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The Atonement

Part 2 of two parts

Progressive Christian & non-Christian views

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This topic is continued here from the previous essay

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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:


Personal baptism.


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, 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. This would seem to violate the words attributed to Jesus in the "sheep and goats" section of Matthew 25. That passage states that the sole criteria for salvation and the attainment of Heaven is whether the individual helped other people in need.

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 Roman army of occupation would have regarded this assault to be sufficient grounds for crucifixion. The Gospel of John appears to place 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. Many liberal Christians believe that the events probably never happened as they are described in the Bible.

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:


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.


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.


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


It devalues human life.


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,", 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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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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