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  • Writer's pictureRev. Izzy Harbin

Atonement - Turning or Returning to God

My apologies - this is a long post, but hopefully a deeply informative one. There is much more I could say about Atonement, but hopefully this will spark some new ideas for you.

Leviticus 23:26-32

26 The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 27 “Now, the tenth day of this seventh month is the Day of Atonement; it shall be a holy convocation for you: you shall humble yourselves and present the Lord’s offering by fire, 28 and you shall do no work during that entire day, for it is a Day of Atonement, to make atonement on your behalf before the Lord your God. 29 For those who do not humble themselves during that entire day shall be cut off from the people. 30 And anyone who does any work during that entire day, such a one I will destroy from the midst of the people. 31 You shall do no work. This is a statute forever throughout your generations in all your settlements. 32 It shall be to you a Sabbath of complete rest, and you shall humble yourselves; on the ninth day of the month at evening, from evening to evening you shall keep your Sabbath.”

The Day of Atonement! This is another part of God’s Covenant with the people of Israel, a day that is set aside for spiritual practice. Atonement is an interesting concept – to restore that which is broken, to cover over, to repair, to return or turn toward God - these are but a few ways of thinking about the act of atonement as practiced by the Israelite people.

In our modern-day context, Protestant Churches often talk about the atonement as the saving work of Christ through Jesus’ death on the cross. As we quickly approach Good Friday and Easter, this is a perfect time to reflect on what atonement means for us in the 21st century.

From a theological perspective, the church has inherited roughly seven Atonement Theories, each with their own spin on how it works and what they accomplish in Jesus’ death. Here they are in brief:

1. The Moral Influence Theory – this theory is one of the oldest and seeks to view Jesus’ death as the catalyst to a positive moral change in society, encouraging humanity to follow Jesus’ lived example. Central to this theory is the power of the Holy Spirit operating in the lives of people in order to facilitate this moral change. A primary focus of this theory is the crucifixion coupled with his life; recognizing that both are necessary to comprehend the completeness of God’s love.

2. Ransom Theory – this theory reflects more prominently on Jesus’ death and sees his death as a ransom paid in order to settle our debt. This theory requires that one believe in the fall of humankind through the sin of Adam which made us captive to Satan, and that in order for God to release us from captivity, a ransom must be paid. In this theory, the act of redemption is thought of as a buy back. For its detractors, this theory is unliked because it involves paying off Satan.

3. Christus Victor – this theory states that Jesus’ death on the cross acts as a decisive blow against Satan, sin, and death, thus freeing all humanity from our bondage to these powers. It is imagined that while Jesus was held in his grave for three days that he did battle with Satan, ultimately defeating his rule over humanity and setting us all free. This is often referred to as the Classical view of Atonement.

4. Satisfaction Theory – this theory was authored by Anselm in the 12th century and seeks to define Jesus’ death as the necessary satisfaction paid to God, as in Jesus pays restitution to God thus mending what was broken. This theory was developed in contrast to the Ransom Theory which paid off Satan, and instead, pays God what is just and owed for our all of our injustices.

5. The Penal Substitutionary Theory – this theory builds on Anselm’s theory of satisfaction and states that Jesus was a substitute for us, meaning we did not have to pay God back for our sin, but rather Jesus paid the debt for us. Jesus’ death satisfies the wrath of God kindled against humanity for their sins, and stands between God and humanity so that God no longer sins the sinful nature of humans. In this theory, God can only be satisfied through the death of Jesus who covers all our sins.

6. The Governmental Theory – this theory is similar to Penal Substitutionary Theory, but differs in a huge way; Jesus is unable to satisfy our debt. What Jesus’ death actually accomplishes on the cross is to demonstrate the severity of God’s displeasure with humankind’s sin, revealing the high price that must be paid, but does not actually pay it. Jesus died only for the church, not for the whole of humanity. If you are apart of the church, then you receive the benefit of Jesus’ death.

7. The Scapegoat Theory – this is a relatively new theory whereby Jesus becomes the scapegoat for the sins of humanity. Jesus isn’t a sacrifice, but rather a victim. How does this work exactly – those who would have Jesus killed believe that he is guilty of the crime for which he has been condemned (crime that is often buried in obscurity), Jesus is later determined to be the true son of God, therefor the people who elected to kill Jesus assume the guilt for Jesus’ death. This theory also aligns with the concept of the incarnation – that God came in the flesh as manifested in Jesus; that God is the one crucified on the cross; and that through this act, we are able to enter into the fullness of life.

These theories ask us to examine the death of Christ and what it means for humanity through a careful reading of scripture. Sadly, the New Testament is slim on atonement details, thus the development of seven different theories over a period of 1000 years or more. The Hebrew text talks far more explicitly of atonement, especially at the time of the Israelites wandering in the desert when the Law was supposedly given to Moses.

Leviticus 16 talks about the Day of Atonement, and it is later reiterated in Leviticus 23. In chapter 16, though, there is a curious passage about sin –

“20 “When he has finished atoning for the holy place and the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall present the live goat. 21 Then Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat and confess over it all the iniquities of the Israelites, and all their transgressions, all their sins, putting them on the head of the goat and sending it away into the wilderness by means of someone designated for the task.[a] 22 The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to a barren region, and the goat shall be set free in the wilderness.”

The live goat is used to receive the sins of the people, but the goat is set free to wander in the wilderness. The sins of the people are not washed away by the shedding of blood, but in the Priest’s laying on of hands on the goats head.

What is offered prior to the mitigation of sins is a purification offering of a bull where blood is spilled and showered all over the tent and the curtain that separates the Altar from the Holy of Holies. This offering of blood is more to purify the temple and the offeror than the people as a whole.

There is another provision, though, that the Rabbi’s latched onto that changed their entire system when the temple fell in 70CE. In Leviticus chapter 5, there are provisions made for those who cannot afford an animal sacrifice. In the place of blood, an ephah of choice flour may be used (Lev. 5:11).

What this tells us is that God made a provision for the people and set the sin offering according to what the people could afford. This means that everyone was able to participate in asking for their sins to be forgiven. No one was left out of this process. Furthermore, when the temple was no longer available to the people for animal sacrifices, there was a way to continue to atone for one’s behavior.

The Rabbinic system teaches us that perhaps it isn’t the sacrifice itself that matters, but rather, a contrite heart and a willingness to return to God. When we look at the death of Jesus via crucifixion, we cannot help but make up fantastical stories about the purpose of his death. If we have a particular understanding of sacrifice as a necessary means of mitigating sin; that blood must be shed, then it becomes easy to see Jesus’ death as the ultimate sacrifice.

Seeing Jesus’ death as necessary for the forgiveness of sins, though, has, in many ways, relieved us from the physical act of seeking atonement. We don’t learn how to forgive or be forgiven, nor do we offer grace and mercy to ourselves or others. If for no other reason, the act of seeking atonement calls us to examine our own lives to the degree that we get honest about our behavior. We must make right that which is wrong. It is imperative that we understand our patterns of behavior, otherwise we are destined to repeat those patterns. What the various Atonement Theories do, however, is shift the burden relief onto Jesus, rather than leaving it with the people; the very individuals who need to change and be transformed.

Another way of looking at Jesus’ death is to see his self-sacrifice as a model for our own. Jesus is asking us to continue the work of atonement by assessing and reassessing our own lives. As he hangs on the cross between the two thieves, the thief that grabs Jesus’ attention is the one who admits he was wrong. The courage that it takes for us to acknowledge when we violate relationships is enormous. This is what God expresses in the law and it is what Jesus teaches us as he dies on the cross.

God’s grace is always sufficient for even the most heinous of sins. But if we want to change and be transformed, it is up to us to do a little bit of work to own our part and make right, to the best of our ability, what is wrong. In this we become co-creators of our lives with God. By owning our stuff, we become malleable clay for God to mold. When we remain intractable, God cannot bend us, move us, or shape us into anything new.

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