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The atonement

Why is the atonement necessary?

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bullet"What can wash away my sin? Nothing but the blood of Jesus;
What can make me whole again? Nothing but the blood of Jesus
from Robert Lowry's late 19th century hymn: "Nothing but the Blood." 1

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In Christian usage, atonement means "at-one-ment." This is the state of being "at one" -- or reconciled -- with God. 2

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Historical Christian beliefs about the atonement:

The atonement is one of the principal beliefs shared by most denominations within Christianity. Most denominations have traditionally taught the following beliefs. However some faith groups are now deviating from some of these historic doctrines and are basing their theory of the atonement on the live of Jesus rather than his death.

bulletThe book of Genesis records that God created Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden as proto-humans. Unlike modern-day people, they lacked a moral sense; they had no knowledge of good and evil. God had prohibited Adam and Eve from eating a fruit from a tree in the center of the Garden called the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. According to Eve, they were not even allowed to touch it. Seeking to become fully human by developing a moral sense, they disobeyed God 3
bulletAfter Adam and Eve ate the magical fruit, it had a profound effect on their mental processes. It gave them an ability that no other living creature had ever experienced: the capability to know the difference between good and evil. It apparently also altered their DNA, because they were able to pass this ability to their descendents. However, in eating the fruit, they had sinned. They disobeyed the direct command of God.
bulletGod is totally just and completely free of sin. Because of these attributes, either:
bulletHe cannot unilaterally tolerate or forgive sin in humans, or
bulletHe could unilaterally tolerate and forgive sin, but chooses not to.
The result is that Adam and Eve's sinful act created a massive gulf between God and the first humans.
bulletThis gap has continued down to the present day, because the sin of Adam and Eve has been transmuted (transferred) to all subsequent generations.
bulletRoman Catholics teach that every human has inherited the "original sin" committed by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden from our common original parents. Original sin is "...the hereditary stain with which we are born on account of our origin or descent from Adam" and Eve. 5
bulletProtestants generally teach that Adam and Eve acted as representatives for the entire human race. Their sin caused the entire universe to shift in major ways. Every human enters a world marked by sin, condemnation, and death.
bulletAn event of unprecedented power was necessary to heal this gulf, before humans could be reconciled with God. This event was the life on Earth -- and in particular, the execution -- of Yeshua of Nazareth (a.k.a Jesus Christ). He is regarded by most Christian faith groups as the Son of God -- the second person of the Trinity -- the only human who has ever been able to lead a sinless life while on earth.
bulletAccording to scholar Vincent Taylor: "The atonement is accomplished in the work of Christ, whose suffering is vicarious, representative and sacrificial in character; it is on behalf of men, in their name, and for the purpose of their approach to God. " 4
bulletThe sacrificial nature of Yeshua's death is seen in the many references in the Christian Scriptures to the shedding of his blood. Yeshua is often referred to as the "Lamb of God." His death is linked to the image found throughout the Hebrew Scriptures (a.k.a. Old Testament) of the ritual killing of a lamb or other animal in the temple, as a temporary sacrifice for human sin.
bulletAccording to Hebrews 9:11: "...almost all things are by the law purged with blood; and without shedding of blood is no remission [of sins]." Thus, Yeshua's bloody death by torture on the cross was a necessary precondition to achieve atonement between God and at least some humans.
bulletYeshua accepted the sins of part of the human race as he was dying on the cross -- all of those committed by certain humans prior to Yeshua's life on Earth, and those committed during his life, after his life on Earth, up to the present time.
bulletThe concept that the shedding of Jesus' blood and his execution allowed some of the billions of humans who have ever lived to have their sins forgiven is called the "blood atonement." This same term is used by some Mormon denominations who assign it a different meaning.

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A foundational Christian concept: the transference of sins:

The concept of sins being transferred from one or more guilty parties to an innocent person or persons is rarely seen in most religions or in ethical systems. In fact, almost all systems of morality consider it to be highly immoral. If John Doe murders a person, most people would consider it an immoral, illegal act by the government if they charged his children or parents with the crime,  However, precisely this concept of transferring the responsibility for sin from the guilty to the innocent appears in many passages of the Bible. It forms an integral part of historical Christianity.

Without such imputation of sin, the responsible for the sins of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden would have stayed with the first parents. The sin could not have been transferred to successive generations and end up infecting modern-day humans. Also, without the imputation of sins, Yeshua could not have absorbed the sins of part of humanity, thus paving the way for the atonement. Without the transmission of sin, a case can be made that if God is just and unwilling or unable to forgive sin, then:

bulletThe major gulf between God the first parents could not have been passed on to the successive generations of humans down to the present day, and
bulletIf gap existed, there would be no way to bridge it and achieve atonement.

Many people in the 21st century reject the concept of sin transference from the guilty to the innocent. However, it is key to the various atonement theories. Without it, the entire sequence of events from the Garden of Eden to the killing field in Jerusalem makes no sense.

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The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Robert Lowry, "Nothing but the Blood," at: http://www.cyberhymnal.org/
  2. "Atonement," HyperDictionary.com, at: http://www.hyperdictionary.com/
  3. Genesis 2:16-17.
  4. Vincent Taylor, "The Atonement in New Testament Teaching," Page 182
  5. "Original Sin," Catholic Encyclopedia, at: http://www.newadvent.org/

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Home > Christianity > History, Beliefs, Trends, etc > Beliefs > Atonement > here

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Copyright © 2004 to 2007 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2004-APR-11
Latest update: 2007-JUN-10
Author: B.A. Robinson

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