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Christian beliefs


The atonement:
"...the central tenet of Christianity." 1
What it is and how it works

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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:

bullet "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

bullet "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 3

bullet "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

bullet "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

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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.

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Topics described in this section:

bullet Introduction: Definitions. Why the atonement is needed. Transferability of sin. Theories on how the atonement works. Is a consensus possible?....
bullet References to the atonement in the Christian Scriptures (a.k.a. New Testament)
bullet Why is an atonement necessary?
bullet Overview of (and objections to) the major themes of the atonement:

bullet How the atonement works: a description of various traditional theories (Acceptance, Moral, Ransom, Satisfaction, Substitution, Christus Victor and other theories.)
bullet A progressive Christian and non-Christian viewpoint of the atonement Part 1 Part 2
bullet Blood atonement within the Mormon movement -- a very different concept
bullet Conclusions Comments. Future trends.

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References used:

  1. John S. Spong, "Why Christianity must change or die," Harper SanFrancisco, (1998), Page 84. Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store
  2. From the Christian Scriptures (New Testament) Romans 5:10; King James Version (1611 CE).
  3. Julie M. Hopkins, "Towards a Feminist Christology: Jesus of Nazareth, European Woman and the Christological Crisis," Eerdmans (1995). Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store
  4. Vincent Taylor, "The Atonement in New Testament Teaching," Page 182
  5. Op Cit., John S. Spong, Page 95.

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Copyright 2004 to 2016 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2004-APR-06
Latest update: 2016-MAY-31
Author: B.A. Robinson

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