Most people believe that the bible teaches that Jesus’s death functioned as an ultimate sacrifice – that Jesus took on the sins of the world and died so that we might have eternal life. Tied up in this basic belief is the idea of atonement and forgiveness of sins. Like most Christians, I have generally thought of these two things – that is, atonement and forgiveness of sins – as being more or less the same thing. Frankly, I had never given it much thought. We are forgiven because Jesus atoned for our sins, period.
Through recent readings on this subject, however, I have come to discover that a real conundrum exists, even within the bible itself, between just what Jesus’s death signified.
Paul, whose letters are the earliest Christian texts in the New Testament, abides by the theological idea that Jesus’s death was an atonement for all humans sins. However, in the book of Acts – which was written some 20 to 30 years after Paul’s death – Paul’s biographer has Paul (and Peter) preaching that Jesus’s death functions as an opportunity for repentance and forgiveness. The idea of atonement is never discussed.
And this presents a problem, because, in fact, atonement and forgiveness are fundamentally different ideas.
Microsoft Bookshelf defines the word “forgive” like this:
1. To excuse for a fault or an offense; pardon.
2. To absolve from payment of (a debt, for example).
It defines “atonement” like this:
1. Amends or reparation for an injury or wrong.
If something must be atoned for, it means that a wrongdoing must be made right through some other means. In other words, if I borrow a thousand dollars from someone and am unable to pay it back, my father might atone for my debt by paying it on my behalf. Or, if I crash my brother’s car, I might atone for that by giving him my own car.
That’s not the same as forgiveness. In the examples above, if I borrow money and can’t pay it, the debtor could choose to forgive the debt and not make me (or anyone else) come up with the money. Or, if I crash my brother’s car, he could choose to forgive it and simply buy a new one himself. Forgiveness means that you absolve someone for something they have done; atonement, on the other hand, means that a debt is satisfied some other way.
For Paul, in his own writings, Jesus’s death functioned as an atonement. When people sin, it breaks God’s commandments. God demands satisfaction for breaking his divine law, so Jesus died to pay for our sins. As New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman writes, “It was a sacrifice made for the sake of others so that they would not have to pay for their sins themselves.” In his own writings, this is how Paul interpreted the meaning of Jesus’s death. For Paul, there is no reason for repentance – our sins are already atoned for; the debt was satisfied when Jesus died.
Yet, in Acts, all the sermons of Paul and Peter focus on the forgiveness of sin. God doesn’t require a sacrifice – instead he requires repentance. Jesus didn’t die in order to atone for sins – instead, his death was a “gross miscarriage of justice” (quoting again from Bart Ehrman). Jesus should not have been put to death in the first place (in Paul’s atonement theology, on the other hand, the implication is that Jesus’s death was part of God’s plan, not a gross miscarriage of justice). But human beings unjustly killed Jesus, according to Acts, and we are all to blame, so we must all repent. If we do so, then God will forgive us.
You can see that these are two substantially different concepts. Yet, Christians tend to use them interchangeably. We think of Jesus’s death as “the Atonement,” but we also know that we are required to repent of our sins and acknowledge our guilt. If, in fact, Jesus’s death functioned as an atonement for sin – as Paul outlines – then there is no reason for repentance. Our sins are already forgiven. But if, instead, Jesus’s death was a miscarriage of justice perpetrated by sinful humans, thus requiring repentance by all, then there should be no talk of Jesus being the great sacrificial lamb, dying in order to atone for our sinfulness.
If you look deeply at this issue, you can see why Luke and other later Christian writers began changing Paul’s teachings about atonement into teachings about repentance. If Jesus’s death was an atonement, then we literally don’t have to do anything. Our sins are already forgiven, purchased and made right with God through Jesus’s death on the cross. One could extrapolate this concept further to assert that everyone is automatically saved by the very fact that Jesus died on the cross. This, of course, is theologically untenable: if you don’t have to do anything and you are already saved the moment you are born, then there would be no need for religion, religious dogma, or anything else.
This may have been the reason why Christians, studying Paul’s theology a generation or so after his death, began reinterpreting and amending Paul’s words and philosophies, ditching the idea of atonement in favor of repentance. This is evident not only in Luke’s writings, but also in the pseudo-Pauline letters – those New Testament books written in Paul’s name, but which were almost certainly not written by Paul, but rather by other Christians writing some decades later.
In the centuries since that time, the very concepts of atonement and repentance, as they relate to Christianity, have become blended such that we don’t tend to even see a difference.
It’s an interesting problem. Are we saved automatically by the atoning sacrifice of Jesus, pre-planned and set into motion by God, or does salvation come through repentance, acknowledging that Jesus’s death was a miscarriage of justice, and depending on God to forgive us? If you follow the writings of Paul, you must accept the former; if you follow Luke’s theology in the book of Acts, you must abide by the latter.
The institution of the Church, I think, deserves some credit for deftly blending these two concepts so that most people don’t even recognize that there is a theological conflict at all. We read Paul’s letters through the lens of Acts, and vice versa, and we don’t see that they are actually saying different things.
Of course, reading one New Testament book through the lens of all the others is probably the biggest theological problem facing the Christian church today, because it skews our perspective of what is really being said, and all the other problems with modern theology just snowball from that starting point. For instance, how many Christians know that among the seven New Testament books that are more or less indisputably authored by Paul (Galatians, Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Philippians, Philemon, and 1 Thessalonians), not a single one of them ever talks about the forgiveness of sin as part of salvation? (In fact, the only time Paul ever uses the word “forgive” at all is when he is asking his readers to forgive one another.)
Until we can learn to read each book of the New Testament as a theologically and philosophically independent text, each with its own nuances, ideas, and timeline, we will continue to blend and mix ideas and, in my opinion, continue to abide by misguided and misinformed theologies.