is a doctrine found within both Christianity
. It describes how sin
can be forgiven by God
. In Judaism, Atonement is said to be the process of forgiving or pardoning a transgression
. This was originally accomplished through rituals performed by a Levite
on the holiest day of the Jewish year: Yom Kippur
(Day of Atonement). In Christian theology the atonement refers to the forgiving or pardoning of sin through the death of Jesus Christ
which made possible the reconciliation between God and creation. Within Christianity there are numerous technical theories for how such atonement might work, including the ransom theory
, the Abelardian theory
, and the Anselmian satisfaction
The word atonement
gained widespread use in the sixteenth century after William Tyndale
recognized that there was not a direct translation of the concept into English. In order to explain the doctrine of Christ's sacrifice, which accomplished both the remission of sin and reconciliation of man to God, Tyndale invented a word that would encompass both actions. He wanted to overcome the inherent limitations of the word "reconciliation" while incorporating the aspects of "propitiation" and forgiveness. It is interesting to note that while Tyndale labored to translate the 1526 English Bible, his proposed word comprises two parts, 'at' and 'onement,' which also means reconciliation, but combines it with something more. Although one thinks of the Jewish Fast of Yom Kippur
(Day of Atonement), the Hebrew word is 'kaper' meaning 'a covering', so one can see that 'reconciliation' doesn't precisely contain all the necessary components of the word atonement. Expiation means "to atone for." Reconciliation comes from Latin roots re, meaning "again"; con, meaning "with"; and ultimately, 'sol', a root meaning "seat". Reconciliation, therefore, literally means "to sit again with." While this meaning may appear sufficient, Tyndale thought that if translated as "reconciliation," there would be a pervasive misunderstanding of the word's deeper significance to not just reconcile, but "to cover," so the word was invented.
Atonement in Christianity
Christians have used three different metaphors to understand how the atonement might work. Churches and denominations may vary in which metaphor they consider most accurately fits into their theological perspective, however all Christians emphasise that Jesus
is the Saviour of the world and through his death the sins of mankind have been forgiven.
The first metaphor, epitomised by the "ransom to Satan" theory, was used by the fourth-century theologian Gregory of Nyssa based on verses such as Mark 10:45 – "the Son of Man came … to give his life as a ransom for the many". In this metaphor Jesus liberates mankind from slavery to Satan and thus death by giving his own life as a ransom. Victory over Satan consists of swapping the life of the perfect (Jesus), for the lives of the imperfect (mankind). A variation of this view is known as the "Christus Victor" theory, and sees Jesus not used as a ransom but rather defeating Satan in a spiritual battle and thus freeing enslaved mankind by defeating the captor.
The second metaphor, used by the eleventh century theologian Anselm, is called the "satisfaction" theory. In this picture mankind owes a debt not to Satan, but to sovereign God himself. A sovereign may well be able to forgive an insult or an injury in his private capacity, but because he is a sovereign he cannot if the state has been dishonoured. Anselm argued that the insult given to God is so great that only a perfect sacrifice could satisfy and Jesus, being both God and man, was this perfect sacrifice. A variation on this theory is the commonly held Protestant "penal substitution theory," which instead of considering sin as an affront to God’s honour, sees sin as the breaking of God’s moral law. Placing a particular emphasis on Romans 6:23 (the wages of sin is death), penal substitution sees sinful man as being subject to God’s wrath with the essence of Jesus' saving work being his substitution in the sinner's place, bearing the curse in the place of man (Gal. 3:13). A third variation that also falls within this metaphor is Hugo Grotius’ "governmental theory", which sees Jesus receiving a punishment as a public example of the lengths to which God will go to uphold the moral order.
The third metaphor is that of healing, associated with Pierre Abélard in the eleventh century, and Paul Tillich in the twentieth. In this picture Jesus’ death on the cross demonstrates the extent of God’s love for us, and moved by this great act of love mankind responds and is transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit. This view is favoured by most liberal theologians as the moral influence view, and also forms the basis for Rene Girard’s "mimetic desire" theory (not to be confused with meme theory).
Main theories in detail
Ransom & Christus Victor
William Tyndale (who invented the word from Hebrew and Greek manuscripts), René Girard, James Alison, Mark Heim, Gerhard Förde see 'In Christianity' in Scapegoat
Other denominational perspectives
Eastern Orthodoxy and Eastern Catholicism have a substantively different soteriology; this is sometimes cited as the core difference between Eastern and Western Christianity. In contrast to other forms of Christianity, the Orthodox tend to use the word "expiation" with regard to what is accomplished in the sacrificial act. In Orthodox theology, expiation is an act of offering that seeks to change the one making the offering. The Greek word that is translated both into propitiation and expiation is "hilasmos" which means "to make acceptable and enable one to draw close to God". Thus the Orthodox emphasis would be that Christ died, not to appease an angry and vindictive Father, or to avert the wrath of God, but to change people so that they may become more like God (see Theosis).
Roman Catholic views on atonement and reparation
As expressed by Pope Pius XI
in his encyclical Miserentissimus Redemptor
, in the Roman Catholic
tradition the concepts of atonement and redemption are often seen as being inherently related. And atonement is often balanced with specific Acts of Reparation
which relate the sufferings and death of Christ to the forgiveness of sins.
Moreover, in Miserentissimus Redemptor the Pontif called acts of reparation a duty for Roman Catholics:
- "We are holden to the duty of reparation and expiation by a certain more valid title of justice and of love." ... "Moreover this duty of expiation is laid upon the whole race of men
Pope John Paul II referred to the concept as:
- "the unceasing effort to stand beside the endless crosses on which the Son of God continues to be crucified".
Specific Roman Catholic practices such as the Rosary of the Holy Wounds (which does not include the usual rosary mysteries) focus on specific redemptive aspects of Christ's suffering in Calvary.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon)
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon) expands the doctrine of the atonement complementary to the substitutionary atonement concept, including the following:
- Suffering in Gethsemane. The Atonement began in Gethsemane and ends with Christ's resurrection. (Luke 22:44; Doctrine and Covenants 19:16-19; Mosiah 3:7; Alma 7:11-13. Christ described this agony in the Doctrine and Covenants as follows: "...how sore you know not, how exquisite you know not, yea, how hard to bear you know not.... Which suffering caused myself, even God, the greatest of all, to tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore, and to suffer both body and spirit..." (19:15,18).
- The relationship of justice, mercy, agency, and God's unconditional love. Christ's infinite atonement was required to satisfy the demands of justice based on eternal law, rendering Him Mediator, Redeemer, and Advocate with the Father. Thus, he proffers divine mercy to the truly penitent who voluntarily come unto him, offering them the gift of his grace to "lift them up" and "be perfected in Him" through his merits (2 Nephi 2 and 9; Alma 12, 34, and 42; Moroni 9:25; 10:33; compare Isaiah 55:1-9).
- No need for infant baptism. Christ's atonement completely resolved the consequence from the fall of Adam of spiritual death for infants, young children and those of innocent mental capacity who die before an age of self-accountability, hence all these are resurrected to eternal life in the resurrection. However, baptism is required of those who are deemed by God to be accountable for their actions.
- Empathetic purpose. Christ suffered pain and agony not only for the sins of all men, but also to experience their physical pains, illnesses, anguish from addictions, emotional turmoil and depression, "that His bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities" (Alma 7:12; compare Isaiah 53:4).
"The word (atonement) describes the setting 'at one' of those who have been estranged, and denotes the reconciliation of man to God. Sin is the cause of the estrangement, and therefore the purpose of the atonement is to correct or overcome the consequences of sin." (Bible Dictionary in the LDS version of the King James Bible.)
writer JJ Dewey
synthesizes Western and Eastern religion to contend that "true atonement is a revelation of the truth so illusion passes away and guilt is lifted".