Over the past 20 I have been asked repeatedly for my position on the Christian doctrine of atonement. Every time I want to link to the lovely blog “I wrote a few years ago.” Every time I go searching for it and realize that I never wrote such a blog. The subject is tricky and deserves a fuller treatment, but I decided that I should sketch something out in the meantime. So, here is my sketch in three parts. First, what is “atonement”?
What is Atonement?
In short, “atonement” is the word Christians use when speaking about our separation from God and how Jesus managed to bridge the gap. It usually goes something like this.
- Adam and Eve messed up, resulting in a falling-out with God.
- This original mistake passes from generation to generation; we are born with a broken relationship to God, neighbor, and cosmos.
- Humans alone cannot mend the break.
- Jesus did, though the process is still working itself out.
Hopefully that gives you the basics of what Christians call “The Fall,” “Original Sin,” “Salvation by Grace (gift) alone,” and “Atonement.” I tried to avoid using those words, because each one is loaded with centuries of commentary and some doctrines that many Christians disagree about.
I agree with that statement wholeheartedly (as stated). Still, I can see where people might have concerns:
- about Adam and Eve – did they literally exist?
- about what sin is and how it is transmitted – is intention required?
- about our role in fixing the problem – how much power do we have?
- about the effect of Jesus – did he save all or some?
Great questions. I’m not going to deal with them here. So, let’s give a simpler, more immediate statement that I see as more useful, if you’re just getting into Christianity – or theology.
- The world is unsatisfactory: I don’t have the relationships I would like, my priorities seem messed up, and I can’t even do the good things I want to do.
- The problem seems to apply to everyone.
- I’m at a loss to figure out how this might be fixed through any of the obvious solutions (e.g., getting power, physical discipline, self-denial, education, introspection) – and after serious attention to those options.
- Jesus, by act and example, appears to be opening a way to make things genuinely better.
The word “atonement” has a wonderful history. It is an English word coined literally to capture “at-one-ment.” It is the process of coming together with someone from whom you have been separated. In other words, atonement is reconciliation. Other meanings – including reparation, satisfaction, paying compensation, and doing penance are more recent and based on atonement theologies to which I will not here commit. And, of course, the Bible talks about atonement at length, both technically (in Leviticus and Hebrews) and more generally (everywhere else). It’s a pretty central concept.
The key element is this. It works for me. As a Christian, I find the world less unsatisfactory. My relationships are easier more fulfilling, my priorities more satisfying, and my actions more effective.