ATONEMENT (ă-tōn'mĕnt). The root meaning in English, “reparation,” leads to the secondary meaning of reconciliation, or “at-one-ment,” the bringing together into harmony of those who have been separated, enemies. This double meaning brings a basic biblical concept into focus. But at the same time it leaves unanswered the really crucial questions: What has caused the separation? What has brought about peace? How has it been accomplished?
The ritual of the
In Christian theology, atonement is the central doctrine of faith and can properly include all that Jesus accomplished for us on the cross. It was a vicarious (substitutionary) atonement. On the Day of Atonement, the goat that was substituted was in some sense not as valuable as a person, though the goat had never sinned; but God in his matchless grace provided a Substitute who was infinitely better than the sinner, absolutely sinless and holy, and dearer to the Father than all creation. “The wages of sin is death” (
Bibliography: L. Berkhof, Vicarious Atonement Through Christ, 1936; B. B. Warfield, The Person and Work of Christ, 1950; J. Denney, The, 1951; Leon Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross, 1955; J. B. Payne, The Theology of the Older Testament, 1962; I. H. Marshall, The Work of Christ, 1968; R. S. Wallace, The Atoning Death of Christ, 1981.
This is one of the few theological terms of Anglo-Saxon origin. It means “at-one-ment” and signifies the process of making God and man one after the tragedy of man's sin had separated them (Isa. 59:2) and made them enemies (Col. 1:21). The NT has much to say about the way Christ's death brings them together, and in the literal sense the Atonement is the crucial doctrine of Christianity.
The Christian Church has never accepted any one way of viewing the Atonement as the orthodox way. There is no doctrine of the Atonement equivalent to the two-natures doctrine in Christology, for example. The result is that there are many ways in which Christians have answered the question, “How does the death of Christ long ago and so far away save me here and now?” We can detect three broad trends in the multiplicity of theories of atonement emerging during nineteen centuries of church history.
The first trend is seen in whathas called the “classic” or “dramatic” view. It leans heavily on those biblical passages which speak of the Atonement as a ransom. It sees sinners as justly belonging to Satan because of their sin. But in the death of His Son God paid the price of their redemption. Satan accepted Jesus in place of sinners but he could not hold Him. On Easter Day Jesus rose triumphant, leaving Satan without either his original captives or their ransom. Aulén maintains that the essential point is not the grotesque imagery in which the Fathers expressed this theory but the authentic note of victory. He sees the essence of the Atonement as a process of victory over all the forces of death and evil. Most agree that victory is important, but they do not see this as the whole story.
The second group of theories may be said to have originated with, who saw sin as dishonor to the majesty of God. On the cross the God-man rendered satisfaction for this dishonor. Along similar lines the Reformers thought that Christ paid the penalty sinners incurred when they broke God's law. The strong points of this theory are its agreement with biblical teaching (e.g., on justification) and its insistence that the moral law cannot be disregarded in the process of forgiveness.
The third group of theories (especially linked with the name of Abelard) sees the Atonement in the effect on man of what Christ did. When we contemplate the love of God shown in the death of his Son we are moved to repent and to love Him in return. We are thus transformed. All is subjective.
All three theories have something to say to us. Each is inadequate by itself (especially the third, for it sees Christ as doing nothing except setting an example; the real salvation is worked out by sinners themselves). But taken together they help us to see a little of Christ's great work for men.
J. Denney, The(1905); idem, The Christian Doctrine of Reconciliation (1918); R.S. Franks, The Work of Christ (1962); L. Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross (1965); idem, The Cross in the (1965).
ATONEMENT (כָּפַר, H4105, cover; ἱλάσκομαι, G2661; καταλλάσσω, G2904, reconcile). Etymologically the word atonement signifies a harmonious relationship or that which brings about such a relationship, i.e., a reconciliation. It is principally used of the reconciliation between God and man effected by the work of Christ. The necessity for such reconciliation is the breach in the primal relationship between the Creator and the creature occasioned by man’s sinful rebellion.
Behind the Eng. word “atonement” there are several Heb. and Gr. words which do not correspond exactly one to another. (The circle of theological ideas is compatible however.) Turning to the Biblical vocabulary, the initial question is the crucial one regarding the meaning of the root kāphar. The fundamental idea of this frequently employed Heb. word seems to be “to cover,” or “to wipe away,” i.e., one’s sin, hence “to expiate,” “to placate.” It is used to describe the effect of the sacrifices at the consecration of the high priest and the altar (
It is important to note with respect to the sacrifices of the OT that they bear witness to the rupture of fellowship between God and man the sinner, that they acknowledge the righteousness of the divine judgment upon man as sinner, and, finally, that they constitute a provision for man’s forgiveness and reconciliation to God which has been divinely appointed. All of these ideas are basic to the thinking of the writers of the NT. Of course, in the NT the thought is added that the sacrifice of bulls and goats could never finally cleanse the conscience from the defilement of sin and appease an offended deity. Therefore the OT sacrifices have their fulfillment in the death of Christ, who is the true
One may then say that sacrifice is the basic NT category used to describe the death of Christ. Because this is true, atonement—which the OT sacrifices wrought in a ceremonial way—is the term commonly employed by theologians to describe the work of Christ. By the same token, because the meaning of Christ’s death is central in the NT, a much wider range of Biblical teaching than that bearing on sacrifice has been included in the theological discussion of atonement. What the Scriptures have to say about the nature of God, the significance of the law, the character of sin, the power of demonic forces, the meaning of salvation, and the final eschatological redemption of the world—all these are Scriptural themes which have been more or less central in the various “theories” of the Atonement.
OT Day of Atonement.
Before elaborating this larger congeries of ideas involved in interpreting the meaning of the death of Christ as an atonement, one must deal in a cursory way with the meaning of atonement in the OT, which is foundational to the NT doctrine of Christ’s atoning work. The crucial material in this regard concerns the Day of Atonement, which has aptly been called the “
Atonement in the NT.
It is this ceremonial of the Day of Atonement which constitutes the principal paradigm for the author of Hebrews in his interpretation of the death of Christ. In his use of the Levitical materials to illumine the meaning of Christ’s death, one has a striking example of the continuity-in-movement of redemptive history. What Christ did is analogous to what the high priest did in the OT. The author of this epistle knew nothing of the approach which contrasts the supposed OT view of God, as an angry Deity appeased by the shedding of blood, with the NT God of Jesus, who as a loving Father dispenses the favor of forgiveness freely to all His erring children. Rather, without the shedding of blood there can be no remission of sins (
The doctrine of the Atonement.
In this all too brief survey of the Biblical materials, we shall venture to outline a doctrine of the Atonement, touching upon the questions commonly discussed by the theologians. The first point to be made is that the Atonement originated with God; it was He who provided it. However one may trace the development of blood sacrifice among the Hebrews, there can be no doubt that in both the priestly and prophetic writings of the OT it is God who appointed the various rites, giving to Moses and those who followed him instructions concerning the manner in which they were to be rendered and the benefits which they secured to the worshiper. So it is in the NT. The atonement for sin provided by the death of Christ had its source in God. It is He who “was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” (
The principal word which the NT uses for the divine love is agape. Significantly, eros, the virile word for love in Gr. philosophy, does not occur. The most plausible explanation is that erotic love, whether it describes the relation of the sexes or, as in Plato, the aspiration of the soul for the ideas, is the love of the worthy, a love based on value. By contrast, God’s covenant love for His people (agape), which moved Him to provide an atonement for sin, is a love for the unworthy. Even when His people, like an unfaithful wife, went whoring after other gods, the Lord loved them still (
If love is the reason for the Atonement, one may still ask why love should have taken this mode of fulfilling its urgent purpose. In answer to this question, the ancient fathers of the Church placed great stress on a saying of Jesus recorded in
Of course Jesus did not say that He came to give His life a ransom to the devil, and nowhere does the NT, in elaborating this redemption motif, make such an affirmation. It is true that the concept of ransom presupposes bondage, the need of release, and the payment of a price to obtain this release. But the primary emphasis of Scripture is upon what men are redeemed from, rather than to whom the ransom is paid. The overall implication of Scripture is that Christ’s atoning work finds its ultimate objective in God; it is God who is reconciled. It is most natural, when thinking of Christ’s death as a ransom, to assume that the payment is to God in the sense that men owe Him an uncompromised obedience, a debt which sinners cannot render, but one which is paid by Christ on man’s behalf, through His own obedience unto death “even death on a cross” (
Though Scripture does not spell out a “ransom-paid-to-the-devil” theory, it does teach that the redeemed are safe from the power of the devil; this is the truth contained in the ancient or “classic view” of the Atonement as Christus Victor. The devil has sinners under his power; as a cruel taskmaster he drives them to sin. But Christ by His death redeemed man from this thralldom. (Note Bunyan’s theological exactitude in the Holy War, in describing how Diabolus began to tremble at the prospect of Emmanuel’s imminent victory and clandestinely stole out to the gate of the city by night to hold a colloquy with the Prince. His claim to a right over the city of Mansoul was repudiated, and his effort to strike a bargain rebuffed. He was denounced as a usurper and forced to abdicate.)
The question concerning why God’s love expresses itself by way of atonement, which the ancient Fathers answered in terms of the ransom theory, was deeply probed by
Therefore the death of Christ is the way in which God shows that He is righteous in forgiving sins and justifying him who has faith in Jesus (
The basic objections to this view drive one back to a kind of theological watershed, and it would take one far beyond the scope of this article to explore all aspects of the question. For one, it is argued that the idea of satisfaction is inimical to the fundamental insight that God is love, a sort of vestigial remnant from the imperfect view of the angry Deity portrayed in the OT. Furthermore, it is alleged, the notion of vicarious suffering is unethical. How could someone else merit the divine favor for men? Anselm, it must be said, never contemplated these questions seriously. For him it was assumed, on the basis of Scripture, that the character of God requires atonement. As for vicarious atonement, he reasoned that only the God-man could render such atonement, since it is man who has offended and God against whom the offense was directed.
In the last analysis, the question is whether one believes the fundamental thought forms of Scripture to be a permanent and final revelation. For all the limitations in Anselm’s formulation, it appears to this writer that he grasped an essential aspect of the teaching of Scripture. According to
It should be noted that Anselm conceived of the satisfaction rendered by Christ solely in terms of His death; Calvary was the one great supererogatory act of history which relieved God of any necessity to punish the sinner. It is true that Scripture places the emphasis on Christ’s death, but it should not be overlooked that His death, according to Scripture, is the climax of His life of perfect obedience. “He...became obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (
A third theory of the Atonement, sometimes referred to as the “moral influence theory,” has its roots in the teaching of Abelard (1079-1142) and its flower in Protestant liberalism. According to this view, the basic meaning of atonement is what Schleiermacher has called “moral uplift,” a new attitude toward life. There is no objective enmity on God’s part; Christ’s death has nothing to do with atonement in the sense of removal of divine alienation. Rather, Christ’s faithfulness, even unto death, revealed the divine love and dissipated man’s mistrust of God which is based on a misunderstanding of God’s character. Thus men are justified by Christ’s death, in the sense that through Calvary love is stirred up in men’s hearts and they are led to repent of their sins.
Judged by the teaching of Scripture, this view is defective and inadequate; the very essence of the doctrine of the Atonement is lost. Yet there is an essential element of truth, for the death of Christ has a profound influence on the beneficiaries. Because God is reconciled to the sinner in Christ, men are admonished to be reconciled to God. The Christian response to the death of Christ is to “rejoice in God through our Lord
There are many aspects of the Biblical doctrine of the Atonement which may be included under this heading. Historically Roman Catholics and Protestants have been divided over the need of rendering a temporal satisfaction for post-baptismal sins, the former teaching that such satisfaction is rendered either in penance or purgatory. Protestants believe that Christ has rendered a full and complete satisfaction for all sins, so that such a teaching impinges the perfection of Christ’s atoning work. Protestants have also urged the perfection of Christ’s work against the sacrament of the mass which is allegedly a real, though not literal, reiteration of the sacrifice of Calvary. While they believe that the efficacy of Christ’s atonement is continuously applied throughout the centuries, they do not believe that it is possible to enhance its efficacy by a constant repetition. In fact, the writer of Hebrews scores the inadequacy of the older order in that the sacrifices of the Aaronic priesthood had constantly to be repeated, bringing no final solution to the sin problem. But now Christ has once and for all put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself, and by this one offering He has perfected forever those who are sanctified (
Speaking of the perfection of the Atonement, a word should be said about divine healing. Healing is commonly associated with faith, but ultimately it has to do with the Atonement. “Faith healing” presupposes that in the Atonement our Lord contemplated the body as well as the soul. So those who stress healing of the body, if they spell out their doctrine beyond a general faith in God, would say that the faith which heals is a faith in the Savior who Himself “took our infirmities and bore our diseases” (
Perhaps the most discussed aspect of the Atonement today is its extent, which is also an aspect of its perfection. In the older Calvinistic-Arminian debate this question eventuated ultimately in the same result. Not all men are finally redeemed by Christ’s death, but only those who believe (Arminians), who are the elect of God (Calvinists). For those who die outside of Christ, there is only eternal separation from God.
In contemporary theology there has been much emphasis placed on the universal or cosmic scope of the Atonement, and in many instances this universalism advocates in a forthright manner the restitution of every fallen, alienated creature to the fellowship of God. Unlike the older universalism which made all religions equally valid efforts to have fellowship with God, the new universalism is confessedly Christian; men are reconciled to God only by Christ. But all men are reconciled, and sooner or later they will be made to realize it. He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (
G. Aulén, Christus Victor (1951); J. Denney, The(1951); L. Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross (1955); G. C. Berkouwer, The Work of Christ (1965).
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)
a-ton’-ment: Translates kaphar; chaTa’; ratsah, the last employed only of human relations (
I. Terms Employed. 1. Hebrew and Greek Words:
The root meanings of the Hebrew words, taking them in the order cited above, are, to "cover," hence expiate, condone, cancel, placate; to "offer," or "receive a sin offering," hence, make atonement, appease, propitiate; "effect reconciliation," i. e. by some conduct, or course of action. Of the Greek words the meanings, in order, are "to be," or "cause to be, friendly"; "to render other," hence to restore; "to leave" and with preposition to leave off, i. e. enmity, or evil, etc. ; "to render holy," "to set apart for"; hence, of the Deity, to appropriate or accept for Himself.
2. The English Word:
It is obvious that the English word "atonement" does not correspond etymologically with any Hebrew or Greek word which it translates. Furthermore, the Greek words in both Septuagint anddo not correspond exactly to the Hebrew words; especially is it true that the root idea of the most frequently employed Hebrew word, "cover," is not found in any of the Greek words employed. These remarks apply to both verbs and substantives The English word is derived from the phrase "at one," and signifies, etymologically, harmony of relationship or unity of life, etc. It is a rare instance of an AS theological term; and, like all purely English terms employed in theology, takes its meaning, not from its origin, but from theological content of the thinking of the Continental and Latin-speaking Schoolmen who employed such English terms as seemed most nearly to convey to the hearers and readers their ideas. Not only was no effort made to convey the original Hebrew and Greek meanings by means of English words, but no effort was made toward uniformity in translating of Hebrew and Greek words by their English equivalents.
3. Not to Be Settled by Lexicon Merely:
It is at once clear that no mere word-study can determine the Bible teaching concerning atonement. Even when first employed for expressing Hebrew and Christian thought, these terms, like all other religious terms, already had a content that had grown up with their use, and it is by no means easy to tell how far heathen conceptions might be imported into our theology by a rigidly etymological study of terms employed. In any case such a study could only yield a dictionary of terms, whereas what we seek is a body of teaching, a circle of ideas, whatever words and phrases, or combinations of words and phrases, have been employed to express the teaching.
4. Not Chiefly a Study in Theology:
There is even greater danger of making the study of the Atonement a study in dogmatic theology. The frequent employment of the expression "the Atonement" shows this tendency. The work of Christ in reconciling the world to God has occupied so central a place in Christian dogmatics that the very term atonement has come to have a theological rather than a practical atmosphere, and it is by no means easy for the student, or even for the seeker after the saving relation with God, to pass beyond the accumulated interpretation of the Atonement and learn of atonement.
5. Notes on Use of Terms:
The history of the explanation of the Atonement and the terms of preaching atonement cannot, of course, be ignored. Nor can the original meaning of the terms employed and the manner of their use be neglected. There are significant features in the use of terms, and we have to take account of the history of interpretation. Only we must not bind ourselves nor the word of God in such forms.
(3) In the English New Testament the word "atonement" is found only at
II. Bible Teaching concerning Atonement in General: The Atonement of Christ must be interpreted in connection with the conception of atonement in general in the Scriptures. This idea of atonement is, moreover, part of the general circle of fundamental ideas of the religion of Yahweh and Jesus. Theories of the Atonement root themselves in conceptions of the nature and character of God, His holiness, love, grace, mercy, etc.; of man, his nature, disposition and capacities; of sin and guilt.
1. Primary Assumption of Unity of God and Man:
The basal conception for the Bible doctrine of atonement is the assumption that God and man are ideally one in life and interests, so far as man’s true life and interest may be conceived as corresponding with those of God. Hence, it is everywhere assumed that God and man should be in all respects in harmonious relations, "at-one." Such is the ideal picture of Adam and Eve in Eden. Such is the assumption in the parable of the Prodigal Son; man ought to be at home with God, at peace in the Father’s house (
Such also is the ideal of Jesus as seen especially in
In the claim of the first-fruits of all crops, of all flocks and of all increase, God emphasized the common life in production; asserted His claim to the total life of His people and their products. God claimed the lives of all as belonging essentially to Himself and a man must recognize this by paying a ransom price (
2. The Breach in the Unity:
3. Means for Expressing, Restoring and Maintaining:
Numerous and various means were employed for expressing this essential unity of life, for restoring it since it was broken off in sin, and for maintaining it. These means were primarily spiritual and ethical but made extensive use of material substances, physical acts and symbolical ceremonials; and these tended always to obscure and supplant the spiritual and ethical qualities which it was their function to exhibit. The prophet came to the rescue of the spiritual and ethical and reached his highest insight and function in the doctrine of the Suffering
Atonement is conceived in both Old Testament and New Testament as partly personal and partly social, extending to the universal conception. The acts and attitudes by which it is procured, restored and maintained are partly those of the individual alone (
The various sacrifices and offerings by means of which atonement was effected in the life and worship of Israel will be found to be discussed under the proper words and are to be spoken of here only summarily. The series of offerings, guilt-offerings, burnt-offerings, sin-offerings, peace-offerings, reveal a sense of the breach with God, a conviction of the sin making the breach and an ethical appreciation of the holiness of God entirely unique among religions of ancient or modern times, and this fact must never be overlooked in interpreting the New Testament Christian doctrine of the Atonement. In the Old Testament there are sins and sinful circumstances for which no atonement is possible. Many passages, indeed, almost seem to provide against atonement for any voluntary wrongdoing (e. g.
is, no doubt, an extreme interpretation, out of harmony with the general spirit of the Old Testament, but it does show how seriously sin ought to be taken under the Old Testament regime. No atonement for murder could make possible the residence of the murderer again in that section of the land where the murder was done (
Permanent uncleanness or confirmed disease of an unclean sort caused permanent separation from the temple and the people of Yahweh (e. g.
After childbirth (
III. The Atonement of Jesus Christ 1. Preparation for New Testament Doctrine:
All the symbols, doctrine and examples of atonement in the Old Testament among the Hebrews find their counterpart, fulfillment and complete explanation in the new covenant in the blood of Jesus Christ (
The personal, parabolic sufferings of Hosea, the remarkable elaboration of the redemption of spiritual Israel through a Suffering Servant of Yahweh and the extension of that redemption to all mankind as presented in Isa 40-66, and the same element in such psalms as
2. The One Clear Fact:
However much theologians may disagree as to the rationale of the Atonement, there is, as there can be, no question that Jesus and all His interpreters in the New Testament represent the Atonement between God and men as somehow accomplished through Jesus Christ. It is also an agreed fact in exegesis that Jesus and His apostles understood His death to be radically connected with this Atonement.
3. How Shall We Understand the Atonement? When we come to systematize the teaching concerning the Atonement we find, as in all doctrine, that definite system is not offered us in the New Testament, but all system, if it is to have any value for Christianity, must find its materials and principles in the New Testament. Proceeding in this way some features may be stated positively and finally, while others must be presented interrogatively, recognizing that interpretations may differ.
(1) An initial consideration is that the Atonement originates with God who "was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself" (
(2) It follows that atonement is fundamental in the nature of God in His relations to men, and that redemption is in the heart of God’s dealing in history. The "Lamb slain from the foundation of the world" (
(3) The question will arise in the analysis of the doctrine: How does the death of Christ save us? No specific answer has ever been generally satisfactory. We have numerous theories of the Atonement. We have already intimated that the answer to this question will depend upon our idea of the nature of God, the nature of sin, the content of salvation, the nature of man, and our idea of Satan and evil spirits. We ought at once to dismiss all merely quantitative and commercial conceptions of exchange of merit. There is no longer any question that the doctrines of imputation, both of Adam’s sin and of Christ’s righteousness, were overwrought and applied by the early theologians with a fatal exclusiveness, without warrant in the Word of God. On the other hand no theory can hold much weight that presupposes that sin is a thing of light consequence in the nature of man and in the economy of God. Unless one is prepared to resist unto blood striving against sin (
It would serve clearness if we reminded ourselves that the question of how in the Atonement may involve various elements. We may inquire: (a) for the ground on which God may righteously receive the sinner; (b) for the means by which God places the restoration within the reach of the sinner; (c) for the influence by which the sinner is persuaded to accept the reconciliation; (d) for the attitude or exercise of the sinner toward God in Christ wherein he actually enters the state of restored union with God. The various theories have seemed to be exclusive, or at least mutually antagonistic, largely because they have taken partial views of the whole subject and have emphasized some one feature of the whole content. All serious theories partly express the truth and all together are inadequate fully to declare how the Daystar from on high doth guide our feet into the way of peace (
(4) Another question over which theologians have sorely vexed themselves and each other concerns the extent of the Atonement, whether it is available for all men or only for certain particular, elect ones. That controversy may now be passed by. It is no longer possible to read the Bible and suppose that God relates himself sympathetically with only a part of the race. All segregated passages of Scripture formerly employed in support of such a view have now taken their place in the progressive self-interpretation of God to men through Christ who is the propitiation for the sins of the whole world (1
See also ATONEMENT, DAY OF; PROPITIATION; RECONCILIATION; SACRIFICE.
LITERATURE. In the vast literature on this subject the following is suggested: Articles by Orr in HDB; by Mackenzie in Standard Bible Dictionary; in the Catholic Encyclopedia; in Jewish Encyclopedia; by Simpson in Hastings, DCG; J. McLeod Campbell, The Nature of the Atonement; John Champion, The Living Atonement; W. M. Clow, The Cross in Christian Experience; T. J. Crawford, The Doctrine of Holy Scripture Respecting the Atonement; R. W. Dale, The Atonement; J. Denney, The: Its Place and Interpretation in the New Testament, and The Atonement and the Modern Mind; W. P. DuBose, The Soteriology of the New Testament; P. T. Forsyth, The Cruciality of the Cross; J. Scott Lidgett, The Spiritual Principle of the Atonement; Oxenham, The Catholic Doctrine of the Atonement; A. Ritschl, The Christian Doctrine of Justification and Reconciliation, I, II; Riviere, Le dogme de la redemption; D. W. Simon, Reconciliation by Incarnation; W. L. Walker, The Cross and the Kingdom; various writers, The Atonement and Modern Religious Thought.
William Owen Carver