Opinion Columns & Blogs

How did atonement story get invented?

Several months ago, David Mann, whom I respect very much, wrote: “I cannot find anything in Cummings' writings to indicate whether or not he believes in the atonement, but the betting line from here is heavily against it.”

So I wrote the column: “The Blasphemy called atonement,” (Jan. 30) and made it clear that I did not believe in the Christian dogma of Atonement. However, I didn’t have enough space to explain how I think the early Christians might have invented such a blasphemy, and that might be interesting.

First of all: what is atonement or payback? In general, it simply means paying back something valuable to the person you have offended. If a law school graduate violates the law by driving drunk, we will not certify him to take the bar exam and be a lawyer — until he pays back to his community with some kind of community service. But here we’re talking about divine payback; God the Father demanding that mankind pay him back for all of our sins by crucifying his son, Jesus.

Paul writes several times that “Jesus died for our sins” (Rom. 5:9, 2 Cor. 5:14, etc.,) and the four evangelists borrow heavily from him many years later. Our problem is that Paul never wrote a theological treatise on this; he wrote seven of the 14 letters attributed to him — to different cities, at different times, for different reasons, but never uses the word atonement. He does mention aspects of what we now call atonement, and it’s easy to see why the Fathers of the Church molded his concepts into at least four different theories: Ransom, Satisfaction, Substitution and Scapegoat. But how did the original Christian story start?

A key is found in Paul’s letter to his Greek converts in Corinth where he says that Christ died for our sins “according to the Scriptures.” (1 Cor. 15:3) Of course, he means the Old Testament Scriptures because the New Testament Scriptures would not be written for another three to five decades. And this key opens up the book of Hebrews, a real treatise, 10 pages long in my Bible. We don’t know who wrote it or when, but it’s clear the writer was thoroughly skilled in the allegorical interpretation of the Jewish scriptures. The author isn’t Paul, but he has Paul’s passion and intensity and he wants to shake up his apathetic brothers (Heb.3:12). He does it by applying their current religious practices to Jesus.

You see, the Christian Jews at this time were going to the temple every year on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, to witness the High Priest purify himself with ceremonial cleansing activities before entering the Holy of Holies to offer the perfect sacrifice to Yahweh. This sacrificial lamb must have no scars, no broken bones, no blemishes — it must be a perfect animal.

The switch to Jesus as the Lamb of God was the first part. It was easy for those Jewish Christians to accept the concept of atonement because they accepted both human and animal sacrifices. They had the image of Abraham willing to sacrifice his son, Isaac; they remembered Jephthah in the book of Judges (11:34) who promised to sacrifice whomever walked out of his house after his victory over the Ammonites, and it turned out to be his own daughter. They didn’t find anything hideous in a vengeful God who demanded the bloody crucifixion of his own son to atone for their sins, and make payback for all the crimes they had committed against him.

But the second part of the switch to Jesus as the new High Priest was tricky. The Jewish High Priest had to be a descendent of Aaron; Jesus wasn’t. Everybody knew this. However, they believed that the Messiah would be a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek. (Ps. 110:4) And by this time, all the Christian Jews believed Jesus was that Messiah. So the switch was complete.

Christians today know Jesus was crucified and died. And every Christian feels that — somehow — this was a symbol of God’s love for all of us. But very few can picture the father of Jesus sitting on a throne next to the crosses on Golgotha with arms crossed saying: “All the other sacrifices fell short; none of them satisfied me. Only the brutal death of my son can make up for the hurt I feel.”

Today, it could be a real problem. No matter how we spin it, no matter how we cover it over with scripture quotes, atonement does not and cannot fit the mentality and theology of today’s thinking Christian. But we can see now how natural it was for those early Christians. Theology grows and changes, or it dies.

Dr. Bill Cummings is the CEO of Cummings Consolidated Corporation and Cummings Management Consultants. His blog is www.progressiveheretic.com.