Atonement means being made 'at one' with God. Unfortunately, the idea of atonement has received a bad press. Partly because it implies that we are culpable and many do not want to acknowledge that. But also partly because many of us Christians who have tried to uphold the notion have done so with harshness, and have a narrow view of it. One such narrow view portrays God as an angry deity, characterized more by anger than by love, and who demands sacrifice to himself; it is as though God is himself subject to a higher law of sacrifice-giving. We have been guilty of misrepresenting God, who reveals himself as self-giving Love.
So I want to set out something broader and fuller. First, we have to recognise the reality of sin. Then we look at several ways of dealing with sin, of which the final and most satisfactory one is atonement.
We are faced with the experience of what Christians call 'sin'. 'Sin' means 'things are not as they should be'. We all experience sin, in all our living. It is clearly seen in others and, if we are honest, we acknowledge it in ourselves sometimes. Sin is not just what we do, but something we are like - selfish, arrogant, unconcerned, self-pitying, grudge-holding and so on.
'Sin' is that which we know to be bad, we believe we should avoid and which we find wrong in others. Some people want to deny that there is such a thing as sin, but they nevertheless have a concept of 'things not as they should be', and use other names such as 'flaw', 'dysfunction' or 'problem', or some more specific word. For example, several times at a Green Party conference, I noticed that those who would deny that 'sin' is real used the word 'centralist' instead; as ardent decentralists, they hold that centralism is an utmost evil. They might have had a different view of what sin is; but they still have, deep down, the notion of sin.
Sin is not just a label we put on people; sin hurts and harms. What my green colleagues called centralism, for example, is arguably responsible for a huge amount of injustice, both social and ecological. Worse, the effect of sin multiplies and spreads, like cancer, like dry rot. For example, we have something out of proportion, are a little selfish about it, and want this thing for ourselves. Something gets in the way of our achieving it, and we get irritated. In our irritation, we are sharp with others in our family or colleagues, unintentionally hurting them. But that hurt is real, and when they leave the room, they meet someone else and are irritated with them, passing on the hurt. Worse, in their state of being hurt by us, they find it all too easy to remember other times when we have hurt them before. They brood in self-pity, and as a result of such brooding, over some time perhaps, they build up a dislike of us that makes them fear us or get irritated with us in return, and our relationship, while still cordial on the surface, jumps down a level.
And so it goes on. My original sin of selfish ambition activates someone else's sin of grudge-holding. Whatever sins they are, sin spreads. Another page holds a deeper discussion.
There are at least seven ways in which sin may be dealt with. To me, at least, only the final one is fully satisfactory and satisfying.
- We can try to Deny sin. Some say "Well, it doesn't really matter" or "Well, we're all like that, so why worry; just develop a thick skin." Or we can redefine sin. The philosopher Nietzsche turned it round and said that this is precisely how we are to be, in order that evolution can proceed among us. But it doesn't work to deny sin; there is always a result that is damaging. The thick skin makes us less sensitive, for example. Ironically, Nietzsche himself could not escape the reality of sin: two things he hated were hypocrisy and half-heartedness - he still held that there is something that 'ought not to be'.
- We Recognise Wrong and Try to Make Amends. Most people move on from that step to recognising that what we are doing wrong and try to make amends. We have hurt someone in the past and try to make amends - perhaps by treating them to a meal or buying them a toy. It works to some extent, but not always, for two reasons. There is some sin that we cannot make amends for, and there is some sin that we find we cannot stop, however hard we try. Sins of the way we are, especially, we are usually powerless to alter. We might tinker around the edges of it. We might cover it up so nobody notices it, but, deep down, it is still there. Notice how, when some old people become senile, they no longer have the social energy to cover it up, and their deeply-rooted selfishness or bitterness surfaces. The deep root needs to be dug out earlier in life, rather than merely excused or covered up.
- We Try Religion. Some people engage in religion in the hope that it will do something about their sin. Roman Catholics have the Mass and Confession, and believe that somehow going through these rituals nullifies their sin. In other religions there are various other rituals or even sacrifices that the believers think will make them right again. They can then perhaps start with a cleaned slate even if not an entirely clean one. But there is a problem with this approach. Suppose we get our slate cleaned as frequently as once a day. But suppose eight hours after my slate has been cleaned I commit a sin, and then two hours later I die. My slate has not been cleaned, and I can do nothing more about it. Worse, these ways are all focusing on individual acts of sin rather than digging up the deep root. The deep root remains.
- Self-Negation, Withdrawal. Buddhism recognises something of the need to deal with the deep root. So do some other systems. But it tries to do this by self-negation or withdrawal. By meditation and withdrawing from life a person might become calm, peaceful, wise. But I want something that deals with my deep root of sin in the midst of life. So that when faced with someone's selfish ambition, I do not get irritated, self-pitying and nursing a grudge. When experiencing success, I do not want to be arrogant or selfish in attitude.
- We Despair. (This stage might occur earlier.) Realising that there is some sin we cannot do anything about - whether an act we have committed or some flaw in our character - can lead us to despair. We find ourselves recognising "I've sinned. I wish I hadn't done it. But I can't undo it. It sticks, forever." When we realise this, some of us go to despair. Despair might not appear on the surface, but it rots us deep inside, it rots the real us. Some of us, unfortunately, never get through this stage, and end up in despair. In the end we die, with that stain.
- God Conquers Sin. Believing that God has conquered sin, Good conquers Evil, can bring us through the despair stage. Zoroastrianism offers this insight. God is the victor in the final battle with evil in the universe. God has the superior might, knowledge, strategy, etc. This is also seen in the Christian beliefs. Jesus Christ conquered both sin and death on the cross 2000 years ago, and he has made a supreme statement about this by rising from death. So there is hope. But we are not yet at the final stage. The Conqueror still feels distant from us. Though our final destiny might be assured, we still have to cope with sin here and now, experiencing regrets and frustrations. It seems that until death takes us to that destiny, we have to fall back on one of the previous ways of coping with sin. That was my experience for years. Things were OK, but only OK. This stage, of being under the care of a conquering God, seems rather 'thin' to me now. There is another, better stage, which we are invited to enter.
- Atonement: God Takes Sin. The really good news is that not only has God conquered sin, but he himself takes full responsibility for it even though he was and is sinless - and suffers immensely in doing so. This was accomplished within history by Jesus Christ, who was God in the role of Son in obedience to God in role of Father. He himself became the sacrifice (to himself) for our sin. (Many have meditated on the sufferings of God: those of Jesus Christ include not only exquisite physical pain of crucifixion but also extreme tiredness, taunts, humiliation, and all the time resisting the temptation to take the way of escape, and those of God in role of Father, who in his love would rather take all this suffering upon himself rather than let his Son take it.) As a result, if we allow it, God can come and dwell in us, in role of Spirit of God, replacing sin in us by a genuinely new inner-person with new innermost attitudes while maintaining our freedom-dignity. God is no longer a remote conqueror. The Spirit of God grows in us the attitudes of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, self-control (see Paul's letter to Galatians, 5:22-23). As we let the Spirit of God do so, we find sin to be increasingly conquered and nullified not just when we withdraw, but in the here and now. It is in the active bustle of life that we experience love, joy, peace and patience and so on, as living water welling up within us - as an inner reality helping us cope with sin in the here and now.
The last one is what Christians mean by atonement - being 'at one' with God in the fullest sense possible.
And, if my 'New View in Theology' has any merit, this not only copes with sin, but also has positive impact beyond sin, to bring real lasting Good to the cosmos.
This page is offered to God as on-going work. Comments, queries welcome.
Copyright (c) Andrew Basden 2009. But you may use this material subject to certain conditions.
Part of his www.abxn.org pages, that open up discussion and exploration from a Christian ('xn') perspective.
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Created: 21 November 1999, partially, but not uploaded.
Last updated: 29 December 2008, completed and uploaded. 1 January 2009 new .end.