ATONEMENT

(A Good Friday Reflection)

One of the oldest human psychological traits is our necessity to make amends or reparations for whatever appears to disturb the order of nature or the relationship between persons. The ancient Hebrews, like so many other agricultural people around the world, offered sacrifices to God from their harvests as well as holocausts (burnt offerings) in reparation for their sins.

Yet all this is problematic, as it assumes that God is somehow like us. True, as the Scriptures say, we are made in the "image and likeness of God". Yet as the Prophets more than once pointed out, we err grievously if we think that God has any necessity for such offerings, or that somehow we can earn God's favor in any way by such gestures except by a "broken and contrite heart".

As a result, Christianity's emphasis on the Redemption, seen as effected by death of Jesus on the Cross as being a "sacrifice" for our sins presents problems as well. The temptation for Paul and the writers of the gospels to use such theme to offset "the scandal of the cross" is understandable. That it was already there, "ready-made" in the Hebrew scriptures, so to speak, for their use, is obvious enough. But the question or the problem is, do we really understand its deeper implications for us today? Do we, for example, use this concept as a way of escaping responsibilities?

Luther and the other 16th. century church reformers seem to have sensed the problem when they attacked the Catholic notion of the Eucharistic rite as being a "sacrifice" -- as if the offering of many "masses" day after day could atone for sin. But in their insistence on the "once for all" character of Jesus' offering of himself on the cross, they, in a way, only compounded the problem, driving us only back further into the image of Jesus as a sacrificial victim (the "Lamb of God") who is made to suffer as a substitute for us who are otherwise (as the famous New England preacher Jonathan Edwards put it) "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God".

But is it helpful at all today to picture God in such terms? When people have done wrong, usually they are conscious of this and try to make amends. But if they are not so conscientious, does it really do any good to threaten them with hellfire and brimstone, if the price of doing so is to have to picture God as some kind of mad tyrant or even a jilted lover? Can not a better image or likeness of God be found?

I believe so, and it can be found in a very special term, which is "atonement". The germanic origin of this word, is literally, "to make as (or at) one". Biblical languages really had no real equivalent. The Hebrew verb kipur (as in "Yom Kippur"), often translated as "atone" really means "to propitiate", while the Greek exilaskomai seems to convey the meaning of driving something away (a "scapegoat"?) -- which puts us back in the same old mid-set, that of appeasing an angry God.

What humans have divided (by sin) cannot be magically be reunited by one man's death, even if he is also God's own Son. We can be made whole again or one with God only through holiness. So what Christians should do on Good Friday is not so much commemorate Jesus as a victim for humanity, but live in communion with him who lived and gave his whole life, even in his seeming abandonment, totally for and in union with God.

R W Kropf 3/26/02

File:Atonem2.doc 02-03-26.htm