"...the central tenet of Christianity." 1 What it is and how it works
The Atonement is a controversial topic. Theologians have held
very different views on it. Some have commented about classical theories of the atonement with
in rather vitriolic language:
"For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God
through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be
saved by His life." Paul 2
"It is morally abhorrent to claim that God the Father
demanded the self-sacrifice of his only Son to balance the scales of
justice...A god who punished through pain, despair and violent death is not
a god of love, but a sadist and despot." Julie M. Hopkins
"The atonement is accomplished in the work of Christ, whose suffering is vicarious,
representative and sacrificial in character; it is on behalf of men [sic], in their name, and for the purpose of their approach to God." Vincent Taylor 4
"Seldom did Christians pause to
recognize the ogre into which they had turned God. A human father who would
nail his son to a cross for any purpose would be arrested for child abuse.
Yet that continued to be said of God as if it made God more holy and more
worthy of worship." Bishop J.S. Spong 5
In a religious sense, "atonement" means "at-one-ment."
This is the state of being reconciled with God. 5
Many Christian denominations have
historically taught that Adam and Eve disobeyed God in the Garden of Eden,
circa 4000 BCE by eating a forbidden fruit in violation of
God's command. The fruit has often been referred to as an apple. However, apple trees were not indigenous to the Middle East. A pomegranite or similar fruit is more likely.
Their action created a massive gulf between
God and humanity -- Adam, Eve, their children, and over 200 generations of their descendents. This gulf was seen as incapable of being bridged except by the torture death of Yeshua of
Nazareth (Jesus Christ) on the cross.
An additional problem is that many systems of ethics, including those found in the Bible teaches that each individual is responsible for their own immoral, unethical, or illegal acts and other transgressions. Thus, for example, if a person robs a bank, the police do not arrest that person's daughter. In particular, these ethical system hold that no person can possibly be held responsible for the activities of others that were done before the person was born -- let alone those done sixty centuries before they existed. That is called scapegoating. Unfortunately, examples of this are found throughout the Bible.
For centuries, the Christian Church used scapegoating to blame all Jews who were alive between the first century CE until the mid 20th century for the judicial murder of Jesus. Modern Jews were referred to as "Christ Killers." Adolf Hitler built upon these millennia of anti-semitism to justify the Holocaust during World War II. That genocide would probably not have been possible without Christian scapegoating down through history. The church has generally abandoned the Christ Killer label, but it is still seen occasionally today.
Finally, a major part of Jesus' teaching involved people forgiving others for the latter's transgressions. If this is a loving and important deed for humans, it would presumably be so for Jesus, God, and the Holy Spirit. Thus, God presumably could have simply forgiven Adam and Eve for their sinful act, and not continued to condemn their billions of descendents.
Unfortunately, the Bible text does not
provide a clear and unambiguous explanation on exactly by what mechanism the
life -- and particularly the death -- of Yeshua
was able to make it possible to reconcile God and humanity through the atonement. Christian theologians
from the second century CE until today have developed five
main theories, and many sub-variations, to explain how the atonement works. In recent centuries, no one theory has received
a consensus. We describe various violent interpretations of the atonement, as well as non-violent and secular views of the atonement.