Progressive Christian & non-Christian views
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 includes 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
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 mutual.
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 they may be coming.
Rejecting the need for an atonement:
Many progressive Christians,
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
Adam and Eve lived in the Garden of Eden about six to ten
thousand years ago and were the first human couple from whom all other
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
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.
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
- God is either unwilling or unable to forgive any of
their descendents for the sin committed six to ten millennia ago.
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 found 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
Thus, the first parents of the human race did not live at the same time and were not a couple.
In a very real sense, all humans are Africans. The Adam and
Eve story is clearly a myth.
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 They no awareness of right
and wrong, of good and evil. However, they realized 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 they could not be held responsible for disobeying
The eating of the fruit is obviously a mythical event; 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 --
none of whom were even alive at the time of the alleged transgression.
Otherwise, the sin would have remained only with Adam and Eve. The concept
of transmission of sin from the guilty to the innocent is rejected
by every major religion, except Christianity. Also, modern-day Christianity rejects
this principle in all cases other than for Adam and Eve's "sin." 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.
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
very serious character flaws. Such flaws are not normally considered attributes
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.
Rejecting the efficacy of Jesus crucifixion:
As noted above, transferability of sin from the
guilty to the innocent is rejected by every major religion, with the
exception of Christianity. There is no obvious moral mechanism by which the responsibility for all of the sins
accumulated by certain people who lived before, during, and after the
torture-death of Jesus could have been transferred to him while he was dying on the cross.
Even if there were a method by which the responsibility for the sins
by billions of people could be absorbed by Jesus alone, there is no obvious way
by which the entire human race can be ethically divided into "sheep" destined
for rewards in Heaven and "goats" destined for
eternal torture in Hell based on their beliefs about Jesus.
Various gospels and epistles in the Christian scriptures explain that personal
salvation and the attainment of Heaven after death
Some combination of beliefs about Jesus' divinity, or
resurrection, or relationship to God the Father; sources differ about the
exact beliefs required.
Good works: caring for the sick, the poor, the imprisoned,
To divide the human race in
this way would
punish the vast majority of human beings for a
thought crime -- i.e. having the wrong beliefs about Jesus.
The most developed
codes of behavior from the world's systems of morality reject imprisonment of
people for thinking the wrong beliefs. Imprisonment is reserved for criminal
There is also the problem of torturing prisoners in Hell. This is also
abhorrent to most religions of the world, but is beyond the scope of
Why did Jesus die on the cross?
Over one billion Muslims in the world believe that Jesus was
not crucified. They regard him as the second most important prophet in all
of history. They
are certain that God would not have allowed him to be executed
as a common criminal by the Roman
occupying army. They believe that the accounts of his crucifixion and
resurrection in the Christian Scriptures (New
Testament) are distorted. Most believe that he later
ascended to Paradise, but not at the times described in the Christian Scriptures
(either 3 days according to Luke or 43 days according to Acts after his death).
Most non-Muslims accept the belief that Jesus was crucified. This is a punishment that the
Roman army reserved for slaves,
insurrectionists and evil sorcerers. There is no evidence that Jesus was a slave.
Very few theologians believe that Jesus was a magician or sorcerer. It is
reasonable to assume that the army viewed him as an insurrectionist.
The synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew, and Luke) state that Jesus'
committed aggravated physical assaults on commercial interests in the
Jerusalem Temple. This happened just before the time of Passover in the
springtime circa 27 to 33 CE near the end of his one year
(or three year; the Gospels differ) ministry on Earth. The Romans would have regarded this assault to be sufficient
grounds for crucifixion. The Gospel of John places the event as happening two or three
years earlier, at the start of Jesus' ministry. Many Christians
harmonize the timing conflict by assuming that John's
account is not necessarily chronological.
The author(s) of the Gospel of John discuss
the weapon that Jesus used. It would certainly justify a charge of aggravated
assault in most countries of the world today. Since the army garrison in Jerusalem was augmented
at Passover in order to quickly put down any uprisings, it can be safely assumed that
Jesus would have been immediately arrested. He would have been taken before an officer,
given a brief hearing, found guilty, sentenced to execution, and hung on the cross until he
died. The trial(s) of Jesus as described in the Gospels are filled with
inconsistencies and with violations of Jewish rules concerning the operation of
the Sanhedrin. They probably never happened.
By today's standards, this sentence was unjust. The appropriate
sentence today for a person's first charge of aggravated assault would be a brief imprisonment,
or perhaps even a suspended sentence if there were extenuating circumstances.
But in those days in Palestine, particularly at Passover time, anyone acting as
Jesus did would have expected to be arrested and suffer death through crucifixion.
Thus, Jesus was crucified because he ran afoul of Roman law.
What is the significance of his death?
Jesus' torture-death is profoundly unjust by today's ethical
standards. The Roman army's punishment grossly outweighed his transgression.
Crucifixion demonstrates that the Romans gave little value to human life.
They chose to use a weapon of terror in order to subdue Jewish threats to their power.
A person found guilty of aggravated assault in a modern democratic country would
probably be given only a relatively short sentence which might be suspended.
Capital punishment would be out of the question.
Jesus was only one out of perhaps ten thousand Jews to be
executed in this way in Palestine/Judea. According to the Cross Crucifix
"The Jewish historian Josephus reports large scale
crucifixions in Judea, up to 500 a day during a siege of Jerusalem, and in the
summer of 4 BCE, 2,000 Judeans were crucified."
Among these thousands of victims:
Some were undoubtedly terrorists
guilty of murder or mass murder. Many people in those present-day countries
that use the death penalty -- including some states in present-day US, Japan, and
many dictatorships worldwide -- would consider the death penalty warranted,
but would probably disagree with the torture methods used.
Others were like Jesus who would have been judged
guilty of a criminal act by the Roman army. Execution was an excessive and
morally unjustifiable punishment.
others were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, as in the siege at
Jerusalem. for which execution was totally unjust.
In the beliefs of many progressive Christians and
non-Christians, the main significance of Jesus' execution is that the
death penalty is profoundly immoral.
It inevitably results in the execution of innocent, or
It devalues human life.
It should be opposed vigorously.
The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above
essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.
- "Atonement," HyperDictionary.com, at:
- From Genesis 6.
- "Mitochondrial Eve," Wikipedia, at:
- "Y-chromosomal Adam," Wikipedia, at:
- Matthew 18:21-22 and Luke 17:4 and other passages.
- "Glossary: Crucifix," Cross Crucifix at:
Copyright © 2007 to 2015 by Ontario Consultants on Religious
Originally posted: 2007-JUN-14
Latest update: 2015-JAN-20
Author: B.A. Robinson