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Religious Tolerance logo

The Atonement

Part 1 of two parts

Progressive Christian & non-Christian views

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In Christian usage, atonement means "at-one-ment." This is the state of being "at one" -- or reconciled -- with God. 1 It assumes that sin has created a massive gulf dividing all humans from God. Humanity needs to be redeemed. Most Christians believe that this sin originated in the events in the Garden of Eden, where Adam and Eve were reported to have violated God's instructions and eaten the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.

The following is a description of what some non-Christians -- including some liberal theists, agnostics atheists and others -- believe about the atonement. Many Christians will consider parts of this essay to be blasphemous. But then, many non-Christian theists would consider most of the historical Christian theories of the atonement to also be blasphemous. Their feelings are mutually exclusive.

Most readers of this essay are probably mainline or conservative Christians, and will find the following very strange, because it differs from what they have been taught about salvation, original sin, and the atonement. We hope that the following material will be helpful to you when you discuss atonement with non-Christians and progressive Christians. You may not agree with their beliefs, but at least you know from where many of them may be coming and how they reached conclusions about Original Sin and the atonement.

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Rejecting the need for an atonement:

Many progressive Christians, Humanists, Atheists, Agnostics, secularists etc. cannot accept the historical Christian theories of the atonement.

  • Some consider atonement between God and humanity to be a non-issue, because they deny the existence of God, or have no belief in God.

  • Others accept that God exists, but consider a  gulf between humanity and God to be non-existent. Thus, an atonement is unnecessary. They reject the beliefs taught by many Christian denominations that:
    • Adam and Eve lived in the Garden of Eden about six to ten thousand years ago and were the first human couple. All humans descended from them.

    • They defied God's wishes by eating a fruit from a tree in the center of the garden called the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.

    • There were no deaths in the world before that event.

    • Disobeying God by eating the fruit was a major sin. 2 It caused what has been referred to as "The Fall" -- the downfall of humanity. Further, their sin was transmuted -- passed on -- to their descendents, even to present-day humans six to ten millennia and hundreds of generations later. That is, the punishment for the sin of which Adam and Eve's were guilty is passed on to their descendents who are innocent of the sin.

    • Their act of disobedience caused a gulf to form between God and humanity. God was either unwilling or unable to forgive the original humans for their sin.

    • God is either unwilling or unable to forgive any of their descendents for the sin committed six to ten millennia ago.

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Such beliefs are difficult for many present-day progressive Christians and non-Christians to accept because findings in evolution, biology, anthropology, paleontology, etc. -- as well as advances in ethical standards -- point in a different direction. From their point of view:

Mitochondrial Eve (a.k.a. mt-mrca and African Eve) is:

"...the name given by researchers to the woman who is the matrilineal most recent common ancestor (MRCA) of all living humans" 3

"Y-chromosomal Adam," was the patrilineal MRCA.

Geneticists has computed that Eve lived about 140,000 years ago, not 6,000 to 10,000 years as many conservative Christians believe. She lived in what is now Ethiopia, Kenya or Tanzania. This location is in the same general region of the world -- but a considerable distance from -- the Tigris and Euphrates river in Iraq as the Bible states.

Wikipedia reports that:

"By analyzing DNA from people in all regions of the world, geneticist Spencer Wells has concluded that all humans alive today are descended from a single man who lived in Africa around 60,000 - 90,000 years ago." 4

If these findings are correct, then there was in fact a male and female who were the first parents of the human race. But they did not live at the same time and place. Thus, they were not a couple. In a very real sense, all humans are Africans. The Adam and Eve story would have to be considered a myth.

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The book of Genesis in the Hebrew Scriptures states that God ordered Adam and Even to not eat the fruit or even touch the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. 2 As God created them, they no awareness of right and wrong, of good and evil. However, they seem to have believed that by eating of the tree's fruit they would gain that awareness. That implies that the couple was originally in a proto-human state. i.e., they were not fully human. They had no concept of morality -- of good and evil. Created by God to be curious, the first humans would naturally have had a strong urge to become fully human by developing a moral sense. But it could be argued that they could not be held responsible for disobeying God's command because they had no sense of right and wrong.

The eating of the fruit is obviously a mythical event to most religious liberals; food simply cannot instantaneously add an ethical sense or other major function to the human brain. That only happens in magical stories and other works of fiction. Further, the study of genetics has shown that a person cannot transmit characteristics -- like sin -- that they acquired during their life to their offspring. The Genesis story is a very beautiful myth derived from an earlier Mesopotamian Pagan religious belief that cannot reasonably be interpreted literally.

Death obviously existed throughout the earth for billions of years before the time of African Eve. The millions of fossils of dead animals that have been studied by paleontologists testify to this.

The atonement concept requires that Adam and Eve's "sin" six millennia ago was transmuted to their children, grand-children, and further descendents. Otherwise, the sin would have remained only with Adam and Eve. However, almost all of their descendents were not even alive at the time of the alleged transgression. The concept of transmission of sin from the guilty to the innocent is rejected by every major religion, except Christianity. Most liberal Christians would assert that:

  • Children cannot be ethically punished for the sins of their parents. People not alive at the time of a sin cannot be held responsible for that "original sin."

  • The belief that Adam and Eve's sin created a permanent gulf between themselves and God requires that God is either unwilling or unable to forgive humanity. These actions are incompatible with a just, omniscient, and omnibeneficient God who loves humanity and wishes to have a relationship with us.

  • The belief that God holds descendents of sinners equally responsible for sins performed six millennia ago is also incompatible with a just, mature, decent, caring, loving, deity.

Most ethical systems teach that everyone is responsible for their own sins. Thus, if a gulf exists between God and an individual, it is caused by that one person's sin. If forgiveness is a positive virtue, as Jesus taught repeatedly, 5 then one would expect that God would be capable of forgiving. In fact, God would be eager to forgive. Otherwise, he would have had to hold a grudge against Adam and Eve and their billions of descendents for six to ten millennia. Such a grudge would mean that God had very serious character flaws. Such flaws are not normally considered attributes of God.

As many secularist and other non-Christian authors have commented, if God created humans to have free will, curiosity, a desire to attain knowledge, and a lack of perfection, then he can hardly punish those whom he created, and their billions of descendents, for expressing free will, curiosity, a desire to attain knowledge and a lack of perfection. If God wanted absolute obedience, he could have created a race of robots.

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This topic continues in the next essay

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "Atonement,", at:
  2. From Genesis 6.
  3. "Mitochondrial Eve," Wikipedia, at:
  4. "Y-chromosomal Adam," Wikipedia, at:
  5. Matthew 18:21-22 and Luke 17:4 and other passages.
  6. "Glossary: Crucifix," Cross Crucifix at:

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Home > Christianity > History, Beliefs, Trends, etc > Beliefs > Atonement > here

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Copyright © 2007 to 2016 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally posted: 2007-JUN-14
Latest update: 2016-FEB-06
Author: B.A. Robinson


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