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The Christian concept of the atonement

Introduction

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Definition & background:

In secular usage, the word "atonement" means the act of reconciling with another person -- or group -- for one or more past sins or wrongdoings. In a religious sense, "atonement" normally means "at-one-ment." This is the state of being reconciled with God. 1 The word comes from the Middle English phrase "at oon," which means "at one.2 When used in a religious context, it normally refers to some activity that reconciles a person or group with one or more deities. The action might involve the affirmation of a statement of faith, the ritual sacrifice of an animal, or the performance some other ritual.  In ancient times, the ritual sacrifice of a human was often required. 1

Within Christianity, atonement between God and humanity is frequently linked to the torture death of Yeshua of Nazareth (Jesus Christ). Authors H. Wayne House and Gordon Carle wrote: "What Jesus Christ did on the cross is the very heart of the gospel.  The atonement is the central doctrine of Christianity." 3

The term is also used to refer to the "Day of Atonement" a Jewish annual seasonal day of observance. It is also known as Yom Kippur, and remains the most important holy day in Judaism. It is held every fall on the tenth day of the seventh lunar month of Tisri. It is described in the Hebrew Scriptures (a.k.a. Old Testament) at: Leviticus 16:3-10, Leviticus 23:26-32, and Numbers 29:7-11. The ancient Hebrews were required to observe this national day of humiliation and expiation to atone their own personal sins against God. Jews continue to observe this fast today. Tracey Rich has written:

"Yom Kippur atones only for sins between man and G-d, not for sins against another person. To atone for sins against another person, you must first seek reconciliation with that person, righting the wrongs you committed against them if possible. That must all be done before Yom Kippur." 4,5

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Synonyms:

"Atonement" means "at-one-ment" -- the state of being "at one" or being reconciled. The words "reconciliation" and "atonement" are used by various English Bible translations in Romans 5:11. Another synonym for atonement is "satisfaction." This was the preferred term used by many Protestant theologians during the Reformation.

Paul used many terms to refer to the process of "getting right with God" including atonement, expiation, justification, reconciliation, redemption, and salvation. These terms were "...derived metaphorically from different cultural contexts and thus carry different connotations and shades of meaning." 6 But they all refer to a process by which humans, which Paul viewed as hopelessly sinful and lost, can make contact with a just and loving God and be accepted by him.

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A formal definition of "atonement"

The Easton Bible Dictionary, published in 1897, gives the following definition of "atonement:"

"Christ's satisfaction is all he did in the room and in behalf of sinners to satisfy the demands of the law and justice of God. Christ's work consisted of suffering and obedience, and these were vicarious, i.e., were not merely for our benefit, but were in our stead, as the suffering and obedience of our vicar, or substitute. Our guilt is expiated by the punishment which our vicar bore, and thus God is rendered propitious, i.e., it is now consistent with his justice to manifest his love to transgressors. Expiation has been made for sin, i.e., it is covered. The means by which it is covered is vicarious satisfaction, and the result of its being covered is atonement or reconciliation. To make atonement is to do that by virtue of which alienation ceases and reconciliation is brought about. Christ's mediatorial work and sufferings are the ground or efficient cause of reconciliation with God. They rectify the disturbed relations between God and man, taking away the obstacles interposed by sin to their fellowship and concord. The reconciliation is mutual, i.e., it is not only that of sinners toward God, but also and pre-eminently that of God toward sinners, effected by the sin-offering he himself provided, so that consistently with the other attributes of his character his love might flow forth in all its fullness of blessing to men." 7

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A brief explanation of why the atonement is necessary:

Much of traditional Christian theology is based upon the belief that sin, and the punishment for sin, can be transferred from one or more guilty parties to one or more innocent parties. The concept of the atonement is based upon the belief that the following three events happened in ancient times:

  1. Adam and Eve disobeyed God's direct instruction by eating of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil circa 4000 BCE. Apparently they had no concept of good and evil when they were created by God. They only developed a moral sense after eating the fruit. They seem to have then realized that they had committed a sin. But by then it was too late; the deed was done. This transgression in the Garden of Eden created a massive gulf between God and the first humans.

  2. The sin of Adam and Eve was imputed (i.e. transferred) to their children, grandchildren, and to all subsequent descendents. Today, this original sin is still inherited by all humans today at or before before birth.

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    The Catholic Encyclopedia defines original sin as "...a consequence of this first sin, the hereditary stain with which we are born on account of our origin or descent from Adam." 10

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    A common Protestant interpretation of texts in Genesis and Romans is found in Baker's Evangelical Dictionary: "...that Adam and Eve did not sin for themselves alone, but, from their privileged position as the first, originally sinless couple, act as representatives for the human race. Since then sin, sinfulness, and the consequences of sin have marred all. Every child of Adam enters a race marked by sin, condemnation, and death." 11

  3. Potential access to atonement was made possible when Yeshua (a.k.a. Jesus Christ) was executed by crucifixion circa 30 CE. The potential exists to restore the relationship between God and mankind which was broken in the Garden of Eden. The most common theories teach that this healing occurs through the transfer of the sins of saved humans to the truly innocent god-man Jesus -- the only person who is believed to have lived his life on earth without sin.

Atonement is not an automatic process. It is not attained by everyone. Different Christian groups define different paths for their members to achieve salvation and the resultant atonement.

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Some denominations teach that a person must simply accept Jesus as Lord and Savior.

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Others teach that one must first repent of their past sins and then accept Jesus.

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Others teach that salvation is attained by church rituals, such as baptism and confession.

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Still other Christian denominations teach that the individual must engage in some combination of rituals, statements of belief, adherence to church rules, good works, etc.

All agree that salvation and atonement is a gift of God. There is biblical support for all of their diverse beliefs. More details on the necessity of the atonement.

Many secularists and religious liberals believe that:

bulletHumanity did not fall as a result of Adam and Eve's actions.
bulletJesus' torture death was not necessary in order to achieve atonement between God and humanity.

Some view the first few chapters of Genesis as a myth; some see the story as describing the rise of Adam and Eve from proto-human to fully human status; others reject the concept of imputing sin as being profoundly immoral; still others say that Jesus made atonement possible primarily through his life, not his death.

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Is the imputation (transference) of sins a moral concept?

Most religions and ethical systems regard a person who has committed a sin or crime to be responsible for their own transgressions. For example, if one person robs a bank, they have to pay the penalty for that crime. Most religions and secular ethical systems teach that it is immoral to punish the criminal's son or father for the same crime. It is even more difficult to accept the transfer of sin over many generations, from, say, five generations back to present-day humans who were not even born when the original crime occurred. It is even more difficult to accept the transfer of sin back millennia, from an ancient ancestor to a present-day person. However, Christianity has historically taught that sin can be transferred from the individual or group who committed the transgression to one or more other persons who are innocent. There is strong biblical support for this belief; the concept appears in many places throughout the Hebrew Scriptures and Christian Scriptures (a.k.a. New Testament).

Many of the doctrines of traditional Christianity depend upon the transference of sin:

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Without the imputation of Adam and Eve's sin over six millennia to their descendents, there is no need for the atonement. If Adam and Eve's actions were sinful, and the fault lies with them, not with them and their descendents.

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According to most violence-based theories of the atonement as promoted by historical Christianity, unless sins of present-day humans can be imputed back almost 2000 years to Yeshua at the time of his torture-death, the atonement is impossible.

Transferal of sin from guilty persons to one or more innocent parties is thus a foundational concept in Christianity even though it seems intrinsically immoral to many -- Christians and non-Christian alike.

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The importance that Protestants and Catholics give to the atonement :

Theologian J. Denny Weaver wrote that the atonement has preoccupied Protestants much more than Roman Catholics, because the latter gives its:

"... believers immediate access to the saving grace of Christ in the sacraments. Catholicism has not sensed the same need as Protestants to guarantee access to God's grace via a correct doctrine of atonement.8

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Theories on how the atonement operates:

The Bible does not clearly explain exactly how Jesus life and/or death made the atonement possible.  According to retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong:

"Thoughtful Christian leaders, working inside the worldview they understand, have spent centuries developing what they call 'the theology of the cross' as the essential ingredient in the Jesus story, The process has resulted in many variations on the theme that is regarded as the central tenet of Christianity: the doctrine of the atonement." 9

Several theories have been developed, including:

bulletThe Ransom Theory (a.k.a. Classical Theory) of the atonement was generally accepted by Christians for about half of the of Christian history -- from the second to the twelfth century CE. Atonement was believed to have been based on a bribe -- the death of Yeshua -- that God used to deceitfully pay off Satan in a bait-and-switch operation. The Eastern Orthodox Churches continue to follow the original Ransom Theory of the atonement.
bulletMost Protestant denominations promote one of the Satisfaction Theories, including the Penal Theory. There has been disagreement over the scope of the atonement. John Calvin, one of the leading theologians of the Protestant Reformation, taught the principle of "limited atonement."  This is the belief that Yeshua died to atone only for the sins of specific individuals. These are the "elect" -- those special individuals who God had originally chosen to be saved before they were born. Yeshua did not die for the sins of everyone. Most other theologians teach a "universal atonement," -- that Jesus died so that everyone would have access to salvation. Currently, the Roman Catholic Church has accepted one of the many variations of the Satisfaction Theory -- that Jesus appeased God by being a ritual human sacrifice. However, the mechanism by which the atonement works is not part of the churches' official dogma.
bulletRecently, some Christians have argued for:
bulletThe Moral Influence Theory:  This is widely accepted by liberal Christians because it views Yeshua's life and death as an example to us rather than as a ransom paid or human ritual sacrifice made on our behalf.
bulletThe Christus Victor Theory:  This teaches that Jesus voluntarily allowed himself to be executed. This defeated the power of evil and released humanity from its sin.
bulletIn recent decades, some Black, feminist, and liberal theologians have suggested that spousal abuse and other violence in society can be linked to historic Christian theories of the atonement.  They have suggested alternative, non-violent theories of the atonement. These teach that reconciliation between humanity and God is achieved through the life and teachings of Jesus, not through his torture-execution. 9

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Is a consensus possible?

Theologians can find many biblical passages to justify the various theories mentioned above. All of the theories are in conflict with each other. Yet each belief is often firmly defended as "the truth" by its supporters. The theories are so fundamentally different that it is unlikely that dialogue among theologians will achieve a consensus in the foreseeable future.

There appears to be no way to assess the will of God in order to determine which, if any, of these theories are correct. Thus, there will probably be no agreement, at least in the next few decades, on the mechanism by which the atonement works.

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References:

  1. John S. Spong, "Why Christianity must change or die," Harper SanFrancisco, (1998), Page 84. Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store
  2. "Atonement," HyperDictionary.com, at: http://www.hyperdictionary.com/
  3. "H. Wayne House & Gordon Carle, "Doctrine Twisting: How core biblical truths are distorted," Page 145, InterVarsity Press, (2003).
  4. "Day of Atonement," HyperDictionary.com, at: http://www.hyperdictionary.com/
  5. "Yom Kippur," Judaism 101, at: http://www.jewfaq.org/
  6. Paul Laughlin, "Remedial Christianity: What every believer should know about the faith, but probably doesn't," Polebridge Press, (2000), Page 173. Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store
  7. "Atonement," Easton Bible Dictionary, at: http://www.ccel.org/
  8. "Doctrine of the Atonement," New Advent, at: http://www.newadvent.org/
  9. J. Denny Weaver, "The nonviolent atonement," William B. Eerdmans, (2001), Page 2. Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store.
  10. "Original Sin," The Catholic Encyclopedia, at: http://www.newadvent.org/
  11. "Sin," Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology," at: http://bible.crosswalk.com/

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Copyright © 2004 & 2007 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2004-APR-6
Latest update: 2007-AUG-26
Author: B.A. Robinson

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