Atonement, the Cross, and Reconciliation
The idea or concept of atonement — kippur in Hebrew as in “Yom Kippur” — is one of the oldest and most commonly used terms in the Bible. In fact, we find this word (or its Greek equivalent, exilasmos ) used 116 times, yet only four times in the New Testament (Romans 3:25, Hebrews 2:17, and 1 John 2:2 and 4:10). Why is this?
One reason is that the concept is rather tricky. While psychologically speaking, it is quite understandable — after all, when we have offended someone, don’t we almost automatically feel that, if we want to get back in good terms with them, we then have to somehow “make up” or offer some “peace offering” of some sort? — it is nevertheless theologically suspect. After all, did not some of the Hebrew prophets denounce the whole idea that God could be somehow appeased by ritual offerings of grain, the slaughtering of sheep or cattle, or the burning of incense? In fact, did not Jesus himself sum up the message of these prophets when he said — it seems not just once but several times — “I desire mercy, not sacrifice”? Otherwise, might we not get the idea that God is some kind of bloodthirsty ogre or vengeful tyrant?
Yet how often, unfortunately, Christian interpretations of what happened to Jesus on the cross have veered in this problematic, even primitive, direction. No doubt, the first followers of Jesus were traumatized by the whole event and were grasping for some kind of explanation of how this wonderful person whom they believed was the promised messiah or savior of Israel could have ended up being murdered or killed so grotesquely. So the image of the temple sacrifices, or the ancient ritual of the slaughter of the Passover lamb (“the Lamb of God”) seemed so natural a comparison, that the wonder is that this idea of sacrificial atonement used so sparingly to begin with. (Theologians, and especially those who composed liturgies in later ages, I think, would have done well to have noticed this.)
Instead, what we have in it’s place is the concept of “reconciliation”. Actually, while the word reconciliation or the verb reconcile is used only about thirty times in the Bible, all but six of these times are found in the New Testament. Why this shift in emphasis?
The answer is found in the “subject” (grammatically speaking) or person who is initiating the action. In atonement, it is always humans who think that they can somehow make up for the wrong they have done. While this quite understandable on a human-to-human level, when it comes to thinking we can really bribe God in this way, the whole attempt is, the more you think about it, rather ridiculous.
Instead, when you really get down to it, only God can bring about true reconciliation. This is why the reconciliation attempts between blacks and whites in South Africa after decades of aparteid or racial segregation, with all its brutalities and injustices, has proved so difficult, because reconciliation is impossible without a full recognition and admission by the guilty (and this includes the guilty on both sides) as to what actually happened. It is also the reason why in places like Argentina and Chile and some other places in Latin America where thousands were “disappeared” never to be seen again — in many cases not even their bodies to be recovered for decent burial — as the result of the death squads operated by dictatorial regimes (many of them led by officers trained in the USA), still remains a cancer eating away at their, as well as our, society. Even today no one dares to admit, much less talk openly about, what actually happened.
This then is the reason why Good Friday is so important to the full understanding and practice of Christianity. While some still want to think of Jesus as offering an “atonement” for us on our behalf, as if our sins could be automatically wiped away, the full and more important truth is that the Cross reveals not only both the horror of sin, but even more, that we can only be forgiven our sins through the power of the God who is love. But this great gift can never be a “cheap grace”. It can come to us only if we ourselves, like Jesus are willing to forgive and to be reconciled with all those who have wished us harm.
R W Kropf 3/30/2012 Atonement 3.doc 12-03-30.html