do our laws connive at them? Could they be perpetrated without being known in a country like this, where social and literary intercourse is on such a footing, where every man is surrounded by a neighbourhood of voluntary spies, and where roads and newspapers lay everything open? Dearest Miss Morland, what ideas have you been admitting?’
    They had reached the end of the gallery; and with tears of shame she ran off to her own room.

    Jane Austen, “Northanger Abbey”

  23. I’ll try again:

    Child: “How long do we have to stay on the naughty step for when God sends us there?”

    And what really IS the ‘naughty step’ (in reality)?

    Just asking, y’know.

  24. Sorry to disappoint you John, but I try not to make a habit of getting into long debates about substitutionary atonement. Notwithstanding my original post and the interest there has been in it I’m struggling to get that excited about engaging now.

    Many thanks for your comments. However previous experience suggests that engaging with folk who are trying to persuade the world that one kind of atonement theory is fundamentally true leads neither to an interesting debate nor to a conversion on my part.

    (I probably ought to put my commenting policy more prominently online –

    • I think I may have posted this earlier, but it seems to me Kelvin, ‘you started it’ ;-). Your explanation of atonement theories included an ‘explanation’ of the one that you now say in your comments policy people should not try to explain.

      Why (really, why?) pick on this one? But in any case, my questions were aimed at the problems I have with other theories of the atonement that your illustration illustrated. Can’t we discuss them, at least?

  25. Mike Dowler says

    There are significant problems with the alternatives to PSA:
    Ransom – Satan, not God, is calling the shots
    Christus victor – if the naughty step has been vaporised, then what will God do about evil?
    Moral influence – what about forgiveness for past sins?
    Incarnation – Jesus is with us, but we are still on the naughty step.

    The real issue, though, is that all of these (including PSA) are just human ideas. It doesn’t really matter what feels instinctively right or wrong to us. We can’t decide which is right without looking at what God says on the topic.

  26. Kelvin, I think the frustration some of us feel is that the unanswered questions are not about penal substitution but some of the other theories, and indeed the whole scenario.

    So let’s try this one: Is the Law (as in OT Law) God’s ‘naughty step’?

    • I wouldn’t want to push the naughty step analogy too far.

      The Law derives from experience of the peoples of the OT as they tried to relate to God.

      • Thanks Kelvin, but I wasn’t really asking about the origins of the Law, I was asking about its function.

        My thought is, doesn’t ‘law’ function exactly on the ‘naughty step’ – you break the rules, you pay the price, you (hopefully) learn your lesson? And isn’t this the function of all law, not just religion-based law? We pay the price, and so long as the price is ‘payable’ there is no need for a further act of ‘atonement’, either on our or anyone else’s part.

        In the Church of England, though, we start from the principle that Christ suffered, died and was buried to reconcile his Father to us, so we believe in Christ’s work of atonement, therefore (I presume) we believe that our time on the naughty step is actually not enough to atone for our own ‘naughtiness’.

        That’s why (I take it) it helps if we have an account of atonement that makes sense, and why it was worth trying to elucidate it with the ‘naughty step’ analogy as this allows us to ask questions of each account to see whether they hold water.

        You may also recall the words of the Prayer Book Ordinal, which remind us that the role of the priest is (inter alia) “to seek for Christ’s … children who are in the midst of this naughty world, that they may be saved through Christ for ever.”

        Perhaps the ‘naughty step’ analogy isn’t so inappropriate.

        • I spend my life seeking for Christ’s children who are in the midst of this naughty world, that they may be saved through Christ for ever.

          However, I’ve never heard the prayer book ordinal used and I’m in no position to comment on what the Church of England believes.

  27. Miles says

    Expressions of boredom with a subject (not least one we have brought up ourselves) tell us nothing about the truth or value of the subject but rather our emotional or mental capacities. Discussions of quantum physics or high finance soon cause my eyes to glaze over, but that is because of my lack of knowledge of and engagement with these issues.
    In any case, the point of a naughty-step (as any sensible parent knows) is educative and restorative, rather than retributive, so it isn’t a good model for the Cross. If you want to use that analogy for the Cross, it is Jesus *sitting on the naughty-step *instead of us (you obscured this with your abstract talk of him “taking on the naughtiness”) – exactly the reason why Socinius argued that PSA was “immoral”.
    When the NT speaks about being “crucified *with Christ” [sitting on the naughty step together?], the meaning is not the just punishment of our sins (for Christ has undergone this already, according to Romans 5) but the askesis of our characters (mortification, in old language).

    • All I can hope, Miles is that it makes you feel better to think that you’ve explained something to me that you believe I don’t understand.

      • Kelvin, I can understand that you don’t agree with something (we get it too!), but do you have to be so ‘snarky’ about it with contributors? It is an unfortunate trait that seems to affect Christian blogging. Probably done it myself, but still …

        • Actually John, I don’t see any evidence in Miles’s comment that he does get it too.

          It has so often been the case with people who want to comment here in relation to this topic that that the same dynamic plays out. As though just one more comment “explaining” just a bit better will convince me that substitutionary atonement is right. It is my soul that I’m gambling with primarily. The stakes for me are pretty high – people don’t seem to trust me when I say that I’ve thought about it plenty.

          As to snarkiness, I guess I could get uppity about you describing me on your own blog as being afraid of all this – but I’m glad that the discussion has moved over there and pleased to have stimulated some discussion with my original post.

          • Perhaps we should both spend time on the naughty step – though when Jesus comes along, I’ll be off, but you’ll have to stay while he shares your sorrows.

            JUST KIDDING!!!!

  28. Miles says

    “The Law derives from experience of the peoples of the OT as they tried to relate to God.”

    So the Mosaic Law is “what the Israelites thought God was like [but may not be?] and what they thought He said [but may not have?].” Is that right? What did ‘the peoples of the OT’ actually ‘experience’? And what did Jesus think the Mosaic Law was and where it came from?

    • It seems hard not to conclude that the peoples of the Old Testament had different responses to the Law at different times. (And some may have had different responses within their own changing experience.

      I wouldn’t presume to think that a question like “What do the Jewish people” think about the law could be answered simply nowadays, much presume that the communities whom we find in the Old Testament had only one experience.

      What Jesus thought of the Mosaic Law is a more interesting question and one that I explore in my preaching sometimes and in dialogue with other preachers here at St Mary’s.

  29. Rosemary Hannah says

    What Jesus thought of the New Covenant is another interesting question. Certainly in the Hebrew Scriptures, sacrifice/blood can be used to seal a covenant. It is not a ransom, in that context, nor a price paid.

  30. Miles says

    Kelvin, I wasn’t trying to ‘explain something to you’ (presumably on penal substitution?) but was arguing that your use of the ‘naughty step’ analogy failed because it confused the historic work of Christ on the Cross (ephapax) with the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit (sanctification). As a father, teacher and priest, I know there are different ways of thinking about ‘punishment’. However you think of ‘atonement’ (to use Tyndale’s word) – whether as fighting against evil, offering a sacrifice or paying a penalty (Scripture uses all three models), it is first of all what Christ does ‘for us’, ‘instead of us’, ‘in our place’.
    I’m fairly immune to ‘snark’, but I hope we’d agree it’s better to answer a person’s arguments than to speculate about his emotional state (‘it makes you feel better’ etc). One of the finest expositions I know of substitutionary atonement with the ongoing blessings of being bound to Christ (what I think you were aiming at in your ‘incarnational analogy’) is found in Luther’s ‘Concerning Christian Liberty’ with its famous image of faith as the wedding ring that binds us to Christ, so that our sins become his (substitution) while his graces become ours (antalagma, exchange). I commend it warmly!

  31. Miles says

    Rosemany writes: “Certainly in the Hebrew Scriptures, sacrifice/blood can be used to seal a covenant. It is not a ransom, in that context, nor a price paid.”

    This is not quite right. The scapegoat ritual of Leviticus 16 and the asham offering did involve the symbolic transfer of sin onto the animal victim. The many ‘sin offerings’ of animals in the OT are precisely so that the offerer ‘may not die’ for his sins. This is the essential background to the theology of the Cross in the Letter to the Hebrews.

  32. Rosemary Hannah says

    What I wrote was that blood CAN be used to seal a covenant, and that (in that context, that is, in that particular context) it is neither a ransom nor yet a price paid. It interests me that it is so.

    I did not write, nor intend to be heard to say, that sacrifice is never for sin offering. The scapegoat, however, is notoriously NOT put to death. Sin offerings there are, but there is not a simple transfer of sin from the person to the animal and it is plain that the person (who might die) is of greater worth than the animal offered.

  33. Miles says

    Rosemary, all your comments are correct and invite further reflection.
    Why was there a blood sacrifice to seal a covenant (karat berith)? Possibly as an invocation of a curse upon oneself if one broke the covenant. Ancient conditional covenant treaties typically ended with curse formulae, as we find in Deuteronomy. The Abrahamic covenant also involved cutting (karat) animals and passing between them.
    Yes, the scapegoat was not put to death, but was driven out into the wilderness, symbolically removing the sin from the camp.
    The sin offering in the OT was substitutionary in character, but the NT, esp. Hebrews, understands these rites as ‘shadows and types’ of the reality to come, which was the Cross of Christ. Hebrews sees the Cross as the final and definitive sacrifice that retrospectively and proleptically deals with the sin of the world.
    From the viewpoint of NT theology, I think it is best to consider the Cross as having a polyvalent character with regard to the OT sacrifices, embracing the sin-offering, the removal or ‘covering’ (kippur) of sin and the sealing of the new covenant.

  34. Rosemary Hannah says

    Indeed why does blood seal a sacrifice. Possibly not as an invocation of a curse. Potentially for any number of reasons. I would not be too hasty to read the NT back into the Hebrew Scriptures, myself.

  35. Miles says

    Rosemary writes: “I would not be too hasty to read the NT back into the Hebrew Scriptures, myself.”
    But it’s something I have to do as a Christian, because the “Hebrew Scriptures” are *Christian Scriptures that look forward to their consummation and fulfilment, and the NT explicitly makes this claim; not least in the words of our Lord to the disciples on the Emmaus road. Of course a Jew will not agree with this; but if Jesus is the Messiah of promise, then all God’s promises find their ‘yes’ in Him.

  36. Rosemary Hannah says

    For myself, I need to find out as best I can just what the writers of the Hebrew Scriptures meant in their own time and context first, before I start sticking traditional interpretations on to them. We will agree to differ.

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