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How to explain the atonement

16 September 2022

Challenges from outside the faith can help Christians clarify what they believe and why, says Rupert Shortt


Fresco of the resurrected Christ by Joseph Kastner (1844-1923) from the Carmelite monastery in Döbling, Vienna

Fresco of the resurrected Christ by Joseph Kastner (1844-1923) from the Carmelite monastery in Döbling, Vienna

HOW should the Christian idea of atonement be understood? Debate about Easter tends to fix on the empty tomb. If discussion moves beyond historical matters to the salvation said to have been wrought by Jesus, initial doubts can multiply. The Church holds that our fortunes were transformed at the deepest level by events on Calvary.

But how, to cite an image used by the Swiss Catholic thinker Hans Urs von Balthasar, can one white cap atop a wave purport to be not only the sea and the seabed, but also the generating matrix of the world? The disbeliever and the outright scoffer deserve a hearing in the face of so large a claim.

Two encounters — one personal, the other literary — I had some years ago encapsulate a spectrum of disquiet. When Muslim activists approached me on the Edgware Road in central London, their apparent motive was political.

A stall behind them carried a banner deploring extremism. But a missionary drum was soon banged. “Are you a Christian?” “How can you really believe in one God?” Then, a pamphlet from Salafist Publications, a Birmingham-based group, was proffered with this bracing summary of supposed Christian teaching about the Almighty: “I created every one of you with a burden of sin — guilty from the moment of birth. Then I loved you so much that I made a woman pregnant so she would give birth to me and I would become my own son so that I can have myself killed as a sacrifice to myself in order to save you evil sinners from the burden of sin that I created you with in the first place . . .”

These comments struck me as challenging rather than crass. All sorts of believers, whether religious or political, should try harder to see themselves as others see them. Though a parallel right to free speech is rarely extended to minority faiths in many Islamic countries, we were standing only a few hundred yards from Speakers’ Corner.

What’s more, Jewish friends had sometimes voiced similar views in equally forthright ways. “The story of Jesus dying for the sins of the world seems like an implausible solution to a non-problem,” one once told me. A host of secularists would no doubt agree. The pamphlet may rest on literalist misinterpretation, but the underlying sentiment extends from the street to the high tables of culture.


“AT-ONE-MENT” came to be seen as a dynamic process requiring participation rather than a passive acceptance of murder on the cross. As Vernon White puts it, “God in Jesus consistently and perfectly did the very thing which must happen in all of us: he died to self and lived to God.”

Resurrection belief is no less fundamental. White and others emphasise that it is access to the risen Christ, effected by the Holy Spirit, that underscores Christian confidence in the healing of a breach between earth and heaven.

The resurrection was not a conjuring trick with bones. Jesus’s rising is seen by St Paul and others eschatologically — as the first sheaf of a future harvest embracing all creation.

A large literature on the empty tomb already exists: in the English-speaking world, no one has explored the subject more authoritatively than N. T. Wright in his massive work The Resurrection of the Son of God.

If a very brief defence of orthodox belief were called for, though, then at least seven considerations could be advanced:

1. Scholars do not dispute that the resurrection was proclaimed in Jerusalem a few days after it allegedly happened. This would have been a puzzling and risky thing to do had the tomb not been empty. The location of the tomb could not have been unknown to the authorities: Roman guards were placed there, and Joseph of Arimathaea was on the Sanhedrin.

2. It is generally agreed that the disciples were accused of stealing the body (the evidence is thought to be strong, because it’s a piece of testimonium hostium). But the accusation makes no sense if there was no empty tomb to be explained.

3. If the tomb was not empty, the most straightforward way of arresting the cult would have been to produce and display the body (such public displays were not uncommon).

4. The absence of any trace of veneration at the tomb or shrine — or any pilgrimage to it — suggests that the tomb was indeed empty. It was customary in Judaism for the tombs of prophets and other holy men to be venerated.

5. The discovery of the tomb by women is historically probable, because of cultural attitudes and legal principles concerning the authority of female testimony which are widely known about. No one concocting literature whose purpose was to persuade people of the truth of the resurrection would have said that women were the prime witnesses.

6. The rapid shift among early Christians from observing the sabbath on Saturdays to celebrating the eucharist on Sundays (observed by Pliny in about AD 110, but in evidence much earlier than that) is highly telling.

7. It is widely accepted that Paul (albeit indirectly) attests to the empty tomb in 1 Corinthians 15.3-5, given the died-buried-raised pattern, his doctrine of resurrected and transformed bodies, and his belief in the personal return of Christ.

Since this chapter arguably contains one of the earliest credal formulas in the New Testament (scholars agree that for grammatical and lexicographical reasons Paul is reciting an established credo), it weighs heavily with many well-informed readers.


THE connective tissue of Christian practice tells us much.

It seems clear, for example, that reflection on the saving work of Jesus was closely tied to the eucharist. After the synagogue service on Saturday nights, the early community would meet to break bread in obedience to their Lord’s command.

His words at the Last Supper — “This is my body which is given for you. . . This is my blood which is shed for you for the forgiveness of sins” — acquired a fundamental status.

To take part in the eucharist was to be involved in an event at which a gift was given to God, bringing not just peace, but intimacy. Christians were now sons and daughters of God by adoption, empowered to participate in the loving exchange held to mark the divine life.

The Church duly saw itself as the community on earth representing this “new creation”. Its chief task was and remains to proclaim and witness to God’s will for universal reconciliation.

These insights took time to develop. They employed language that was mysterious or even bewildering to other generations and cultures. Decoding the sign language can be intricate work. Perhaps the most important reference to atonement ideas in the earliest strands of the New Testament is Mark 10.45: “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

The Greek word translated as “ransom” is lútron. It designates the payment made to liberate a prisoner or slave. So, in declaring that he would make his life a ransom for others, Jesus meant that he was placing himself totally at their disposal — in other words, saying, “I will be a slave in your place.”

There are echoes of Isaiah’s Suffering Servant here, but also of Exodus 30 and 34, which speak of a need to redeem one’s own life or that of one’s firstborn through sacrifice. Something too weighty is owing to God; so a gift is offered in its place.

In Jewish eyes, the story recalled first and foremost by this notion would have been that of Abraham and Isaac on Mount Moriah. The ram or male lamb in the thicket was offered in place of Isaac, meaning that Abraham’s posterity could be saved and a community of worship inaugurated.

God had offered a gift to be given back to him that opened up a future for God’s people. And, in Jesus’s, era lambs were slaughtered in the Temple every day, partly to commemorate what had happened at Moriah.

They were also naturally associated with Passover, and the blood that keeps death away, because of the daubing on the Israelites’ houses in Egypt before their journey to the Promised Land. So when at the start of John’s Gospel the Baptist acclaims Jesus as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world”, the author of this text is tapping into an especially rich chain of association.

But the chain remains tangled. As expositors have noted, the New Testament combines references to the lamb offered up at Moriah with the goat sacrificed on the Day of Atonement to cleanse the sins of the people.

The strongest connection to the Day of Atonement is made by Paul, who uses an extended repertoire of Jewish terms to express the loftiest vision of Jesus’s person and work, further undermining the tired assumption that incarnational belief was wholly foreign to the Jewish thought world. (It became so later, but that is because Judaism itself grew more homogeneous from the second century onwards.)

In Romans 3, for example, Jesus is described as the source of propitiation. The Greek term is hilastérion, which translates the Hebrew kapporet. Paul’s argument through much of the epistle is intricate, but the train of thought might be unpacked more simply as follows.

Christ himself “embodies” the Holy of Holies; he is the inmost place of the dwelling of God’s presence; he is where sin is covered over. Because of his radical obedience, he has no need of atonement. There is nothing in him that needs “covering”, and so God is where he is — on the throne between the cherubim.

Here we see incarnational teaching in bright early bloom, because Paul appears to add that Jesus is both the throne and the offering, both the God who receives sacrifice and the God who makes it.


This is an edited extract from The Hardest Problem: God, evil and suffering by Rupert Shortt, published by Hodder & Stoughton at £14.99 (Church Times Bookshop £11.99); 978-1-39980-271-0.

Read a review of the book here

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