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The Atonement

Progressive Christian & non-Christian views

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Background:

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 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 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.

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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.

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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.


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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:

  1. 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 humans descended.

  2. 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.

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

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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:

  1. 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. 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 far removed 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.

  2. 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 God's command.

    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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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."

  5. 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.

  6. 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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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 requires:

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Personal baptism.

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Some combination of beliefs about Jesus' divinity, or resurrection, or relationship to God the Father; sources differ about the exact beliefs required.

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Good works: caring for the sick, the poor, the imprisoned, etc.

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 actions.

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 this essay.

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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.

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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 web site:

 "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." 6

Among these thousands of victims:

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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.


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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.


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Still 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.

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It inevitably results in the execution of innocent, or near-innocent victims.


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It devalues human life.


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It should be opposed vigorously.

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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," HyperDictionary.com, at: http://www.hyperdictionary.com/
  2. Genesis 6.
  3. "Mitochondrial Eve," Wikipedia, at: http://en.wikipedia.org/
  4. "Y-chromosomal Adam," Wikipedia, at: http://en.wikipedia.org/
  5. Matthew 18:21-22 and Luke 17:4 and other passages.
  6. "Glossary: Crucifix," Cross Crucifix at: http://www.crosscrucifix.com/

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

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Copyright © 2007 to 2011 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally posted: 2007-JUN-14
Latest update: 2011-OCT-04
Author: B.A. Robinson

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