Glossary: Atonement

Photo of a small cross on the words of Scripture
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Definition: Atonement is making amends or repairing harm between individuals or groups.

The Mr. Rogers Neighborhood Expanded Universe show Daniel Tiger has an episode on how to say “I’m sorry.” They use songs to teach children how to handle the difficulties of life. The “I’m sorry” song lyricizes:

Saying “I’m sorry” is the first step;
Then, “How can I help?”

This is atonement in its most basic form.

If I punch you in the face and then say "Sorry," I have apologized, but I have not atoned. I've done nothing to actually make amends for your broken nose.

In Christian theology, we also talk about the Atonement.

The Atonement refers to the reconciliation between God and humanity (again both as individuals and as groups), somehow accomplished in the birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus the Christ.

That "somehow" above is doing a lot of work. What exactly needed to be reconciled between God and humanity? Was God upset at us, or were we upset at God? How does the execution and lynching of Jesus of Nazareth do anything to make amends for the rest of humanity's wrongdoing? Is it a valid form of atonement if someone else is doing the atoning on our behalf? If so, does that mean we no longer have any responsibility to atone for our own harmful actions?

These questions are what different Atonement Theories are attempting to answer. Atonement theories will differ dramatically based on what we think God is like.

If God's default position is "Every single human deserves infinite punishment," then the atonement required must substitute those eternal penal consequences.

If humanity's default position is, "God must be angry at us and requires sacrifices to be placated" (even if God desires no such sacrifices and isn't angry), then the atonement required must (at least in our imagination) be about placating an angry God.

However, I don't think God's position is that we all deserve eternal punishment. And even if we think that God is angry at us, that doesn't mean we're right.

“If God will not forgive us until his son has been tortured to death for us, then God is a lot less forgiving than ever we are sometimes." Herbert McCabe

Any atonement theory must first get a few things right about God and humanity to accurately describe what happened on the cross.

First, God’s position towards humanity is one of love. That love is best described in 1 Corinthians 13 (“Love is patient, kind, keeps no records of wrongs…”). It was not God’s anger or wrath that led to the crucifixion of Jesus, but rather God’s love. “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8, NRSV).

Second, humanity’s essential nature is the imago Dei. “God created humanity in God’s own image, in the divine image God created them” (‭‭Genesis‬ ‭1‬:‭27,‬ ‭CEB‬‬). This puts theological constraints on what is possible about the fate of humanity or any individual human. It fails to make sense to say that a creature in God’s image can be ultimately destroyed or abandoned to infinite punishment.

Third, God is a Trinity of Persons, united in will and desire. Therefore, any description of atonement cannot be about one person of the Trinity (the Son) needing to placate or please another person of the Trinity (the Father). That would break the logic of how the Trinity works. Jesus did not die to save us from God.

"The Son can do nothing by Himself; He can only do what He sees His Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does." John 5:19
Since the being of the Holy Trinity is one, whatever the Father wills, the Son and the Holy Spirit will also. What the Father does, the Son and the Holy Spirit do also. There is no will and no action of God the Father which is not at the same time the will and action of the Son and the Holy Spirit. —Anonymous saying of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches

Fourth, God has always been capable of forgiveness. It is not a characteristic of God that requires an external mechanism to switch on. Therefore it cannot be as though God wanted to forgive humans, but had Their hands tied, and therefore Jesus had to die to let God do that whole forgiving thing They wished They could have done the whole time.

Think of the man lowered down through a roof in front of Jesus (Mark 2). Jesus does not say to the man, “I wish I could forgive you of your sins, but I haven’t died yet, so, sorry, no luck.” No, the first words out of Jesus’ mouth are, “Child, your sins are forgiven!”

Think of the parable of the prodigal son. The story does not end with the son returning to the father, and the father saying, “Well, tough luck, but unless someone atones for your sins, I can’t accept you back home.” And then the older son volunteering to work himself to death so the younger son can enjoy a party. No, the father runs to the son, embraces him, and throws the party right away, no human sacrifice required.

Fifth and finally, Scripture describes Sin not merely as the whoopsidaisies of our lives. Sin (as well as Evil and Death) are Powers that attempt to enslave and control humanity and all of creation. They require confrontation and (in Greek terms) “loosening” or “un-winding.” Imagine an enormously intricate knot, stretched across all creation. The Powers of Sin and Death must be loosened to set creation free. 1 John 3 tells us:

The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil's work.

With these things in mind, my atonement theory, simply stated is:

The Atonement is the love of God demonstrated in Jesus' life, death, and resurrection. It reveals that God has never been our enemy and that we have never been the object of God's wrath. It breaks the power and oppression of Sin and Death. And it shows us that, while we thought God required sacrifice to be appeased, we were wrong.

The Cross isn't the means by which God is enabled to forgive us. The Cross demonstrates the forgiveness that God has been offering all along.

God has always been, is today, and will always be a God willing to die and hang on a cross for you and for me.

Whatever debt of sin we carry, God is willing to pay it.

Whatever power that death held over us, God is willing to break it.

Whatever pain the world may inflict, God is willing to bare it. Because that is just who God is.

Jesus didn't come to keep God from killing us. Jesus came, with the love of God and the power of the Holy Spirit, to destroy the evil that satan was up to. Because it's just the kind of God He is.

Some Other Notes on Atonement

“A society feels itself somehow compensated for its loss by the satisfaction of watching the sufferings of a criminal, then society is being vengeful in a pretty infantile way. And if God is satisfied and compensated for sin by the suffering of mankind in Christ, he must be even more infantile.” McCabe
“The fact that to be human means to be crucified is not something that the Father has directly planned but what we have arranged. We have made a world in which there is no way of being human that does not involve suffering.” McCabe

The creeds say nothing about the means of atonement.

“Paul emphasizes not so much the idea that 'Christ died for our sins' as much as the claim that in the cross God intervened so as to destroy the old eon and usher in the new.” — Joel Green

God is not the ultimate legalist.

Language notes


In the Hebrew Bible, there are several words related to atonement:

  • Kippur (כִּפּוּר): This word is used in the context of the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) and is often translated as "atonement" or "expiation."
  • Kippurim (כִּפּוּרִים): This word is the plural form of kippur and refers to "sacrifices of atonement," often translated as "atonements" or "expiations."
  • Kaparah (כַּפָּרָה): This term is associated with the concept of atonement and is often translated as "atonement," "covering," or "propitiation."

The English translations of these words can vary depending on the specific context and interpretation. "Atonement," "expiation," "propitiation," and "covering" are some common ways.


In New Testament Greek, the primary word for atonement is "hilasmos" (ἱλασμός). Other related words include "hilasterion" (ἱλαστήριον) and "hilaskomai" (ἱλάσκομαι).

  • Hilasmos (ἱλασμός): This word is often translated as "atonement," "propitiation," or "expiation." It refers to the act of reconciliation, appeasing or pacifying, which brings about the forgiveness or removal of sin or guilt.
  • Hilasterion (ἱλαστήριον): This term is used in a specific context in the New Testament, such as Romans 3:25. It is often translated as "propitiation" or "mercy seat." In this context, it refers to a place of atonement or mercy, specifically associated with the sacrificial system in the Jewish temple.
  • Hilaskomai (ἱλάσκομαι): This word is a verb and is translated as "make atonement," "seek forgiveness," or "to propitiate." It relates to the action of seeking reconciliation or appeasement with a deity or offended party.

The specific translation of these Greek words can vary depending on the context and theological interpretation, such as "Atonement," "propitiation," and "expiation."

Expiation and Propitiation

Expiation and propitiation are two distinct concepts related to the idea of atonement.

Expiation is the act of making amends or paying the penalty for wrongdoing. It focuses on the removal of guilt or sin through an offering or sacrifice, with the aim of purifying or cleansing one's self from the consequences of sin. In this context, expiation is often seen as a means of reconciliation between the individual and their deity or the offended party.

Propitiation, on the other hand, involves the act of appeasing or satisfying a deity or offended party to turn away their wrath or anger. It is oriented toward pacifying or winning favor from the divine being, seeking to avert or assuage their punishment, and seeking forgiveness or reconciliation.

Expiation emphasizes the removal of guilt or sin. Propitiation focuses on appeasing a divine power or entity. Expiation focuses on the person seeking forgiveness, while propitiation focuses on appeasing the one who has been offended or is in a position of authority or judgment. These terms are often used within different theological frameworks or traditions and may have nuanced interpretations depending on context.

Anthony Parrott

Anthony Parrott

Washington, DC