General-English definition: Amends made for a wrong, sin, or crime. Reconciliation between parties who are seriously at odds, especially between created beings and a Deity. Or, an instance or cause of such a reconciliation.
In a specifically Christian meaning, atonement is the reconciliation between God and humans brought about by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, the Messiah.
word origins: Middle English atonen (to be reconciled; to restore oneness or unity) < at (at) + one (one). In NT Greek, the words for it are forms of Gk katallage (reconciliation, forgiveness). These correspond to forms of Heb. kpr (orig. to cover over with tar, later meaning 'atonement'.)
word forms: Verb: to atone. Related words include expiation, repayment, amends, satisfaction, and propitiation. In txt msg: at1mt.
The word 'atonement' is used to describe what happens in
Exodus 29:36 and Numbers 6:11, in which something is given up to God as repayment for bad actions. To most Christians, Jesus is that atoning sacrifice, where Christ is in our place (hence 'substitutionary atonement'). There have been several other views supported by some other camps in Christian theology.
Why did God do an atonement? Because God loves us, and wants to restore a good relationship with us. And God knew we wouldn't set it up, even if we could (which we can't). The relationship God intends is to invite us to take part in a manner like God's own inner relationship. But we're not up for it. It had to be done without us. Thus God set up a plan for atoning, for reuniting with us.
How did God put this reconciliation where we could get at it and have it for ourselves and for others? By coming to earth as the human Jesus, living a just and holy life, being executed for it, and becoming alive again so our worst would not undo God's best.
How can we lay hold of Jesus' atoning work for ourselves? Through baptism by Christ's followers. By the work of the Holy Spirit through the Scriptures, and through the lessons of life. And then, by our turning away from doing what God does not want us to do.
How can we live in the new relationship Jesus brings about? By following Christ, as found in the New Testament. By loving our spouses, family, friends, neighbors, strangers, even enemies, and showing them the kind of mercy God showed us. By seeking justice, supporting Godly behavior, speaking the gospel truth to the world around us, being real, and enjoying the great benefit of the life God has given us. By being 'at one' with your neighbor.
Bible Words For Atonement
There are several Biblical words about atoning. Greek katallage is about a mutual exchange, reconciling those who differ (allos = "other, another"). Apoluo means to dismiss or pardon, as in a court case; its root means to 'send away' or 'set free'. Lutron is a ransom, such as what's paid for slaves' freedom. Charizomai means to restore or forgive, freely and graciously (charis = "grace"). Hebrew kpr originally meant "to cover with tar or pitch", but developed the meaning of 'to cover up wrongdoing', to seal it up so it doesn't have any more bad effects. This root appears in the name of the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement).
Atonement and the Sacrificial System
The sacrificial system of the Hebrew Scriptures gave the people of its day a way to relate to God they could grasp for themselves (in that it involved sacrifices like their forefathers' and neighbors' faiths), and gave them some sort of a route to forgiveness. But sacrifice had its costs:
it was a way of violence;
it was a way of wasted resources and wasted wealth, especially of poor people;
by allowing us to trust the worth of the sacrifice itself instead of God, it became a way for humans to evade the hard questions God was asking them through the prophets.
The sacrificial system's ultimate cost is that it did not bridge the gulf between God and humanity. It could not make us 'at one' with the Lord or each other. It could at best be a stopgap measure, a bridge which would eventually collapse from the weight of its own costs, and would set the stage for what was needed to replace it. God replaced it with the death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ. Words like 'atonement', 'expiation', and 'propitiation' are used for trying to show how it works. God wanted to start fixing the problem, and would not be faked out by our flimsy attempts to propitiate through sacrifice. Like the Divine One who made us, the relationship between us and God stretches beyond what words or logic can describe. We use what we do know to describe what we can't quite know. God calls on people to believe in Jesus and what he did. The rest is an attempt to explain how, but the Christian is free to explain it another way if based on what the Bible says about it.
What Is Expiation?
definition: expiation is the means used to compensate, repay, make amends for, or make up for.
Word Origins: < Latin expiare, < ex- ('out' - here used as an intensifier) + piare (to atone) < pius (devout). Used for translating Gk hilastērion, which in turn was used to indicate the Heb. kapporet (mercy seat, place to propitiate at; see Leviticus 16:13-15, Exodus 25:17-22). These are the same root words as the ones for 'atonement'. So the words tend to bleed together in meaning. Keep this in mind in theological discussions on sin.
word forms: The verb form is 'to expiate'. In txt msg: xp8.
In general religious talk, expiation is used as the means of getting atonement, however some traditions have a more specific use as well. In Christianity, expiation describes what Jesus' death by execution did to make amends for the human state of sin and the personal sins that it is made from. The debt is repaid. In Islam, expiation means devout actions that make amends for the sins of what you did and of what you were responsible for but did not do. In nearly all cases, expiation relates to making up for legal or forensic guiltiness. Such expiation or amends to others is an important part of recovering from the effects of sin on yourself, and for turning you back into an accepted part of their society by providing some sort of benefit. An expiation itself is not necessarily a propitiation. It takes care of the crime. It's up to the other party whether it also takes care of the wrath or punishment. In God's case, it does, because of God's love.
What Is Propitiation?
Definition of propitiation . To appease, pacify, placate, assuage, or mollify. Propitiation is sometimes used to translate Greek hilaskesthai, when used in the same sense.[ < Latin propitius (favorable, auspicious), < pro- (forward) + -pitius, (to eagerly volunteer or give of oneself) -- lit., rushing forward (to the altar or throne) to please the angry god or ruler. Used for translating Gk hilasmos (to mollify, appease an angry person) ]
Many Christians (including myself) really don't like to use 'propitiation', because the God of the Bible is unlike petty idols and emperors who could be bribed or kissed up to with gifts and offerings. The wrath of this God is the anger of heartbreak and injustice. God doesn't want appeasement, and won't be placated. The Lord wants real justice and self-sacrificial service. The Lord wants to be known and loved, and wants you to know and love other people. The problem is, such things are so difficult that they never come about without cost. The bigger the wrongs, the harder the changes, the greater the separation between God and people, and the bigger the cost. Picture then the cost of all human wrongs bundled up and tied together. Any propitiation as an attempt at appeasement is dwarfed by all those wrongdoings. Any propitiation becomes pitiable. How much can even a loving God take? But God's love is so strong, and God's awareness of our limitations is so clear, that God came to be among us as Jesus, knowing that we would convict him for our crimes and sentence Him to what for us is the ultimate cost - death. Thus, for Christians, propitiation turns into what Christ did by suffering and dying on the cross. Unlike mere appeasement, the propitiation through Christ actually addresses the problem itself, and thus is not an appeasement. Christ brought the pus to a head, and then lanced the wound. Such a deed is cause for gratitude and trust.
In Roman Catholic moral thinking, propitiation has another use. When someone does a good work, that work has three effects (or 'fruit'): propitiation, impetration (receiving by asking or prayer), and merit. Propitiation in this instance means that the deed is accepted as an offering to God, and it satisfies God and God's call for right living. This language of propitiation is not an important part of most Protestant moral thought.
"In Christ as sacrifice, God our judge is judged in our place, reveals our perpetration and collaboration with sin, ends our rebellion, forgives our guilt, cleanses us, makes us righteous, and establishes us in the kingdom of peace." Jonathan Wilson, *For God So Loved The World: A Christology For Disciples*, (Baker Academic, 2001) p. 115