What Does “Atonement” Mean—And How Did Jesus Do It?

How does the Suffering Servant passage relate to Christ and the atonement he performed on the Cross?

James Tissot (1836-1902), “What Our Saviour Saw from the Cross”
James Tissot (1836-1902), “What Our Saviour Saw from the Cross” (photo: Public Domain)

Most basic theological terms come from Greek or Latin, but one sprang from English: atonement.

Here, the –ment suffix is used to refer to the result of something, like amazement is the result of something that amazes. Atonement, therefore, is the result of an action that atones.

So where does “atone” come from? It’s a contraction of the phrase “at one.” By making atonement for mankind, Jesus made it so that God and man are no longer separated. They are now “at one”—or reconciled with each other.

If we were to pick a contemporary word that expresses the same idea as atonement, the word reconciliation would be a good choice.


How Did Jesus Atone for Us?

Scripture uses a number of images to explain what Jesus did for us. This is not surprising. Given the infinite richness of the divine mystery, it would be surprising if a single image could fully convey what he did on our behalf.

For example, one image that Jesus himself uses is that of a ransom. He states that he came “to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).

However, the primary image that the New Testament uses is sacrifice: Jesus’ death on the Cross served as a sacrifice to reconcile us with God.

Thus Paul states that “Christ, our paschal Lamb, has been sacrificed” (1 Cor. 5:7), and Hebrew says that “when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God” (Heb. 10:12).

Biblically, the primary theory of the atonement is one of sacrifice.

However, precisely because Christ’s death on the Cross did not need to be repeated, Christians discontinued the practice of animal sacrifices, which were otherwise practiced everywhere among Jews and pagans.

A consequence of this was that Christians began to lose an intuitive understanding of animal sacrifices, and so they began to seek other ways of explaining what Jesus did for us.

Over the centuries, many alternative “theories of the atonement” have been proposed, and many of them contain elements of truth. Just as the New Testament uses different images to convey what Jesus did, different theories of the atonement can often be understood in harmony with each other.


Christ Our Substitute

Some theories of the atonement involve the concept of substitution. It is the idea that, by dying on the Cross, Jesus in some sense substituted for us: He did something we otherwise would have had to do for ourselves (and were incapable of doing).

Sometimes, the substitution idea is referred to using the term vicarious, which means the same thing. A vicar (Latin, vicarius) is a substitute.

The question is in what way did Jesus substitute for us?

One theory, proposed by St. Anselm of Canterbury, is that he satisfied God’s justice by restoring the honor of God, which man has offended by sin.

Since on this view Christ satisfied God on our behalf (i.e., vicariously), theories of this nature are sometimes called vicarious satisfactiontheories.


A Problem Case?

Not all theories of the atonement are free from problems. One theory that has recently come in for criticism is known as penal substitution. This idea was proposed by John Calvin, and the theory has been common in Calvinist circles.

Penal substitution can be conceived of as one type of vicarious satisfaction theory, but it needs to be distinguished from the others.

What makes it distinct is that it sees Christ as satisfying God by being punished on our behalf.

At least if we take the idea of punishment literally, penal substitution seems to propose an injustice on God’s part.

One cannot justly punish an innocent person, and since Jesus was an innocent—for “he committed no sin; no guile was found on his lips” (1 Peter 2:22)—God could not justly punish him.

I don’t have a document of the Church’s Magisterium that weighs in on this idea one way or another, but along with many others I find the argument against penal substitution—understood literally—to be convincing.


Non-Literal Language

Although I don’t see how God could literally punish Jesus on the Cross, this doesn’t mean one could never use punishment language in connection with the atonement.

There’s a great deal of flexibility in language, and metaphor abounds when we are dealing with spiritual realities, including the atonement.

Thus when Jesus describes what he did for us as a “ransom” (Greek, lutron = “price of release,” “ransom payment”), he didn’t mean that he literally was going to offer a sum of money on our behalf. He’s using a metaphor, as is evident from the fact that he says he will “give his life as a ransom for many.”

Since Christ suffered on our behalf, and punishment involves suffering, I think it is possible to use punishment language in connection with the Cross—as long as one does not literally understand God to be committing the unjust act of punishing the all-innocent Jesus.

In that case, the punishment language would have to be understood in a non-literal or accommodated way.

Thus Aquinas acknowledges that one can speak of a person voluntarily taking on the “punishment” of another, as when one voluntarily pays a fine on someone’s behalf, but this is only punishment in a qualified sense.

It isn’t punishment in the full, normal sense because the person who pays the fine is innocent, and so paying the fine voluntarily doesn’t have a penal character:

If we speak of that satisfactory punishment, which one takes upon oneself voluntarily, one may bear another’s punishment, in so far as they are, in some way, one, as stated above (Article 7). If, however, we speak of punishment inflicted on account of sin, inasmuch as it is penal, then each one is punished for his own sin only, because the sinful act is something personal (ST I-II:87:8).


Non-Literal Punishment Language in the Bible

It is important to note that punishment language is sometimes used in non-literal or accommodated ways, because Scripture sometimes does so. Consider this passage:

The Lord is slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but he will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of fathers upon children, upon the third and upon the fourth generation (Num. 14:18; cf. Exod. 20:534:6-7Deut. 5:9Jer. 32:18).

Taken without any qualification, this could be understood to mean that God punishes the descendants of sinners down to the third and fourth generation, even if they are innocents.

That would be unjust, and Ezekiel has an extended discussion in which he points out that God will not punish children for what their fathers have done (Ezek. 18:1-30), saying:

The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son; the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself (Ezek. 18:20).

Passages that seem to suggest otherwise must therefore be understood in a different sense.

A clue to that sense is found in Exodus 20:5 and Deuteronomy 5:9, which state that God will visit “the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me”—i.e., the children will be punished if they follow in the footsteps of their fathers in opposing God, but otherwise they will not.

Any negative consequences children experience because of the actions of their parents will thus not have the character of punishment—unless the children reaffirm and repeat the sins of their ancestors.

Thus the Israelites whose sin of idolatry led to the Babylonian Exile experienced the Exile as a punishment in the proper sense. However, the righteous of Israel who were taken into Exile, as well as innocent children born in Exile, were not being punished for the sins of others, though they did experience negative consequences as a result of others’ actions.

What can we learn about divine punishment and the atonement Jesus made for us? That will be the subject of our next post.

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